State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Rembrandt: The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1635

So far, one of the chief lessons the twenty-first century has taught us is that you can’t deduce anything from what century it is. President Obama likes to denounce Vladimir Putin’s power politics in Ukraine as belonging to the nineteenth century, but Putin seems to have no problem conducting a nineteenth-century foreign policy in the year 2014. Likewise, ISIS’s beheadings of “infidels” evoke the seventh century, and West Africans living in terror of Ebola are reenacting the Black Death of the fourteenth. To say that these things should not exist today is itself a kind of primitive incantation, which attempts to banish as historical things that every day prove themselves utterly contemporary.

A milder, but in a sense even stranger, manifestation of this principle can be found in the current debate about religion and atheism. In the polemics of the New Atheists, we find reprised the furious Enlightenment contempt for religion that animated Voltaire and the philosophes, alongside the scientific arguments against religion that convinced Darwin and his contemporaries. The arguments have not changed; even the emotions are the same. Yet the paladins of reason, having slain the beast of superstition, find that it refuses to stay dead.

The reason, of course, is that the loss of faith is not something that happened to all of humanity at a single moment. Because faith still survives, and in many places thrives, the loss of faith is not a historical phenomenon but a biographical one. As Nietzsche’s madman foresaw, the death of God does not happen once, but again and again, whenever the news of it reaches a new listener:

This tremendous event is still on its way, wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder need time; the light of the stars needs time; deeds need time, even after they are done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant to them than the remotest stars—and yet they have done it themselves!

What this means is that, like the early Christians, secular humanists have the duty to be evangelists—to spread what is, to them, the good news that there is no God. Life After Faith, the deeply thoughtful new book by Philip Kitcher, takes this duty seriously; and its seriousness lies in its recognition that this fact, to many people, sounds not like a liberation but a defeat. The language we still use betrays this emotional fact: we talk of the death of God and the loss of faith, rather than the birth of reason or the achievement of truth. Perhaps this is because the absence of God, like our own mortality, runs contrary to our native instincts. Just as children are fundamentally convinced that they will not die, so they are born believing, or prepared to believe, in some kind of superintending providence. Truth is not something we are born with and need merely hold onto; it is something painfully acquired through a process of maturity and disillusionment. Truth, as the novelist has it, comes in blows.

Kitcher’s short book, based on his 2013 Terry Lectures at Yale University, accepts the premise that, in the argument between religion and disbelief, the latter bears the burden of proof—or, better, the burden of reassurance. Proof that God does not exist he takes to be, at this point in history, superfluous, which it surely is. Anyone who wants to learn the ethical, philosophical, or scientific arguments against belief can surely find them easily in Voltaire or Nietzsche, if not in Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

Life After Faith therefore disposes of the case against religion quickly, in the first of its five chapters, “Doubt Delineated.” Kitcher focuses in particular on the claim to exclusivity that just about every major organized religion makes: the promise that in this church or this book alone truth and salvation are to be found. Psychologically, this is one of religion’s most powerful weapons. There is nothing we want so much as reassurance that we are on the right path, and most religions offer this in an absolute form. When he comes to discuss the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Kitcher is of course appalled, seeing a prototype of fanaticism and violence: “Abraham stands at the end of a continuum of those who are ready to do profoundly inhumane things in the name of religious faith.”

What he does not discuss is why this story, so offensive to our ethical instincts, exerts such an attraction on believers and would-be believers, such as Kierkegaard. The reason, surely, is that a father who kills his son for God demonstrates in the most absolute way his certainty that he knows how to please God, for only certainty could justify such an atrocious act. And the ordinary believer’s certainty may be bolstered by the certainty of the patriarch or the founder.


Kitcher, however, sees that this claim to exclusivity, which is each individual faith’s strongest attraction, is a dangerous scandal for all faiths considered collectively. For it is plainly impossible for every religion’s claim to be correct. “Nobody thinks the world is so full of mystic forces, sacred places, spirits, and divinities that the entire population of claimants can be accommodated,” he writes. If God is Ra, he cannot also be Jesus Christ. In fact, religions have historically been much better at addressing this objection than Kitcher allows. The Romans were happy to assimilate foreign gods to their own pantheon, while Islam’s sacred history offers an internally consistent explanation for the existence of prior revelations from Moses and Jesus.

Still, Kitcher’s point is a powerful one. If you try to imagine your way to an Archimedean point outside all religions and weigh the evidence for each one, you may find that none has an advantage. Each can lay claim to its sacred founder, its holy scripture, its justificatory miracles. And in fact, this is not the way human beings find themselves declaring allegiance to a particular religion. While conversions do take place, it is virtually never the case that people choose their faith based on a consideration of the truth claims of all the rival possibilities.

The embarrassing fact is that most religious people seem to believe in a religion for no better reason than that their parents believed in it. “How can a devout person, deeply convinced of some specific, substantive doctrine—the claim that the world is the creation of a single personal deity, say—come to terms with this predicament?” Kitcher asks.

To face it clearly is to recognize that if, by some accident of early childhood, he had been transported to some distant culture, brought up among aboriginal Australians, for example, he would now affirm a radically different set of doctrines…and would do so with the same deep conviction and as a result of the same types of processes that characterize his actual beliefs.

To Kitcher, this critical argument is sufficient to dispose of the exclusive truth claims of every religious tradition. Still, if no religion has a monopoly on truth, it is possible that all religions are equally true in a certain way—that is, metaphorically. The stories told by Islam, Hinduism, and Greek paganism may all be just that, stories; yet they may converge on a common truth, which shines through the veil of myth and fable.

This is the position taken by advocates of what Kitcher calls “refined religion,” the subject of his third chapter. Refined religion worships not this or that god, but “the transcendent,” and “the world’s religions can be appreciated as invoking an aspect of reality—the transcendent—that exceeds any human ability to describe it in literal language.” This ecumenicism goes hand in hand with pragmatism: a true faith is one that empowers its believers, regardless of the literal truth of its scriptures and doctrines. “The crucial question,” Kitcher explains, “concerns the capacity of metaphors, myths, and stories to orient the lives of the faithful in valuable ways.”

Refined religion is a frustrating interlocutor for the skeptic, because it seems to retreat from every concrete, debatable truth claim, while still retaining the kind of authority associated with traditional faith. As Kitcher puts it, refined religion “escapes the secularist argument by diverging from the assumptions on which that argument depends”—such as the assumption that you can only consider yourself an adherent of a religion if you actually affirm its doctrines. Instead, it may place a higher value on ritual, community, and tradition, on the practices of religion rather than its formal tenets.

Yet the very refinements that make religion more acceptable to the intellect also weaken its ability to ground any positive beliefs—say, about ethics. To deduce any kind of values from “the transcendent,” we must believe that the transcendent has the power to communicate with us, to tell us how to live; and that is just the kind of belief that refined religion abjures. At best, Kitcher concludes, the transcendent can be seen as a source of extra passion and commitment in the pursuit of ethical values we derive independently, by consulting our own reason. This is a moderate enough faith: it relies on the expectation that “secular humanists and champions of refined religion ought to recognize one another as allies, at least in some battles,” even if “in the end…peaceful coexistence must give way to renewed argument.”

But is reason a firm enough ground to support the values we need in order to live? Can there be a purely humanistic ethics, in which right and wrong enjoy no supernatural sanction? Religious believers doubt it—without God, they believe, everything is permitted. Empirically, this is a weak argument: history shows that even with God everything is permitted, and there are plenty of ethically exemplary atheists. But Kitcher takes the objection seriously, devoting his second chapter, “Values Vindicated,” to providing an account of how ethics can emerge in the absence of faith.


He begins by citing the classic dilemma Plato advanced in the Euthyphro: “If goodness is what the deity wills, does the goodness arise from the divine willing, or does the willing respond to the goodness?” That is, do we pursue the good because it is good, or simply because God commanded it? The fact that we can imagine God commanding something evil—say, child sacrifice—suggests that our intuitions about good and evil are independent of, and prior to, our knowledge of God’s will. But if so, then ethics are not actually a product of the divine command; at best, they can be validated and reinforced by religion. Despite this powerful argument, however, Kitcher admits that “the tight connection between religion and ethics survives. Nobody has succeeded in formulating any rival account of ethics that is both readily comprehensible and widely persuasive.”

Such an account is what Kitcher seeks to provide, in order to reassure the reader that “life after faith” does not mean a life without good and evil. His alternative is based on evolution, which is a notoriously precarious foundation for ethical argument. Human beings, Kitcher writes, following the current theories of anthropology and evolutionary biology, evolved from primates who possessed the unique faculty of “responsiveness”—the ability to intuit and react to the needs and desires of their fellows. In humanity, responsiveness is elaborated into a formal system of ethical behavior, allowing us to live together in much larger societies than chimp bands: “rules for action, patterns for life together, stories to make them vivid and effective, structures for a shared social life.”

Human history, seen in this light, is a long experiment in improved responsiveness, in increased mutuality. In short, it is a story of progress. This notion itself presents problems, not only empirically—again, it wouldn’t be hard to read history as a tale of regress; the Holocaust took place in the twentieth century—but because progress seems to imply an external standard by which it could be measured. Kitcher denies that any such standard exists, because there is no extrahuman source of ethics. Still, he imagines a more pragmatic and improvisational kind of progress, in which human beings do not move toward a preordained perfection, but manage to solve ethical problems as they arise. “Provided progress is viewed as problem solving, the concept of ethical progress proves coherent,” he argues.

This idea will strike most readers as plausible and attractive, since it uses Darwinism, currently our most authoritative anthropology, to arrive at a familiar liberal politics, in which the goal of humanity is ever closer cooperation, fairer distribution of resources, and more widespread social justice. Still, it does not succeed in overcoming the basic distinction between fact and value with which Kitcher began.

It would be easy to offer an alternative, equally Darwinian account, in which the imperative of perpetuating our genes overrides the merely contingent ethical arrangements we have inherited from a distant, and very different, past. In such a scheme, the best reproductive strategy for each person is probably to become a free rider on social ethics—to allow others to do good so that I can concentrate on being selfish and maintaining my family. If anyone were to say, like Thrasymachus in the Republic, that in fact true justice is the advantage of the stronger, it is hard to see how Kitcher’s Darwinian account could refute him. To the extent that we experience ethics as not merely a preference but a duty, Darwinism, like any naturalism, cannot really explain them.

Religion gives us ethics to help us live; it also helps reconcile us to the fact that we have to die. In his fourth chapter, “Mortality and Meaning,” Kitcher addresses this element of religion, once again arguing that secular humanism has its own resources, that we need not rely on the transcendent to give our lives meaning. First of all, he argues, the longing for immortality, to which most religions cater, is not really coherent. We are made for finitude; life without an ending would not be what we consider a good life. “Rather than having a single coherent narrative arc, it would be a loose picaresque novel or a disjointed collection of short stories—however fulfilling the individual episodes might be, it would be hard to understand the whole as a life,” Kitcher argues. This is a powerful argument against immortality understood as perpetual life, though it does not confront the more profound conception of eternity as existence outside of time altogether, which is what most sophisticated religions promise.

As this literary analogy suggests, Kitcher defines a good life as one characterized by wholeness and shapeliness, rather than mere duration:

Each meaningful life is distinguished by a theme, a conception of the self and a concomitant identification of the goals it is important to pursue. That theme should be autonomously chosen by the person whose life it is.

This is, of course, a highly privileged, even aristocratic definition of the purpose and possibility of life, and Kitcher recognizes that his ideal is simply out of reach for billions of people who remain mired in poverty and need or in a sense of aimlessness they cannot transcend. For him, this does not cancel the ideal, but only makes its realization more urgent: “Beyond declaring abstract rights we should demand that the world’s resources be shared so as to allow to all people…the opportunity for a meaningful life.”

Here too, Kitcher’s appealing argument rests on assumptions that are susceptible to challenge. For one thing, he takes for granted that the world’s resources can sustain, and human nature will permit, the construction of a society in which every person enjoys the plenty and leisure needed to concentrate on “life themes.” This is, to put it mildly, a questionable assumption; certainly nothing like it has ever existed in the past.

Then again, the idea of life as a coherent narrative with a defining theme seems—although Kitcher does not say this—to be derived from an analogy with the nineteenth-century novel—the very form that so much of the last hundred-plus years have been devoted to deconstructing. What if our lives are not like David Copperfield or even Buddenbrooks, but instead like Ulysses, a disorganized stream of thoughts and impressions, or like The Stranger, an anesthetized progress through an alienated world? What if it is precisely the dwindling of our religious inheritance, over the last two centuries, that accounts for the gradual disintegration of the bildungsroman as a life ideal?

In the book’s last chapter, Kitcher recognizes that literature can, in fact, offer a challenge to secular humanism’s composure. His brief readings of King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov show how these works portray a universe of tragedy and depravity, in which evil and suffering are not eradicable accidents but deeply woven into the texture of being. Yet he is not finally discomposed by these messages. “The great works I have all too briefly reviewed can be—should be—profoundly disturbing,” he writes, yet he remains convinced that this kind of disturbance is ultimately salutary for secularism, rather than disabling to it. “The secular sense of ‘our own good,’ of what is worth wanting, is refined and deepened by struggling with their tragic vision, by trying to overcome the dangers they threaten.”

The composure and dignity of Life After Faith are owed to this serene confidence that secular humanism can, ultimately, give us what we demand from religion, and on a firmer basis of truth. If the loss of faith is a genuine wound, however, is it really possible to heal it so completely that it doesn’t leave at least a scar?