Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Philip Kitcher: Militant Modern Atheism

Kitcher, Philip. "Militant Modern Atheism," Journal of Applied Philosophy,Vol. 28, No. 1, 2011.

While defending the "new atheists" on the matter of their objection to superstition, Kitcher is dissatisfied with the belief model of religion, suggesting an orientation model instead and offering a working taxonomy of religious orientations. Here is a key passage:
First, militant modern atheism is entirely correct in its assault on those types of religious life that fit the belief model. On the other hand, all three of the non-secular approaches that accord with the orientation model are defensible. In the case of the mythically self-conscious that is hardly surprising, and the militant modern atheists applaud when tho e who continue to think of themselves as religious firmly reject ‘supernatural’ entities — the militants think, however, that what remains hardly deserves the name of religion. More problematic, at first sight, are the cases of the doctrinally-entangled and the doctrinally-indefinite. I’ll suggest that doctrinal indefiniteness can be a reasonable expression of epistemic modesty, and that even doctrinal entanglement can be justified when it is the only way of preserving, in the sociocultural environment available, a reflectively stable orientation. Militant modern atheism tends to overlook this point because it is in the firm grip of the belief model, and thus assumes — wrongly — that correction of belief about the occupants of the cosmos can automatically be articulated into a satisfying vision of what is valuable in one’s life. Perhaps that is true for the privileged few, but it is not so for the less fortunate many.
I find Kitcher's justification of an orientation model unconvincing and incoherent, though indeed the belief model (which one sees in its most ridiculous incarnation in Sam Harris) is shallow and asociological. Kitcher however does go on to emphasize the inadequacy of religious experiences, however valuable they may be as pure experience, as justifications for beliefs and doctrines.

Kitcher also addresses the inadequacy of Dawkins' & Dennett's speculative evolutionary psychology, which is based on the belief model, or in the case of Dennett an incipient orientation model. Kitcher frames the inadequacy in terms of needs which may be unmet by Dawkins' perspective, given the fact that few can participate in the creative scientific life therein indicated. You can read Kitcher's conclusions for yourself. I find his treatment inadequate, and paradoxically, predicated on the same academic isolation as that of the militant atheists he criticizes: his tolerance is the tolerance of the privileged, and just as apolitical.

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