A Philosopher’s Journey from Faith

Wayne L. Trotta

Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, by Philip Kitcher (New Haven: Yale University, 2014, ISBN 978-0-300-20343-I). 175 pp. Hardcover, $25.00. Also available on Kindle.

From the title of Philip Kitcher’s latest book, Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, you might be led to believe that an autobiography is on offer. You would be at least partially right.

The book begins with the story of Kitcher’s twenty-one years as a singer in his Anglican church’s choir. Having started as a five-year-old soprano, his gradually deepening voice would allow him, by age twenty-six, to have represented all four voices of Handel’s Messiah and Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem. The experience gave him a love for the music such that he continued to sing for years after he had ceased, in his early teens, to believe the words. One imagines that he must often have wondered what Brahms or Handel might have written had they not been thoroughly immersed in a religious culture.

This brings us to the subtitle and central purpose of the book. Kitcher wishes to make a case for the secular humanist world­view, but he also knows from firsthand experience the depth, richness, meaning, purpose, hope, comfort, moral confidence, and sense of belonging that religion can provide its adherents. Can secular humanism even begin to compare?

Secular humanism begins with doubt. If a case can be made to legitimize secular humanist doubt, then, whatever the promises of religion, they must be based on a fraud. Kitcher points to the processes by which specific religious doctrines about the transcendent are generated and finds them profoundly unreliable. Arguments about the transcendent, as he puts it, “are presented, rebutted, refined, and questioned again, in a process that makes no progress, in which no question is ever settled, in which opinion never converges and disagreement never abates. No basis can be found for supposing that this process is well suited to lead to transcendent truth.” The process only continues, he adds, because those who pursue it already believe the doctrines of their favored tradition.

Kitcher further notes that doctrine has been time and again remolded in response to political pressure or to suit the wishes of potential converts. This is hardly a reliable means of getting at the truth. Nor does personal religious experience, the sensus divinitatis, fare any better. What standard of evidence is being employed when the vague psychological states of religious subjects are offered as evidence for an “equally vaguely described transcendent?” The faithful can fall back on faith as a way of knowing, of course, but, since faith can legitimize anything, it must be said, in the end, to legitimize nothing.

Believers may counter that secular humanism lacks an external, objective standard, one that is independent of human desires and decisions, on which to base morality. If everything is relative, they ask, what is there to compel anyone to be good? How can we judge as good or bad the behavior of individuals or of different cultures? How can we speak of moral progress when no standard exists for us to be progressing toward?

Kitcher’s response is that, if we cannot speak of progress to, we nevertheless have every right to believe that we have made progress from. In only the past several decades, civil rights and protections have been encoded into law for minorities, women, homosexuals, children, and animals. The temptation to view this as progress is, as Kitcher says, “irresistible.” Any doubters need only imagine how it would feel to go back. And, if these changes have made us a better society, then there must be some standard of “goodness” that has a claim on us. Otherwise, how could we have more of something that is so relative as to be effectively nonexistent?

For Kitcher, humanity has been en­gaged in what he refers to as the “ethical project” from the very beginning of the species’ life history. We have evolved to become intensely social beings, but even so, we are beings who retain a limited capacity for responsiveness to one another. To very loosely paraphrase Kitcher, when it comes to morality, we can do it; we just aren’t very good at it.

Nevertheless, we are improving. The problem of our limited responsiveness is addressed in all of the extant ethical traditions “by connecting ethical prescriptions to a broad range of human emotions, almost all of which are independent of religious belief.” Kitcher’s brand of secularism “places humanity at the center of value” and “conceives us as both creators and loci of value.” The result, in Kitcher’s words, is a “transformation of human existence, through the forging of connections among people and through the expansion of the possibilities of human lives.” Meaning in life is a matter of mattering to others.

The ethical project can be thought of as an ongoing conversation that humanity is and always has been having about the best ways to create societies that connect us to one another and that make available more possibilities for every individual member. In the course of this conversation, ethical truths are being constructed by rather than discovered by us. Taking his cue from William James, Kitcher makes the claim that truth, including ethical truth, is not something waiting out there for our discovery but rather something that “happens to an idea.” When it comes to scientific truths, we may be willing to await the pronouncements of the experts, but ethical truth is, to a large degree, the stuff of everyone’s everyday existence. Should we, for example, value equality above all and spread the wealth more evenly, even if, by doing so, we risk losing important incentives for entrepreneurship and innovation? Or should we value opportunity first and foremost and risk expanding the range of wealth inequality? Such questions confront us in the voting booth each year, if not in the news every day.

Philip Kitcher is John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Life After Faith is a short book, only about 175 pages in all, but it is packed with tightly reasoned arguments and with insights that proliferate on almost every page. It is a book for the lay reader and professional philosopher alike. Most intriguingly, it is a book by a thinker with some sympathy toward the religious worldview who also happens to be one of our first-rate philosophers and who argues convincingly for the possibility of thriving societies and fulfilling individual lives based on a secular humanist worldview and secular humanist values. If you are familiar with Kitcher’s other books—I am thinking in particular of Abusing Science: The Case Against Crea­tion­ism and Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith—then you don’t need further convincing that Life After Faith is required reading. If you are not familiar with Kitcher’s work, then Life After Faith is a great place for diving right in.

Wayne L. Trotta is a psychologist and frequent reviewer for Free Inquiry.

Wayne L. Trotta

Wayne L. Trotta is a psychologist and frequent  reviewer for Free Inquiry.

A review of Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, by Philip Kitcher.

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