“Takes seriously the question”

I haven’t been blogging much lately, but this book review by Gary Gutting is right in my wheelhouse. It reviews a book by Philip Kitcher, and spends a lot of time talking about why he’s so much better than Dawkins. In particular:

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’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.

Most of the work in these paragraphs comes from what is implied, rather than what is stated, and what is implied is mostly wrong, or at least debatable. For example, Gutting implies that Dawkins, does not “take seriously the question” of how atheism can provide a sense of meaning and purpose. Yet Dawkins devotes an entire chapter of The God Delusion (cleverly titled “A much needed gap?”) to roughly that issue–though Dawkins talks about the “consolation and inspiration” allegedly provided by religion, which I think is a better choice of words.

Similarly, Gutting hints that Dawkins is to be faulted for not trying to show that his worldview can take over the “ethical functions of religion.” That criticism only makes sense if religion actually fills ethical functions, something Dawkins spends another entire chapter of The God Delusion disputing. After a dozen pages detailing the nastiness of the Old Testament, Dawkins writes:

My main purpose has not been to show that we shouldn’t get our morals from scripture (although that is my opinion). My purpose has been to demonstrate that we (and that includes most religious people) as a matter of fact don’t get our morals from scripture.

I think Dawkins is pretty obviously right on that one, and if he is, f religion isn’t where people their morals, what “ethical functions” is religion filling? Even if Gutting disagrees with Dawkins, there isn’t even a hint that Dawkins makes this argument, we just get the hint that this is another failure on Dawkins’ part–after all, he isn’t the sort of person who “takes seriously the question.”

Finally, Gutting is correct that many people need convincing that atheists can have fulfilling lives… but then treats that like it should be a grand philosophical project, which is bizarre. A more natural approach is to find some atheists who can say, “Hey! Over here! I have a fulfilling life!” Luke Muehlhauser is excellent on this:

When I was a Christian, I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like be an atheist. From what my parents and pastors told me, I imagined it would feel like an aching hole in my stomach, a purposeless sadness in my chest, and a taste of cardboard in my mouth. Of course, I was asking the wrong people. I should have asked some atheists what it felt like.

The truth is that atheists feel pretty much the same as everybody else. We feel happy and sad, excited and bored, nervous and peaceful, ashamed and proud, lonely and connected, horny and disgusted, transcendent and confused and small and breathless.


The loss of faith was terrifying for me and many others because my religion had trained me to be terrified of losing faith in an effort to ensure that I never would. I was told that non-believers would be tortured forever after death, that they could have no objective moral code, that they had no meaning or purpose, that they were angry and sad and rarely found happiness…

To the millions of non-believers who live lives of abundant morality, purpose, and hope, the religious horror stories about non-belief are silly or pernicious. Without them, people would be more free to choose a worldview on better criteria, such as its likelihood of being true, or its capacity to let a person live out their dreams.

As someone who has been through a scary crisis of faith and came out the other side happy, fulfilled, and passionate, here is my advice to those facing a crisis of faith: Don’t panic. My own loss of faith was a nightmare. I thought the whole universe had shattered, and all meaning and purpose had been swept away. But it wasn’t true. Millions of non-believers know it’s not true.

There have already been several responses to Gutting’s piece, and my favorite is by Greta Christina, who suggests that The God Delusion is the only “new atheist” book Gutting has read. But given what Gutting insinuates about Dawkins, you could infer he hasn’t even read that.

What’s actually going on, I think, is this: Gutting has made up his mind that to be “serious” requires agreeing with himself on certain things, making certain concessions to defenders of religion, such as that religion serves important ethical functions, or that it’s not clear how anyone could have a fulfilling life as a non-believer.

Then, he notices Dawkins doesn’t make those concessions, and concludes Dawkins isn’t “serious,” so we don’t need to pay so much attention to what Dawkins has said and we can write about Dawkins while ignoring relevant arguments that he has made. What baffles that I don’t think Gutting is a hack, someone who would say stuff like that because he can get away with it. I think he really thinks that way.

It isn’t just Gutting though. These days, it seems to be a popular strategy to argue by defining “seriousness” as not disagreeing too much with oneself, so that you can declare yourself above all the really big arguments. Critics of religion get it a lot, but we get it in politics too: Glenn Greenwald has gotten a lot of mileage out of mocking the “Serious People” who define themselves by not criticizing the establishment so much. It’s a move that I’ll probably make a point of flogging more in the future.

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  1. This is just to point out the open em tag in the paragraph that starts `Similarly, Gutting hints that’.

  2. Also interesting is that Sam Harris (who is obviously no less well known as an atheist than Dawkins) constantly makes the point that atheists can lead spiritually fulfilling lives, and that meditation and other religious practices could be “naturalized” for the benefits they provide to our well-being. I know this post is more about Dawkins (who, when i met him, was hundreds of times nicer and more cheerful than his foes make him out to be), but it relates to Greta Christina’s point about Gutting having probably read only TGD.

  3. Also, from the article:

    “The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. It seems, therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning. This ‘cultural relativism’ argument is an old one, but Kitcher shows that it is still a serious challenge…”

    Hasn’t Dawkins himself brought up this fact a thousand times?

  4. But who ever said atheism could or should “provide a sense of meaning and purpose”? The whole point of atheism is to transfer the job of “providing a sense of meaning and purpose” to where it belongs: the rational decisions made on their own behalf by every individual. If you are an atheist counting on something besides yourself to “provide a sense of meaning and purpose” then you are doing it wrong.

  5. “What’s actually going on, I think, is this: Gutting has made up his mind that to be “serious” requires agreeing with himself on certain things, making certain concessions to defenders of religion, such as that religion serves important ethical functions, or that it’s not clear how anyone could have a fulfilling life as a non-believer.”

    Religion having important ethical functions… Nonbelievers having unfulfilling lives… I think this guy might be a closet Christian!