Kitcher versus Dennett: Is New Atheism counterproductive?

October 7, 2010 • 6:15 am

This is a long post, but if you’re interested in strategies for combatting religion, you might find it valuable—not for my lucubrations, but for a thoughtful discussion between two prominent atheists and philosophers, Philip Kitcher and Daniel Dennett.

I’m a big fan of Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia who’s also something of a polymath (he teaches courses on Joyce and has written an introduction to Finnegan’s Wake).  He’s also written groundbreaking critiques of creationism (Abusing Science) and of evolutionary psychology (Vaulting Ambition). Philip and Ned Block were valuable allies in the attacks on Jerry Fodor’s and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s anti-natural-selection nonsense.  And  I enjoyed (and blurbed) Kitcher’s most recent philosophy book, Living with Darwin, a trenchant critique of intelligent design. In that book’s last chapter, Kitcher warns against too-strident critiques of religion, arguing that faith provides a lot of social benefits to people, and that replacing faith means finding a humanism that dispenses those benefits.  That seemed reasonable to me.

But in  “Militant modern atheism” Kitcher’s new piece in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, he’s taken his criticism of atheism a bit further (access is free, and you can download a pdf).  His main point is that New Atheists, while attacking the truth claims of religion and demanding that the faithful adduce evidence, are completely ignoring what may be the most important aspects of faith: its function as a form of social glue and as a community that meets a human need for participation and interaction.

Kitcher distinguishes what he calls the “belief model”—the form of faith that is initially built on truth claims about God, Jesus, Mohamed and the like—from three other forms of what he calls the “orientation” model: the forms of faith that begin with a person identifying secular goals and beliefs that he shares with others, and then choosing a faith that properly frames these goals. Kitcher calls the three religious forms of the orientation model the mythically self conscious, the doctrinally-entangled, and the doctrinally-indefinite. I’ll leave you to read about their differences in his article.

Kitcher contends that New Atheists, by concentrating solely on the “belief model,” don’t realize that adherents to the other three models don’t care that much about specific truth claims of faith.  Therefore, the Gnus are attacking faith at a place where it’s not that vulnerable.  As he says, “Nobody who reflects on what sociologists have to say about the ways in which people become attracted to particular religions will suppose that the spread of a creed has much to do with its truth.”

Kitcher concludes that for most people the benefits of faith outweigh any problems of believing in falsehoods:

. . . it is a fallacy to think that, for any religious person who currently fits the orientation model, that person can attain a cognitively superior position by rejecting the beliefs militant modern atheists discern as false.  The cognitive gains can simply be outweighed by other forms of psychological and social loss.

He seems to think that its social benefits portend that religion will be with us forever, or at least until atheists find a way to associate those same benefits with humanism.  And he takes prominent Gnus like Dennett and Dawkins to task for suggesting that the contemplation of science and the universe can provide psychic benefits that can replace religion.  After quoting Dawkins on the wonders of science, Kitcher notes:

There is much to agree with in these passages, but they seduce readers—and Dawkins and Dennett too, I suspect, into thinking that anyone can orient a worthwhile life, one that will survive reflective probing, on the basis of contemplation of the cosmos as the sciences have revealed it.

Ouch!  Well, I’m not sure whether Richard and Dan would agree that they’ve prescribed a diet of science to replace a gluttony on Jesus, but never mind.

My own comments on Kitcher’s piece (Dennett’s much longer take is posted below) are these:

  • Kitcher concentrates on the “orientation model” because that’s the one he finds most “interesting.” But I’m not sure that it’s the most common.  Surely the orientation model is the one held by liberal believers, but is it adhered to by most believers throughout the world?  Kitcher doesn’t discuss this.  Do remember that a large majority of Americans profess belief in a personal God, in Satan, and in heaven.  Now that doesn’t mean that they’d stop believing if these ideas were falsified, but it does give one pause.  And do other religions like Hinduism and Islam adhere to the orientation model?  It seems as though Kitcher, while decrying the New Atheists for a form of intellectual arrogance, is also suggesting a model of faith that’s also quite intellectual.
  • Kitcher seems to think that replacing religion with a socially-entangled humanism will be a very tough task, like teaching a cat to walk on a leash. He notes that “Within the actual social environments in which contemporary people grow up, doctrinal entanglement can be expected to persist, not because the arguments directed against the doctrines are incomplete or because the people who hang on to belief in transcendent entities are too stubborn or too stupid, but because enlightened secularism has not yet succeeded in finding surrogates for institutions and ideas that religious traditions have honed over centuries or millennia.”  Yet this is exactly what has happened in much of Europe, where religion is largely ceremonial and other institutions serve the social functions that religion used to have.  (I believe Kitcher mentions this in Living with Darwin.)  And this happened over only a few centuries. Moreover, it happened not through atheists suggesting humanistic replacements for faith, but through the erosion of faith after the Enlightenment and perhaps a greater reliance of Europeans on family and community.
  • I don’t think that Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have largely ignored the social benefits of religion. I can’t recall specific passages, but I know that Sam dealt explicitly in The End of Faith with Zen Buddhism as a replacement for more conventional religions, and that the other three do discuss the real social benefits of faith.

Despite their disagreements, Kitcher, Dennett, and Dawkins agree on much.  They all agree, for instance, that the “belief model” of religion is not only untenable but absolutely vulnerable to scientific attacks on religious truth claims.  And they agree that indoctrinating children with religious dogma is a terrible thing to do.

Dennett, whose ideas are a major issue in Kitcher’s piece, has written a response to it.  Although this will ultimately appear elsewhere online, Dan has kindly given me permission to post it here. It’s longer than our usual posts but well worth reading. (Quotes in italics below are from Kitcher’s article.)

I went to some lengths in Breaking the Spell to distinguish two spells one might consider breaking: the taboo against looking “too closely” at religion, holding it up to the same harsh light of rational probing to which we subject all other important phenomena,  and the spell of religion itself.  In my book I declared my intent to break the first spell and my agnosticism about the wisdom of breaking the second—citing the very considerations that Kitcher advances more positively.  Kitcher ignores my distinction but in fact is in nearly perfect harmony with my positions on them. His essay is an example of breaking the first spell: he writes with unflinching candor about the shaky status of any religion adopted on what he calls the belief model, and uses that spell-broken perspective to look hard at the prospects for keeping the second spell unbroken, by relying on what he calls the orientation model, supposing that this is perhaps the only surviving mode of religion that can provide the benefits he wants to preserve, which may just be a necessity of meaningful life for many people.   As I noted in my book, there is a reasonable fear that breaking the first spell will inevitably break the second as well, which fear is the (obligatorily) tacit standard justification for not breaking the first.  Kitcher vividly illustrates that problem in his essay, trying to walk the tightrope without falling into patronizing on one side or uneasy complicity with unacceptable nonsense on the other.

The point of Kitcher’s introduction of the orientation model is to give him a way of reversing—most of the time—the otherwise standard dependence of serious commitments and aspirations on grounded beliefs.  The orientation-type religionists put commitments first, as the fundamental landmarks of their lives, and let the expression of (what take the place of) grounds for these commitments wander somewhat opportunistically between  “mythically self-conscious”  metaphor at one pole and “doctrinal “entanglement” (flirting with the belief model) at the other, with convenient vagueness in the middle. (The “doctrinally indefinite” folks “take refuge in language that is resonant and opaque, metaphorical and poetic, and deny that they can do any better at explaining the beliefs they profess.”) Whatever floats your boat, as one says. And indeed, if maintaining a religious orientation is the only way for you to have a meaningful life, you should rely on whatever floats your boat. But then it will just make matters harder for you if you have to confront Kitcher’s trio. Tell me, sir, have you decided to go with mythic self-consciousness, doctrinal entanglement, or doctrinal indefiniteness?  Don’t ask! Don’t tell!  That’s why many think the first spell should not be broken, but Kitcher and I have both ignored that admonition.

Kitcher is at pains to express his defense of these delicate options sympathetically:

I’ll suggest that doctrinal indefiniteness can be a reasonable expression of epistemic modesty, and that even doctrinal entanglement can be justified when it is the only way of preserving, in the socio-cultural environment available, a reflectively stable orientation.  (p6)

but a somewhat less diplomatic version hovers in the background: kid yourself if you have to. And, I am happy to say, Kitcher firmly draws the line at letting any of these options abrogate a commitment to reason when deciding ethical matters.

Someone who makes decisions affecting the lives of others is ethically required to rely on those propositions best supported by the evidence.

In a felicitous phrase he notes that “there ought to be no ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’,” but then just what is the positive role of Abraham as a “knight of faith” supposed to be, when he so clearly violates this principle?  Kitcher says that Abraham’s “sort of trust is not legitimate”—you can’t put it much plainer than that—but how, then, does Kitcher find a way of endorsing Abraham’s (mythical) story as any sort of talisman for a meaningful life?

Kitcher sketches a speculative account of the evolution of religious phenomena that is, as he says, an alternative to my own speculative conjecture—it sees the predominance of religion as explained by its being (socially) adaptive, not a byproduct of other evolutionary selection pressures—but he then draws a misleading contrast:

If you start with the thought that the predominance of religion in human societies is to be explained by a cognitive deficiency, you will tend [my italics] to see your campaign for the eradication of myths in terms of a return to intellectual health. . . . By contrast, if you suppose that the social factors towards which I have gestured have played a non-trivial role in the spread of the world’s religions, you will wonder [my italics] if there are psychological and social needs that the simple abandonment of religion will leave unfulfilled. (p9)

There may be such a tendency, pulling in opposite directions, but Darwin long ago showed us that it should be resisted.

It is in perfect accordance with the scheme of nature, as worked out by natural selection, that matter excreted to free the system from superfluous or injurious substances should be utilized for [other] highly useful purposes. (On the Various Contrivances by which Orchids. . . . 1862, p266—quoted in DDI, p461)

So Kitcher’s wonder is just as available to me, and, similarly, however socially adaptive religious phenomena may have been in the past, their utility may have expired.  It is simply a mistake—but a very common one—to seek a theory of the evolution of religious phenomena that would provide some imagined warrant for your view of the value of religion today.  I worked hard to keep these issues distinct in my book, and Kitcher should acknowledge that his preferred speculation is logically independent of the main point for which he is arguing: that religion is valuable today, all things considered.

It may well be. I find his most compelling point to be his observation that Dawkins and I should not extrapolate glibly from our own immense good fortune to find ourselves in a position not only to understand and appreciate the glories of the scientific world view but to have the thrill—no other word will suffice—of playing significant roles in the spreading of this vision.

. . . the vast majority will never be able to recognize themselves as important participants in any impressive joint enterprise that contributes to knowledge and enlightenment. (p11)

I discuss this in Breaking the Spell (pp286-92), where I note that religion has the unparalleled capacity to give people a chance to be, in Kitcher’s good phrase, important participants in the world they were born into. But as I go on to discuss there, nobody has yet estimated what price we should be prepared to pay—in xenophobia, violence, the glorification of unreason, the spreading of patent falsehood—for that wonderful sense of importance religion gives to many people who would otherwise lead lives without drama, without a point.  Kitcher wants to preserve religions (at least for the foreseeable future, I gather) but I think it would be better to work constructively on secular institutions that can provide alternative structures of meaning for everyone.  Still, we might accomplish this most practically by encouraging existing religious institutions to evolve into . . . . former religions.  Some have already done so, but they are not yet competing very well in the marketplace of allegiances. Who knows what the near future will bring?  Religions have changed more in the last century than in the last millennium, and perhaps they will change more in the next decade than in that last century.

Kitcher and I agree on so much.  We agree that “Public reason must the thoroughly secular” (p12)  We agree that the belief model of religion is indefensible. We agree that the first spell must be broken—we have both broken it.  We differ, apparently, only in our assessment of how to ease the people of the 21st century into a more reasonable and socially benign form of orientation.  But even here, I think, we should both admit that we haven’t figured that out yet.

128 thoughts on “Kitcher versus Dennett: Is New Atheism counterproductive?

    1. Unitarian Universalism, by and large, is a institution within which it is taken as read that the “orientation model” is so, so important that outspoken questioning of the “belief model” is disgusting and should be silenced. Gnu-style atheists are routinely excoriated in UU churches and in UU Association publications, and any atheism that dares to criticize or disrespect religious ideas is slimed unmercifully.

      UUism does typify the “orientation model,” but in its modern incarnation it is dedicated to ensuring that the belief-model “spell,” as Dennett put it, is never, ever broken.

      As such, UUism as currently constituted is very much part of the problem.

      Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer “religion-free.” They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit. As C.S. Lewis said, the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything. Sweep the demon of religion out the door and, like the story in the Gospels, you may only succeed in making room for an evil spirit worse than the first—this one accompanied by seven friends (Luke 11:24-26; Matt. 12:43-45). Zealous atheism can perform this role of demonic pseudoreligion.

      – Rev. John Buehrens (national UU Association President 1993-2001), in A Chosen Faith, the Association’s best-selling “classic Introduction to Unitarian Universalism”

      1. OK, anyone who resorts to that C.S.Lewis quote has just lost my sympathy. Lewis managed to say a few things that weren’t stupid and/or self-serving of his religion, but that ain’t one of them.

        1. Lewis managed to say a few things that weren’t stupid and/or self-serving of his religion….

          Really? I must have missed those. (And I’ve read Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, and The Screwtape Letters. I think “stupid and/or self-serving of his religion” is a pretty good synopsis, if we can only spend eight words.)

          All that said, I think I have to stick up for ol’ Clive Staples on this small point: I’m skeptical that Lewis ever actually said what Buehrens attributes to him. (Buehrens makes several bizarre factual misstatements in A Chosen Faith.) I wrote a lengthy rebuttal to ACF, and while doing so I looked long and hard for any source of that Lewis quote. Couldn’t find anything—except that a very similar insult is commonly attributed to G.K. Chesterton, who didn’t actually say that one either.

          I think Buehrens is simply full of it.

          1. Good point that the quote may not be Lewisian; I suspect you’re right.

            Irrelevant to this thread, but I should probably support my claim above at least one non-stupid thing that Lewis said (paraphrased from memory): It is better to fall into the hands of the robber baron than the Inquisitor.

      2. UU churches tend to vary a lot — I wouldn’t characterize them all as being hostile towards the Gnu Atheists.

        They’re still rather silly. I tried going to two of them. One of them, it was “Bring Your Pet to Church Day”! That was awesome… hahahaha. And the other one had improvised interpretive dance that they actually tied into the sermon somehow. What a trip.

        So yeah, UU… very silly, but at least they have a sense of humor, it seems.

        1. I once met a militant Unitarian, who just *hated* the idea that Pagans were taking over her old churches. In her estimation, UU was a pan-Christian organization that was friendly to unbelievers, and yet, when people from other religions really started to change things, she got just as angry.

          Frankly, I think you’re better off having a board game night. It only takes 10 minutes to learn the rules, cheating is obvious, and you don’t get just a tiny cup of wine.

          1. Exactly, varies a whole lot.

            And of course what they all have in common is that they think the Bible is a very nice book. Actually, the most offensive thing I saw at either of the UU churches I went to was a poster in one of them with a bulleted list of what UUs stood for, and most of them were very nice, except for a thing about “Judeochristian values”.

            I’m sorry, but while it’s true the Bible does contain some very important moral truths, 100% of them were already covered better elsewhere at the time it was written, and have been covered infinitely better since then. As a whole, “Judeochristian” morality is not so bad — but if you subtract out all of the freaking obvious shit, then you’re just left with a bunch of homophobia and genocide and crap.

            Where I’m all going with this… is that you touch on probably my 2nd most important objection to UU. They are, in order of importance:

            1) They consider faith a virtue. This is the #1 problem with moderate religion.

            2) (And this is what you touch on) They’d be well-advised to finally let go of their Christian roots and just be some kind of universal feel-goodery.

            3) Like most predominantly white Christian churches, the music SUCKS.

          2. Oh, nitpick: I don’t think I approve of the metaphorical use of the word “militant” in any context. Being militant-anything means you militate to achieve your goals, i.e. you openly advocate violence.

            When it is used metaphorically, it is almost always used as a slur. “Militant feminist” is used to discredit any outspoken feminist, despite the fact that pretty much no feminist has ever advocated violence to achieve their means. Same with atheist.

            I just think it’s better not to use the term. The hyperbole inherent in the metaphor is just too much.

        2. UU churches tend to vary a lot — I wouldn’t characterize them all as being hostile towards the Gnu Atheists.

          Neither would I. But the national Association is run, and has been now for close to twenty years, by people who bear a deep antipathy toward open atheism. This can’t avoid having an effect on nearly every UU congregation; try, for example, finding a new minister for your church who doesn’t toe the party line regarding how awful the Gnu Atheists are. The atheist UU minister is an endangered species.

          Even members of atheist-friendly UU congregations unavoidably contribute money to the very Association organs that marginalize and debase atheists. It’s just not a happy scene.

          Who are these people who still think that it’s special and unique to reject traditional images of the Deity? Are they the same guys who sit with me at weddings and let drop the bomb that they respect what I do but, rilly, they’re “spiritual but not religious??” “That’s fascinating and special, dear,” I tell them. “But I’d love it so much if we could conclude this conversation right this minute and you’d go fetch me another cocktail.”
          It hasn’t happened yet but I swear…!


          For an atheist to expect CHURCHES to pander to the a-theistic search for truth and meaning is like hiring a dental hygenist with no arms to do your cleaning, and expecting her to do a good job of it.

          – Rev. Victoria (“Peacebang”) Weinstein, in the “Philocrites” blog, run by UU World magazine editor Christopher Walton, January 2005

      3. You’re totally full of shit. I mean, so totally full of shit that I can’t believe you actually think that shit will fly.

        I’m both Unitarian Universalist AND a New Atheist. I have not, nor has any atheist UU, been “Gnu-style atheists are routinely excoriated in UU churches and in UU Association publications, and any atheism that dares to criticize or disrespect religious ideas is slimed unmercifully.”

        And the reason that hasn’t happened is that 18% of all UU’s are atheist. And it is, further, full-on against the polytheistic, non-judgmental creed.

        It’s like you just pulled this comment out of your ass and randomly associated the one of the last possible groups we’d ever be likely to see engage in that misanthropic behavior.

      1. So in what way does naturalism help me to feel that I am an “important participant” in anything?

        I say it helps me to understand that I’m preeminently important for the purpose of living my life as best I know how to live it.

        Does it seem best to me to live my life in the regular company of folks with whom I share common values? If so, then I will do so the best I know how.

  1. There is clearly an element of ”faith in faith” involved in this line of thinking. I’ve been thinking about this for some time and eventually came to the conclusion that the when you look beyond the rather abstract word “faith” it signifies not ‘belief in the supernatural’ but instead something along the lines of ‘respect for authority’. It means respecting the authority of your church to have some exclusive hold of the truth of existence. If we all believed in supernaturalism but with everyone having different Gods then I doubt ‘faith’ would have the same meaning. Indeed if you think of ‘faith’ in these terms there is a much clearer analogy between supernatural religions and the sort of secular ‘religions’ of communism and fascism – all require ‘faith’ as a prerequisite for their views to become a norm of society.
    As for the US becoming post religious? Perhaps the battle has already been won. There is no open society that has rapidly switched from religion to post religion. The Godless Scandinavians took a couple of generations to get where they are today from a starting point similar to the US. I think the gnus have let the godless genie out of the bottle and try as they might the religious and their faitheist allies cannot force it in again.

  2. And I suppose it bears saying again that any “attack on faith” is usually not just, and probably not even primarily, an attempt to change the believer’s mind but to put a reasonable alternative out there, for any spectators to be made aware of and weigh for themselves. There are orders of magnitude more onlookers than those being directly attacked. How come this aspect gets routinely ignored?

    1. Good point. I often wondered the same, when people on some blog or in some Gnu Atheist book review speak disparagingly of “preaching to the choir”, and of the impossibility of converting the true believers.

      In religion as in politics, the undecided onlookers are paramount.

  3. There is this subtle notion of distrust for the capacity of people in certain domains of social function.

    The latter is encoded by a kind of “they need certain functions religions provide”. Here too one could try to be more scientific about it than simply assert it. For example Phil Zuckerman has written about religion in Sweden, a highly non-believing country. Now Sweden has a small be revealing paradox in it. There are many non-believers but there there are also lots of church goers.

    Simply Sweden points to an example of a society that has both retained the social benefits categories of religions in terms of organized social institutions, and shaken the transcendental component of the belief system.

    The charge against outspoken atheists is that they demolish organized social institutions that are important. I think this is questionable, simply because we have for quite a while replaced religious institutions with secular ones already. This goes for schools, hospitals, and yes even churches. Priests and chaplains are replaced by counselors and therapists for emotional distress or relationship advice. Even though we are increasingly “bowling alone” bingo, bowling alleys and theater groups serve group social needs.

    1. I would have mentioned Phil Zuckerman if someone else hadn’t. I would add that most people in Denmark, the primary focus of his book, couldn’t possibly think of themselves as “important participants” in any kind of grand endeavor and they are, by and large, fine with this.

      So in response to this line of thinking, we ought to at least entertain the possibility that any need on a person’s part to play that kind of role may arise in order to compensate for other needs not being met, such as socio-economic stability.

      1. I would add that most people in Denmark, the primary focus of his book, couldn’t possibly think of themselves as “important participants” in any kind of grand endeavor and they are, by and large, fine with this.

        QFT! Dane speaking here, and I think it counts for most Northern-European countries.

        One interesting hypothesis in Zuckeman’s book is that Danes and Swedes weren’t EVER very religious. That we have in fact only for a brief time been really religious societies, and therefore religion was/is pretty easy to get rid of. That would also imply that the institutions in society weren’t built on religious institutions.

  4. … are completely ignoring what may be the most important aspects of faith: its function as a form of social glue and as a community that meets a human need for participation and interaction.

    Um, yeah. Religion serves a a glue by contributing to a sense of “us,” which necessarily also contributes to a sense of “them.” By uniting it necessarily divides.

  5. Kitcher is guilty of assuming that most people are not sophisticated or educated enough to handle the burden of life without the crutch of religion.

    I think he does not give Homo Sapiens credit enough to handle life. One of the ways to counter this dependence on religion is education – more of it and the right kind. Sure enough, an uneducated person in the third world who has no exposure to knowledge, reason and modern culture is susceptible to woo, but education is the correction of this.

    I also think that his statement that science is not a replacement for the benefits of religion is a straw-man argument. I look at my own life and how it progressed. I was skeptical of religion from early teenage but there was always the fear of being different and letting go. The ‘belief in belief’ was certainly a factor for me. When I finally realized, after reading books from prominent atheists that I control my life and I do not have to be dependent on anyone, whether real or imaginary beings, and a great weight was lifted and the doubt was gone. Realizing that one must make the best of what one has now and improve and enjoy life is uplifting, not demoralizing.

    1. I concur. It would be a patronizing assumption to construct pacifiers for placating psychological and intellectual deficits. An essential part of developmental growth is acknowledging reality.

    2. Kitcher is guilty of assuming that most people are not sophisticated or educated enough to handle the burden of life without the crutch of religion.

      Exactly — it is a somewhat nicer and more sophisticated-sounding version of the profoundly patronizing stance that most accommodationists have. And curiously, it is exactly parallel to one of the arguments about morality made by fundamentalists: “How can you expect people to be moral without god? Surely without some absolute morality provided by a supreme being, everyone would act like psychopaths!”

      I like to think I have a greater “faith” in my fellow humans than either the accommodationists or fundamentalists.

    3. I don’t think Kitcher is saying that we’re incapable or incompetent to handle these questions.

      He’s saying that most people don’t feel the intellectual, emotional, or “spiritual” need to deeply examine their beliefs.

      And why should they? For the vast majority, their lives would not change one whit by doing so – or would change for the worse. With the possible exception of sleeping in late on Sunday.

      There’s no compelling reason for someone who is living a comfortable life in the arms of a majority viewpoint to examine whether or not that viewpoint is grounded in reality.

      It’s not “can’t”. It’s “don’t really need to”. With an added layer of “be penalized for doing so.”

      Given those conditions, it’s amazing that there are so many of us who have gone through that process.

      Speaking personally, I didn’t have much of a choice. I intuited that all of the stories in the bible were mythological about age 8. Despite Dr. Collins’ assertions, I think it’s virtually impossible to reason yourself back into belief in mythology, even as metaphor. Once Santa isn’t real, he’s never going to be real again, no matter how much you wish it so.

      1. Good point. Small quibble though:

        There’s no compelling reason for someone who is living a comfortable life in the arms of a majority viewpoint to examine whether or not that viewpoint is grounded in reality.

        There usually is a compelling reason. The person may just not be aware of it.

    4. Kitcher is guilty of assuming that most people are not sophisticated or educated enough to handle the burden of life without the crutch of religion.

      I think that is a mistake. I don’t think that’s what Kitcher is saying at all. I think what he’s saying is that, even those who don’t need the crutch of religion, those who have turned religious beliefs into mythical tales, still find sustenance in religious community.

      It’s probably true that some people don’t have the intelligence or the ability to live without religion’s crutch, but this isn’t Kitcher’s point (although I seem unable to access a free version of Kitcher’s paper, so I can’t say for sure). Kitcher is in fact saying that the public use of secular reason is a requirement, and he doesn’t seem to see any problem with that requirement being conventionally enforced. In other words, religious believers are quite capable of dealing in purely secular terms with matters of public importance. However, he also seems to be saying that religion provides the kinds of social support necessary in order to live reasonably meaningful lives, lives that give individuals some sense of participating in historic events.

      I tend to agree with that. If one were to ask me, “What do you miss most about life in the church?”, I would have to say the sense of community, the sense of belonging to a group of people whose purpose is greater than that of any individual member of it. Indeed, belonging to a church community, with a regular round of meetings and opportunities to socialise, provide a kind of structured time within which to live an individual life.

      However, where Kitcher, it seems to me, goes wrong, lies in supposing that people who, in some sense, sit fairly loosely to the specific religious beliefs of their faith communities, will find no other points of conflict between their lives as members of faith communities, and their lives as members of secular society. The error here is in supposing that even liberal or non-realist faith positions have no implications for how things go in the secular world. This is manifestly untrue. All churches, even very liberal churches, take certain moral stands which are in basic conflict with secular morality, mainly because of a lack of consensus with the churches themselves. The acceptance of gay and lesbian people, for example, the role of women, and women’s reproductive freedom, the rights of those who are suffering unduly to decide regarding the time and manner of their own deaths: all of these are areas of conflict within even the most liberal of faith communities. To remain within the faith community is to (at least tacitly) endorse these moral stands, even though, within the faith community, an individual may be on the secular side of the controversy.

      I think, if non-believers are serious about non-belief, and want to see non-belief extended to larger numbers of people, then they must somehow provide for the hunger for belonging and commitment that churches now satisfy. There are always going to be people who can function very well on their own, as strong individualists, but there are many people whose lives will be, without some sense of social belonging, ‘solitary, poor, nasty and brutish’ (to quote Hobbes), especially if they are long. What many religious feel about atheists is that they are striking at the very roots of social belonging, not of belief, and until atheists have learned the lesson that many people not only crave a sense of belonging, but need some way of publicly celebrating the stages of life, their successes will be limited by the number of those who can in fact live happily without any living connexion with a continuing community.

      I suspect that what many people find threatening about the “New Atheism” is that it seems to them primarily negative, seeking to pull down, rather than to build up. If the numbers of people who are in moral conflict with their faith traditions could find a role to play in a community of non-believers, with a sense of moral purpose in the world, and some understanding of how life can be meaningful and flourishing in the absence of belief in supernatural friends, the course of unbelief would, I think, run more smoothly.

      Of course, many atheists will think that this kind of community undertaking is religious and ideological, but it need not be, as some liberal Christians have made clear.’Theologians’ like John Spong or Don Cupitt are as unbelieving as the most earnest Gnu Atheist, though they dress their unbelief in the handmedowns of religious language. And, surely, explicit atheists can be no less imaginative and creative than they. Perhaps humanist associations provide the answer, or someone may come up with something even better and more convincing. But it does seem to me that Kitcher may have put his finger on the pulse of those people for whom unbelief might be an attractive option, if its social expression were more attractive. (However, I write this without having read Kitcher’s paper, and I may be wrong. This nevertheless expresses some of my own reflections on unbelief an the possibility of community.)

      1. With regard to moral standards, I’d only add that members of certain conservative religions also seem to have no trouble ignoring fundamental moral teachings of their religion if it conflicts with their personal moral codes.

        I have cousins who are Catholic. They’re of the “I don’t care what the pope says, condoms are a great idea” persuasion. I think some 80+ percent of Catholics in the US disagree with church teachings on one or more fundamental issues of morality.

        So, I would think that even devout believers hold moral viewpoints that could objectively be seen as contrary to their particular church dogma. And they see absolutely no reason to quit their churches because of that.

        I think it’s because the penalties for ignoring church teachings is small. The church’s ability to punish heretics has diminished to the point where their only recourse is ostracism.

        Of course, we would declare ostracism to be something akin to throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch. But to the faithful, this is still viewed as a powerful punishment.

        We ignore this dichotomy too much, in my opinion.

        1. You can only ostracize people who are in a small minority (unless you can intimidate everyone else into pretending they toe the line). If the RCC in the West tried to ostracize all their disobedient members, most congregations wouldn’t have enough people left to pay the church’s electrical bill ;-).

    5. Those working in the Cognitive Science of Religion are producing field work in support of Kitcher’s general point. It appears that the cognitive brain modalities that are actuated in the day to day functioning of religious individuals are social rather than theological/rational. Religious types may argue that their beliefs are rational but they are generally unaware of this (mostly) unconscious social cognitive framework. And, in their actual practice of religion are less impressed with doctrinal purity than pragmatic problem solving. It makes a lot of sense that a personified helper is activated this way in the very species that is most social in nature.

      Regarding the replacement of religious social structures: We are living in the wired age. Virtual communities will replace or enhance many of the traditional structures. Certainly, the internet has done much to help advance atheism, yes?

  6. Some quick random thoughts.

    Kitcher is actually nostalgic about the liberal Anglicanism that he knew in his youth … and really, I find this quite understandable. In some times and places religion has actually been quite benign, and Kitcher is fortunate enough to have had some experience of that. He must almost despair when confronted by American style fundamentalism.

    It’s noteworthy that he is one of the most powerful advocates we have for the epistemic incompatibility of science and supernaturalist religion – both in Living with Darwin and in, ahem, his long essay in 50 Voices of Disbelief, so it’s not as if he thinks that these arguments should not be put at all. Or at least he didn’t in very recent times. (His piece in 50 Voices is actually one of the ones I like most.)

    I think the problems he raises are genuine, and it’s nice that Dan Dennett acknowledges this. Dennett’s reply is very good, partly because he is thoughtful and conciliatory, conceding what he sees as the strengths of Kitcher’s arguments.

    I haven’t read Kitcher’s new paper, but I do like the idea that he’s apparently putting that moral views should not be imposed on a basis that is not well-supported by reason. That seems to entail the claim that I keep making that if you’re going to claim moral authority you have to expect the basis on which you claim it to be subjected to rational scrutiny.

    I don’t think there’s an easy way for the US to make the sort of transition that Scandinavia has made without some pain and a certain amount of risk-taking. Dan is surely right that none of us can identify the magic bullet to do this. It will probably have to involve a whole lot of political and cultural things above and beyond just criticising religion. That, however, is not a reason to stop doing the latter. I hope Kitcher is not now saying otherwise.

    1. The point about religiosity in Europe vs US is a different point though than whether atheists misunderstand the value of religion in society. If it’s about the difficulty to handle this in the US context, the question really should be directed in such a way, i.e. “how do we deal with religiosity as it is manifest in the US”. That isn’t really the answer put forward. But I think you raise a good point that is quite frequently an undercurrent. I think people who grew up in in the educated middle class in Europe surrounded by very reformed notions of religion have a very different experience than a working class person who grew up in the bible belt.

      1. I’ll have to get to PK’s paper when I can put aside a bit of time – it looks like something that couldn’t be digested quickly, judging by Jerry’s description.

        My reason for thinking that PK is especially worried about the American situation comes from his earlier writings and from what he said in a radio interview that he and I and some others did together last year. I think he’d be pleased to see the US eventually be like Sweden and Denmark, where a lot of people go to church and even call themselves “Christians”, but have no actual supernatural beliefs and espouse a morality that is generally very liberal (e.g. about sexual matters).

        I’d have no great problem with that, either, I suppose, but it’s not at all obvious that that’s a path available to all countries. It may be very dependent on precise cultural circumstances. Also, it’s hard to see how any country can get there without intellectual critiques of religion, such as PK himself has produced, being part of the mix. I’m not sure what his beef with the New Atheists actually is beyond: “We have to do other stuff, too.” That may be correct, but it’s not exactly a criticism of doing the stuff we’re currently doing.

        Anyway, as with so many things, I need to go and read what he’s said in detail.

    2. Dr Blackford:

      “It’s noteworthy that (Kitcher)is one of the most powerful advocates we have for the epistemic incompatibility of science and supernaturalist religion.”

      Ever read Paul Kurtz’s “The Transcendental Temptation,” published back in 1977, or “Eupraxsophy: Living without Religion” from 1991?

  7. To a certain extent, I agree with Kitcher’s premise.

    For a fairly substantial subset of those who we would call “theists” (as a pejorative, mind you), their religion serves primarily as a community gathering place, and as a fairly efficient aggregator of local voluntary effort. My mother (thereby shocking all of you who think I was sprung whole from the head of Satan himself) belongs to a church where she volunteers at a food bank. Another relative works for the Red Cross organizing blood drives — without the churches, his job would be much tougher to nigh-on impossible.

    I have said that this is a clear failing of the atheist community – the fact that we’re not a “community” in any real sense. We don’t have pot luck suppers or Bingo or choir practice. We don’t check on the lonely widow’s health and happiness every week.

    In other words, we haven’t found an organized or systematic way to give voice to our feelings of altruism and our need to feel a sense of belonging outside the smaller confines of our families. We are the cats who refuse to be herded.

    And I think Kitcher is right that a substantial proportion of the “faithful” participate in the communal aspects of faith without really thinking all that hard about the core beliefs of their faith.

    And I’m fine with that — as long as they don’t try to insert those core beliefs into the educational system, into the political system, and all the rest.

    The problem I have is not with the sloppy theist or the apathetic-theist (as opposed to apatheist). It’s with those who would tell us we’re going to hell for not believing that God Hates Fags. Or that we should teach that it’s plausible that a magic incantation was involved at the beginnings of the universe or the inception of life. Or even – are you listening Dr. Collins – that somehow a supernatural mind decided that it wanted the 3.7-billion-year-long evolutionary process to eventually make “us” so that mind could “ensoul” our species so that it then would be required to send itself down to Earth in that particular form so that it could kill itself in order to resurrect itself so that it could show mankind that it loves us and wants each and every one of us to live in heaven with it, except for the 60% of those who don’t believe in that particular story who will therefore rot in hell for all eternity as a punishment for either not believing such a thing happened at all or guessing wrong about which version of events to believe in. (If that’s an exaggeration, I’d like to know which part is wrong.)

    Yes, if the UUs want to continue to meet and float along in their happy lives, I’m all for it. Because they’re not the ones trying to alter the curriculum in the Texas school system. They’re not the ones who send 8th graders to biology classes armed with loaded questions aimed at disrupting the educational process for every other kid and putting the teacher’s very job on the line. They’re not the ones picketing military funerals with hate in their hearts.

    Problem is, for every apathetic theist, there are three others who will tell me that 10,000 years is WAY long enough for a god to have performed the miracle of creation.

    1. I have said that this is a clear failing of the atheist community – the fact that we’re not a “community” in any real sense. We don’t have pot luck suppers or Bingo or choir practice. We don’t check on the lonely widow’s health and happiness every week.

      I don’t understand this objection, because I don’t see why atheism should be a “community” any more than “non-stamp collecting” is. There are plenty of naturally-occuring communities that develop around secular interests — why are we not talking about that? Why not run blood drives at science fiction conventions, or take up charitable collections at football games? Heck, there are even secular service organizations like the Rotary Club — why not emphasize their role in society?

      Do we really need a “Dawkins Atheists’ Charity Support Club” in order for there to be good done at the secular level?

      1. You summarize my reaction to this. There is this tacit assumption that social needs can only be met by something that is organized around some position with respect to religion (such as irreligion!)

        However there are plenty of social organizing principles that are not based on religious world-view identities. There are plenty of bingo and bridge clubs that are not religious, pot luck events, block parties etc etc.

        I’d hypothesize that people who grew up seeing religion as the sole or primary provider of this have a hard time imagining it springing from other sources.

        Oh and of course there are also secular humanist organizations to be had. Atheist conventions etc. It’s just that for many atheists, it’s not a strong identity formation. It makes much more sense to organize about some positive values.

        1. So, I’ll just give you the same challenge…look at your community and at the locally organized volunteer efforts.

          The food bank, the blood drive, the “walks” to cure this and that and all the rest.

          And tell me how many of those are organized by the local “secular humanist” organization. And not just one-and-done, but week in and week out.

          Going to an atheist convention is not the same as having a 25-year history of organizing monthly blood drives or getting food to people who would go hungry otherwise.

          You’re trying to conflate a one-time event (a convention) with ongoing persistent community service.

          Different. Surely you can see that.

          1. Going to an atheist convention is not the same as having a 25-year history of organizing monthly blood drives or getting food to people who would go hungry otherwise.

            I know, and secular humanist organizations were so very widespread 25 years ago, with memberships equivalent to that of churches! That’s a totally valid argument!

            Look, what you’re not seeing is that these altruistic impulses are inherent in people; churches have merely harnessed them. The churches are not necessary for the altruism, they’ve merely come to be a place where altruism expresses itself. Since there’s pretty much no way for secular organizations to provide a better place to be altruistic (I mean, how would that even work?) the churches are going to have a stranglehold on the expression of altruism for the forseeable future.

            This doesn’t mean that they’re the only place where people can express their altruism, they’ve just got a monopoly on it and that will be difficult to break in the USA.

          2. Where I live, in a large Canadian city, the food bank, blood donation, walks for cures and such like are primarily secular organizations.

          3. The same here in the UK.

            In fact blood donation is handled by the NHS, through the publicly funded National Blood Service. All you get for donating is 1) a nice feeling you have done something good and cup of tea and a biscuit.

          4. With regard to blood donation, let me point out that the American Red Cross is a secular organization. However, that was not my point.

            My nephew works for the Red Cross. His job is to organize blood drives. In the communities he is responsible for, it would be IMPOSSIBLE for him to meet his goals were it not for the churches, who aggregate donors.

            Yes, he goes to schools and businesses and a whole host of other locations as well. But it’s the churches that provide the bulk of the units.

            If you drill deeper into your other examples, you may also find that there are religious groups that provide a substantial percentage of the volunteer assistance needed to keep the things goings.

          5. Yet in the UK churches play very little role in getting people to donate blood. People just turn up to donate, without needing a church to push them into doing so. That would suggest altruism is stronger (in respect of blood donation) in the UK.

          6. I grant you that a lot of charities are religious. But what is the local population of believers? I don’t know but let me take a guess at 85%+.

            During my volunteer work I tended to be the only non-believer there, even though the institution itself is not religious. Was I perhaps the proportional representation in the population?

            Oh and as for persistent secular charities, there are plenty.

            But the non-religious don’t tend to get credit for it.

          7. And that’s my point — religion is the aggregator of volunteerism.

            I’m glad people volunteer. But the organizational muscle behind that volunteer effort is the issue.

            And we ignore the fact that religions are the de facto organizational units. And that without them, there would, at present, be a substantial gap to fill.

            And I don’t see any secular organization stepping up to the plate to fill that gap. Partly because there’s no need — after all, that’s what religion is doing. The ecological niche is filled.

          8. Erm no. That’s true for my community which is what you asked. If you had asked about other places where I lived the story changes.

            MSF is not a religious organization for example.

            Religion is only the defacto organizing place in some areas of the country and under certain cultural outlines and in fact it ignore secular organizing structure, such as volunteer fire fighters etc.

            I think you create a narrative that you verify by evidence that matches but you ignore contrary evidence.

      2. +1 for Tulse, I’m so tired of hearing that cat herding trope. I grew up in an agnostic community, we did stuff. None of it was because or in spite of religion. We went hiking, we went to fairs, parades, did sports, whatever. I thought people who went to church were weird, I only knew one family who did so regularly. I never noticed a “void” where religion should go. When I first heard about this God stuff, I was about 5 years old. I would pray for snow days. It did not work, so I concluded it was all nonsensical. Twenty years later, I still agree with my conclusion.

        1. I find it interesting that I was talking about giving voice to altruism via community service, and all of your examples were about “doing stuff” that involved pleasure for you individually.

          Hiking, sports, parades, fairs.

          Did you ever volunteer at the fair? Organize the parade? Create the kids’ sports league? Guess what, the local Y does this in spades, and it’s still a Christian organization.

          So, you’re confusing altruism with hedonism. That’s a pretty large difference, in case you don’t recognize it.

          Where do YOU volunteer? How do YOU serve your community either locally or nationally? What percentage of the volunteer activities participated in by your community have a religious underpinning versus a secular one?

          It’s a blind spot that we have as atheists. I’m merely pointing it out.

          1. My (agnostic) dad got us involved with the American Heart Association and we all donated and got sponsors and walked. My (atheist) graphic designer boyfriend made up a free t-shirt logo that my (agnostic) friend got printed up for cost and we raised like $15,000.

            Nope, don’t see this blind spot you’re talking about.

          2. the local Y does this in spades, and it’s still a Christian organization

            Which is why they’ve rebranded from “Young Men’s Christian Organization” to “YMCA” to now just “Y”, and emphasize diversity and non-sectarianism in their mission.

            Where do YOU volunteer? How do YOU serve your community either locally or nationally?

            I work for a non-religious charity, thanks for asking.

          3. If they are emphasizing non-sectarianism, why do they still say:

            “With a mission to put Christian principles into practice”?

          4. Nope. Not at all.

            I’m glad that you recognize the difference between hedonism and altruism. Your first post was alarmingly self-centered. 🙂

          5. meh, I thought you were talking about community as a whole, not volunteerism in particular.

            So despite all the black swans you’ve been presented with, you’re going to insist on saying they’re all white, eh? We’re done here then.

      3. Well, you don’t see the need…but you’re one of the cats who refuses to be herded. So naturally will object to the need for a herd.

        But religion, in the US at least, does provide those benefits. And for many it provides those benefits without the cost of requiring people to examine and/or openly commit to a definite set of beliefs. There’s no theological test you have to take in order to wield a hammer for Habitat for Humanity.

        There are many who *want* that extra sense of belonging – who need the herd, so to speak. And as long as the benefits (that feeling of belonging one gets by giving voice to their altruism) outweighs the cost (time and the collection plate), there is no motivation to do anything different.

        No, I don’t think there needs to be a Dawkins Bund, as it were. But you can’t be honest as an atheist and not recognize that this is an issue in your personal life and in your community. Look around. I challenge you to look at voluntary altruistic activities being done in your community right now. Sort them by religious or not-religious. But you might have to drill down in order to get a clearer understanding. For example, I mentioned Habitat for Humanity above. That’s a religious organization – a “nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry”. It doesn’t shout CHRISTIAN in its PR materials, but it is what it is and it was organized to be what it is as part of being a religious call to service.

        1. “But religion, in the US at least, does provide those (herd) benefits.”

          I disagree, I think those benefits exist without religion. I think religion takes credit for something that would have existed without it.

          (I grew up in Connecticut, US of A.)

          1. I’m not saying that without religion, there would be no community service. I’m saying that at present and in the US, religious organizations provide a large share of the organizational muscle that allows people to happily volunteer.

            Again, different. I hope you see that.

          2. Yes, and as others are pointing out to, but you do not seem to be seeing, that is not the case in Europe. Which does kind of show religion is not required.

          3. Yes, Matt. I said that as well.

            I’m merely pointing out that in the US at present, it is disingenuous of us to pretend that religion doesn’t play a large role in the issue.

            Different. See?

            Please stop trying to tar me with an accommodationist brush.

          4. That is not how you came across.

            I could be the one at fault, but since others have also clearly not got what you meaning to say I suspect you could have been clearer.

          5. I’m merely pointing out that in the US at present, it is disingenuous of us to pretend that religion doesn’t play a large role in the issue.

            Of course it does, and I don’t think anyone said otherwise. What I was objecting to was the claim that religion is necessary for such altruistic behavior. Whatever its current role, religion isn’t needed to organize such actions — it can be replaced just fine.

  8. A work colleague asked me this the other day : If you had 2 islands, one populated by atheists, and one by religious folks, which one do you think would thrive, and on which one you think there would be more social cohesion and cooperation?
    My initial response was, “Sweden seems to be doing ok and Afghanistan seems somewhat troubled”.But yeah, I wonder, does atheism really have to show that it has a concept of morality and cooperation that beats the current one put forward by the religious folks? Probably, and we shouldn’t have trouble to find examples of this.That doesn’t mean that we can’t do better in selling the message that there is morality without the threat of eternal hellfire.

    1. Secular democracies like Sweden tend to regard things like social welfare and health as things that society as a whole should provide rather than it being left to private charities like those run by churches. This results in state involvement in social welfare on a much greater scale in Europe compared to the US and a comparable lack of religious involvement. The resulting requirement for a higher taxation burden in Europe to cover these state welfare costs has resulted in some libertarian inclined atheists – Michael Shermer, for instance – to advocate the US religious model as preferable.

      1. I think there are all sort of simplifying assumptions about this.

        In fact I’d argue that the social welfare states in Europe are in part due to different emphasis in Chrisianity, as well as different notions of secular thought.

        A mainstream catholic in Europe is clearly progressive from a US perspective. And Lutherans in Europe tend to be on the more progressive end, whereas in the US that isn’t so obvious.

        In European christianity, the sermon of the mount is a cornerstone piece, including “love thy neighbor”. In US christian discourse the emphasis on the other is downplayed and often replaced with a kind of calvinist drive for individualism and work (see Weber).

        For the secular tradition, Europe and the US have a different notion of egalite as it emerged from the enlightenment. In Europe equal access to basic safety nets is part of it. In the US equal access to notions (or at least rhetoric of) liberty is more like it.

    2. If you had 2 islands, one populated by atheists, and one by religious folks, which one do you think would thrive

      Are they all of the same religion? Or are they from different religions that kill each other on a regular basis?

      Are they members of a religion that shuns the use of technology and/or medicine?

      Does the religion not care about science in general, and thus not worry if its members are educated?

      Are the female castaways allowed full participation in the island society (and thus contribute to its well-being), or are they forced to stay in their huts?

      Does everyone on the island not work one day out of every seven?

      Are the members allowed to eat all sources of nutrition on the island, or are some foods forbidden?

    3. I think there is some merit to the thought experiment… If you took a bunch of random disorganized people, used a ray to make them all into atheists(*), and then deposited them on an island, I think it’s quite plausible that they would have more difficulties than a similar island where you used the ray to make them all worship the same god(s). I don’t know this for sure, but it is easy to see the random assortment of people, absent any unifying creed, being unable to really get anything off the ground.

      The Sweden/Afghanistan comparison of course is very apt in showing how such a thought experiment is probably not applicable to the modern world.

      But it may be the case — and I’m not saying it is, I am undecided on this — that religion played an important transitional role in organizing society. Hobbes’ idea of a social contract may be a useful model for describing an idealized relationship between government and citizen, but clearly that’s not how it got off the ground! — at least not historically. Early governments and proto-governments existed for the sole purpose of fucking over the governed for the benefit of the governing. Those rapacious dictatorships probably could not exist without religion…. but could the modern welfare state (in the non-pejorative sense) have come into being sui generis, without the governing infrastructure being first put into practice by brutal warlords and dishonest kings? It is difficult to say.

      (*) That they were not necessarily atheists before is important to my version of the thought experiment, because there would be a huge amount of selection bias inherent in selecting those who chose to self-identify as atheists in present society… I think if you filled the island with Gnu Atheists, you’d get a rather nice society, actually 🙂 But that is probably just the Lake Wobegon effect talking…

      1. Just riffing here, so I’m not sure how rational my resonse is but

        I think there is merit in your predicted outcome of this ray-gun experiment. However, I would suggest that it is because the crutch of religion has been removed and no other support substituted.

        I wonder now what would be the case if you compared two island populations of Swedish or Japanese (where atheism isn’t all that special)? I suspect the run of the mill atheist Swedish or Japanese person would be pretty average in most other respects and would be particularly Lake Wobegon-y.

        In the end, I think this suggests that religion is a crutch sapping religious societies of a secular source of good behavior.

  9. Sigmund and Hitch, above, have both cited the counterexample of several nations in Western Europe, in which religion (especially under the “belief model”) is well nigh dead. Not only has civilized society in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, etc., managed to survive the end of large-scale belief in the supernatural, by just about every social-science measure (good general summary here) the secular nations of the world are vastly healthier than any religious one.

    I have a hard time understanding how Kitcher can square that with his concerns. If religion, on a societal level, is a heroin addiction that can’t be simply quit cold turkey without ugly consequences, how has so much of Western Europe kicked the habit so comfortably? At the very least, is there no methadone available for us junkie nations?

    1. Well, who says they did it comfortably.

      There were religious wars, there were political wars, there were two World Wars. Millions upon millions upon millions dead and displaced. Virtually every life impacted.

      The societies that grew out of that devastation appear to have chosen a model that specifically avoids the risk of returning to armed conflict.

      I hope we don’t have to resort to bloodshed in the US to come to a similar outcome. But to say that Europe accomplished the goal “comfortably” is, frankly, at odds with the evidence.

      1. I don’t think that theory matches historical fact.

        Sure, there were massive overwhelmingly religious wars in European history. But they were all over by 1900, at which point the continent was still heavily religious.

        Two world wars? How much of those were fought in Sweden? How exactly did the Nazi occupation of Denmark and Holland assist the Danes and Dutch in throwing off the shackles of religion?

        Of course there has been war in European history. It’s just a huge stretch to assert that secularization has any connection to armed conflict that has taken place there within the past 150 years.

        War is indeed “uncomfortable.” That fails to show that secularizing is.

        1. I suspect that two large-scale wars in Europe, by calling into question a great many beliefs that were held below a properly conscious level, by discrediting the moral authority of a great many institutions (including the various churches)and by bringing to end European imperialism, had a great deal to do with the turning away from faith that has happened in Europe; and also in Japan, where the abject collapse of State Shinto with defeat (and of course its subsequent dismantling by GHQ) has a lot to do with the alleged ‘non-religious’ nature of the Japanese. I wonder if the strength of religion in America has not quite a bit to do with its not being so radically affected in an adverse way as were most other countries in the two world wars.

  10. I had to skim much of this because I wanted to get this comment in before it gets buried… in any case, this is such dense and interesting prose from both Kitcher and Dennett that it will probably require at least two careful readings.

    Anyway! We’re seeing the Overton Window in action here, folks. As Dennett points out, Kitcher is saying exactly the same thing as Dennett — that religion should be subject to unrestricted critical scrutiny, and that we need to find a way to reap the social benefits of religion without the ethical pollution. But because of the Gnu Atheists, Kitcher is able to say this and come across as conciliatory — whereas ten years ago, he might have come off as the strident and shrill one.

    This is a win for our side, folks. Boo-yah!

    1. I definitely agree to the idea that the envelope has been pushed and need to continue to be pushed. Indeed some things that are perfectly OK to say today used to be mortal insults.

    2. You are neglecting the fact that Kitchener was pretty close to the gnu position at the outset. His position in this paper will probably be seen as shrill, strident and ‘just as bad as the fundamentalists’ by the usual suspects.

      1. Perhaps… we shall see.

        I liken it to Hawking’s recent controversial statements about God. Yes, you had a lot of the “usual suspects” calling him a dick, but you also had The Times praising him as the “voice of reason” — only so that they could slam Dawkins’ “polemical style”, of course. But it seems likely to me that without Dawkins, the Times would be slamming Hawking’s “polemical style”, instead of praising him.

        I don’t know how widely read Kitchener’s essay will be, especially if it stays behind a paywall like this. But if it were widely read, I imagine we’d see the same thing — some of the “usual suspects” condemning it, others saying how great he is for not being a big meanie.

        1. I suspect that it will be ignored. The paper itself seems to be based on a talk he gave in March and I haven’t heard anything about that so I guess the same thing will happen to this. Kitchener is simply not a big enough name in the public (rather than academic) realm to attract the ire of the faitheists.

  11. As he says, “Nobody who reflects on what sociologists have to say about the ways in which people become attracted to particular religions will suppose that the spread of a creed has much to do with its truth.”

    But that’s entirely the issue, isn’t it? I would say that one of the tenets of New Atheism is that truth matters – or at least that evidence matters. It’s also exactly why New Atheists tend to be a bit impatient with a lot of the more wishy-washy religion.

  12. God is not the problem.
    The evil in religion is in the dogma and
    the hierarchy – all dogma is entirely false and priesthood is a scam. And these are not essential to the belief in gods.
    People have experiences that they attribute to a higher power and they need to understand that the higher power is in their unconscious. God is a healing dream that we are all born with. Jung called it an archetype of the collective unconscious – this is the god he meant he knew when he said “I do not believe, I know.” in response to the usual “do you believe in god?” The knowledge that human personalities are determined by genetics was not yet available in Jung’s time, so the “collective unconscious” appears to some to have a tinge of the metaphysical.
    The religions do not give the goodness that people claim to find in them but pervert it to their use, for money and power.

    1. No, the problems start when people assume God is on their side.

      Also, personalities are not solely determined by genetics. Upbringing does a lot too.

  13. Another comment I want to make, and this is a repeat of something I have said several times elsewhere…

    There are three questions at play here, which often seem to get all tangled up when discussing the role of religion in society?

    1) Are the truth claims of any given religion even remotely plausible?
    2) Is there anything inherent to religious belief that makes tends towards a net positive or a net negative?
    3) Is religion as it is practiced today a net positive or a net negative?

    The answer to #1, at least for any religion I’ve heard of, is a resounding “No”, and Kitcher seems to agree.

    Kitcher’s essay seems to be primarily in regards to question #2, which I consider to be unanswered. As Jerry points out, the success of Western Europe’s secularization does not bode well for those who paint religion’s inherent traits as a net positive, but it is far too soon to say. I for one think it is a somewhat condescending and elitist position to assert with confidence, as Kitcher seems to do, that some folks just aren’t capable of finding meaning in their lives without comforting falsehoods — but while I won’t assert that to be true, it would not surprise me if it were.

    In any case! Question #3 is what I think most Gnu Atheists are concerned with, and I think Kitcher would have difficulty answering “net positive” to that one.

    In some distant future, we may wonder — is it good if a large fraction of the population subscribes to a neutered dogma-lite feel-good liberal religion (like UU or Quakerism today), or does even something like that pose too much danger? I don’t know the answer to that. But regardless of your opinion, it is impossible to deny that religion today has it’s fingers jammed way up in the political piehole, and it is using this metaphorical digital penetration to spread bigotry, hate, and ignorance. Reasonable and informed people must see that is a terrible thing… don’t they?

    1. I think the answer to your #3 is “it depends”.

      On the purely local level, it seems to me that the non-strident religions play a healthy role in many communities. The more strident the religion becomes, the more intolerant of views not in perfect synch with their own, the less likely it is to play a beneficial role in the community.

      Until you get to the extreme of Fred Phelps and his merry gang of gay bashers. Their only benefit to the community is as an object lesson on how to be perfect assholes.

      I would also say that the more heterogeneous the community is, the more likely religion is to have a locally beneficial effect. When there is a dominant religion or religious perspective telling others what to do or how to behave, that’s when the negatives outbalance the positives. For example, the South Dakota religious right who pushed through harsh anti-abortion legislation.

      Maybe it’s just a matter of religion not being a dick. Someone tell Plait.

      1. It is quite possibly true that it varies depending on locality, but I meant the question to be the net effect, added up globally. In which case I think the answer is clear.

        Which is why I feel safe advocating against religion more or less universally, despite being uncertain about the answer to question #2. It’s still pushing things in the right direction, at least for the forseeable future.

        (Though as you may see elsewhere on this thread, I don’t have much venom for the nice guys like UUs, Quakers, and their ilk. I just think they’re a bit silly)

        1. I agree…globally the net effect is toxic.

          And also agree that the “silly” religions can be silly all they want. Including the wiccans and the druids and all the rest.

          Just as long as they don’t try to force their dogmas or their individual moral codes on the rest of us, or try to tell us that science is wrong because their book of myths says so.

          But to your point, the toxic effects of religion are most keenly felt in those areas.

  14. Man, so much good stuff on this thread.

    I’ll have to read the Kitcher article later (assuming the site will let me). But from the above, I find his “orientation model” approach intriguing. It seems to describe well the latter half of my Christian period, in which I had jettisoned the “belief model” of fundamentalism for a more “mythical” frame that affirmed my essentially humanistic core values (and yes, there was a lot of doctrinal vagueness going on, too). In the long run it turned out not to be a psychologically stable strategy for me, as only a scientifically-informed humanistic atheism has really allowed me to integrate the values of seeking to believe only what is true, while affirming social values of human welfare.

    I heard Dennett speak in Montreal last weekend, and he expounded at length on the theme of taking over religion and retaining the socially-valuable functions while stripping out the woo-woo. I’m not entirely convinced — as a Canadian, I’m less afraid of “socialist” solutions than many Americans are, and I think that groups organized around completely different themes (ie. not self-conciously humane, ethical, or volunteerist) can pick up much of the slack. (I also didn’t much like his “Atheist Gospel” songs, but then I’ve never liked Gospel as a musical style anyway).

    However, I think there will always be a place for organizations that take it as their specific mandate to check up on the lonely widows, or to provide emergency childcare (and frozen casseroles!) for families who have a member in the hospital, etc. As it happened, we were asked to drive the Dennetts to the airport on Sunday morning, and my wife and Daniel spent the time discussing that sort of issue.

  15. As it happened, we were asked to drive the Dennetts to the airport on Sunday morning, and my wife and Daniel spent the time discussing that sort of issue.

    Boy, talk about burying the lead! What was it like to chat with him?

    1. Yes, did he do the typical ‘New Atheist’ thing of asking you to stop off at a funeral so that he could tell the bereaved family they were just burying worm-food?
      (Isn’t that what they normally do?)

      1. I just went to a “funeral” of a non-religious acquaintance. It was decidedly odd. There was a viewing, some of the usual chatting and condolences. No religious symbols anywhere, just flowers, photos, and mementos.

        Then the husband of the gal who died said, “OK we’re going to the burial now. You can come if you want, but we’re not going to say any words.”

        OK then. I went to lunch instead.

        1. Being the only child, I did the honours for my parents (agnostics who took up with a very “non-religious” UU congregation after they retired) when they died. No viewing (incompatible with cremation, anyway), no God-talk, just a recounting of their lives and legacy by those who knew and loved them. The services were held respectively in the funeral home chapel, and in their UU church (actually a converted beautiful old stone house).

          And I still have their ashes, because about the only disposal that seems really apropos involves a trip to England to scatter them over the Yorkshire Dales, which I’ve been a bit too busy to do the last few years.

          1. I went to a non-religious funeral a couple of years ago at our local crematorium.

            It involved some readings of the deceased’s favourite prose and poetry, some music and his two daughters speaking about their father.

            It was all conducted by a retired Anglican female vicar. When I spoke to her afterwords she explained that she had no problem with the lack of religion and she did services for the benefit of the family and friends. On top of that, she said being a vicar had taught how to structure a service.

    2. He seemed a pretty normal person. Unlike driving PZ from/to the airport — we’re still trying to get the brimstone smell out of the upholstery. And then there were the tentacles hanging out the car window….


        1. AFAIK, only for this weekend :-).

          PZ was because the organizers knew that we knew him personally (from days; we actually visited him in Morris three years ago). Dennett, we got asked on Saturday afternoon. I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes such that they apparently had a hole in the arrangements there.

  16. I think the discourse between the “New”Atheists and ones who advocate a softer position is in keeping with the Socratic method/pear review,this hammering out ,if you will,will only produce a stronger better version of least thats what i think.

  17. And this happened over only a few centuries. Moreover, it happened not through atheists suggesting humanistic replacements for faith, but through the erosion of faith after the Enlightenment and perhaps a greater reliance of Europeans on family and community.

    I think most of Europe’s secularisation has happened since WWI, although its intellectual foundation was indeed developed over several centuries.

    1. Well The Enlightenment played a huge role in the development of secular societies in Europe.

      The First World War was also, as you say, important in providing impetus to the move towards secular societies1.

      1. In this respect, the Second World War can be regarded as a continuation of the First.

      1. The really dramatic loss of faith in Europe, as judged by infant baptisms, church attendances, and so on, was as recently as the early 1960s – and the same happened in Western countries outside of Europe. The outlier was the US.

        No one knows exactly why it happened when and how it did. Clearly it had been building up for a very long time, and the intellectual classes of Europe had long lost their literal faith (Matthew Arnold is worrying about “the sea of faith” having receded as early as the 1840s and 1850s, when he’s writing “Dover Beach”).

        It does seem that these things can tip suddenly, but there must also be reasons why it didn’t happen in America in the same way as in the rest of Europe and the West. Unfortunately, sociologists of religion seem a long way from reaching consensus about any of this.

        Btw, although PK is worried about something that the New Atheists are doing wrong, he is himself doing something that the Mooneys of the world would say is unacceptable, i.e. producing thoughtful, civil critique of religion and saying how supernaturalist doctrines are incompatible with science. I wonder how Mooney will spin that.

  18. Dennett remains my favorites of the Gnus. He has a wonderful way of remaining scathing yet not insulting to the religious or the Kitchers of the world. He writes intelligently and academically, but then is still so readable and is not afraid to drop the occasional “whatever floats your boat” line… His “reason” is also exceptional…

  19. Dennett remains my favorites of the Gnus. He has a wonderful way of remaining scathing yet not insulting to the religious or the Kitchers of the world. He writes intelligently and academically, but then is still so readable and is not afraid to drop the occasional “whatever floats your boat” line… His “reason” is also exceptional…

  20. The orientation model, I think, can provide a safety ramp out of religion for those who wish, with the ability to work with some of the social benefits (note “some”) that some churches may just possibly provide. I think there is a Market for a “Christianity Compatibility Layer” for atheists, much like Wine for Linux (yes, I know).

    Hence – the Church of Jesus Christ Atheist. It’ll not appeal to everyone, but that’s not it’s point… Comments welcome.

    1. I’m part of the “not everyone”, so I can’t really comment on the idea itself. Hate the name, though, but that’s probably because I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Anything that starts with “Church of Jesus Christ” gives me the willies. heh…

      1. Hi James, No probs; you may have a point. Fortunately in Northern Ireland even the Free Presbyterians regard the Mormons as batshit insane, and it has never got a hold here. The plan with CJCA is to give a wee outlet to the “orientation model”.

        I find myself agreeing with both Kitcher and Dennett; I really can’t find much of a problem with some variants of the orientation model; the real enemy is the belief model. It’s like sport; to say that Rugby is True, but Gaelic is False would be ridiculous; people can enjoy either or both. Religion should similarly be viewed as a form of entertainment – and the rules subject to alteration as circumstances dictate.

  21. “Kitcher contends that New Atheists, by concentrating solely on the “belief model,” don’t realize that adherents to the other three models don’t care that much about specific truth claims of faith. Therefore, the Gnus are attacking faith at a place where it’s not that vulnerable.”

    But maybe (some) Gnu Atheists have no desire or interest in attacking those other models of faith.

    Kitcher (at least as our host has summarized him) seems to be assuming that Gnu Atheists believe religion is The Enemy, and therefore it’s bad strategy to attack the spots where it’s not vulnerable. But what if The Enemy of Gnu Atheism isn’t religion itself — or the community and social aspects of it — but simply the truth claims?

    I’m not one of those atheists who longs for a place to go on Sundays and sing songs together, but I have no problem with people (believers or not) who enjoy such activity, any more than I have an issue with people who get together to LARP or knit or do any other activity that doesn’t harm anyone else.

  22. So I shouldn’t try to help another to get free from the self-delusion that he or she is an “important participant” in god’s plan? Why is that exactly?

    Dennett and Kitcher seem to believe that it’s because the newly liberated person would then fully realize that he or she is in fact unimportant, and, I suppose, become very unhappy as a result.

    But that doesn’t follow.

    There’s no such thing as objective “importance.” There is no such thing as an important person or an unimportant person except in relation to some purpose. It’s much the same as the attribute “good.” The question is then, “Good for what?”

    Just because I’m not good for god because there isn’t a god for whom to be good doesn’t mean I’m good for nothing.

    At the very least, the former believer still remains good for him or herself. There’s no reason in the world why he or she should think otherwise once the spell is broken.

    I say full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes.

  23. Robin Hanson attended Kitcher’s presentation of this back in March:

    >> I asked the last question of the evening: what if we can’t reform religion much; which would he choose between atheism and the today’s distribution of religious styles? He refused to answer that question, insisting we can reform religion. Apparently some choices are morally repugnant to consider, and even to a famed analytic philosopher, “what if we can’t take crazy beliefs out of religion?” is one of them. <<

  24. Did Kitcher completely ignore the moral questions? Religions promulgate lies while claiming they are true. Religions promote segregation. How are religions different from, say, Aryan Nations? Even if we were to assume that Kitcher’s got it right and most people go to church to socialize and don’t care about their eternal soul or god, unless the godless god worshippers can reform the alleged minority and turn churches into secular institutions I see no value in Kitcher’s claims. Now coming back to the real world, try traveling to poorer nations and talking to people there about their beliefs. Let’s look at Turkey for example – do most people there not really believe? Or looking back at the USA, do the ~50% who are creationists really not care about god and their soul? Why are they such ardent defenders of the bullshit if they’re really only using the church as a social club?

  25. In Bali, the local Hinduism helps the islanders to keep the surrounding Muslims at bay and to keep a sense of themselves as Balinese. There is much that attracts me in Balinese religion – its theatricality, its polytheism, the way it created an almost Darwinesque irrigation system for the whole island (Darwinesque in that no-one considered the whole system, which arose out of local decisions in which the water-temples played the mediating role)- but with its incessant festivals and daily offerings it’s hard particularly on the Balinese women. You simply cannot separate ‘beliefs’ from the social fabric in a place like Bali, as you have come to be able in modern monotheistic societies: beliefs on one side, clubs on the other – it’s a very misguided way of looking at things. There’s an interesting essay by the anthropologist (and atheist) David Eller in ‘The Christian Delusion’ (ed John Loftus), in which he shows how much more canny about the way religion permeates a society are the Christian proselytisers who set out to convert non-Christian and non-Western peoples than are most atheists, who approach things very much in intellectual terms. And he quotes from such books as Winter and Hawthorne’s ‘Perspectives on the World Christian Movement’, which is one of a great many books that teaches tactics and strategies for the destruction of other peoples’ belief systems so that Jesus Christ can get his large monotheistic foot in the door and open up his bag-full of LOVE with all its loving messages about killing gays, etc. Eller suggests, and I agree with him, that atheists need to take a leaf out of the book of the people who over the years have been, and are now, the most successful at destroying others’ belief-systems: the Christians.

  26. Sorry to be coming into this so late, and many apologies if I end up repeating what someone else has said. The numbering structure makes it difficult to keep abreast of recent comments… ;-(

    Here’s the funny thing. I seem to recall hearing Kitcher’s arguments from about 150 years ago, only then they were in support of slavery. It was exactly the same thing, though: people just won’t be able to let go of the concept. Then, it even had an economic component that doesn’t apply in the least today. I imagine much the same could be said of women’s rights.

    Both Kitcher and Dennett seem to think this is insurmountable, as well. The opinion is that religious community is a specialized thing, as opposed to simply “community with religious trappings.” I’d be curious to see how well this is supported in studies. Does anyone know if the religious part of the desire for community involvement is distinctly different from the common desire of community involvement? Because I tend to think this is hogwash.

    Many, many religious people I have known, of all levels from moderate to fundie, have attendant baggage that is either supported by or even caused by religion – things like homophobia, struggles over “woman’s place,” issues with islam, judaism and even catholicism, and so on. Ideas about whether their children were maintaining the right level of piousness, whatever it may be. To say nothing of the issues with pork or beef or turning on lights on Saturday, or even dealing with the thought of being dressed properly for your judgmental neighbors (I live near some nice southern baptist churches, where the Sunday fashions are “flamboyant,” to put it mildly.) I certainly think these need to be examined as well, especially in the light of, “Seriously, it’s okay to ignore them entirely.” If you’re going to consider the social structure as being as important and irrevocable as was said here, you cannot ignore the other side of the coin, and what pressures and conflicts such things have also introduced.

    Both speakers seem to view things in light of changing society right now, but that’s not how such things take place. They go slowly, in smaller increments, and the social makeup has been changing steadily for decades. I think it’s extremely short-sighted to believe that such change couldn’t easily take place – all it takes is the right motivation. Imagine if you’d asked twenty years ago how much impact a social networking site would have. Do you think anyone would have accurately predicted the situation we have now? In making change, you aim at the children and the schools, and introduce concepts as if they are routine. Some parents resist, others simply treat it as progress. Eventually the older generation loses sway. Even something as physically addicting as nicotine has been changed significantly in the past few decades.

    There’s also a side note about this “inner drive” for community, and fighting against it, which both Kitcher and Dennett seem to think is difficult or impossible. But I think it’s probably a lot more subtle and unspecific than it’s being given credit for. We also have a “drive” to compete, something that in older times led to tribalism – nowadays it’s sports rivalry, a (mostly) safe way of expressing it. Nobody seems to care that the idea of distant teams standing in for tribes of people that you actually know and have to support makes no sense whatsoever, do they? It has become an evolutionary pacifier. I doubt that the social aspect is any different, and quite possible has already been taken care of with online communities.

    It was even mentioned that the “fulfillment” of religion cannot be replaced with, for instance, interest in the sciences. But why the hell not? It certainly worked for me, and I doubt I’m alone in this group, much less in the greater community. I’ve gotten much better answers to the “meaning of life” from science than religion ever provided – do Kitcher and Dennett think I’m a mutant? And if so, what is their basis for believing this?

    Our schools (in the US at least) are geared towards never addressing this, because it pisses off the fundie parents. Somehow, over the years, it’s become taboo to actually treat science as science, and it now has to avoid disturbing religion. Get rid of that, and see what happens. Meaning of life? None – life simply survives, that’s all the mechanisms are geared towards. Want significance? Then do something significant. What’s so hard about that? The whole “everyone has a place in god’s plan” thing came up to keep people from questioning, and worrying about their peasant lives when they could see the fancy priests. The are much better messages out there.

  27. I feel quite annoyed when I am told that it is incumbent upon atheists to provide replacement pacifier for those who have just grown up, and ditched an infantile faith.
    Faith, like infancy, needs no replacement whatsoever.

    1. As I imagine a person of faith might react to this condescension.

      I ditched my faith and I was just fine – in fact, very much better.

  28. Isn’t Kitcher’s basic argument Machiavellianism as understood by the masses?

    You know it doesn’t matter if a belief is wrong, so long as the result is good?

    It is like saying:

    All fish live in the sea
    Sharks live in the sea
    Therefor sharks are fish

    is sound reasoning. Sure the answer may be right – but for all the wrong reasons.

    Plus it is dangerous – what about whales?

    The dangers of religion are not only in the specific beliefs, but the reasoning and unreasoning behind them.

    If we accept the idea of religion as being a useful lie, then we encourage faulty reasoning that can and will bite us in the backside when it comes to other arguments.

    We wouldn’t accept Kitcher’s arguments in any other field. We should not accept them on religion.

  29. I think some of you are missing the point a little.

    An important part of the social framework provided by religions provides the society with the motivation to marry and raise the next generation, and if necessary to fight to protect this.

    The ‘successful’ European atheist countries you cite are not really succeeding on this level – their fertility levels are below replacement, and in many cases their population is only maintained by importing religious people who are overtly hostile to the basic aims of their society.

    Secular community organizations and blood drives don’t count.

    Someone above mentioned that religious communities are defined in opposition to others – they include by excluding. Any successful atheist society needs a little of this as well – it needs to actually stand for something, provide a vision to build towards.

    Current European secular society is weak and self-hating. Within a generation or two it may simply die out.

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