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Fishing for God

But of course. Where else would lofty-sounding criticism of the much-needed atheist pushback campaign come from if not from the royal halls of LitCrit and deconstruction? Stanley Fish thinks he's pointed out something really clever by showing that the arguments … Read More

By / June 28, 2007

But of course. Where else would lofty-sounding criticism of the much-needed atheist pushback campaign come from if not from the royal halls of LitCrit and deconstruction? Stanley Fish thinks he's pointed out something really clever by showing that the arguments made by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens don't come from a separate discourse, but draw instead from the narratives of the holy texts themselves. He purports to demonstrate that not only are our three atheist friends saying something that's been said before and said better, but their arguments betray a lack of depth that he reserves for those who wrestle with the hard questions of faith:

…the objections Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens make to religious thinking are themselves part of religious thinking; rather than being swept under the rug of a seamless discourse, they are the very motor of that discourse, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians and poets (not to mention the Jesus who cried, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and every verse of the Book of Job).

I'll sympathize with the guy–in his line of work, you probably need to stay as immersed in texts as possible (you have to say 'text' a lot 'cause that's how they do it in LitCrit). But professor Dawkins has spent a great deal of time with DNA strands; Hitchens has seen first-hand a considerable sampling of the bloody battlegrounds where faith has foreclosed upon any rational resolution. And anyway, who really gives two damns whether or not we are dealing with separate discourses? Dawkins doesn't really need to argue from a discursive position. The facts of the universe exist whether he writes about them or not. Hitchens has himself pointed out that religion is indeed on a continuum: just as astrology preceded astronomy, so religion preceded philosophy–where one ends, the other begins. Of course the initial drives to study the cosmos and to discover deep truths of existence began somewhere. You've gotta do better than that, Stanley.

You have to hand it to the faithful: making sense out of such a confused flurry of contradictory writings takes some measure of intellectual creativity–it takes some acrobatic reading skills. But here's where Harris comes in: this creativity can become dangerous. If it enables you to imagine that death is not the end for you, that the man next to you is evil in the eyes of an invisible, silent Creator who has called on you to purify the Earth, then the distance between you and that very bloody battleground becomes frighteningly short.

If Fish bothered to address is the vision of the universe propelled by Dawkins, it would be impossible for him to sustain his tone of condescension. After all, Dawkins is the closest we have to an heir to Carl Sagan. The passion with which both authors have detailed the beauty and the mystery of the universe is astonishing. I imagine people like Fish resent them because this passion needn't stem from creative reading–it comes from engagement with lived, tangible reality. This means the clever reader isn't the repository of all that's interesting. And anyways, his profession is a matter of creative, acrobatic reading skills. It's only natural for discipline to seek its own continuance.

In the end, Fish can't read genetic data as proficiently as Dawkins, and he probably can't read neurological data as well as Harris. Perhaps he and Hitchens could go at it reading Proust, but I'm sure that Hitch has more cleverness in one Johnny Black tinted flick of the keyboard than Fish can muster at his most sober.

A better criticism of the three atheists would be this: superstition and disregard for facts are the enemy, not 'religion.' Religion is too loaded a loaded term and everybody has their own definition. For the three atheists, religion is superstition. But for someone like Clifford Geertz, religion is simply a 'cultural system.' Why take issue with any religion or cultural system that does not deny scientific evidence, that does not posit forces, entities, or dimensions in the universe where there is no evidence for them? The establishment of a system of symbols and methodologies for obtaining a good life and truth about the universe is certainly indispensable to the human race. We needn't necessarily abandon that endeavor for the salons and laboratories. But we absolutely must bring every last truth discovered in those realms into the temple, mosque, and/or sanctuary.

Faith in the unknown or the untrue is cancerous, and that has to be said. Four cheers for the new atheist vanguard for saying it (Fish forgot to read and boringly critique Daniel Dennett's text). Saying that the quest for truth and knowledge is part of the religious struggle should only impel the religious to see to it that their methodologies comply with truth, rather than flying–as they so often do–clumsily, stupidly, and violently in its face. As far as this author is concerned, a religion like that would be far more welcome than the higher superstition of deconstruction.

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