A Kinder Gentler Atheism

September 15, 2011

A friend with whom I am engaged in an ongoing discussion of religion and morals has called my attention to this article by philosopher Gary Gutting, which in turn cites with approval the work of fellow philosopher Philip Kitcher. The two of them take issue with the New Atheists’ exclusive concentration on that aspect of religion which most conflicts with science, namely its tendency to make authoritative but scientifically unsubstantiated “fact claims.” Instead, they feel atheism must also address the role religion plays in people’s spiritual and emotional lives, as a way of finding purpose and meaning in life.

Up to a point, this echoes my own discomfort with the New Atheism. I do believe that religion is something more, or at least something in part other, than a set of true-or-false propositions about objective reality. It does seem to me that Dawkins and company are so worked up over the truly objectionable aspects of religion in the world today – aspects towards which I and many religious people share Dawkins’ objections – that they fail to exercise true scientific dispassion towards the totality of religion as a human phenomenon (or set of phenomena). They’re too busy denouncing it to even try to figure out  just what this thing is and how, if it’s so bad for us, it could have gotten to be that way. (I must say that Dennett and Harris, with their grounding in neuroscience, do have a broader view of the matter than Dawkins.)

At the same time, I also personally share Dawkins’ (and the scientific community at large’s) presupposition that how the world actually is, and how we feel about it, are two distinct questions, and that experience shows that we generally get better answers to the former if, while working on it, we bracket the latter as much as possible, put it on a back burner, try not to let it interfere. Not only that, but by getting the best possible answers to the “fact” questions, we often enable ourselves to shape the world around us (and maybe even ourselves) in ways that we can feel better about.  So for me atheism doesn’t have to answer the “big questions” about meaning and purpose, I’m willing to let them take care of themselves. Not everyone needs an answer to the “big questions.” This seems to be more than anything else a fundamental difference in temperment between people, which correlates to some extent but far from perfectly to the line between the religious and the non-religious.

Also, while I quite agree with Gutting’s claim that “most believers… do not come to religion through philosophical arguments,” I am not persuaded that “their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.” Many, no doubt, but not most. I think most belief simply arises from being told things by people we have seen no reason not to trust. Dogmatists of both the religious and atheist camps, with their stress on True and False Belief and their incomprehension of how any sane well-intentioned person might choose the latter, overlook the simple fact that most of what we think we know about the world, we heard from someone or read somewhere. It seems to me that the most plausible approach to the understanding of religion as a real phenomena in the world is neither through rational discussion of its fact claims, nor through the kind of philosophical and emotional abstraction that Gutting and Kitcher engage in, but through examination of the workings of human community and the sense of belonging, and also of communications, the sociology of knowledge, the logistics of information. Whatever else a religion is, (note that I say “a religion,” using the word in its countable sense,) it is a social phenomenon  and that’s how I think it is most profitably studied, though the psychological-neurological approach can help as well…

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2 Responses to “A Kinder Gentler Atheism”

  1. D. Ramsey Says:

    There are only four things humans need to survive a full life. Healthy food, Clean water, A safe place to sleep, and companionship. As it is now, we as a society have burdened ourselves with much more than is needed in everyday life. Religion has sprang up out of peoples need to feel wanted by others.

    • allogenes Says:

      That’s one part of it, to be sure; “religion” is a term that covers many things, and it’s difficult to generalize meaningfully about them. Religion as we know it, with its large organizations (“religions”) having definable membership, canonical books, recognized authorities, and approved doctrines and practices, is a particular sort of thing, a contingent historical phenomenon; it just happens to have become so widespread that at least in our culture it tends to be considered normative. How it interrelates with other things under the general umbrella-term “religion,” like what is nowadays often called “spirituality”, is a very complex issue, and I feel a post brewing on the subject…


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