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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 3)

At this point of my discussion of Philip Kitcher's paper in The Journal of Applied Philosophy, I want to turn to the five kinds of people in the world, as Kitcher presents them. There are many ways of cutting this particular cake, but Kitcher's method is not obviously wrong. I think the way we do it depends largely on our interests: these are not natural kinds, whatever that really amounts to, but they do, perhaps, provide useful categories for thinking about how we should approach the advocacy of naturalism and secularism.

1. The first kind of person is the religious believer, the sort of person to whom what Kitcher calls the "belief model of religion" applies. This sort of person's involvement in religion is focused on her belief in transcendent beings or entities, and her acceptance of doctrines that relate to them. She may claim that certain texts are true and represent the will of a transcendent being, and much else may follow from this for her - e.g. all of this may be the fundamental basis for her recognition of certain rules for conduct, her participation in rituals, her setting of personal goals, and so on. She takes her belief in beings, entities, and doctrines as primary, and these other things follow from it. This is, I suggest, how religion is usually understood by the non-religious - and, I add, with good reason. All of this is quite familiar.

2. The second sort of person identified by Kitcher is one of three to whom what he calls the "orientation model of religion" applies. This person is at the other end of a kind of scale or spectrum that can be applied to religious believers. To understand her, we need to understand what religion is to people who are described by the orientation model. Here, the doctrines are not primary. The person has a reflectively stable goal orientation: she  is fundamentally motivated by goals that she considers valuable in human lives, including her own life. For this sort of person, the doctrines are more like outgrowths or means to an end. Indeed, this second sort of person does not take talk of transcendent beings and entities or associated doctrines literally. For her, religion is demythologised. She can be described as mythically self-conscious person. She may be oriented to certain ideas of human equality and solidarity, for example, and she associates these with certain passages in holy books. She may be motivated to utter credal statements and so on, but when she does so she is not expressing any belief in the transcendent beings and entities that they mention.

3. The third sort of person is again one to whom the orientation model of religion applies. I.e., she is primarily motivated by goals that she considers valuable. By contrast with the mythically self-conscious person, however, her goals are entangled with belief in transcendent beings or entities. Thus, she can be described as a doctrinally-entangled person. Such a person, unlike the first type, does not start with beliefs in something transcendent. However, she may think that transcendent beings exemplify her fundamental values or somehow guarantee (if they are very powerful) that these values will prevail. She maintains her beliefs not because they are a starting point that she considers evidentially justified, but because the beliefs play a positive role in promoting her goals or values, which is all she requires of them.

4. The fourth sort of person is simply the one who falls between the mythically self-conscious person and the doctrinally-entangled person. Kitcher calls these people the doctrinally indefinite. They are not prepared to say that there's no defensible interpretation of the sentences that they utter which talk about transcendent beings and entities, but nor are they prepared to give a definite interpretation of what those sentences mean. Doctrinally-indefinite people may take refuge in poetic language that signifies the importance of certain events described in holy books, while being unwilling to say that those events happened as literally described. They may be vague, even in their own minds, as to whether transcendent beings and entities exist or not.

5. The fifth sort of person is secular. Such a person's orientation to the world does not lead her into any sort of religious participation or any kinds of profession of belief in transcendent beings or entities or doctrines that mention them.

I've introduced these five types of people in an order that is easy to explain (as does Kitcher), but it would really be more logical to change the order, which I'll now do. We have a kind of spectrum from the religious believer to the doctrinally-entangled person, then the doctrinally-indefinite person, the mythically self-conscious person, and finally the secular person.

If all five types of people exist, this may complicate things for critics of religion. Some criticisms may apply only to the religion of the religious believer and perhaps the doctrinally-entangled person. Others may apply only to the doctrinally-indefinite person and the mythically self-conscious person. The four religious types have different beliefs and different attitudes to the role of religious beliefs in their lives. It may be that a lot of people in religious congregations are religious believers or doctrinally entangled, but that the actual priests are doctrinally indefinite ... while the professional theologians are mythically self-conscious! Conversely, there could be societies where many of the people who belong to the churches are mythically self-conscious, or at least doctrinally indefinite, but the actual priests are doctrinally entangled or out-and-out religious believers. There could be many possibilities.

At this point, I have to say that I have no hard data as to how many people fit into the different categories or even as to whether they are real categories at all. It would be interesting to see some sociological research that tests whether this typology is correct and/or useful and, if so, how many people (and how many in various occupations, social classes, etc.) actually fall into which categories.

For the moment, I can only record my sense, based on reading and experience, that something like these five types do exist - or that it's a reasonably useful way of categorising people. Note that there could be sub-types, depending on just what religion, what transcendental entities, what doctrines and practices, and so on we are talking about.

So, without having a lot of relevant scientific data at my disposal, I'll simply say that this typology seems to have something going for it. If we keep it in mind and also think about how the different types might be spread differently in different societies and at different times in history - and perhaps within different ethnic groups or social classes or occupations - we may be able to get a better idea of what it is going on in the current debates about religion, e.g. why certain people say the things they do, why some people may seem incomprehensible or even wicked to others (as hard-core religious believers may sometimes think that mythically self-conscious people are wicked), and so on. The typology may not be the be-all and end-all for understanding, but if we bear in mind that there is something of this spectrum around it may be enlightening.

I'm thinking here mainly of enlightenment for secular people about the range of religious people - but there may be some enlightenment for certain kinds of religious people as well. If you think all religious people are like you, then some attitudes from others - whether from other religious people or from secular people - may seem incomprehensible.

In the next post, I'll look at what sorts of conclusions Kitcher draws from this, and what sorts of conclusions we might draw. And of course there may be other ways to cut the cake that are equally useful or more so. I still think that just what beings and entities a religious believer believes in, and just what doctrines she accepts, may be more important than the mere fact that she falls within type 1. above. Still, this way of thinking developed by Kitcher may offer us from insights. By all means, discuss now, and in any event that will be a topic for tomorrow.


Eamon Knight said...

FWIW, Kitcher's categories (or perhaps, identifiable points along a continuum) also ring true to me. I would say that, following a teen-aged religious conversion, I migrated from Believer through Doctrinally Entangled, experimented briefly with Doctrinally Vague, then skipped over Mythically Self-Concious to Secular.

I think I've encountered (in person or by reading) mythicists, though: Spong, possibly; the (minister) father of my son's partner; and a prof from the local Catholic university I was on a panel with recently (she describes herself as "sort of Catholic", and loathes the Vatican).

DEEN said...

There's something to be said for a classification like this one. I can easily think of people I've had discussions about religion with that could fit into each of those categories (although I might quibble about the usefulness of the doctrinally-entangled position as a separate class).

I think I might want to add an observation, though: the doctrinally-entangled position, the doctrinally-indefinite position, and the mythically self-conscious position only exist because the religious believer position exists. I don't think many people would bother with holy books (demythologized or not), if there didn't exist the wide-spread acceptance in society that these books hold some sort of special authority to begin with. And the only authority these holy books can claim, is that at some point a deity was supposedly involved in writing them.

Even of demythologized believers, we have to ask: "Why use this book, and not some other?" Or "Why listen to this priest, and not some other?" Or even "Why identify with this religion, and not some other"? I am not so sure we can really see the demythologized religions as wholly separate from their belief-oriented origins. They still rely on the respect and authority given to these original beliefs.

To illustrate what I mean, suppose I have a goal-oriented approach to life, but I like to cite The Lord of the Rings to support my goals (or any other work of fiction), nobody is going to call me "religious". But if I would cite the Bible, I'd suddenly be called a mythically self-conscious religious person. And why? Because the Bible is claimed by many to be the word of God, that's why.

That Guy Montag said...

It seems Kitcher is building on what I think is one of the more interesting bones of contention in this debate: what exactly is it that we commit ourselves by belief.

If anyone wants me to go more in depth on the philosophy here feel free to ask, but I'd be inclined to say that he's suggesting we look at belief as putting you on a spectrum between belief as description and belief as reference. In that case each category will basically be a variation on the degree and ways in which people equivocate on the two senses of the meaning of belief.