May 6, 2009

Fish On Religion

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You are apathetic and bored. Minutes ago, you opened your newspaper or browsed through your favorite news site. You found all the top stories were the current “hot topic” ones, from swine flu to Ms. Prejean’s recent escapades. You want to read something more novel, more substantive. You may even be up for a commentary piece.

If so, I may have the piece for you: “God Talk“, a recent New York Times blog post by Stanley Fish. If you are an English major, you may have heard of him. If not, he is both a Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and a Professor of Law at Florida International University.

In the post, Mr. Fish discusses a new book called “Reason, Faith and Revolution” by Terry Eagleton. I have not read the book, so I am not in a position to comment on Eagleton, his views or the quality of his work. What Fish indicates is that in the book, Eagleton focuses on why religion has persisted and fascinated people for many years.

But Fish also indicates that another function of the book is to counter arguments by “Ditchkins”, an inflammatory nickname referring to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, that religion is a terrible thing that has done more damage than good, and should be replaced with science, which gives objective answers about how the world works. If there is any one point where Fish shows his cards, it’s at the end of the article: “[Eagleton] 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.”

The beauty of a blog post compared to a news article is that it allows you to comment, and I encourage you to post your own responses after reading it. I’ve read several pages, although I haven’t been able to go through every single comment. (I simply don’t have enough time.) What I can say is that the ones I went through left one interesting point untouched.

None of the ones I read directly commented on Eagleton’s view of the boundary of science. “Science, says Eagleton, ‘…can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses.”

Fish later draws this out more explicitly later in the article. According to Eagleton, he says, “the value of individual freedom”, which Dawkins and Hitchins would hold to, cannot be grounded in scientific observation. According to Fish, Eagleton says it is “an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong’…’All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.'”