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Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse

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Religion As Morality: Is This the Way Forward in the Science-Religion Debate?

Posted: 10/16/10 07:51 AM ET

"Accommodationism" is the word used today to speak of the position that believes science and religion can exist together harmoniously, or at least without conflict. It is disliked strongly both by the New Atheists, who loathe religion, and by the fundamentalists, who reject science. Expectedly, it is a position much favored by liberal Christians and other such believers. People like Francis Collins, head of the National Institute of Health, are deeply committed Christians and strong supporters of modern science.

Is there a place under the accommodationism canvas for the non-believer? I think there is for I aspire to be one such person. As explained in an earlier blog and argued at length in my book Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, I believe that one can argue for all of modern science and yet agree that there are certain questions that science leaves unanswered: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the ultimate ground of morality?

I believe that although one need not turn to religion -- I am simply a skeptic on these sorts of questions -- it is legitimate for the believer to offer answers.

The well-known philosopher Philip Kitcher has just written a most interesting article where he tries a somewhat different tack. He is much closer to the New Atheists than I, so much so that he might not want to be called an "accommodationist." I have no quarrel with this. I am interested in seeing if his position works.

Basically, Kitcher agrees with the New Atheists (he calls them "militant modern atheists") that science shows religion is false. He does not, like me, allow that there are areas where science does not go and that religion can. However, he sees a social value in religion that the New Atheists do not -- or at least he sees that religion is not going away soon and that we must therefore make some area where it can exist -- and hence he searches for a meaning to religion that will allow it to persist in the world of modern science.

The solution he adopts is much like that of the late Stephen Jay Gould in his Rocks of Ages, namely that we must see religion as a support for morality and social well-being rather than a system that legitimately makes claims about objective reality. (Kitcher does not mention Gould and I am not at all suggesting that he should have. For a start, Kitcher does not use Gould's terminology of "Magisteria," meaning domains of understanding. It is I who think there are similarities.)

Kitcher repudiates all claims to objective truth in religion as unacceptable fundamentalism. (In the philosophical trade, we talk of this as using a "persuasive definition," that is, using words to give subtle or not-so-subtle implications. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes in a literal resurrection. Kitcher would label him a fundamentalist, something I am sure His Grace would find objectionable.)

Kitcher starts his argument with the notion of an "orientation." This refers to the set of goals that a person has, goals that he or she wants to achieve and that define his or her life. Note that it is not a set of claims about objective reality: "An orientation, then, is a complex of psychological states -- states of valuing, desires, intentions, emotions and commitments -- a complex that does not include factual beliefs, and that embodies a person's sense of what is most significant and worthwhile in his own life and in the lives of others."

In the context of his discussion, Kitcher identifies four orientation options. The first is secular. People in this group (which I take would include both Kitcher and me) simply have no religious beliefs and our thinking on morality and so forth is purely secular. We can ignore such people here. Next, we have the mythically self-conscious, who like the stories of the Bible but don't think them literally true in any way. Although it is a long time since I was a practicing Quaker, my suspicion is that today this would cover many (by no means all) members of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). I still find the story of Ruth with her devotion to Naomi deeply moving and inspirational, although I very much doubt that either Ruth or Naomi ever existed.

More extreme are the doctrinally-entangled. They actually believe in some of the claims of their religion, that is to say they think that some of the existence claims are true. But they do not do so on the evidence, because there is none (none reliable, at least). They do so because these claims make true their moral and social beliefs. In other words, the existence claims function (and this is my reading, not one suggested by Kitcher) a bit like theoretical entities in science. You may never see an electron, but you believe in it because it makes sense of what you do see.

Kitcher writes, and I am quoting because I really do want to get his position right, "If asked to defend his belief in particular claims about the transcendent, the doctrinally-entangled person will not appeal primarily to evidence, but rather suggest that it is legitimate to form such beliefs because of the positive role they play in the promotion of the most important values."

Finally, there is the doctrinally-indefinite category, somewhere between the mythically self-conscious and the doctrinally-entangled. People here might or might not believe in existence claims. They are all a bit vague. "If pressed, they will admit that they can only gesture vaguely in the direction of something that might commit them to the existence of transcendent entities -- or might not."

Obviously, it is the doctrinally-entangled group that is of most interest. The New Atheists would have nothing to do with them, but Kitcher is inclined to cut them some slack. It is clear that he hopes that they will move on, namely in the direction of the mythically self-conscious (at least), and he is strong on the claim that they cannot pretend to prove their existence claims. But Kitcher does allow that it is a legitimate position to take. He argues that "doctrinal indefiniteness can be a reasonable expression of epistemic modesty, and that even doctrinal entanglement can be justified when it is the only way of preserving, in the sociocultural environment available, a reflectively stable orientation." (By "reflectively stable" Kitcher means that it can withstand careful examination and be decreed a "worthy choice" of lifestyle or aims.)

I don't think Kitcher's position is good enough. But before I make any critical remarks, let me say that I think it is a position worth discussing and taking seriously. I wouldn't be writing this blog if I thought otherwise. (Actually, as a general rule that is just not true. I write about the New Atheists, even though I don't think their position is worth taking seriously at all. Or rather, I accept many of the conclusions, but I think the arguments are lousy. But I write about the New Atheists because I think their hateful attitude towards believers is a potential force for great social and moral evil.)

Basically, I just don't think that Kitcher is offering enough to believers to get them to take his position seriously. I felt the same way about Gould, who spoke of the belief in the main Christian claims about the Cross and the Resurrection as "silly." I think Kitcher's position is so hedged that it just won't do. This is why I have no real quarrel if Kitcher refuses the label "accommodationist."

The simple fact is (let's stay with Christians to keep the discussion simple) Christians believe that God exists, that He was Creator, and that He came to earth in the form of Jesus for our eternal salvation, dying on the Cross and rising on the third day to make this possible. They believe that these claims are true, period. They do not believe them in order to give life to their moral beliefs. Contrary to Kitcher, though what he thinks is preferable is not relevant here, Christians believe that morality follows from these beliefs not that these beliefs prop up morality.

I remember vividly growing up as a Quaker in the years after the Second World War. Back in those days, it was not easy to justify pacifism. The war against Hitler had been a deeply justifiable war and to deny this, to belittle the deaths of the young men who had fought to defeat the Nazis, seemed to many to be simply wrong. The main answer we Quakers had -- and we thought it a pretty good answer -- was that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount told us to turn the other cheek. That was it. That was enough. Jesus was the Son of God and what he said was final.

I personally agree with much that Kitcher says. Without empirical proof, religious existence claims depend on faith, and the trouble with faith is that different people with different cultures have different faith insights. For Kitcher (and for me) that is an end to matters. But the point is that the believer thinks that faith works and gives true insights. The believer also has arguments about the relativity. A Christian might argue that others are wrong. We don't accept African medicine. Why should we accept African religion? As a non-believer you may not think much of these arguments, but the point is that the Christian does. And unless you are prepared to give Christians the possibility of such an argument here, as I am and Kitcher is not, then they are not going to be interested.

I applaud Kitcher's attempt to move forward on the science and religion front. But, I am sorry, I just don't think that what he offers will work.