Soft Atheism

Matthew Engelke

It’s not easy being new. It doesn’t last long. Sometimes it isn’t even an apt characterization in the first place.

Take “New Atheism,” the label applied to a body of writings by such figures as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. New Atheism is typically understood to have emerged in the first years of the 21st century, after 9/11, and after a series of prominent advances by creationists in schools, especially in the United States (but also in the United Kingdom). For one thing, though, as with many labels, it is not wholly owned by the people it is meant to describe. (I know a lot of atheists who are inspired by Dawkins, who love his work; none of them refer to themselves as “new atheists.”) For another thing, what’s “new” in this atheism has some observers wondering; John Gray, for one, thinks “most of the present atheists are not sufficiently familiar with the history of thought to recognize the fact that they’ve revived [a] slightly atavistic type of 19th-century atheism.”

All the same, the label sticks. And in the stereotyped version, what it refers to is a nasty form of atheism, nasty in the sense that its critiques of religion are biting, mocking, and relentless. But it’s not all negative. Much is celebrated in new atheism, above all the power of Reason (definitely capital-R), and its handmaiden, the scientific method.

New atheism—however one wants to cast or define it—is nevertheless alive and well. Yet almost as soon as it took hold—sometime around 2006—other kinds of atheists (often more likely to refer to themselves in the first instance as humanists or secular humanists) tried to shake it loose. In 2011, I was in the audience, as an anthropological observer, at the British Humanist Association’s annual conference in Manchester. Julian Baggini, the atheist, humanist, and philosopher, was at the podium trying to convince fellow BHA members that maybe the idea of transcendence had something going for it. There were sharp intakes of breath by some, but he wasn’t thrown off stage. The next year, Alain de Botton published Religion for Atheists, premised on the idea that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Religion has some things going for it (community, etc., etc.) and we ought to hold on to that, even as we get rid of the silly and sometimes dangerous stuff. In the United States, not far from Daniel Dennett’s redoubt at Tufts University, Greg Epstein was appointed the first humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Epstein’s appointment came a year (2005) before the new atheist watershed (2006, when both Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell appeared), but it wasn’t until 2010, when he published his own book, Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, that this more obviously positive version started gaining some significant attention.

Of course, nasty is often more noisy—and certainly more notable in the public sphere. It has taken a few years for the new-atheist din to subside enough for us to hear what else is being said—and, crucially, done. The “nice atheism” is often very much committed to doing things, to building community. The British Humanist Association, which I have been studying for over four years now, conducts close to nine thousand “non-religious” funerals every year. It has a lot of these nice atheists (many say they are atheists, yes, but prefer to emphasize their humanism, because it’s more positive and constructive: like Esptein would have it, they emphasize what they do believe). Back in 2011, I accompanied the CEO of the BHA to a prison, where he was hoping to pilot a humanist chaplaincy project for interested inmates; this has now grown into a much wider effort and includes hospitals. Humanism is care for others. In 2013, not far from the BHA’s headquarters in London, two British comedians launched the “Sunday Assembly,” often dubbed church for atheists, the motto for which is “live better, help often, wonder more.” There are now Sunday Assemblies throughout the world, attracting tens of thousands of people. Even Dawkins, it must be said, has gone on, in books after The God Delusion, to wax poetic about the wonder and beauty of the (natural) world; he also loves Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Dawkins has a nice side, too.

<i>Humanism campaign in the London subway</i> (2009). Photograph by Loz Pycock / Flickr

To this mix we can now add Philip Kitcher’s Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, a work of major erudition, clarity, and stimulating arguments. This is the nice atheism, or, as he prefers to call it, soft atheism. “The atheist movement today often seems blind to the apparently irreplaceable roles religion and religious community play in millions, if not billions, of lives,” he writes. “The central purpose of this book is to show how a thoroughly secular perspective can fulfill many of the important functions religion, at its best, has discharged.”

Kitcher grew up in England and in the Church of England; he was a choirboy and attended Christ’s Hospital, a very Christian, very establishment school. At school his faith waxed and waned until it finally “disappeared for good.” He kept singing, though, and “neither as an undergraduate at Cambridge nor as a graduate student at Princeton did it seem to me necessary to abandon the music I loved simply because I no longer believed the words.” (Dawkins was a choirboy, too.)

It’s a long-standing joke that the Church of England is well known for its atheists. Like all jokes there’s something in this one. Long before Kitcher came along, this established church could be known to inculcate the paradoxical mix of godless minds and god-filled bodies: people for whom “religion” was about sensibilities and practices—not doctrines or, still less, literal readings of scripture. Yet Kitcher’s prefatory personal remarks in the book—which are distinct from the less personal, but no less personable, disquisition that follows—go half way to betraying one of his central insights: that the “atheist movement today” has been too insistent on doctrines and beliefs as the bedrock of religion. Indeed, throughout the book, Kitcher works to disentangle “religion” from doctrines, and show how its articulation of values and community (and activities like singing) are what need to be owned.

Reason is a chimera, the same as divinity. So it’s not, as he puts it, “progress to,” but rather “progress from” that should drive the ethical project.

Kitcher has a penchant for telling his readers what things are really about. In this way, like his new-atheist cousins, he appeals to enlightenment to dispel the shadows and misperceptions of social thought and life. Death is nothing to be frightened of, he reasons, and we don’t need an afterlife to console ourselves; immortality would surely be unbearable: “We cannot, I think, fully imagine what it would be like to be the kind of being for which immortality was a condition of eternal joy. If my diagnosis is correct, distress at the prospect of not being is founded in a confusion.” And speaking of joy—of fulfillment—secular humanists can have plenty of it. Charles Taylor is smart, sure, but he is, for Kitcher, wrong; exclusive humanism, as Taylor calls it, doesn’t “flatten” life out. Uplift and fullness are available to all: “There should be no automatic presumption,” Kitcher writes, “that religious believers are especially predisposed to having their lives transformed for the better. Indeed, once it is appreciated that the central issue concerns the enduring positive effects of a type of experience available to religious and secular subjects alike, it should be clear that a large number of empirical questions are in danger of being begged.”

If Kitcher nonetheless appeals to enlightenment and science to help discern what really matters and what the real issues are, he does so in a much more pragmatic style than some other contemporary atheists and humanists. I mean pragmatic in two overlapping but distinct senses. Above all, this is a practical, realistic mode—one pursued with accommodation and collaboration in mind. Secular humanists should recognize that some believers—those of what he calls “real faith” (i.e., who aren’t held under the sway of literalism)—are kith and kin, especially when it comes to certain political and social commitments. Again: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. More specifically, though, Kitcher’s pragmatism is inspired by Pragmatism. Kitcher may be an Anglican choirboy, but he’s become a child of John Dewey, too. By combining Dewey’s line of thinking with some of the key insights of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, Kitcher approaches “truth” not in some absolute, capital-T sense, but, rather, in terms of the “aptness” of the language in which it is expressed. A myth is not a literal truth, but it can be understood to be “true” if it expresses a purpose worth striving for. (This is part of how Kitcher makes room for some believers—those who bridle at fundamentalism as much as he and his fellow humanists do.) Progress in life, then, and for society and for the world, has to be driven not by some distant object on or just beyond the horizon. Reason is a chimera, the same as divinity. So it’s not, as he puts it, “progress to,” but rather “progress from” that should drive the ethical project. We should be wholly immanent in this sense, fully aware of the fact that the ground we stand on, and the past we share, is all there is until we create (not discover) something more.

A myth is not a literal truth, but it can be understood to be “true” if it expresses a purpose worth striving for.

Ethics shoots through every chapter of Kitcher’s book, every aspect of what it must mean to be human. (He has explored this more fully in another recent book, The Ethical Project.) In the service of framing what he calls, with wit, the “always already” character of ethics, Kitcher provides a story (his word) of human nature and evolution, as well as some attendant normative claims to help us make progress from now. His starting point, which draws from findings in primatology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields, is that hominids want to be kind and get along with one another, but sometimes haven’t or don’t. We have what he calls “limited responsiveness.” Ethics, Kitcher reasons, emerged from a “social technology” to help humans achieve what they really want: “pleasure in the company of their fellows.” Rudimentary, proto-ethics then becomes marked by “directives to share resources and to avoid unprovoked violence.” To be sure, this is not, for Kitcher, ethics proper. But it is the staging ground for the emergence of the “progress from” that characterizes his commitments.

One of the strands of the story of human evolution and the ethical project that most seems to grip Kitcher is the loss of egalitarianism (and here the origins of agriculture are seen as just as important as the origins of organized religion; a soft atheist has to admit we can’t blame it all on the shamans grabbing power for themselves). It’s not that Kitcher wants us to become hunter-gatherers again. Denmark, rather, is where we are—where we’ve got to—and where we should work from. There is too much suffering, too much inequality, too much violence, and we could do worse than what the Scandinavian model has tried to deliver. “Through demanding that all people be provided with the preconditions for choosing and pursuing lives of genuine worth, my proposal insists on a redistribution of the material resources collectively owned by our species, a redistribution sufficient to support the material and social bases whose current absence dooms many of the world’s people to want and ill-health and ignorance and oppression and lack of choice.”

For someone concerned with “socioeconomic justice across the human species,” however, the absence of “the world’s people” niggled at me while reading this book—the absence, really, of anything beyond northern Europe and North America when it came to the resources, ideas, and traditions from which Kitcher draws, and with which he understands and defines “religion.” To be fair, Kitcher is a philosopher; notwithstanding the quote above about how the world ought to look, Life after Faith is a book of arguments in relation to the history of ideas. It is not sociology, anthropology, or social policy. But if we shouldn’t expect the “world’s people” to appear in a more grounded, empirical, case study sense, couldn’t we reasonably expect some of those people’s philosophers, poets, or even shamans to figure in the philosophical investigations? To nuance, and historicize, what “religion” is? Fanon and Gandhi are mentioned on the penultimate page, Buddhism is mentioned a few times, and there is a reference to Australian aborigines and dreamtime. But there is a distinct limit to the range of traditions of thought underpinning Life after Faith. Culture is not part of Kitcher’s case for secular humanism.

To my mind, attention to the cultural elements and assumptions of both “religion” and “secular humanism” has to be a next step in the progress from where we are. Because where we are is not only (certain armchairs) in New York, London, Oxford, Medford, or Königsberg. The importance of this can be seen by considering the key assumptions of Kitcher’s project. This is ironic in light of Kitcher’s understandings, not least because his views of human sociality give the lie to some of the more hackneyed claims about what Western modernity produces. Take the common claim that life becomes all about individualism—all about nicely packaged and privatized, rights-bearing persons. (This is connected to what Taylor calls “the buffered self,” for those who care to make comparisons.) Kitcher doesn’t undo this, but he shows how secular humanism is as much about community and relations as individuals and the principles of autonomy. And it is not only that he wants the kind of fellowship and community that religious traditions have often provided. It’s that “lives matter when they touch others”; it is such normative claims that open up avenues for considering non-Western ways of thinking and being. Often, reading Kitcher, I was reminded of the descriptions we have of personhood among Melanesians—often called “relational” or “dividual” by my fellow anthropologists—rather than among Europeans. 

<i>Berliner Sunday Assembly</i> (2015). Photograph by Nic Frank / Flickr

One of Kitcher’s first and foremost claims, which is both descriptive and normative, is that “secular humanism begins in doubt”; and not just any doubt, but “about religion, of course.” In keeping with his logic of illumination, though, Kitcher also tells us that doubt about religion is really doubt about transcendence; that “religions are distinguished by their invocation of something beyond the mundane physical world, some ‘transcendent’ realm … [that] is radically different in kind from mundane reality.” His use of scare quotes around the term transcendent is a rare rhetorical device in the book; Kitcher is admirably averse to hedging his prose. In this case, though, it is necessary not because he wants to complicate his own usage, but because the term is “as vague as it is popular.”

Just so. However, the vagueness is a weak link in terms not only of what defines “religion,” but also of Kitcher’s line of argumentation. As the ethnographic record makes clear, “transcendence” is not the lowest common denominator of what gets called religiosity. This is not to say transcendence or something like it—however wispy—plays no role in what other people do and what other people believe that we then dub “religion.” But there are many anthropologists who would argue against the aptness of the term transcendent to describe what religion is all about. And this is not only some recent, postmodern shattering of essentialism. At one point, drawing from Émile Durkheim, Kitcher talks about religion’s “commitment to the transcendent.” Yet Durkheim never speaks of the transcendent in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), and he explicitly rules out both “the supernatural” and “the divine”—good candidates for examples of the transcendent—as necessary elements of religiosity.

What Durkheim speaks of is the sacred and the profane. And the sacred is that which is set apart. This isn’t quite the same thing as the transcendent. There is not room here for a proper discussion of Durkheim; nor do I want to engage in further anthropological nit-picking with a philosopher. My point here is simply to question the logic of offering a transhistorical definition of religion in the first place. In this, Kitcher ends up limiting the perspectives and insights of his hard-won pragmatism in the service of an awkward and unhelpful essentialism.

Secular humanism may well begin with doubt—“about religion, of course.” But it ought to end with doubt, too—about itself, about its own structures, presuppositions, and sufficiency. Life after Faith is a welcome contribution to the current god debate. Even more importantly, it is a sophisticated, sensitive, and thought-provoking social and philosophical vision. But this soft atheism needs to give way to a yet more self-reflexive and other-aware one. For when it comes to critique, nothing should be sacred.