Philip Kitcher on New Atheism and religion

Philip Kitcher on New Atheism and religion December 1, 2014

Over at Chris Stedman’s consistently fantastic RNS column, he and Philip Kitcher discuss secular humanism and the limits of new atheism:

Chris Stedman: In the introduction to Life After Faith you say that you “resist the now dominant atheist idea that religion is noxious rubbish to be buried as deeply, as thoroughly, and as quickly as possible.” Why?

Philip Kitcher: For my entire adult life, I’ve been trying to figure out what I should say about religion. It came to a head for me in the wake of the resurgence of “New Atheists” in the early part of the century. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris—there’s much that I agree with in their books and presentations, but all of them seem to be missing some important things.

I think that the “New Atheist” critique has a very narrow view of religion.  For people like Dawkins, religion is all about people having false beliefs—and they think that when people have false beliefs, it’s better to correct their beliefs. I think in general that’s right, though having a misguided belief isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. But you can’t just leave things with “Well, we’ve now shown you why your traditional beliefs are false, enjoy yourselves and get on with it!”

Dawkins would also rightly say that the forms of religion he attacks are the ones that cause the most violence and suffering in the contemporary world. But there are many people who practice less problematic—even socially valuable—forms of religion. It isn’t the end of the story to wipe out religious doctrine and say that’s the end of it. One must come to terms not only with religion’s history of problems, pain, and suffering, but also with its achievements.

My perspective aims to widen the critique of religion, be more sympathetic to religion at its best, and strive towards finding a positive position that could replace religion. Some suggest that people never give up a perspective, however bad it may be, until they’ve got something to replace it. My fundamental difficulty with the “New Atheism” is that I don’t think it has supplied anything to replace religion. Secular humanism tries to fill that gap. I wrote Life After Faith because I wanted to put the focus back on the positive: on secular humanism as a positive perspective on life.

The entire interview is great; read it here.

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