Monday, June 11, 2007

Of strawatheists and real preachers

Stanley Fish has a long and distinguished career in academia behind him. He has a running series of blog posts, often related to religion, behind the paywall at the NY Times. I have been riled up by a few of them but this time out I am riled enough to type.

Stanley Fish cannot see his own biases at work in his June 10 post in the NY Times titled The Three Atheists. He claims the atheist's objections were raised first and answered better by the faithful. The starting points of his arguments are the self referential and self contained "facts" of a delusional system, e.g., quoting George Herbert: "if it is only by the infusion of grace that we do anything admirable....". These premises, per Fish, lead to conclusions that faith is not the easy way to knowing our place in the universe: "Where does that leave us, Herbert implicitly asks, a question more severe and daunting than any posed by the three atheists." To this I can only reply with an astounded "That's what we have been telling you! And If you want, you can probably dream up some even more complicated notion of omniscient and controlling supernatural presence, some scheme from which it is harder yet to pluck the meaning of our existence." So what?

Then Fish takes three paragraphs to dispose, by similarly self contained and groundless premises, of the problem of evil in a god-made world. He begins "Harris wonders why the Holocaust didn’t “lead most Jews to doubt the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God?”" Fish, and perhaps Harris, may not have talked to so many holocaust survivors. From the luxurious perch of a tenured philosopher or cleric, contemplation of the evil men do to each other and to the innocent gifts of nature quickly becomes a shadow boxing match with abstractions of people and abstractions of their acts. I know Jews who survived slave labor and can, with some difficulty still recount as eyewitnesses, daily death and degradation who no longer believe there is a god yet still harbor hope for humanity rising above its impulses and selfishness. Fish only arrives at the usual mildly circular conclusion that if we had no freedom to be evil, we would not even be free to have faith and reverence. Yet I revere creation and the wondrous diversity of life that has come forth on earth...freedom is not required, only awareness.

The point Fish is trying to make in both these myopic rebuttals is that the three atheists have no substantial argument because they have a mistaken and shallow take on the theism and faith they critique and dismiss. I cannot agree. Why does Fish give the faithful so much credit for dealing with their own doubts in what, to me, is an orgy of communal solipsism yet give the atheists so little credit for a vastly more plausible if less comforting categorization of those same doubts? Why would a man of Dr. Fish's worldly accomplishments think outspoken atheists could not recognize the complexity and human frailty of an observant person who, as more than a few at my synagogue do, say "pray as if god were listening, but act as if it were all up to you."? When you observe faith by trying to live with the faith, you come to see many who are unburdened by fundamentalism and in practice, though hardly in proclamation, are agnostic and merely doing what makes them feel better about themselves and their fellow creatures. Don't look a gift course in the mouth. Some never lose that comfort with ritual, some never tire of the rhythm of service, some are never ready to take off the training wheels of agnosticism...and yet they do not afflict others with accusations of damnation and doom and would not share Dr Fish's peevish begrudging of the atheists arguments. If, indeed as Dr Fish contends, the deepest expressions of religious faith are those that have wrestled with doubt then why not admit that those who have walked all the way through the doors of doubt are, in consciousness, perhaps even closer to the thoughtfully religious than are those who rub their specious certainties in ones face? The authors whom Fish takes to task have only offended in rubbing the uncertainty in the face of the faithful...a challenge welcomed by those confirmed in their faith and feared by those most outspoken against any questioning or dissent.

I would not care one way or the other if there is a god and I do not dismiss at all the great need some people feel to put a face on nature and to sense an addressable will behind their fates. I presume aching humanity would welcome a person who could come to these conclusions about deity that Fish reports but do so by starting with the wind and the dirt and the birds and the electrons which we can, every sane one of us, see, measure and agree more or less as to their presence and natures and build a case from only the observable, avoiding all projections and ghosts to still arrive at some ghost in the machine. Yet none of this inclination and hunger for a god is deemed a weakness to any of Fish's arguments but instead as an evidence.

He summarizes that the religion against which Dawkins, Harris and Hitchins rail is a bit of a straw man: too complacent and simple to be compared to the real, sublime and even tortured dialogs the faith has had with itself. Does Dr Fish forget what world we live in? It is not the likes of John Milton from which the authors hope to rescue a few minds but the likes of Albert Mohler. Fish says "... the incredibly nuanced and elegant writings of those who have tried to answer it are what the three atheists miss; and it is by missing so much that they are able to produce such a jolly debunking of a way of thinking they do not begin to understand. I would say that Fish is fighting an academic battle long since lost whereas the authors are sniping at a street gang religion to regain for more popular audiences exactly that healthy level of doubt Fish is so proud of.

UPDATE: Quite by accident as far as my efforts and intentions are concerned, This post has had more traffic than any other I can recall. And many of you are actually reading it which is even more unusual. The NY Times has over 200 comments to the original post as of 4:00 PM June 13. The number would doubtless be much higher but for the log-in required. The commentary at the Times is overwhelmingly critical of the Fish article. The few attempts there to bolster the narrow view of Dr Fish may amuse you. Though I don't quite agree with his weighting of the benign vs the malignant aspects of religion, I still commend the remarks of Wilhelm Evertz near the end of the commenting:
Atheists believe that we human beings have only each other. We do not believe in an unearthly paradise. We seek fulfillment by working for a better here and now and we derive pleasure from nature and the wonderful works humans have created in the arts and sciences. We even admire the creators of the great illusions: Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad.
You don't have to pay to read that but you do have to create a registration, hit this link, and fill in the blanks. [I find the paywall a good way to be one post ahead of the cheapskates] PZ Myers has had his response in Phyrangula on the "most active" list at science blogs for over a day. Andrew Sullivan gets in his licks too by pointing to PZ. There has been a perfect storm, a two day gale, of Google searching for this topic which leads me to ask: Did the Fish article get mentioned on broadcast or print so there was interest but no link?

Anyhow, welcome strangers, there's leftovers in the archive and feel free to poke around.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hair hair!

Nice post. Nuf sed.