The Case for Soft Core Atheism

I would like to summarize and comment on the May 15, 2014  New York Times interview of philosopher Philip Kitcher by the philosopher Gary Gutting on the topic of “The Case for Soft Atheism”

It is closely connected with the issues in my previous post, “Modern Cosmology Versus Creation by Gods.”

Here is an abridged version of the conversation.

G – You “take religious doctrines to have become incredible.” Why do you say that?

K – “The most basic reason for doubt about any of these ideas is that … nobody is prepared to accept all of them.” They are often contradictory and can’t all be true. Moreover if you had been brought up in a different culture you would probably have different beliefs, so how can you say that your views are the correct ones?

G – Perhaps it’s not doctrines but religious experiences that are important, and many of these experiences are similar across cultures.

K – Experiences, even if they are similar, are not independent of doctrines. Moreover so-called religious experiences are easily confused with all sorts of psychological experiences that have psychological or biological causes.

G – So you reject all religious doctrines but “resist the claim that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.” Why ?

K – I advocate a soft atheism which recognizes that religious doctrines are not literally true but that some religious practices and concern for social justice are worthwhile.

G – So you think that atheists like Dawkins only refute unsophisticated religious claims?

K – Yes. Religions based on promoting humanistic values reject a literal interpretation of many of their doctrines are immune from much atheistic criticism. And by not considering the stories and metaphors of other religions literally either, you don’t have to choose between them, since they all may have some values in common.

G – So you will tolerate this refined religion?

K – Yes but eventually I would like to religion morphing into, and being replaced by,  a kind of secular humanism. I don’t ignore religion, but I do want it to gradually disappear.

G – You don’t believe religious accounts of a deity but you don’t exactly say they are definitely false either. Why don’t you just say you’re an agnostic rather than an atheist?

K – Conflicting religious doctrines show that we can’t describe this supposed reality so we should “reject substantive religious doctrines, one and all, even the minimal ones …” I think theism is false, hence I call myself an “a-theist.”

G – But just because we can’t describe deities it doesn’t follow that they don’t exist. We can’t completely describe what a banana tastes like or what being in love is like but we don’t conclude that they don’t exist.

K – I think we know a lot about bananas and love. I reject theism rather because”I start from the idea that all sorts of human inquiries, including but not limited to the natural sciences, have given us a picture of the world, and that these inquiries don’t provide evidence for any transcendent aspect of the universe.” Of course our picture of reality is incomplete, but when people make fantastic claims about the existence and actions of ghostly beings without evidence, it isn’t dogmatic to reject such assertions.

G- What of religious experience?

K – There are adequate scientific explanations them thus “referring such experiences to some special aspect of reality is gratuitous speculation.” These experiences testify to the religious ideas in a culture, not to any transcendent reality.

G -But there are respectable arguments for the existence of gods.

K – The arguments are all deeply problematic and at most are supplements to faith.

G – “I agree that no theistic arguments are compelling, but I don’t agree that they all are logically invalid or have obviously false premises.”

K – I believe that religion at its best should not defend dubious metaphysical doctrines but focuses on human problems. Let us then be inspired by the humanism in religion. “The atheism I favor is one in which literal talk about “God” or other supposed manifestations of the “transcendent” comes to be seen as a distraction from the important human problems — a form of language that quietly disappears.”

Commentary – Kitcher’s position is reminiscent of Dewey’s view that religion must disappear but the religious attitude is worthwhile, an idea I first encountered more than 40 years ago. I’ll let Dewey speak for himself while silently nodding my agreement.

If I have said anything about religions and religion that seems harsh, I have said those things because of a firm belief that the claim on the part of religions to possess a monopoly of ideals and of the supernatural means by which alone, it is alleged, they can be furthered, stands in the way of the realization of distinctively religious values inherent in natural experience. For that reason, if for no other, I should be sorry if any were misled by the frequency with which I have employed the adjective “religious” to conceive of what I have said as a disguised apology for what have passed as religions. The opposition between religious values as I conceive them and religions is not to be abridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.

As I have stated many times in this blog the replacement of religious superstition by scientific rationalism will benefit us and our descendants. In the end such considerations lead to the promulgation of secular humanism and eventually to transhumanism. Looking around the world today, a better future can’t get here fast enough.

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John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com

10 Comments

  1. This sounds to me that Philip Kitcher has realised that the the “new atheists” would better be described as anti-theists and doesn’t like it.

  2. “So you think that atheists like Dawkins only refute unsophisticated religious claims?”

    When someone offers an opinion (a belief) about any subject, two questions spring to mind:

    1) Is the belief true?
    2) Is the belief good? (Valuable, beneficial, constructive, etc.)

    No religious claim passes the first test, because religion doesn’t have a reliable way to determine what’s true. By trusting faith instead of demanding evidence, religion allows all sorts of false beliefs to prevail.

    What Dawkins, et al, focused on were religious claims that were both false and deleterious. E.g., claims that the Earth was created in six literal days and thus evolution and modern cosmology are wrong, or that killing apostates is beneficial for a society.

    They didn’t bother discussing beliefs like “The Communion host transsubstantiates in the receiver’s body into the literal blood and Flesh of Christ”, or “We should be charitable toward the poor because God wants us to.” Both these claims are (to an atheist) obviously false, but since they’re harmless or even beneficial, we don’t bother criticizing them (though we may use the former as an example of provably false religious beliefs.)

  3. “Religions based on promoting humanistic values reject a literal interpretation of many of their doctrines are immune from much atheistic criticism.” – That is the rub. Does Catholicism, Islam, and Evangelical Christitianity promote humanistic values? I certainly find myself lucky for not having been born a woman in almost any part of the Islamic world.

    I generally agree with Kitcher and would love to know what Gutting is talking about when he states: “But there are respectable arguments for the existence of gods.”

  4. Science presumes an ordered universe but order *itself* is not the subject of scientific explanation. Science bases its predictions on the fact of order, but the question ‘why is it ordered’, is a question of a completely different kind. There may or may not be an intelligence ‘behind’ that order, but whether there is or is not, is not a scientific question.

    Furthemore, scientific rationalism doesn’t provide a natural basis for ethics, other than utilitarian appeals to the ‘greatest good for greatest number’. But if there is no intrinsic meaning in the Universe, then there is no intrinsic good, either – simply things which are more or less beneficial from the perspective of medicine, science and technology. There are no values in any sense beyond the inter-personal and the social. You are not really part of the Cosmos, but only a spectator in it.

    • “Why is it ordered” is a meaningless question without a rational way to investigate it.

      Evolution does explain why we even have ethics – as an evolved social animal we need to weigh individual rights against societal order. It is the very reason that the “ethics” or morals of a black widow spider (she didn’t eat her husband – how scandalous) are very different than mammals (who tend to have a more similar moral system than those farther away on the tree of life).

      You are not really part of the cosmos, but only a spectator…I’m not sure what you are getting at – but all of the atoms in your body were formed from the big bang and the death of pre-existing stars. I think that qualifies us as part of the cosmos.

    • “Science presumes an ordered universe but order *itself* is not the subject of scientific explanation.”

      Taking your words literally, you’re mistaken. Scientists constantly try to explain why things are ordered. Trying to understand the order of the Solar system led Newton to the law of universal gravitation. Understanding the order of crystals created the field of crystallography. Understanding the order of the atom led to quantum physics.

      They’ve done so well at this that today, we can do a good job explaining all the order we see throughout the universe as the product of basic laws of physics without any intelligent design.

      “Furthemore, scientific rationalism doesn’t provide a natural basis for ethics”

      Neither does religion. Religion only has an *artificial* basis; all the man-made assumptions about the nature of God. Thus, religions differ widely in their ethics.

      Is it ethical to eat pork? To have gay sex? To divorce and re-marry? To be a polygamist? To kill in self-defense? To abort a fetus conceived through rape? To refuse medical care for your child in favor of faith healing? Religions disagree on the answers, so whatever the source of their ethics may be, it clearly isn’t universal. It sounds like they’re just making stuff up.

      “But if there is no intrinsic meaning in the Universe, then there is no intrinsic good, either”

      It’s obvious you don’t like that answer, but how do you know it’s not true? What evidence do you have that there IS intrinsic meaning and intrinsic good?

  5. I still don’t understand the phrase “soft atheism”. It sounds like “agnostic atheism”, which is what the vast majority of atheists subscribe to. It’s not claiming that there are no gods, but rather that there’s not sufficient evidence to state that any particular gods that humans believe in do exist. The Christians don’t have any better evidence than the Hindus, and so on. Therefore we should stick to what matters: humans. Thus the humanism that most atheists also embrace.

    • He’s still saying religion is false, but the philosophies many promote about goodwill, charity, ect are valid. Thus while disagreeing with theist beliefs still recognizes the value of the philosophies.

      Though I say its more to distinguish between atheism and anti-theism.

      • Would a “soft atheist” be allowed to highlight the bad components of religion publicly? It seems to me that charity is great, but not at the expense of saying human suffering is okay because you will be rewarded in heaven. A good example would be the huge amount of suffering caused by anti-condom campaigns in 3rd world countries, the fact that the lifestyle of Catholic Bishops are supported by the work of average people that actually perform real services to society, the mostly religious pushback on LGBT rights, or the promotion of superstitious thinking? Seems unfair to only focus on one aspect of a religion – otherwise we would have to equate Quakers with Muslims.

      • Yeah but most people can’t look at their own religious beliefs as philosophies. We’d all be able to get along much better if people didn’t take their religions so seriously, but because they really believe there’s a divinity behind them, watching over them, they’ll stick to those beliefs sometimes even when they’re demonstrably harmful. I’m not sure what the solution is, other than time (which seems to lessen the seriousness).

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