C. Recent Work in Applied Virtue Theory > 'Epistemic Vices in Public Debate: The Case of 'New Atheism' (I.J. Kidd)

This book chapter is forthcoming in Christopher Cotter and Philip Quadio (eds.), New Atheism's Legacy (Springer, 2013).

Critics often complain that the 'new atheists' are arrogant, dogmatic, closed-minded and so on, but so far such complaints have been interpreted as as rhetorical remarks rather than substantive criticisms. Those qualities of character are familiar from the literature on philosophical virtue theory as vices, specifically epistemic vices, so let me call this complaint 'the vice charge'. My aim in this Chapter is to articulate the vice charge against new atheism by focusing on two vices - epistemic arrogance and epistemic dogmatism - and indicating how typical new atheist attitudes and doctrines are intrinsically epistemically vicious.
January 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterIan James Kidd
This sounds very interesting--I'd like to see the paper. In my class I recently used, and like, Philip Kitcher's paper "Militant Modern Atheism," [Journal of Applied Philosophy,Vol. 28, No. 1, 2011
doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5930.2010.00500.x]

Have you seen that paper? It has a strongly overlapping focus as yours, but he criticizes both sides and says that his challenge "is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism." Here's its abstract:

Abstract. Militant modern atheism, whose most eloquent champion is Richard Dawkins, provides an effective and necessary critique of fundamentalist forms of religion and their role in political life, both within states and across national boundaries. Because it is also presented as a
more general attack on religion (tout court), it has provoked a severe reaction from scholars who regard its conception of religion as shallow and narrow. My aim is to examine this debate, identifying insights and oversights on both sides.
Two distinct conceptions of religion are in play.For Dawkins and his allies (most notably Dan Dennett) religions are grounded in doctrines, propositions about supernatural entities, events and processes which the devout believe. Their beliefs prompt them to actions, which they support or rationalize by reference to the doctrines.Dawkins and Dennett view the acceptance of the doctrines as resting on cognitive misfiring — these are delusions to be outgrown or spells to be broken.
By contrast, the religious scholars who criticize the militant atheists often view religion as centered in social practices that inform and enrich human lives. To the extent that there are doctrines that atheists might subject to epistemic evaluation, these are to be viewed as pieces of
scaffolding, that are, in principle, dispensable. I argue that militant modern atheism is incomplete (and likely counter-productive) so long as
it fails to attend systematically to the roles religion fulfills in human lives.Yet it is important to achieve public clarity about the literal falsehood of the doctrines on which fundamentalists rely. The challenge is to develop a well-articulated and convincing version of secular humanism.
Meeting that challenge is, I claim, one of the central problems of philosophy today."
January 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
Hi Guy, yes, I know that paper - in a couple of papers (one forthcoming in 'Religious Studies' and the other under review) I challenge Kitcher's 'enlightened secularism' on three grounds:

First, that it relies upon a facile conception of the nature of religious belief, such that the strategies he suggests for challenging religious belief won't work, at least not in the majority of cases.

Second, that the alternative secular 'surrogates' that he talks about won't do the sort of moral and existential work that religious persons need them to, at least not for the majority of religious persons.

Third, that the secular public reason he advocates - in 'MMA' and another paper in 'Episteme' - (a) won't persuade religious persons who have different estimations of the cognitive and cultural authority of the sciences and (b) won't work because it's premised on precisely the epistemic convictions that secularism disputes are premised on.

January 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterIan James Kidd
That's interesting. I put together a team and proposal for at virtue-theoretic 'revisioning of the ethics of belief' with Jim Montmarquet and John Bishop, for the Arete Initiative the other year, but it didn't fly. I think my 'neo-Jamesian' approach in 'Possibility and Permission?' is somewhat more acommodating to your view than Kitcher's, since I am not trying to introduce a secular humanist 'surrogate,' but am making a limited defense of religious overbeliefs (to use the Jamesian term). But there is a question of how accommodating to try to be, because Kitcher thinks the classical belief model ought to be open to critique by secularists and liberal Christians, not accommodated whole hog. An argument that 'this won't satisfy these people' appeals to their settled convictions, but that is potentially Q-begging as a desiderata if its a conviction in favor of the "belief model" but he is right that in his initial starting point that this model is a tenuous one to hold today. So I haven't seen your paper, but I guess I worry that your three criticisms could well be one's made by a religious adherent who didn't intend to accommodate the enlightenment challenge to belief in any way, shape or form. Where does doxastic responsibility come in to moderate the moral and epistemic problems with the belief model as he describes it?
January 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
A pity that project didn’t fly.

My concern with Kitcher’s enlightened secularism is two-pronged: philosophically, some of his claims – about the nature of religious belief, say – are arguably erroneous, or at the least stand in need of revision; procedurally, the style of argument he employs relies upon the epistemic preconceptions that are in contestation, so he needs to have the argument at that ‘foundational’ level – which is, of course, very tricky! That paper of mine ends with a set of suggestions, one of which invokes the idea of epistemic virtues; so the religious adherent who rejected the Enlightenment challenge would be at fault, as would the secularist who insisted that religious belief is a purely psychosocial phenomenon to be understood on those terms. But there is room for optimism here – at least on this side of the Atlantic! – but pitting one set of certainties against another set of certainties of course won’t do.
February 4, 2013 | Registered CommenterIan James Kidd
Ian, That is a satisfying clarification. It also sounds a bit like you want to carry through what you see as the best aspects of his approach, by virtue-basing the account of doxastic responsibility. There are certainly several of us working on that type of thing, and I think VE in philosophy o religion and the ethics of belief/epist. of disagreement has a future ahead of it. Keep up the good work.
February 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
Ian J. Kidd's revised draft of 'Epistemic Vices in Public Debate: The Case of 'New Atheism' is now available in the JB Library. Just click on the JB LIbrary tab next to login, to find and download it. These issues in philosophy of religion are very important but under-discussed aspects of applied virtue theory!
August 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell