Kitcher on how moral progress means overcoming religion

I just read the article in which this extended quotation occurs and thought this was an interesting, eloquent summation of many recurring thoughts on secular morality. Philip Kitcher writes:

The overwhelming majority of the world’s moral practices are intertwined with religious views. One of the ways of making moral progress consists in freeing ourselves of the need for this system of enforcement, in rejecting the false religious presuppositions, and in disentangling and dismissing the special injunctions that the religious framework has introduced. In part, this is simply a matter of replacing superstition with true belief (or with the absence of judgement) – and notions of truth and falsity apply directly here because of the religious claims purport to describe the decisions and volitions of person-like entities. It’s also a matter, however, both of reinforcing our altruistic dispositions, preventing irrelevant moral commands from interfering with the plans and interests of our fellows, and of expanding the range of opinion available to people. We should think of our moral system as a spare and streamlined device for developing the dispositions that first made social beings of us, unfortunately overlain with excrescences that were once useful in ensuring conformity, but that can now be scraped away to benefit effect.

The last part reminds me of the famous Heinrich Heine quotation, from his Gedanken und Einfalle  (that also appears in Hitchens’ god is Not Great)

In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.

I’m currently busy exploring how sanctity was used in Western society as method of latent social control, thus becoming equated with the “highest good”. One of the arguments I am making is that we are better off without sanctity and Kitcher has attempted to formulate a normative reason for this – as the quotation highlights at least.


Kitcher, P. (2006). Biology and Ethics. In D. Copp (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 178-179

Offended Atheist Gets Stupid Christian Billboard Taken Down

The Billboard in question (via The Daily Mail)

So this happened. I’ll summarise what I’m focused on in the blogpost itself if you don’t want to read all of that (oh no, reading! *hiss*!).

Basically, an atheist…

lodged a consumer complaint against a billboard for River’s Church located on its premises in Sandton [which is in South Africa, international readers].

The billboard features an image of a man holding his hands against the temples of his face. The following quote “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident – Francis Thompson” appears underneath.

The complaint then:

In essence, the complainant submitted that the billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid.

The following are my preliminary thoughts when reading about this ruling. (Note: the Christian respondent “smartly” – read idiotically – responded with Bible quotes. Nice move, guy. That’s really going to convince an atheist.)

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Stepping Over Graves

Image Courtesy of my great friend and creative partner Damien Worm

The year began with a life ending. My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and died quickly – but, thankfully, painlessly – within a few weeks. Her bodily deterioration scraped down the iron exterior of her social self. I had grown up with her presence always filling any room or event that we attended. The gaps of silence between withdrawn family members forced to interact, the awkward distances moulded by time apart between once close siblings and cousins, were filled by her incredibly sharp – usually scathing – wit, creating a bridge on which interaction could take place. She was someone who was lucky enough to have more people love her than she loved; not through malice but through being unaware that so many did.

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Some problems with local atheist article is one of those websites that makes you ashamed to share a species label with other humans. The comments sections often reads as though a bunch of blind, three-fingered lunatics have been set alight and told that typing really fast on a keyboard will put the flames out. Oh and someone is hitting them on the head with a hammer. Regardless, sometimes a brave soul emerges from the cloud of nonsense to write something comprehensible. Recently the user ‘Increasingly Annoyed’, wrote an article ‘Ask an atheist’. I have a number of small problems with it, though I think it is fairly well-written (though it uses some unnecessary phrasing) and refreshingly sober.

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How Offensive – The Banned Axe Advert and Patronising Christians

An advert about odours that “could offend” Christians has been pulled because of a single complaint from an angelically-concerned, single (male) individual. I’m offended his offence was taken seriously. Does my offence count?

From the Axe advert - How offensive that they would want to do anything else for eternity except dwell in servility and worship

Recently, it’s been very interesting watching advertising bodies get involved in metaphysical debates about the existence of god. For example, when the wonderful (but British) Ariane Sherine successfully managed to get an atheist message on busses – with powerful support from Richard Dawkins – they were told to change “There is no god” to “There is probably no god”. There were very bad arguments for this, but it’s fairly obvious why – ironically it is to cater to those who do believe, despite it being directed at those who obviously do not. Now, in South Africa, we’ve had something similar. Continue reading

Zuma Solves the God Problem

I’m so delighted. After all my philosophising and arguments, my disdain and wondering, my curiosity and reading, I can finally answer the question of god’s existence. Praise His name! Not only does the Christian god exist, ladies and gentleman, but I know an almost certain way to get into the lovely domain of Heaven: Vote ANC.


"Invisible men in the sky talk to me! Aren't you glad I'm your president!"

It’s so simple. Here I am doing an ethics course, struggling through the difficult dilemmas raised when people with different beliefs and different values come into conflict over a singular issue. What? That’s politics you say? Don’t be silly. Vote ANC! Continue reading

David Hume on Obfuscatory Philosophy

I came across a wonderful quotation by the great David Hume. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777) Hume unpacks his targets and what he hopes to avoid. In the very first section, “On the Different Species of Philosophy”, he considers the cases of some “metaphysical” philosophy which is obscure because it is not “science”. This is not to say that because it is not science it is worthless, but that a good red flag is something that revels in not being science, bathing itself in obscurity and obfuscation. (Which today identifies such things as obscure New Age nonsense, astrology, and homeopathy.)

To Hume, because “man is a reasonable being”, “science [is] his proper food and nourishment”. This is the famous paragraph, where he dissects the contradictory nature of “man” and ends off with (personified) nature telling us: “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”

Of course, here there was little differentiating between the kind of philosophy and science we ought to do. Both should be focused on remaining “human”. “Indulge your passion for science, says she [nature], but let your science be human, and as such have a direct reference to action and society.” (Emphasis added.)

I take such words to heart, considering the applicability of my thoughts, research and philosophical focus. I do not want to indulge in irrelevant navel-gazing on publicly meaningless topics. A danger, I think, in many disciplines.

And this is the paragraph I want to quote; where Hume admonishes all who would indulge in obscurity, superstition and meaningless drivel (I’m looking at you literary theory). Every academic should have this paragraph on their door; or above their keyboard or quill or whatever academics write with these days. Says Hume:

But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. Chaced from the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns. (Enquiry, I: Par. 11)

Hume teaches everyone, not just philosophers. Indeed, anyone can benefit from this man’s powerful and beautiful writing, thought and grace. His sobriety and clarity is second to none.