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The Danger of Soft Atheism

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Is religious experience really just a form of psychosis?

A very instructive exchange between Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, and Philip Kitcher, a philosophy professor at Columbia, just appeared in the pages of The New York Times.

Kitcher describes himself as a proponent of “soft atheism,” which is to say an atheism distinct from the polemical variety espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Unlike his harsher colleagues, Kitcher is willing to admit that religion can play an ethically useful role in a predominantly secular society.  I won’t delve into this feature of Kitcher’s thought, for I have explored the Kantian reduction of religion to ethics elsewhere, but I would like to draw attention to one particular move made in this interview, since it shows, with remarkable clarity, one of the fundamental misunderstandings of religion common among atheists.

Prompted by Gutting, Kitcher admits that he finds all religious doctrine incredible.  Pressed for an explanation of this rather extreme position, he points to the fact of the extraordinary plurality of religious doctrines:  Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, animists, etc. hold to radically different accounts of reality, the divine, human purpose, etc.  And since all religions rely fundamentally on the same ground—some revelation offered to distant ancestors—there is no rational way to adjudicate these differences.  Indeed, the only real reason that I am a Christian, he would maintain, is that I was born to Christian parents who passed the founding stories onto me.  If you, as a Jew or Muslim or Hindu, have different foundational stories, there is no reasonable way I can convince you or you can convince me.  It’s just your cockamamie myth against my cockamamie myth.  This is, of course, a variation on the standard Enlightenment view that positive religion is untethered to reason and hence inevitably violent, force being the only way that one religion can supersede another.

The fundamental problem here is that Kitcher completely overlooks the decisively important role that a religious tradition plays in the development and ratification of doctrine.  It is true that religion is usually grounded in some foundational events, but those experiences are not simply passed on dumbly like a football from generation to generation.  On the contrary, they are sifted and tested through a complex process of reception and assimilation.  They are compared and contrasted to other similar experiences; they are analyzed rationally; they are set in dialogue with what we know of the world on other grounds; they are subjected to philosophical investigation; their layers of meaning are uncovered through conversations that have unfolded across hundreds, even thousands of years; their behavioral and ethical implications are teased out and assessed.

Let us take just one example from the Bible in order to illustrate how this process happens.  The book of Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob one night had a dream of angels ascending and descending on a great ladder that was rooted in the earth and stretched into the heavens.  Upon awakening, he declared the site where he had slept holy and consecrated it with an altar.  As the tradition has received this story and drawn out its implications, it has come to see a manifold of profound metaphysical and spiritual truths:  that finite being and Infinite being are intimately connected to one another; that every place is potentially a place of encounter with the power that sustains the cosmos; that there is a hierarchy of created reality stretching upward to God from the earth and downward from God to the earth; that the worship of God is enlivening to human beings; etc.

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