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Life After FaithReview - Life After Faith
The Case for Secular Humanism
by Philip Kitcher
Yale University Press, 2014
Review by Brad Frazier
Aug 11th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 33)

 

Philip Kitcher's Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism is composed of five lectures Kitcher gave as part of The Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy. Given his stature as a philosopher of science who has also addressed ethical and religious issues in his recent work, Kitcher is an obvious choice for this lecture series.

As he explains in the Preface, Life After Faith is an extended argument to show that "a thoroughly secular perspective can fulfill many of the important functions religion, as its best, has discharged" (xiii). His tone throughout is moderate, even mild in some respects. This is motivated by a desire to counteract the "now dominant atheist idea that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly, and as quickly as possible" (xii). In other words, this book is not a philosophically sophisticated version of Religulous, and not to be lumped together with the writings of the late Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. In this regard, Kitcher dubs his approach, "soft atheism."

The lectures that compose Life After Faith begin with an exposition of "secularist doubt." For Kitcher believes that secularism begins with doubt -- about the fanciful and often contradictory claims made by the major world religions. Then Kitcher addresses, in successive chapters, a) how secular humanism can provide an adequate alternative basis for values; b) the more refined religious perspectives that do not succumb to the numerous problems facing fundamentalist and traditionalist religious views; and c) the challenges of mortality and meaning for secularists. The book concludes with a final chapter on "Depth and Depravity." Here Kitcher responds to Charles Taylor's assertion that secular lives are "flattened," lacking the depth of a religious life that has a (conscious) connection to "the Transcendent." Kitcher also considers whether secular humanism has the resources necessary to provide a satisfactory account of the depths of human evil.

In Kitcher's recent work, The Ethical Project, he provides an evolutionary account of ethical life. With few exceptions, Life After Faith is not an extension of this project to religious life. Rather it reads much more like standard fare in contemporary philosophy of religion, but with elaboration and defense of secular humanism.

One of the main virtues of Life After Faith, if not its primary one, is the respect and patience with which Kitcher treats religion and religious believers. Apparently this is a product not only of his academic training, where giving the opposing argument its best shot is a staple of good philosophy. In addition, Kitcher has long admired the aesthetics of church music (high church music, that is, not southern gospel), and he recognizes that many people find community, their only form of community in some cases, in religious contexts. He also is very respectful of religious literature -- perhaps to the point of losing sight of its darker side at times. This is soft atheism, indeed.

Make no mistake about it, however. Kitcher minces no words when it comes to the numerous problems that attend believers' claims to religious knowledge. He argues convincingly, albeit not in any groundbreaking way, that religious experience is not in any respect a likely conduit for "correct" beliefs. The wild and contradictory diversity of metaphysical claims that proponents of the major world religions put forward are a testament to this fact.

Along these lines, Kitcher also seizes on the implications of what Richard Rorty would have called the recognition of the contingency of religious beliefs. For instance, suppose a person is raised in a culture where all the religions on offer (if there is more than one) are monotheistic. It is highly likely that if such a person becomes a religious believer of any sort, he will be a monotheist. However, as Kitcher puts it, "if by some accident of early childhood, had he been transported to some distant culture, brought up among aboriginal Australians, for example, he would now affirm a radically different set of doctrines … with the same deep conviction and as a result of the same types of processes that characterize his actual beliefs" (8). While this point may not be relevant to assessing the truth of a person's religious convictions, it surely undermines any religious epistemology that puts much stock in the subjective certainties that believers of all sorts feel about their own beliefs.

Here Kitcher takes the opportunity to tweak one of the most influential Christian philosophers of our time, Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga posits a "sensu divinitatis" as a crucial part of his epistemology of religious belief. According to Plantinga, when this sense is functioning properly in a person, she will come to believe in a god just like or not too unlike Plantinga's Calvinist deity. So much for the supposed contingency of religious beliefs. Kitcher calls this view "fruitless" and "a fig-leaf covering for dogmatism" (8).

(I must admit that I found this amusing. I guess my sensu, like Kitcher's, isn't functioning properly.)

Thus, as Kitcher observes, no matter what sort of sophisticated name we might give it, religious experience cannot serve as an independent source of justification for religious beliefs, as it itself depends on the specific (and contingent) religious traditions it is said to support. He puts the point this way: "The conclusions often taken to be grounded in religious experience are thoroughly soaked in the brew of doctrines prevalent in the surrounding society and typically passed on in early enculturation—an important fact neglected by individualistically oriented religious (usually Christian) epistemologists in their attempts to validate 'basic religious knowledge'" (13).

But this is not news to many philosophers. What about Kitcher's case for secular humanism? After all, it's life after faith he wishes to commend, not just reasons for rejecting or being skeptical of a life of faith.

Unfortunately, because Kitcher is in almost constant conversation and debate with imaginary believers with varying degrees of sophistication, he never quite unwinds his secularism in a way that breaks new ground or that is visionary. In fact, I unwillingly found myself quite nonplussed with Kitcher's discussion. It even seems campy at times. More on this below.

Let's start with the good news (no pun intended). Kitcher easily -- but still painstakingly -- dispenses with the old, stale, and insulting chestnut that we need religion in order to take ethics seriously, or to give it the proper gravity. As one would expect, as an alternative he offers a broadly evolutionary framework for ethics. In my view, his account does much more justice to the concrete, face-to-face, organic origins of values than theistic and even other secular ethical perspectives. Kitcher takes our evolutionary history seriously; he does not forget or ignore, as so many theologians and other philosophers have, that we are animals struggling to survive, not minds who happen to be attached for the moment to bodies.

Kitcher also argues compellingly that any sort of "refined religion" that seeks to leave behind the lavish metaphysical claims of its founding tradition offers no advantage whatsoever over its secular humanist counterpart. In other words, if you want the so-called unique consolations of religious belief, you must swallow the wildly implausible and "noxious" parts to get them. This view has the virtue of explaining why the vast majority of believers do not subscribe to some version of "refined religion." This is at best a resting place -- albeit a much nicer and more tolerable one -- for the weary ex-fundamentalist or traditionalist who is not ready to journey forward to an entirely secular form of existence.

In the penultimate chapter, Kitcher usefully explicates for a wider audience the reasons many philosophers have concluded that immortality would not be a good thing. He also shows why a vague afterlife, in which we shed most things that make us human, is an extremely tepid consolation for the loss - here and now -- of loved ones. He concludes that "the genuine problem of death" is premature death, and it's a problem we all face.

Since I find it absurd to think that we need religious perspectives in order to comprehend fully the depths of human existence and human depravity, Kitcher's final chapter strikes me as far too apologetic and as a wasted opportunity.

Many of the grossest evils of human history have been (and continue to be) inspired by religious beliefs. Furthermore, for every religiously inspired luminary such as Martin Luther King, Jr., there are thousands more whose beliefs motivate or rest easy with their opposition to basic human rights and dignity for all people. Why did it take so long, for instance, for marriage equality to come about in the United States? What accounts for the hostility to contraception in countries where it could save many lives and put a halt to the spread of HIV/AIDS? Secularists need not offer any sort of apology here. Kitcher could have used the opportunity for a much fuller elaboration of his own secularist view of evil, instead of accounting for the absence of a Jesus or Ghandi in the secularist canon, as he does.

Now for the bad news. I'm certain I had a very different experience growing up in a southern Pentecostal church than Kitcher's upbringing in a high church atmosphere. I'm also certain that "secular humanism" is a very pejorative term to just about every evangelical and fundamentalist I've ever known or read. So I think it's a terrible idea to saddle non-religious people with this nomenclature and to lump all of us together as if there is this belief system called "secular humanism" we all subscribe to. At certain points, I don't identify at all with the concerns and beliefs that Kitcher seems to think are part of the essence of secular humanism.

And that's just it: there is no Platonic form of religion, as Kitcher recognizes, and likewise there is no 'nature' of secular humanism to be explicated and defended, so that secularists can live with the philosophical foundations they would otherwise lack. There are religions and religious believers, and there are people who either left these wildly divergent forms of existence behind or who never embodied them in the first place. Of course, there are millions of hybrids too. When will philosophers who long ago abandoned Platonism stop this nonsense of reducing complex and diverse beliefs and forms of life to competing isms? There is no secular humanist team opposing the religionist team, where whoever has the best arguments wins the game. At least not in any place except the minds of philosophers, theologians, apologists, and preachers who talk in this violently reductive way because they must in order to continue playing this game.

Early on Kitcher states: "If secular humanism is to be lived, and to be understood as a fully rewarding way for human beings to live, the humanist perspective requires positive elaboration" (1). Really? "The" humanist perspective can't even be lived until a philosopher elaborates it for us? Apologies to all of you who think you have been living out Kitcher's form of humanism (or worse, some other mutant form), but without proper rational grounding and philosophical elaboration.

As Kitcher explicates it, "secular humanism" is essentially reactive. It begins with doubt, as a response to religious belief. This too is deeply problematic. Why must a non-religious way of life necessarily be construed this way? There are not a few secularists who will not find their own experience represented here, where Kitcher locates the very heart of secular humanism. He would do well to brush up on Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History, where he will find that not only in this century but throughout history there are many examples of non-religious people whose humanism comes (or came) quite naturally, not originally as a reaction to the religions of their time and place. No doubt: if you are a non-religious person, probably you've encountered some sort of religious way of life at some point and rejected it. But this doesn't make non-religious ways of life necessarily reactive or founded on doubt.

In the same apologetic mode, Kitcher wonders at one point what use Darwin has at a funeral (96). Apparently he's not been to many Pentecostal or evangelical funerals. In my own experience, Darwin is extremely helpful in these contexts because he reminds us that there is actually a dead body, a deceased animal in the coffin. This is vastly preferable to the incredible kind of happy talk I've often heard at funerals, which lacks reality and represents a serious failure to recognize what has actually occurred.

I'll conclude with the camp. If you read contemporary analytic philosophy very long at all, eventually you will run across what I will call here a "Sherlock" moment. This is a passage where a philosopher strains and works very hard to say something that is absolutely banal. Kitcher has some distracting Sherlock moments in this book.

For example, on the same page in which he refers to chemists as "the chemical community," he also reminds us: "Phlogiston never existed" (80). Later he notes: "the losses of the afflicted are real" (135).

In the section on values, Kitcher clarifies that some ethical questions may lack determinate answers (46). May? At another point, Kitcher notes: "A dour human existence, in which worthy goals were set, pursued with perseverance, and often achieved, without any sense of happy fulfillment or exhilaration, would be lacking an important dimension" (128). He also begins a major section in his discussion of meaning this way: "A proposal: human lives sometimes attain meaning through individuals' developing conceptions of who they are and what matters to their existences, through their pursuit of the goals endorsed by those conceptions, and by some degree of success in attaining them" (101). Don't go too far out on that limb, Professor Kitcher!

Finally, and rather ironically, in his discussion of "refined religion," Kitcher is at pains to explain how fiction, which includes many statements about fictitious characters, could somehow still be true. His example is the character of Sherlock Holmes. He states: "'Sherlock Holmes lived in Baker Street' is factually false, since 'Sherlock Holmes' picks out nothing in the world, and there is thus no pertinent candidate for possessing the property of having lived in Baker Street." Yet we are tempted to say that the sentence is true "in some sense." Kitcher's solution? "Our world once contained an author, Conan Doyle, who produced a series of books. Those books endorse particular sentences in which the name 'Sherlock Holmes' occurs." So, fictional truth, he argues, is not "correspondence to some mysterious reality." Rather it is "a matter of endorsement" (78-79). Whew.

Let me conclude with my own Sherlock moment. In this context, surely there are much more important matters to discuss. Although I greatly admire Philip Kitcher and the work he has done heretofore, this is far from his best work.

 

© 2015 Brad Frazier

 

Brad Frazier, Dept of Philosophy, Wells College


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