Same Old Same Old

A new book by Philip Kitcher has been reviewed by James Kreuger for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. The book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, is published by Oxford University Press. The book, which I have not read, appears to be a little different from recent books by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett to the extent that it does not say that religion is for morons, but it is rather like them, and like a recent book by philosopher Owen Flanagan, in arguing that if religion has any value at all it is in the myths that it passes on to us for our comfort. Here is an extract from the review.
Kitcher argues that the reason so many find evolutionary theory so disturbing is that it truly is incompatible with a certain kind of religion, what he calls providentialist religion, which involves "belief that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity" (122-123). Evolution presents two problems for such religious views. First, it makes suffering an essential part of the world. It forces us to suppose that "a providential Creator . . . has constructed a shaggy-dog story, a history of life that consists of a three-billion-year curtain raiser to the main event, in which millions of sentient beings suffer, often acutely, and that the suffering is not a by-product but constitutive of the script the Creator has chosen to write" (124). Second, all providentialist religions accept certain truths about the supernatural (for example, asserting the existence of some god). Such claims, the argument goes, are simply not subject to rational evaluation and as such there can be no reason to prefer one supernaturalist story to another. Thus the basis for accepting any particular religion disappears. Kitcher contends that these kinds of arguments are at the heart of the enlightenment critique of religion, a broader set of arguments that the debate over evolution must be situated within, and that this critique is devastating for providentialist religions.

Nonetheless, Kitcher tries to look beyond a simple rejection of religion to see what it is that religion provides for believers. He writes, "the benefits religion promises to the faithful are obvious, and obviously important, perhaps most plainly when people experience deep distress" (155). Drawing on the writings of Elaine Pagels, he argues that it is this desire for comfort, particularly in the face of death, that is so important to the faithful. The fear of losing this, of being cast free in an uncaring universe, is what leads to such strong commitment to providentialist beliefs and thus what drives the debate over evolution. This is the source of commitment to the anti-evolution cause.

Thus the way forward, Kitcher suggests, is to meet this need without having to accept dubious providentialist claims. He argues a "spiritualist" religion, a religion that gives up "the literal truth of the stories contested by the enlightenment case" (152), can do this. So, for example, a spiritualist Christianity would keep "the teachings, the precepts, the parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion" (152), but these stories would be transformed from stories about the literal Son of God to "a symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and love without limits" (152). Such spiritualist Christianity, he claims, could still provide the basis for a community of believers that provides genuine comfort without coming into conflict with modern science or enlightenment rationality.

The problems with such a position, however, are not hard to recognize. From the point of view of the religious believer, such a spiritualist religion looks much too thin to count as genuine religious belief. Could one really be called a Christian if he or she didn't believe that God exists, that Jesus is the Son of God, and so on? Can being a Christian simply mean reading the Bible to find parables one finds useful in illustrating certain general ethical precepts? On the other hand, the secularist is going to immediately ask why it should be that one should focus on one set of stories over another. The same enlightenment critique that was pressed against the providentialist can be pressed again. Some reason for accepting one set of stories must be provided. But, if such a justification can be offered (offered, as it must, in a way that relies on no supernaturalist claims), then why isn't the position really just a secular humanism dressed up in some fancy stories? Why go through the charade of faith at all?
Kitcher is a better writer than Dawkins and Dennett, and a better philosopher than Flanagan, so I am looking forward to reading this book in spite of the rather bizarre claims it makes about the compatibility of science and religion. It's beginning to look as though Dawkins has made good his boast of a few years ago that the self-styled "Brights" of the world will come together in their attempts to bring religion down, because we're starting to hear the same old song being covered by a rather wide variety of bands. One thing seems clear to me, however. Flanagan and Kitcher are wimps. There's absolutely no point in tolerating religion at all if it is false, and on that point I actually agree with Dawkins and Dennett. It's either real religion or no religion, as far as I'm concerned, and I can't really take seriously even for a moment suggestions such as Flanagan's, that an intelligent person can go around calling himself a "Catholic" while rejecting the ontology and theology of the Catholic religion. That sort of thing might satisfy a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, but it will never do for an adult.

So what is needed is a broader discussion of the grounds for asserting that religion simply cannot be taken seriously by an intelligent person. So far the argument, such as it is, always boils down to nothing more than "we materialist empiricists can't make sense of religious claims, therefore they don't make sense". A ballsy claim, to be sure, but useless as far as this discussion is concerned. A better contribution would focus on the merits of empiricism and materialism as such, and would attempt to answer the objections raised by rationalists and anti-realists. But that is a rather herculean task, as I suspect these one-hit-wonder bands already know, else they would have written new and different songs.


John Farrell said…
I read the book a few months back when it came out, and I agree with you completely. His biggest weakness, in the last chapter, is his credulous reliance on the Jesus Seminar blokes, otherwise he might have written a stronger closing chapter.

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