There’s a new piece for the NY Times’s philosophy blog, “The Stone,” titled, “Beyond ‘New Atheism’“. Therein Gary Gutting focuses primarily on Philip Kitcher’s essay in the recent The Joy of Secularism, which I’ve mentioned previously, as a counterpoint to the Dawkins approach to debating theism from an atheistic standpoint. Refreshingly, Gutting recognizes the value in the Dawkins approach, especially considering the context in which it arose to such insistence and prominence. I’ve been saying for years that though I don’t agree with everything Dawkins et al says, and nor do I always agree with the way he and his ilk say even that with which I do agree, nevertheless I am grateful for their approach, grateful that they are making an actual discussion arise, creating a need for further debate, etc. This is where Kitcher’s argument comes in. I have not yet read The Joy of Secularism, so I only know of Kitcher’s argument from Gutting and James Wood. Gutting, at least, sees Kitcher as picking up where Dawkins leaves off. This sounds good to me. But I want to focus for a moment on my framing of the New Atheists.
Why is my position, that I don’t always agree but appreciate their project nevertheless, so seldom reached in other contexts? For example, with regard to religious belief, Gutting rightly points out, as oh so many have before him, that “Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments.” Agreed, and philosophical arguments will not, for the most part, sway them. There is too much bound up with the belief to be able to look at it critically. As far as I can tell, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, find this very fact to be a major problem, if not the main problem, that they have with religion. Now, their responses do not always do a very good job of moving beyond, “Isn’t this a problem? Yes, it is a problem. Therefore, let’s do away with it,” even if I insist, as I do, that their arguments are not at all limited to that hand-waving. But the problem of identification with belief (belief – one of the weakest of mental facilities) is profound, and it is surely not limited to religious belief – but what other realm of belief is so adamantly and explicitly defended from so much as being challenged? Religious belief is but an example – but a pervasive and immensely significant one.
This says nothing for the truth or value of religious belief/experience. But that is precisely the point. We all hold beliefs about the way the world works, about our relation to it and to each other, and the ways we can navigate between all of this. Most of our beliefs are concrete, unconscious, and probably wrong in one sense or many others. But the more aware we become of those beliefs, the most capable we become of inquiring into the unfolding of our own minds, and of our responsibilities to ourselves and others – and further, the more capable we become of being responsible, of responding. I can argue this position another time. For now I just wanted to question the sense that because belief does not come from philosophical argument, there is nothing to argue about. We can argue that religious belief is valuable in the life of the believer, and to her community, etc, but because this belief becomes a foundation for a worldview the believer will insist upon philosophically (i.e. in terms of ontology and epistemology, etc., even if the philosophy is not very rigorous), it strikes me as dishonest and therefore dangerous to assert that nothing can be said about it, no arguments can be held. (Gutting and Kitcher do not seem to be making that argument, about which fact I am glad.)
Religious belief may be valuable, and may reveal truth (whether about the nature of reality, or about, as Kitcher would have it, social conditions, or something else), but we can respect the experience that leads to and sustains belief, and the experience of belief, while rigorously questioning an ontological position lazily asserted in the wake of that experience. You may have had a profound faith experience that sustains and gives meaning to your life, and no one should want to or try to take that away from you – but it says nothing about the nature of reality, and your ontology does not necessarily follow from it. Why can’t we have this conversation? Why aren’t we encouraging our children to learn how to have this conversation? Why can’t it be that I am challenging your assertion about reality and precisely not your faith?