Thursday, September 15, 2011

Finding meaning in secular humanism

by Salman Hameed

Today's New York Times has a nice piece that looks at the science-religion debate in a nuanced way. The article talks about the rise of public religious conservatism in the US, and the subsequent backlash in the form of New Atheism. However, the article devotes much of the space to the sophisticated ideas of philosopher Philip Kitcher. He was our Science & Religion speaker in spring of 2010 and you should check out the video of his fantastic lecture here: Religion after Darwin?

The NYT article starts with the Dawkins' claims about scientific inconsistencies (or inadequacies) in religion, but points out the multiple ways people get to religion:
Led by the biologist Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion,” atheism has taken on a new life in popular religious debate. Dawkins’s brand of atheism is scientific in that it views the “God hypothesis” as obviously inadequate to the known facts. In particular, he employs the facts of evolution to challenge the need to postulate God as the designer of the universe. For atheists like Dawkins, belief in God is an intellectual mistake, and honest thinkers need simply to recognize this and move on from the silliness and abuses associated with religion.
Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments. Rather, their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.
This may seem obvious but people often forget the multiple pathways to religion and religious beliefs. The role of evidence, in fact, can be minimal for some people coming into or out of religion. Similarly, for others, an intellectual pursuit based on scientific evidence may be the defining element of their religious or irreligious worldviews. Kitcher recognizes this, and puts his emphasis on dealing with issues of meaning and values in a non-religious context:
Even more important, Kitcher takes seriously the question of whether atheism can replace the sense of meaning and purpose that believers find in religion. Pushed to the intellectual limit, many will prefer a religion of hope if faith is not possible. For them, Tennyson’s “‘the stars,’ she whispers, ‘blindly run’” is a prospect too bleak to sustain our existence. Kitcher agrees that mere liberation from theism is not enough. Atheists, he maintains, need to undertake the positive project of showing how their worldview can take over what he calls the ethical “functions” of theism.
There are those — Dawkins, for one example; existentialists like Sartre, for another — who are invigorated at the very thought that there is no guiding power in the universe. Many others, however, need convincing that atheism (or secular humanism, as Kitcher prefers) has the resources to inspire a fulfilling human life. If not, isn’t the best choice to retreat to a religion of hope? Why not place our bet on the only chance we have of real fulfillment?
Kitcher has a two-part answer. First, he offers a refined extension of Plato’s famous dilemma argument in “Euthyphro” to show that contrary to widespread opinion, theism is not in fact capable of grounding the ethical values that make life worthwhile. Second, to show that secularism is capable of grounding these values, he offers a sophisticated account of how ethics could have evolved as a “social technology” — a set of optimally designed practices and norms — to satisfy basic human desires.
Kitcher’s case is open to serious objections, but it has the conceptual and logical weight that is lacking in the polemics of the scientific atheists. It also lets Kitcher enter into genuine dialogue with believers like the philosopher Charles Taylor, whose defense of religion in “A Secular Age” offers an essential counterpoint to almost everything Kitcher says.
Wait a minute. A civilized and thoughtful exchange of ideas on matters such as this? Intriguing.

Read the full article here. Also see this New Yorker article, Is That All There Is, that also covers the same territory with Kitcher.


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