Monday, August 27, 2007


Secular Faith


For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.

.......- Hamlet, Act III, Scene I
In my prior posts (part 1 and part 2) about Philip Kitcher's book, Living with Darwin, I discussed Kitcher's claim that the real root of the resistance to evolutionary theory is the aversion of theists to the Enlightenment case against a supernaturalist, providentialist God, of which Darwin's science is only a part. Next was Kitcher's explanation for the depth and vehemence of the resistance to Darwin (representing the public face of the Enlightenment) as arising out of the centralness of the religious community to most people's ability to cope with the vicissitudes of life. On the other hand, many, if not most, of the atheists who boast of their ability to face the fact of an indifferent, uncaring universe without flinching, actually cope with such angst through a very different but no less nurturing community.

Now we come to Kitcher's solution to the problem of retaining the emotionally vital community of support that religions now provide without throwing out reason and knowledge. Kitcher starts by citing to John Dewey, who argued for a new attitude toward religion and the religious:

We need, he suggested, outlets for the emotions that underlie religion, and this requires the emancipation of the religious life from the encumbrance of the dogmas of the churches, of their commitment to the literal truth of their favored stories. The task is to cultivate those attitudes that 'lend deep and enduring support to the processes of living." (p. 161)

To that end, Kitcher describes what he calls "spiritual religion":

Each of the major Western monotheisms can generate a version of spiritual religion by giving up the literal truth of the stories contested by the enlightenment case. How can this be done? I shall illustrate the possibility by using the example of Christianity. Spiritual Christians abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion. That moment of suffering and sacrifice is seen, not as the prelude to some triumphant return and the promise of eternal salvation-all that, to repeat, is literally false -- but as a symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and of love without limits. We are to recognize our own predicament, the human predicament, through the lens of the man on the cross.
Spiritual Christians place the value of the stories of the scriptures not in their literal truth but in their deliverances for self-understanding, for improving ourselves and for shaping our attitudes and actions toward others. (p. 152-53)
Kitcher holds that "the challenge is to find a way to respond to the human purposes religion serves without embracing the falsehoods, the potentially damaging falsehoods, of traditional religions." Specifically, he states that "[w]e need to make secular humanism responsive to our deepest impulses and needs, or to find, if you like, a cosmopolitan version of spiritual religion that will not collapse back into parochial supernaturalism." (p. 162)

To his credit, Kitcher sees the heavy-duty potholes littering his proposed road to Shangri-La:

To those who have grown up in a more substantial faith, who have not appreciated the force of the enlightenment case and who see no need to abandon supernatural religion, the spiritual version seems too attenuated to count as genuine religion at all. So, even though many contemporary Americans agree that large portions of scriptural texts should not be read literally most of them do not completely abandon supernaturalism in favor of spiritual religion. (p. 153)

On the other hand:

[S]ecular humanists will see spiritual religion as a last desperate attempt to claim a privilege for traditions whose credentials have been decisively refuted. (p. 153)

Even more daunting is Kitcher's observation that societies that have the best protection against poverty and good health care are the most secular:

American life is often a highly competitive scramble for material goods, one in which many people do not fare well. The social evolution of cities, small towns, and suburbs has led to increasing atomization, with ever fewer opportunities for shared civic life. Unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, Americans are often unprotected against foreseeable misfortunes. (p. 163)

It is one of the ironies of American life and politics that the very people most in need of freeing from supernaturalism are the same ones who would be most horrified by the "socialism" Kitcher sees as the reassurance they need to abandon their antirationalism.
In any case, I think Kitcher is misreading the causes of America's odd-man-out status among western democracies. It is not the economic safety net in Europe, which, itself, is not all that old, that is the difference, but a plethora of contingent historic forces, beginning in America's founding as a religious sanctuary and running through its very size, allowing for an insularity almost impossible in the narrow confines of Europe. While a society where economic security was more highly valued than greed and conspicuous consumption is a consummation devoutly to be wished, its prospect as a major force towards secularism is doubtful at best.
There is more than a little wistfulness in Kitcher's conclusion:

There is truth in Marx's dictum that religion, more precisely supernaturalist and providentialist religion, is the opium of the people, but the consumption should be seen as medical rather than recreational. The most ardent apostles of science and reason recommend immediate withdrawal of the drug but they do not acknowledge the pain that would be left unpalliated, pain too intense for their stark atheism to be a viable solution. Genuine medicine is needed, and the proper treatment consists of showing how lives can matter. (p. 163)

But against these crushing forces, he can only offer a wan hope:

In addressing these issues we may discover that the deliverances of reason can be honored without ignoring the most important human needs-and, going beyond supernaturalism, that we can live with Darwin, after all.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education