Review: Life After Faith by Philip Kitcher

December 11, 2014
article header image
Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism by Philip Kitcher (Yale University Press, £16.99)

Read more of our books in brief

We’ve had “New Atheism,” “New New Atheism,” and now Columbia philosophy professor Phillip Kitcher would like to propose a third alternative, “soft” atheism.

This subtle, careful and intellectually honest little book never quite makes the promised positive case for “secular humanism.” A more appropriate subtitle would be “secular humanism hasn’t got quite so many problems as you thought.” The reader is first taken through the now customary confession of appreciation for church music and the sense of loss that some atheists feel, and then a slightly pedestrian spelling out of the differences between religious and scientific epistemology. Kitcher’s attempt to square the ethical circle of “value realism” (if morality evolved, how can we claim anything is truly wrong?) is more engaging. He tries to redefine progress (and indeed truth) as a democratic process of problem solving. This is provocative, but Kitcher doesn’t really convince you that ethical precepts which have evolved could ever claim to “track the truth,” and so give us grounds to criticise other cultures. And his case for a pragmatic value realism is seriously undermined by the claim that “ethical precepts are inventions.”

His sketch of a “refined religion” with which secular humanists could happily coexist is, as the name suggests, not especially inspiring. And since Kitcher admits that this would be just a “way station” to a “fully secular world,” the reader is left wondering if this chapter was included as an attempt to appease the religious intentions of the lecture series on which the book is based.