The John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, Philip Kitcher is one of the world’s most eminent philosophers. He is the author of many books on science, literature, and music, including Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism; The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities; and Science, Truth, and Democracy. His research concentrates on the philosophy of science, the study of the ethical and political constraints on scientific research, the evolution of altruism and morality, and the possible conflict between science and religion. He recently discussed his new book, Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith (Oxford University Press, 2006) with D.J. Grothe, an associate editor of Free Inquiry.
Free Inquiry: You call yourself a secular humanist in this book. What do you mean by that?
Philip Kitcher: I mean that I am someone who doesn’t believe that any of the doctrines of the world’s religions are true, and yet I may have some respect for their moral teachings, knowing that none have a monopoly on the truth about moral teachings. A secular humanist is someone who is interested in the project of humanity—interested in human values and in advancing the well-being of humanity, broadly construed. I think of secular humanism not simply as a reaction against religion but as a positive set of beliefs in its own right. One of the problems with contemporary secular humanism is that it has tended to emphasize the secularism and hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the humanism.
FI: Did you write the book to sell secular humanism or atheism to the public? Your book addresses many of the same issues as the best sellers by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Do you have the same audience in mind?
Kitcher: I am not all that happy with any of their books. They have something of a biting tone and are in many ways unremittingly negative. They want to get rid of religion, to sink it, 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—it has also provided meaning, consolation, and genuine uplift for people. To snatch this away and say in the voice of a very commanding doctor, “Read a couple pages of the Origin of Species and you’ll feel better in the morning” is simply not enough. There has to be something more positive about the contribution of secular humanism than what we are seeing at the moment.
FI: You remind us that John Dewey taught a way to replace religion without getting rid of its usefulness and benefits. With that in mind, your book seems to answer the “What now?” question people have after they have read Dawkins, Hitchens, or Harris and have been persuaded that religion and faith is problematic.
Kitcher: I don’t think I completely answer the question, but I emphasize how important the question is and why the message one gets from these other authors is shrill and unsatisfying. Take Dawkins—a brilliant man, someone who has participated in the great scientific adventure. You can understand why he would be excited by science. He can’t understand why other people aren’t equally excited by it. Well, if you are Richard Dawkins and you really are making a contribution to our scientific understanding of the world, that gives your life a point.
FI: And religion works for most people, giving their lives meaning, in the way that science works for Richard Dawkins.
Kitcher: Right. While there are some people who get it like Dawkins does and who can say, “It’s wonderful to be part of an age that is throwing off superstition,” for most people, it is not that easy, especially in the United States. I don’t think it is surprising that, in this terribly atomized society, the loss of religion is felt so severely.
FI: So, if religion is something people take like medicine to cope with life, does it follow that religion’s replacement needs to be as potent as the medicine of religion?
Kitcher: Yes, it needs to treat the same symptoms and conditions of life. People have to be given a sense that their lives matter. The countries that have achieved secularization most easily are the ones in which a widespread spirit of community has been fostered. There is a social network, a safety net, to support people better than they are in the United States. Religion thrives in places where people feel most at risk. Where people feel secure and feel that those around them care about them, we can meet their genuine human needs without lapsing into discredited myths. This is putting the “human” back in “secular humanism,” which is part of a humane social program that holds the well-being of humanity as central.
This is a small part of the conversation. To hear the rest of D.J. Grothe’s talk with Philip Kitcher, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.