Soft Atheism

Thanks to Lois for sending me this one!

A few months ago there was an interview in the New York Times with another atheist publishing another book.  The difference here is that the author, a philosophy professor, terms his approach “soft atheism”, because unlike more embattled atheists like Richard Dawkins, Philip Kitcher prefers to allow religion to die a natural death, or evolve into secular humanism, rather than forcibly dismantling it immediately.  

Kitcher likes some of what religion has accomplished, particularly in fostering community and helping others.  He just doesn’t see the need for some sort of transcendent religious being.  By creating a Godless alternative, Kitcher believes that humanity will be better served and directed.  It will be more efficient because there won’t be all of that ritualistic mucking about with doctrines and practices that he sees as distracting to the important stuff.

Lois directed me to this response essay by a Jewish Rabbi, Eric H. Yoffie.  

I think he does a good job of highlighting several problems with Kitcher’s approach.  As might be expected, these problems fall in subjective areas.  Dismissing the religious experience of other people is easy because it isn’t our experience.  I don’t assume, as Rabbi Yoffie does, that Kitcher has never had a religious experience.  Based on how Kitcher explains these events though, Kitcher wouldn’t identify his experience(s) as religious.  He has other means of explaining them.  Of course there is no way to authoritatively prove that his explanations are any more accurate than the explanation of the divine.

Likewise, assuming that religions are good aside from what they try to point to in terms of the divine is problematic.  As Yoffie points out, creating out of scratch a compelling and universal set of values is no easy matter, and our attempts to do so thus far have failed.  Kitcher no doubt presumes that the universal values that weave their way through otherwise very different religious traditions are somehow self-evident, but that’s a pretty difficult and subjective argument to make as well.

Finally, proposing that since not all religions are true, none of them can be true is another subjective fallacy.  It may indeed be that all religions are wrong on some doctrine or another, and that 99.9% of the world religions are not true in their major teaching – but that doesn’t necessitate that none of them are true beyond the ethical imperatives Kitcher likes.  

Once again, the argument for atheism comes down to a new faith argument.  None of those religions are true – you just have to take my word for it.  I can’t prove it with the very standards I rely on, but that’s no matter – I have faith that I’m right and everyone else is wrong.  In that sense, I admire Kitcher’s devotion to his faith.  I just wish he was devoted to a different faith.

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