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08/13/2014 03:53 pm ET | Updated Oct 13, 2014

The Three Mistakes Atheists Make

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The God Wars mostly bore me. In my younger days I enjoyed, at least for a while, the intellectual back-and-forth of the God debates. For me, these exchanges had a game-like quality, and it was fun to play the game. How can a student of religion ignore the rational argumentation of Nietzsche or the psychological insights of Freud? And from time to time, I still find myself intrigued by the God-debunking that serious atheists offer. When Richard Dawkins claims that biology and evolution demonstrate that God does not exist, I must take notice, even if his arguments do not work for me.

Advocates of atheism continue to appear, each new wave of thinkers reshaping what has come before. An example is Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, who has written Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism. While the book will not be out until October, Kitcher offered a preview of his thinking in an interview that he gave to the New York Times in May. The interview had its interesting points, and I look forward to reading the book. Still, what Kitcher has to say is ultimately neither new nor convincing. He makes the same mistakes that most others make who argue the case for atheism or secular humanism, and I hear in his words a tone that is closer to defensive desperation than confident conviction.

In the Kitcher interview, we see the three most common mistakes of those who argue for atheism.

1. They dismiss, often with contempt, the religious experience of other people.

It is fine to use critical thinking and unalloyed reason to argue against God. Such arguments are legitimate, but they tell us nothing about the way that much of humankind experiences God, either in the course of regular religious observance or as an exceptional occurrence.

According to Professor Kitcher, research demonstrates that what people refer to as religious experience is either a psychiatric matter or a general feeling of uplift that is then related by the person involved to a religiously entrenched myth. What it is not, Kitcher affirms, is an encounter with the divine. Yet on what possible basis can he make such a claim? The professor has obviously never had a religious experience; but given that 85 percent of people on earth identify with a religious tradition and most believe in God, there is something both sad and arrogant about non-believers asserting with certainty that no one else is capable of a God encounter rooted in transcendence and holiness.

2. They assert that since there are no valid religions but that religions do good things, the task of smart people is to create a religion without God -- or, in other words, a religion without religion.

Kitcher is here saying the kind of things that we have recently heard from Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin. His argument is that since religion does a good job in promoting values, it should not be abandoned; instead, it should be "refined," eliminating fundamentalist doctrines and transcendent facets of reality. What will remain is "soft atheism," a system of advancing enduring values without the need for a belief in God, redemptive elements, or any of the mysteries that religion promotes.

Philosophers have made such proposals before, of course, but what they all have in common is that they do not work. Philosophy can do many things, but it cannot create deep loyalty, profound engagement, or a willingness to sacrifice for one's beliefs. Religion, whether of the liberal or orthodox variety, does precisely that. And it does so by retaining those things that Kitcher proposes to jettison: a community of believers connected to the holy and convictions rooted in both ritual and faith. What Kitcher is offering is a vague kind of do-gooder's club, and not only that but one based on fundamental dishonesty. While asserting his commitment to "refined religion" as his starting point, Kitcher admits that his goal is for the religious dimensions of his system to gradually disappear. But who would ever be interested in a religion that is not really a religion at all but, in his words, "a halfway house"? For Kitcher, the "religious" part of his secular humanism is mostly a marketing device, intended to recruit the masses but not to endure, and what it demonstrates is a profound disrespect for the intelligence and sensibilities of ordinary people.

3. They see the world of belief in black and white, either/or terms.

Kitcher is struck by the incredible diversity of religious doctrines. A reasonable person, he suggests, would recognize that there is no way to distinguish doctrines that are true from those that are misguided. His conclusion is that religious doctrines have become "incredible," and must be rejected in their entirety.

If there are 10,000 contrary religious doctrines, it does not follow that they all are false. But what is most important is the mindset that underlies his thinking: According to Kitcher, either you are a believer or you are not, and given the abundance of conflicting traditions, it is non-belief that makes the most sense. When it comes to religious doctrine, Kitcher, like others in the atheist camp, sees the world in terms of dichotomies: You are a theist or a non-theist, a religious person or a non-religious person.

But, of course, this is not the way that most people function. Some religious people are fanatical, but most are not. The world of belief, which includes a majority of the human race, consists of people who believe but are not always sure; who accept God some of the time but not all the time; and who know that theology is a matter of questions and uncertainties, painted in hues of gray.

Professor Kitcher offers a challenging thesis, but in the final analysis, he -- and others like him -- simply do not understand a central fact of human history: Drawing on their deepest experiences, most people instinctively reach out to God, and God in turn reaches out to them.