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Philip Kitcher on separating ethics from religion

'Life After Faith' author Philip Kitcher
'Life After Faith' author Philip Kitcher
'Life After Faith' author Philip Kitcher

‘Life After Faith’ author Philip Kitcher

Where should we ground our ethics, if not in a religious worldview?

In his new book Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, Columbia University philosophy professor argues for the merits of secular humanism.

The first part of our conversation—on his disagreements with “New Atheism,” how secular humanism is similar to religion and how it is different, and what Humanists can learn from religion—was published yesterday. Below, Kitcher explores how to disentangle ethics from religion, the connection between values and community, and why doubt is just the beginning of Humanism.

CS: In Life After Faith, you talk about the popularity of the idea that there is a tight link between religion and ethics. How would you suggest we disentangle them?

PK: This is very important. [tweetable]The moment religion became tightly connected with ethics is a deviation in the history of our ethical lives.[/tweetable]

Evolutionarily, our ethical practices go back deep into our human past. Morality was originally worked out through negotiations on roughly equal terms in small groups. Gradually those groups expanded and we came to live in more complex societies, made possible by the fact that we’ve laid down some rules, conventions, and practices that enable us to live together. But along the way the democratic nature of our ethical life was distorted by thinking that there was something beyond us—a divine being—which was the ground of ethics.

People believed in gods for all sorts of reasons—that gods were in control of all the mysterious things, or caused accidents and sudden changes in people’s lives. The idea of gods or a God suggests that it’s not just other members of the local group who are watching and ready to do something to you if you step out of line—there is also a being constantly looking down who will do bad things if you break the rules. That’s a very powerful device for getting people to comply with your ethical code, because it paves the way for a moment in which somebody says, “I have a vision. I can fathom the will of this being.”

Once that happens, the whole character of ethical life changes. It’s no longer something people work out together, but something that has a basis in the will of a deity that has to be fathomed. And you end up with all sorts of things written down in the ethical codes of various religions which reflect transient prejudices, like attitudes towards same-sex relationships.

CS: What foundation would you suggest instead?

PK: What I would like to see in a secular ethical life is a return to the fact that we’re all involved in a project. [tweetable]We have to work out our obligations together.[/tweetable] An example is the common project to save our planet. It seems to me that these kinds of ethical decisions can best be made if we don’t think of there being some source of transcendent expertise, but rather think of the effort as something that we need to work out together.

In doing that, we can sometimes rely on what great thinkers in the past have seen. The Buddha, Jesus, and others have seen the fundamental importance of attending to other human beings—the suffering and the downtrodden. Those ethical insights can be preserved. But the idea that there is some recourse to a sacred text that should dictate what we do? It seems to me that has to go in favor of the pragmatic, democratic working out of our ethical lives together on conditions of respect and valuing one another as human beings. That’s the heart of Humanist ethics.

CS: What’s the connection between community and the moral lives of nonreligious people?

PK: [tweetable]Community is crucial because it helps people to operate together.[/tweetable] The problem in the U.S. seems to be that churches, mosques, and synagogues are the places in which people can find genuine community. It’s very easy for us academics to forget that we actually have a nice community, and that we can cooperate on various kinds of projects. But for most people the workplace doesn’t function that way. Many, many people who lose their faith or drop out of religious life find themselves deprived of the communities they used to have, in which they would engage as morally dedicated citizens. And something immensely important is lost without that community dimension.

'Life After Faith' by Philip Kitcher

‘Life After Faith’ by Philip Kitcher

When it comes to higher rates of charity and volunteerism among the religious, I don’t think it’s the case that nonreligious people are less motivated to help others—it’s that we don’t have as many institutions that give us good opportunities to do so. And it may even be that, as we don’t participate in institutions and communities, our motivations are sapped. So I think that Humanist associations like Ethical CultureHumanist Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Humanist chaplains on campuses are terribly important. I’d like to see those resources spread.

Still, it seems to me that secular institutions still have a lot of things to work out. It’s generally not the case that they are as well-developed or as rewarding as religious communities. The building of the secular world is a task that that secularists have to face up to. The major world religions have been experimenting with this for thousands of years. We can learn from their past experiments, and I think we can learn to build better forms of community for Humanists. But the problem has to be recognized, and we have to applaud Ethical Culture and Humanist Unitarian Universalism. They’ve seen the problem and they’re doing something about it, even though I don’t think they have it perfect yet.

CS: You write, “[tweetable]Secular humanism begins in doubt, but doubt should be only the beginning.[/tweetable]” If doubt is just the beginning, what’s the next step for people who want to develop a robust Humanist worldview?

PK: Two things: Participate in discussions with other Humanists, and see secular humanism as a work in progress. Restoring the dimension of ethical life in which we come together and try to think about collectively attending to the problems of society is the next step. That is best done in groups. So the problem of building community and the problem of developing the ethical dimension of life go together. When I think about the vibrancy of churches in Harlem and the way in which they’re involved in social projects, I see that something similar from a Humanist point of view is essential.

Click here for the first part of our discussion. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

13 Comments

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  • “When it comes to higher rates of charity and volunteerism among the religious,”

    Ugh, there is nothing worse than taking a derogatory myth at face value and looking for an excuse around it.
    http://jonathanturley.org/2012/07/01/the-myth-of-religious-charity/
    http://yashwata.info/2010/07/15/charity1/

    Much of the “charity” associated with religious folks is not actually charity, but maintenance and upkeep of sectarian institutions and proselytizing efforts (sorry that is not charity, its marketing)

    Like most of the “faithiest” approach, the Kitcher is far too deferential and uncritical towards the religious and their public image “spin”.

  • “Life after faith”… and Kitcher explores how to “disentangle ethics from religion”. Both are attempting to make something out of nothing. How do you live a life without faith? How can you prove that we are not all searching to fill that spiritual vacuum within all of us that longs to be filled?

    Let us see now, things would be just wonderful if we could disentangle the glorious flower of ethics from the weeds (in your opinion) of religion. Trouble is, you pull up the weeds, hmm, now which are weeds and which are flowers? It is not always easy to distinguish the weeds from the flowers, and can the flowers of ethics live after being disentangled from the weeds of religion or will they simply fade away like the grass of the field? Without the foundation of religious faith, from what will this system of ethics draw strength and stability?

    Philip Kitcher has authored his book; good for him. He is proselytizing to win converts to his way. He obviously believes in his way, for, according to him, he has discovered a way far better than his perception of religion. Thus, he wants to help others find “The Way” to life, without any disincentives of religion, which would be to accept a power greater than self.

    It’s fine that he does this, and yet, atheists and many humanists find fault with me because I want others to find what I found in my belief in a power greater than myself. Larry and others have found websites that disagree with the good that religion does for society. He even disagrees with Kitcher …“When it comes to higher rates of charity and volunteerism among the religious.”

    I don’t have to look up a website to know first-hand the good done by faith groups.
    I have seen and have been a part of faith-based ministry to those in need, for nearly all of my 74 years.

    I have engaged in comments with this RNS website for a long time now, but every time I see “religion” written by a non-believer, I often think, “This is more BS.” Dang, I’m against religion as pictured on this site. Many comments assume Christians can’t think for themselves and are ignorant. Sure, I do have some doubts, and I have had doubts on certain aspects of scripture, but doubt is also the beginning of faith. Begin with doubt, brother, but study all factors before joining the so-called, Life Without Faith.

  • It would be easier to prove first that there is a vacuum somewhere inside of people and that it has to be filled with something “spiritual,” whatever that happens to be. Make your definitions more rigorous so that your arguments carry more weight.

    Without the foundations of “religious faith,” it will draw its ethics from what every ethical system before it has: utility, cultural tolerances, and large numbers of adherents.

  • Very well stated brother Martin, yours is a very well reasoned and balanced approach. Personally I believe that we do all have a “spiritual vacuum” that needs to be filled. To deny this, which some people do, is to deny that we are spiritual beings. I don’t know much about atheism (or secular humanism for that matter), but what I have observed from the passionate atheist/humanist crowd is that they do, seemingly, long for truth, justice and mercy albeit with a decidedly different approach. Though their methods differ from our spirit-centered approach, one could argue that they too are longing to fill a spiritual void… even though they choose to call it something different.

  • The whole point of atheism (and could be said of Humanism) is that one doesn’t rely on spiritualism to guide one’s self. “Filling the void” with something else is not really a solution.

    To paraphrase a poster in another article

    Complaining about the “void” from leaving religion is akin to whining about what to do with all those cushions and ointments after you have hemorrhoids removed.

    Ethics and religion were never one in the same. Religion’s effect on ethics is more like an ivy growing on a wall. It can appear to be an integral part of the wall, almost appearing to support it from the outside. But ivy undermines it from within and can be removed without harming it.

    Despite the assertion of Rev. Martin, religion has never provided stability and strength to ethics and morality. Religion has far too much blind deference to outside arbitrary authority, excuses and opt outs and denial of direct connection to humanity. Too often religion links ethics and morality to sectarianism (the First 4 Commandments are a great example of this).

    “Trouble is, you pull up the weeds, hmm, now which are weeds and which are flowers?”

    If you must be commanded that some actions are unethical or immoral then you have no connection to humanity whatsoever. Religion provides excuses to ignore what is plainly obvious to people. That acting maliciously and harmful to others is a bad thing. Only the most sociopathic people have such little connection to humanity that these things require outside instruction.

    There are always excuses in religion to act badly to others because they are of the wrong sect, wrong faith, engage in activity arbitrarily deemed a sin, don’t follow the given outside leader… Religion does more to muck up ethics and morality than it does to strengthen and reinforce it.

  • Larry, If you had said “The whole point of atheism (and could be said of Humanism) is that one doesn’t rely on ‘religion’ (rather than spiritualism) to guide oneself,” I would be more apt to agree with you. I don’t disagree that organized religions often do muddy the waters and “muck up ethics and morality” as you aptly stated. I think we need to separate religion and spirituality in order to be fair which, for the most part, the rest of your arguments seems to attack religion more than it does spirituality.

    If organized religion would simply provide a venue and framework for worshipers to follow and stop at that, it might avoid many of the pitfalls you mention. Religion gets itself into trouble when it subverts the message it purports to convey in its various manifestations, whether by deed, speech or action (or inaction as the case may be). I like your “ivy growing on a wall” analogy, it is rather poetic and while I don’t completely disagree with it, I have to say it sounds downright spiritual to to me in the same vein as, perhaps even, the Christian book of Proverbs. If you could pardon the religious crowd in one area, perhaps it might be for those who seeks to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. When we attempt to do it the other way around, that’s where we usually end up with a black eye, or worse, a black heart!

  • Larry,
    To quote you: “The whole point of atheism (and could be said of Humanism) is that one doesn’t rely on spiritualism to guide one’s self.” I certainly do not rely of “spiritualism” to guide my faith. I’m not sure you really wanted to use that term with its usual meaning.

    You just confirm for me what I believe has happened to the very word; “Religion”. It is meaningless in today’s usage. Your broad generalizations and those of others make sweeping denouncements, or should I write global or maybe universal denouncements which are nailed down to nothing. Painting ALL persons that fall into the category of being religious as blindly following an outside person that demands evil of them against others is to judge without detailing specifics. Do you not see some problems with your
    thinking?

    There are always excuses in religion to act badly to others because they are of the wrong sect, wrong faith, engage in activity arbitrarily deemed a sin, don’t follow the given outside leader… Religion does more to muck up ethics and morality than it does to strengthen and reinforce it. Boy your paint brush is wide. I’ve studied Christian ethics, philosophy of justice, and philosophy concerning a the possibility of a God. Two of those were mostly taken from the secular viewpoint. None of these accused the Christian religion of “mucking up ethics.”

    Please give specifics, Larry, of your personal experience to prove your points. I see so many similarities in what atheist and religious fundamentalist write.

  • “Painting ALL persons that fall into the category of being religious as blindly following an outside person that demands evil of them against others is to judge without detailing specifics. Do you not see some problems with your thinking?”

    I don’t see a problem with that, since it happens in religious belief with alarming regularity. How much blood is spilled over religious differences? How many atrocities are justified as being :”God’s will”?
    Too many not to paint it with such a wide brush.

    How many excuses, weaselwording, qualifying or conditions do Christians make to avoid the simple ideas of “love thy neighbor” and “judge not lest ye be judged”. How often to people mistake sectarian custom for morals and ethics? Give me a break.

    A perfect example is how many people interpret the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Many see the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his own son for God as a sign of devotion to be followed. There are others however who see the story as an example that God would not really make such demands on his followers in earnest (unlike other Mesopotamian deities people followed at the time).

    “I’ve studied Christian ethics, philosophy of justice, and philosophy concerning a the possibility of a God. Two of those were mostly taken from the secular viewpoint. None of these accused the Christian religion of “mucking up ethics.”

    All one has to do is look at the behavior of people professing their Christian faith. Those who make the ridiculous claims that without religion, their religion, people are incapable of moral thought. You have idiots claiming without the 10 commandments people wouldn’t know murder is wrong.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/12/03/dennis-prager-without-the-ten-commandments-atheists-would-never-know-murder-is-wrong/

    You want specifics, its because you haven’t hung around here long enough. I could go on any number of articles here and find plenty of Christians who are full of religious fervor and not a drop of moral fiber in their being.

    “I see so many similarities in what atheist and religious fundamentalist write.”

    Your lack of experience with atheists is duly noted.

  • Larry,

    “You want specifics, its because you haven’t hung around here long enough. I could go on any number of articles here and find plenty of Christians who are full of religious fervor and not a drop of moral fiber in their being.”

    Larry, are you looking for articles to give you specifics? What is your actual experience that you can give life and breath to? Sure there are many “claiming” to be “Christians full of religious fervor”. In my years as a clinical chaplain working in a state prison there was a priest serving time for child molestation, a protestant minister serving time after killing a lover. You think I let those SOB’s preach or teach there? There is a major difference between claiming “Lord, Lord” and actually placing faith in something greater than yourself.

    I all my years in the ministry I have been privileged of knowing many dedicated, humble Christians. I would like to see humanist, atheist and agnostics join in service to the homeless, the addicted, the poor, the uneducated, the lonely elderly, and the persecuted. If you can’t stand to serve with Christians maybe you could start you own charity.

  • Hi Chaplin Martin,
    “How do you live a life without faith?”
    Can you define your terms?
    If I understand what you are saying, I am be able to live much more contentedly without the “faith” I was presented with by the religious folk. Granted, I have not met them all, but I never met one that I said “Boy, I wish I had his faith!”
    I prefer this remark by a scientist: “What I love most is to be so far into a project/problem that I am surrounded on all sides by mystery”. It’s not faith that keeps me going- it is wonder, curiosity, and joy- and the pleasure of doing something worthwhile.
    Dr. Kitcher says “And it may even be that, as we don’t participate in institutions and communities, our motivations are sapped. So I think that Humanist associations like Ethical Culture, Humanist Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Humanist chaplains on campuses are terribly important. ”
    I have had a long association with the Unitarians. They confuse social causes and movements with religion and morality. The more caught up in these activities that they become the less interested they seem to be developing knowledge and insight in their “inner life”, if you will. Most give the impression that backing the “right” causes IS the definition of morality.

  • Wow, such abject mendacious denialism of what is fairly commonplace. I guess if you don’t see something first-hand it does not exist. You also seem to consider yourself the authority as to who is a proper Christian and who isn’t. Nobody has invested you with such authority. No self-professed Christian like the two examples from prison you mentioned will declare themselves no longer of the faith just by your say-so.

    “There is a major difference between claiming “Lord, Lord” and actually placing faith in something greater than yourself. ”

    Not to anyone on the receiving end of the acts of such people.

    I will make you a deal, when you stop criticizing atheists for fictitious nonsense (like claiming they are immoral and unethical by virtue of their beliefs) maybe I will be a little more charitable in my views of Christian ethics. But I see no need to do so at the moment.

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