Though the prose is calm and pacific, this is a cannonball of a book. Philip Kitcher, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, argues that there is no rational warrant for religious belief and that “a thoroughly secular perspective can fulfill many of the important functions religion, at its best, has discharged.”

Kitcher observes that over the millennia thousands of religions have swept the globe and vanished like smoke over the trees. There are, he says, no neutral resources for deciding between the truth claims of different faiths. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga has complained, Kitcher seems to take the diversity of religious beliefs as evidence of the unreliability of the cognitive sources of religious beliefs. Of course, just because everyone in a room holds a different position on an issue, it does not follow that no one is right.

William James, one of the inspirations for this book and the foil to some of Kicher’s arguments, maintained that when you are trying to escape an avalanche and need to leap a chasm it is best to repress worries about the probability of success and to have faith. James believed that the same holds for much of life. By contrast, W. K. Clifford insisted that it is irresponsible to base our decisions on beliefs for which we have no evidence. Kitcher, who maintains “there is no present evidence for the transcendent,” agrees with Clifford, writing, “Only if the tie between belief and action were completely cut, or if conduct were under the firm control of an internal censor, dedicated to ensuring that only ethically permissible actions are performed, could the adoption of specific doctrine on the basis of faith be legitimate.”

I am not sure what Kitcher would accept as evidence of a personal God. And yet, I suppose that he is right to shrug that there is not much objective reason for believing that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father or that one glorious day billions of us will rise up from our graves and ascend into heaven. Of course, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Contra the intelligent-design brigade, faith is not a matter of choosing the best explanation for the data. To the extent that Kitcher demands empirical evidence for the transcendent, for something that is by definition beyond nature, he seems to be presupposing the falsity of the view that he is attempting to prove false.

There are other grounds for trusting in God. Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov famously insisted that if there is no God, everything is permissible. In other words: no faith, no ethics. Responding to this gambit, Kitcher reaches back to Plato’s “Euthyphro problem” and the question “Is an action good because God loves it, or does God love it because it is good?” Even if you believe in God, you still have to ask whether there is a moral standard independent of God. If there isn’t, does that mean that in God’s case might makes right? According to Kitcher, religion provides a poor basis for morals. We can do better, he thinks. Taking Charles Darwin as his moralist of choice, he reasons that humans are neurologically programmed to live in groups. Communal life requires responsiveness to others and self-restraint, which for Kitcher means a naturally evolving ethics.

Kitcher acknowledges that religion is often invoked to help us cope with discomfiting questions about moral depravity, the meaning of life, and our own mortality. In his post-Christian phase, Bob Dylan sang, “What looks large from a distance, close up ain’t never that big.” Kitcher concurs, contending that, if we reflect on it, heaven as traditionally conceived would be a bore, death is not that bad, and religious responses to the existential issues of life are generally overrated.

Time will tell, or mumble, whether humanity is better or worse off without a belief in the sacred. Much of Western Europe is secularized, and people there seem to be getting on well enough. But then again, some of the greatest butchers in history—Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—were atheists who made god-terms of their own ideology.

A former true believer who used to sing in his church’s choir, Kitcher is sympathetic to the nostalgia for religion. More than that, he believes that the fictions of faith, no less than literary fictions, can deepen our relationship to higher values. And so there is no need to stop taking Communion as long as we do so with the understanding that the sacrament is the embodiment of what amounts to an enabling myth—that is, a belief that does not describe the world but moves life along in a positive way: to uses Plato’s term, a “noble lie.” I think Kitcher is fooling himself if he thinks we can have the rituals of faith without the rub of faith. As traditional religious belief has been receding in much of the West, the obsession with autonomy has triumphed and our ritual structures have been in decay. Today people want to design their own weddings and funerals; this is not just a coincidence.

There are adept Christian philosophers of religion who will have replies and sneers for all the doubts articulated in the pages of this book. After all, it is not as though Kitcher has provided new reasons for declaring the death of God. And yet, I have to confess that the sheer clarity and compactness of this philosophical version of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” has made it harder for me to sink to my knees in prayer without feeling foolish. Still, like every nervous Nicodemus, I understand that Jesus has promised a peace that “transcends all understanding” (Phillippians 4:7). We either accept that promise or we don’t.

Published in the May 15, 2015 issue: 

Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His “The Existentialist’s Survival Guide” will be published by HarperOne in April.  You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/GordonMarino.

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