In the May 15th edition of “The Stone” at the New York Times, Gary Gutting interviews Columbia University philosophy professor Philip Kitcher whose new book, “Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism” defines a “soft atheism” that differs from the worldview of prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins. Kitcher’s perspective, which does not rely on any sense of the transcendent, also does not take a hard line with religion and even acknowledges the value of “refined religion” as a helpful dialogue partner:
G.G.: So on your view, Dawkins and company don’t refute all forms of religion, just unsophisticated literal assertions of religious claims.
P.K.: Yes, I think there’s a version of religion, “refined religion,” that is untouched by the new atheists’ criticisms, and that even survives my argument that religious doctrines are incredible. Refined religion sees the fundamental religious attitude not as belief in a doctrine but as a commitment to promoting the most enduring values. That commitment is typically embedded in social movements — the faithful come together to engage in rites, to explore ideas and ideals with one another and to work cooperatively for ameliorating the conditions of human life. The doctrines they affirm and the rituals they practice are justified insofar as they support and deepen and extend the values to which they are committed. But the doctrines are interpreted nonliterally, seen as apt metaphors or parables for informing our understanding of ourselves and our world and for seeing how we might improve both. To say that God made a covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean that, long ago, some very impressive figure with a white beard negotiated a bargain with a Mesopotamian pastoralist. It is rather to commit yourself to advancing what is most deeply and ultimately valuable, as the story says Abraham did.
G.G.: And so, since they don’t regard them as factual, refined believers don’t have to deny the stories and metaphors of other religions.
P.K.: Right, they don’t have to pick and choose among the religions of the world. They see all religions as asserting that there is more to the cosmos than is dreamed of either in our mundane thoughts or in our most advanced scientific descriptions. Different cultures gesture toward the “transcendent” facets of reality in their many alternative myths and stories. None of the myths is factually true, although they’re all true in the sense that their “fruits for life” are good. Prominent examples of refined believers include William James, Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, and, in our own day, Karen Armstrong, Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor. When refined religion is thoroughly embedded, religious tolerance thrives, and often much good work is done.
G.G.: Are you, then, willing to tolerate refined religion as a morally and intellectually respectable position?
Perhaps I’m a more insidious foe of religion than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance.
P.K.: I see refined religion as a halfway house. In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.
To sum up: There is more to religion than accepting as literally true doctrines that are literally false. Humanists think the important achievements of religions at their best — fostering community, articulating and supporting values — should be preserved in fashioning a fully secular world. That secular world ought to emerge from a dialogue between humanism and refined religion, one in which religion isn’t thrown on the rubbish heap but quietly metamorphoses into something else.
I’m a humanist first and an atheist second. Because I’m more sympathetic to religion than the prominent new atheists, I label my position “soft atheism.” But perhaps I’m a more insidious foe than Dennett and Dawkins. For instead of ignoring important species of religion, I want to prepare the way for their gradual disappearance.
How does your church engage those in the parish and community who struggle with belief, do not have any faith at all, and/or those whose secular humanism comes from a place of open dialogue with “refined religion?”
The full article from the New York Times is here.