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Phil Kitcher and the Critical Examination of New Atheism

As I’ve argued, one of the reasons I find the New Atheist PR campaign so troubling is that it is has radicalized a movement that feeds on anger and fear and that offers little more than complaints and attacks. New Atheism turns on a binary discourse of us vs. them. In the rhetoric of the New Atheist movement, you’re either with us or your against us.

The New Atheists risk alienating moderately religious Americans who otherwise agree with secularists on many important issues. Moreover, the movement lacks any kind of positive message for what it means to live life without religion. Other than selling books and further polarizing the public, where is at all going? To what end?

As an atheist and as someone who cares about the public image of science, I am certainly not alone in my reservations about the The New Atheism movement.

In fact, last week, on CFI’s Point of Inquirypodcast, host DJ Grothe interviewed the philosopher Philip Kitcher on his new book “Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith.” Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University and is past author of “Science, Truth, and Democracy” and “Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism.” I encourage you to listen to the full podcast, but here are a few excerpts of what Kitcher had to say:

DJ Grothe: Did you write the book to sell secular humanism, or maybe in a more limited way atheism to the public? All these anti-God books are the real rage right now, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens…your book is addressing some of the same topics, are you addressing the same audience…

Kitcher: Well I’m actually not happy with any of the books you mentioned, I haven’t read all of them. The ones I have read and the parts I have read of others, suggests to me that there is a biting tone about them, which is of course being picked up in the press. They are in many ways unremittingly negative books, they want to get rid of this stuff, they want to sink it, they want to throw it away.

DJ Grothe: Without providing much of an alternative, they are attacking…

Kitcher: Right, and without seeing that while religion has in so many places and at so many times given rise to extremes of human unhappiness and suffering and continues to do so today. On the other hand, it has also provided a lot of consolation, a lot of meaning, a lot of genuine uplift for people. I think to simply snatch this away, and in effect say, in the voice of a very commanding doctor, “Oh read a couple pages of the origin, and you will feel better in the morning,” Um, that’s simply not enough. I think there has to be something more about the contribution of secular humanism than we see at the moment.

Later in the interview, Kitcher describes the central question of his book as “How do we make sense of human values and how do we move forward in a post-religious age?”

In part, he says his book addresses “why the kinds of things that you get from Dawkins and Dennett and so on, really strike people as shrill, unfeeling, and unsatisfying.” According to Kitcher, even if the critiques of religion are true, there is no reason for atheists to gloat, instead they should be actively exploring alternatives and replacements to religion. He says he is skeptical that you can tell people that religion is a myth and believe that the public will respond. Instead, Kitcher views the persistence of religion as a product of threat and unease in life and society. Without offering a positive vision and alternative to religion, supernatural beliefs will always exist.


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