Philip Kitcher: Soft Atheism?

Fascinating interview with Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, about how he rejects religious doctrines but feels nevertheless that religious practice has certain features that are best not abandoned. Some quotes: [emphases mine]

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?


But these atheists [Dennett and Dawkins] have been rightly criticized for treating all religions as if they were collections of doctrines, to be understood in quite literal ways, and for not attending to episodes in which the world’s religions have sometimes sustained the unfortunate and campaigned for the downtrodden. The “soft atheism” I defend considers religion more extensively, sympathizes with the idea that secularists can learn from religious practices and recommends sometimes making common cause with religious movements for social justice.


I think there’s a version of religion, “refined religion,” that is untouched by the new atheists’ criticisms, and that even survives my argument that religious doctrines are incredible. Refined religion sees the fundamental religious attitude not as belief in a doctrine but as a commitment to promoting the most enduring values. That commitment is typically embedded in social movements — the faithful come together to engage in rites, to explore ideas and ideals with one another and to work cooperatively for ameliorating the conditions of human life. The doctrines they affirm and the rituals they practice are justified insofar as they support and deepen and extend the values to which they are committed. But the doctrines are interpreted nonliterally, seen as apt metaphors or parables for informing our understanding of ourselves and our world and for seeing how we might improve both. To say that God made a covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean that, long ago, some very impressive figure with a white beard negotiated a bargain with a Mesopotamian pastoralist. It is rather to commit yourself to advancing what is most deeply and ultimately valuable, as the story says Abraham did.

The trouble with this generous view of the faithful, as people like Jerry Coyne keep pointing out, is that a huge portion of the US population (for example), when polled, do insist on the literal interpretation of the Bible [despite its many internal contradictions]. The refined ‘nonliteral’ interpretations of holy books seem to be confined to university professors and what Coyne calls, sardonically, Sophisticated TheologistsTM…not the general population.

There are more passages in this interview I’m tempted to quote, but perhaps in another post.

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