Saturday, May 16, 2009

Please, Mr. Fish

Stanley Fish has another column about religion up at, this one seemingly expressly designed to annoy me.

The column is a review of Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Based on Fish's description, this could be the most maddeningly stupid piece of academic writing ever produced. Throughout the book, Eagleton refers to his atheist opponents as "Ditchkins," a play on Christopher Hitchens' and Richard Dawkins' last names. Let me give you a friendly tip Mr. Eagleton, don't try to outwit Christopher Hitchens. The man is a lank-haired engine of wit, fueled by the rhetoric of those who oppose him. Imagine Hitchens staring directly at his audience, a whithering non-expression on his face, repeating in his deep, Virginia-colony-tobacco voice the word, "Ditchkins." He'd follow with something about vapid schoolyard taunts, probably a complement to Dawkins, and you'd just sit there and sputter Terry. This is particularly amusing given Fish's concluding passage, "He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels." Uh huh.

Fish offers some sample passages from the book: "Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov." "[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus." But Mr. Eagleton, religion clearly is an attempt to explain the world. If it isn't, why do we have so much debate over evolution and the age of the planet?

Eagleton then claims that science doesn't, and can't, ask, "“Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” He's wrong. Science does ask all of those things and has developed interesting answers to them. If you don't know that you shouldn't be commenting on science.

Eagleton's book apparently boils down to the old canard that science relies just as much on faith as religion does. Why is this self-evidently false argument so popular with religionists? I guess you could say that science relies on the faith that the external world is real, but is that really faith? When I walk into a wall I slam into something solid and get hurt. Is it accurate to call my belief in the wall's existence faith? Doesn't that seem qualitatively different from faith in a completely imperceptible being who follows some physical rules and violates others? Doesn't a story about a person who can walk through walls involve more faith than a story about a person running into a wall? The reason we have perceived a conflict between science and religion is that those who identify with each are trying to change the behavior of the other side. This is why the common sense questions I just asked seem so much more important to me than esoteric debates about faith in an ultimate creating and motivating force. Let's say we're trying to decide where to build walls and who gets to build them. If we assume, based on past experience rather than faith, that people cannot walk through walls we will probably end up with much more livable communities. Likewise, if you tell me not to have sex with someone because I might get sick, that will result in much less conflict than telling me not to have sex with someone because an imperceptible being disapproves.

You'd think this difference between religion and science would be obvious by now.

I'll finish by noting Fish's strange conceit of denying that his audience knows anything about his own religious beliefs through his writing. I assume he's a believer, as he writes columns defending religion, albeit in circuitous ways. Perhaps, as a final rhetorical flourish, Fish will reveal his rabid atheism in a latter column, like the assistant tearing off his executioner's mask to reveal that he himself is the magician. Ha ha! I was really an agnostic all along! Who cares Mr. Fish?


Peter Matthew Reed said...

Now Fish fails to refute some arguments against his original post, while being annoyingly smug.

Andrew said...

This is pretty interesting...

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