Sunday, May 18, 2014

Refined, non-literal religion

In The Case for ‘Soft Atheism’, philosopher Gary Gutting interviews fellow philosopher and atheist, Philip Kitcher. Kitcher gives a pretty good account of atheism. His response to Gutting's pressure on why he denies the transcendental is not as good as I would like; it's a better argument, I think, to dismiss transcendentalism as incoherent, rather than as simply unevidenced.

Kitcher's account, however, of "refined religion" is terrible. According to Kitcher, New Atheist critiques of religion "have been rightly criticized for treating all religions as if they were collections of doctrines, to be understood in quite literal ways." Kitcher describes a kind of religion that escapes the New Atheist critiques. I cannot improve on Kitcher's succinct description, so I will quote it at length:
Refined religion sees the fundamental religious attitude not as belief in a doctrine but as a commitment to promoting the most enduring values. That commitment is typically embedded in social movements — the faithful come together to engage in rites, to explore ideas and ideals with one another and to work cooperatively for ameliorating the conditions of human life. The doctrines they affirm and the rituals they practice are justified insofar as they support and deepen and extend the values to which they are committed. But the doctrines are interpreted nonliterally, seen as apt metaphors or parables for informing our understanding of ourselves and our world and for seeing how we might improve both. To say that God made a covenant with Abraham doesn’t mean that, long ago, some very impressive figure with a white beard negotiated a bargain with a Mesopotamian pastoralist. It is rather to commit yourself to advancing what is most deeply and ultimately valuable, as the story says Abraham did.

Here's the problem: where do these "most enduring values" come from? How do we know what they are? Are love, tolerance, peace, liberty, cooperation, and happiness are the most enduring values? Perhaps these most enduring values are submission to authority, oppression of the heretic, denial of pleasure, and glorification of others' and our own suffering? Maybe pure hedonism is the most enduring value; perhaps it is absolute individual selfishness, untainted by sentimentality and the slightest concern for others?

According to Kitcher, the refined religious"
see all religions as asserting that there is more to the cosmos than is dreamed of either in our mundane thoughts or in our most advanced scientific descriptions. Different cultures gesture toward the “transcendent” facets of reality in their many alternative myths and stories. None of the myths is factually true, although they’re all true in the sense that their “fruits for life” are good. . . .

I see refined religion as a halfway house. In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.

I think Kitcher is oversimplifying the New Atheist critique of religion. First, there are billions of people who take their doctrines literally. Because these people create enormous social problems, we tend to focus on them. We don't talk much about "refined religion" for two reasons: there are relatively few of them, and those few don't create as many social and political problems per capita. They're not a big part of the problem, and as people trying to address a serious, substantial problem, we want to focus most of our attention on, you know, the actual problem. It is not that we believe that all religious people are doctrinaire literalists. It's that there are a metric assload of religious people who are doctrinaire literalists, and they're a big problem.

But we do understand "refined religion," and we do talk about it. I've been talking about it for at least ten years. The problem with "refined religion" is first that it's not "refined" in any meaningful sense of the word. Refined means being distilled or purified to the essence, and "refined" religion is the opposite: it's doctrinaire literalism watered down with compromise and equivocation. Religious people should be doctrinaire literalists in the same sense that soldiers should be doctrinaire literalists about their orders and that policemen and judges should be doctrinaire literalists about the law. The law is not a collection of "apt metaphors or parables for informing our understand of" social behavior. The law means exactly what it literally says, no more, no less; the only reason that judges ever have to do any substantive interpretation of the law itself is that human beings (not being gods) are lousy at writing laws. "Refined religion" commits the same sin that the Supreme Court (supposedly) committed in Lochner v. New York: reading its own policy preferences into the Constitution. Either scripture is authoritative or it is not; if it is authoritative, then it means what it says; if it is not authoritative, if it is metaphor and parable, then how are you religious?

But the New Atheists' criticism of religion is not that religious people are doctrinaire literalists. Doctrinaire literalism is just the most virulent (and stupidest) manifestation of a deeper, more fundamental problem. The problem is the assertion of revealed moral authority. The problem is not that religious people devote themselves to their deepest values; the problem is that religious people — all religious people, because this is what it means to be religious — take their deepest values to be "transcendent," beyond our "mundane thoughts or . . . our most advanced scientific descriptions." It doesn't matter whether you take these transcendent values literally out of the Bible (or Torah, or Koran, or Veddas, or whatever), or whether you make them up on the spot. Indeed, those who take these values literally from scripture have a much stronger claim to authority than those who make up their own "transcendent" values. The error of the doctrinaire literalists and that of the "refined" is exactly the same: taking one's personal preferences as objective truth. There's nothing wrong with personal preferences per se; our society and culture is nothing more than the millennial negotiation and social construction of personal preferences. To an atheist, what else could it be? But when a person takes his personal preferences to be revealed truth, God's truth, whether those truths are pulled out of a book or out of his ass, he is assuming an authority he has no right to claim.

I have to compare the criticism of religion to the criticism of racism, in a particular sense. (I do not mean to say that being religious is the same as being racist.) A lot of people who criticize racism naturally focus on the really dramatic instances: the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the grossly disproportionate incarceration rates of black people, the grossly disproportionate rates of black poverty, racial profiling, not to mention three hundred years of slavery, rape, lynching, cross-burning, overt discrimination, ad nauseam. To argue that this criticism somehow is itself "rightly criticized" because it ignores all those white people who don't go around actively lynching black people is the height of obtuse stupidity; indeed it is simply apologetics for white racism. Even those "refined" racists, those who believe that of course lynching is terribly wrong, but still think that black people are inferior and need the guidance, benevolence and (sadly, sometimes firm) correction of the superior white race are still racists. They are still holding the fundamental error of the most virulent lynch-every-fourteen-year-ool-who-talks-to-a-white-woman (oops, I mean Emmett Till racist: that black people are inferior to white people. The "refined" racists cannot attack the virulent racists on the one tenet that would completely, instantly undermine their position: the supposed inferiority of black people. And as long as this one tenet remains, the virulent racists will not fade away.

Again, I don't want to say that religion is like racism. The comparison is on one point and one point only: the fundamental principles of both are wrong. The "refined" must protect the foundational tenet of the virulent, the fanatic. And, like racism, as long as the foundational tenet remains, religious fanatics will also remain.


  1. Well said. I do like some of Kitcher's take on anti-creationism (and certainly his well-argued Living with Darwin though it is a not a barn-burner like Harris or Hitchens).

    I think what Kitcher might be getting at is a sort of Buddhist sort of "religion" which in some if its incarnations, is unfettered by dogma (certainly not to the same sort of fundamentalist dogma of "holy laws"). Of course,Buddhist can answer the question of "why love, happiness, etc" are better values than others.

  2. Of course,Buddhist can answer the question of "why love, happiness, etc" are better values than others.

    Can they? Is the answer sensible without the divine? If so, it's not religious.


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