Philip Kitcher on Living with Darwin

John G. West
Discovery Institute
May 1, 2009
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Philosopher of science Philip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. In his book Living with Darwin, Kitcher attacks strident atheists among evolutionists for “hectoring” their opponents and for presenting their arguments “without charity” and “without hope.” (p. 155) In particular, Kitcher indicts Darwinian atheist Richard Dawkins for offering a message that “thoughtful religious people will find… harsh and insensitive.” (p. 156)

Yet ultimately Kitcher does not disagree with the conclusions of Darwinian atheists like Dawkins. Indeed, Kitcher fully agrees with Dawkins et. al. that Darwinism undermines traditional religion (or what he calls “providentialist religion”): 

A large number of Christians, not merely those who maintain that virtually all of the Bible must be read literally, are providentialists. For they believe that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity. Yet the story of a wise and loving Creator who has planned life on earth, letting it unfold over four billion years by the processes envisaged in evolutionary theory, is hard to sustain when you think about the details. (pp. 122-123, emphasis added)

Kitcher goes on to claim that “[w]hen we understand the messiness of the processes through which life unfolds, any design must be judged as largely unintelligent, any Creator as, at best, whimsical and capricious. Providential religion can only be sustained by supposing that God’s design is an unfathomable mystery.” (p. 149)

But instead of encouraging evolution defenders to attack all religion as false (which would be insensitive), Kitcher urges his fellow evolutionists to adopt a kinder, gentler approach toward those who believe in God. Kitcher agrees with Marx that religion is the opium of the people, but he advises that the addicts shouldn’t be forced to stop using it Cold Turkey:

There is truth in Marx’s dictum that religion, more precisely supernaturalist and providentialist religion, is the opium of the people, but the consumption should be seen as medical rather than recreational. The most ardent apostles of science and reason recommend immediate withdrawal of the drug—but they do not acknowledge the pain that would be left unpalliated, pain too intense for their stark atheism to be a viable solution. (p. 165)

Instead of demanding that religious believers adopt atheism, Kitcher advises his fellow evolutionists to merely ask believers to replace “providentialist religion” with “spiritual religion.” (p. 152) And just what is “spiritual religion”? Kitcher explains it in terms of Christianity:

Spiritual Christians abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus. They give up on the extraordinary birth, the miracles, the literal resurrection. What survive are the teachings, the precepts and parables, and the eventual journey to Jerusalem and the culminating moment of the Crucifixion. That moment of suffering and sacrifice is seen, not as the prelude to some triumphant return and the promise of eternal salvation—all that, to repeat is literally false—but as a symbolic presentation of the importance of compassion and of love without limits. (p. 152)

Thus, according to Kitcher, if Christians can be persuaded to “abandon almost all the standard stories about the life of Jesus,” then they might be permitted to retain some of the trappings of their religion. In this way, the tension between religion and evolution can be worked out. Whether many Christians would find this an acceptable resolution of the conflict between faith and Darwin seems doubtful.

Even Kitcher appears to acknowledge that secularist Darwinists have a long way to go before they can offer a convincing replacement for “providentialist religion”:

the challenge is to find a way to respond to the human purposes religion serves without embracing the falsehoods, the potentially damaging falsehoods of traditional religions. We need to make secular humanism responsive to our deepest impulses and needs, or to find, if you like, a cosmopolitan version of spiritual religion that will not collapse back into parochial supernaturalism. (p. 162)

Kitcher notes that the convergence of secular humanism and “spiritual religion” he is advocating is similar to what progressive philosopher John Dewey proposed at the dawn of the twentieth century. But Kitcher also concedes that “at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we haven’t achieved the broadening of the religious life Dewey envisaged.” (p. 161) Kitcher doesn’t explain why he thinks his proposal is any more likely to succeed than Dewey’s failed proposal a century ago.