"Soft Atheism"

Philip Kitcher hits many nails on the head. I like what he says about the reason to be skeptical of all religious beliefs.  Yes, this really is "the most basic reason for doubt" (or one of them):
The most basic reason for doubt about any of these ideas is that (when you understand words in their normal, everyday senses) nobody is prepared to accept all of them. Even if you suppose that Judaism, Christianity and Islam share some common conception of a divine being, the Hindu deities are surely different, the spirits and ancestors of African and Native American religions different again, and that’s before we get to Melanesian mana or the aboriginal Australian Dreamtime. It’s very hard to think that every one of these radically different conceptions picks out some aspect of our cosmos.

So asserting the doctrines of a particular religion, or family of religions, requires denying other contrary doctrines. However, when you consider the historical processes underlying the doctrines contemporary believers accept, those processes turn out to be very similar: Long ago there was some special event, a revelation to remote ancestors. Religious doctrine has been transmitted across the generations, and it’s learned by novice believers today. If the devout Christian had been brought up in a completely different environment — among aboriginal Australians or in a Hindu community, say — that person would believe radically different doctrines, and, moreover, come to believe them in a completely parallel fashion. On what basis, then, can you distinguish the profound truth of your doctrines from the misguided ideas of alternative traditions?
I also like what he says about rejecting religious doctrine while retaining the achievements of "religions at their best":
To sum up: There is more to religion than accepting as literally true doctrines that are literally false. Humanists think the important achievements of religions at their best — fostering community, articulating and supporting values — should be preserved in fashioning a fully secular world. That secular world ought to emerge from a dialogue between humanism and refined religion, one in which religion isn’t thrown on the rubbish heap but quietly metamorphoses into something else.
"Soft atheism," he calls this. 


Stuart W. Mirsky said...

Doesn't the same thing apply, at least to a significant degree, to moral beliefs? Different societies and cultures develop and elaborate often quite diverse moral judgments and standards which their members profess to believe in. How do we know the right ones? Are there even "right" ones to know? How deep must we burrow to find some common thread to which we can all adhere or is there no common thread to bind different people in different cultures in a moral way at all? And then what's left but a radical moral relativism which seems to make mincemeat of any given society's moral practices?

Jean Kazez said...

I was thinking about the same issue. The cultural differences argument doesn't establish that there are no moral truths, so why does the religious differences argument establish that there are no religious truths? The religious differences argument does seem better to me, but I can't tell you why at the moment. I'd like to see what Kitcher says about this in his forthcoming book. I bet he addresses it.

Stuart W. Mirsky said...

The religious differences argument seems to say there are no ways of knowing anything about religious objects of reference (in this case deities), therefore what's all the fuss about in terms of who is right and who isn't?

The moral differences argument says something similar and yet we are reluctant to dump moral claims outright, to be moral atheists as it were. In fact, it turns out that we can't dispense with some sort of value claims concerning the acts we take and see others taking. It's just that what acts count as "good" seems to be at issue.

And here we want to say that "good" means something in a denotative sense, i.e., that it picks things out, that it's a referring term. Yet it doesn't pick the same things out in all cases or for all users. One person's "good act" will be another's abhorrent one ("bad" or "very bad"). So "good" seems to fail to refer in any bottom line way.

Yet we use it to refer all the time. And since we seem to need such a referring term in order to get on with other human beings (to live and operate in a social environment), we need a way to establish enough agreement with others as to what we are picking out when we use the term in order to use it effectively.

If it's all relative, then the term doesn't work the way we expect it to, as we seem to need it to. It seems to me that moral relativity (at least in the weak sense of there just being many different moral belief systems as a matter of fact) doesn't imply moral nihilism. And if it doesn't, should theistic relativity imply atheism? It doesn't seem to do that, at least not to me.

Aeolus said...

Particular religions will change and wither away, but religion in the sense of a desire for connection with some transcendent reality (keeping in mind that what "transcendent" implies is open to discussion) will never go away -- Kitcher will never get his wish on that score.

I agree with Gary Gutting that you can't logically get from the fact that we have no good evidence for a transcendent realm to the conclusion that it is rational to deny the existence of such a realm. Kitcher's mistake here (see his analogy of proteins and ghostly beings) is to use the facts and laws of the world we experience to try to settle the issue of whether there might exist a realm beyond the world we experience. He is simply begging the question!

Dave Ricks said...

Kitcher misunderstands Dawkins. When Dawkins challenges religion on the literal level (e.g. in The God Delusion), yes he challenges literalists, but he also challenges Kitcher's religiously "refined" believers on stories they know cannot be true. I've never seen a believer respond in the 1st person: "I am unfazed by TGD skewering literalism because I believe my doctrines are only metaphors and mythology; their truth does not matter to me."  If believers could say that, they would not have belief and faith.

For example, when Oprah Winfrey told swimmer Diana Nyad, "God is not the Bearded Guy in the Sky," Winfrey did not add, "God is Joseph Campbell style mythology like Star Wars where Luke Skywalker is fictional." Instead Winfrey talked about God as nonfiction -- nonfiction she gets to make up and correct Nyad about.

Kitcher in the Gutting interview seems to claim in the 3rd person: "Refined believers are unfazed by TGD skewering literalism because they believe their doctrines are only metaphors and mythology; the truth of their religious claims does not matter to them." If Kitcher would tell refined believers this claim explicitly, they could not agree.

On another topic (the comments here about truths), I looked up the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Personally, I see the UDHR as a matter of negotiation, not proof that moral truths exist, but my point is I can't imagine a similar Universal Declaration of Religious Claims. It's turtles all the way down.