About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Stanley Fish on the new atheism

I'm getting a bit tired of reading reviews or commentaries about the recent surge in openly atheists books. Most of these commentaries splendidly make Richard Dawkins' point that it is simply unacceptable – even by progressives – to question religion. Which is, of course, good enough reason to question religion.

One of the latest entries in this increasingly popular genre of anti-atheist “criticism,” is a rant by Stanley Fish, a professor of law, and with what he admits is a “small store of theological knowledge,” not to mention a hopelessly flawed logic – a troublesome feature for someone who teaches law.

After starting his piece in the New York Times with an ad hominem attack (a logical fallacy), in which he accuses authors Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens of writing their books for the pure pursuit of notoriety, Fish suggests that what all these people are missing is the fact that believers are not at all oblivious to the criticisms raised against them (and hence don't need atheists to remind them). On the contrary, according to Fish, the essence of religious discourse is to be found precisely in how people of faith deal with such criticisms. Let's take a look at some examples.

After relating a story from Bunyans’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” where the “hero” abandons wife and children because an evangelist tells him to run toward eternal life, Fish says that the author has incorporated criticism of the action inside the story itself, as evidenced by the fact that friends of the hero in question say that he must have been taken by “some frenzy distemper ... into his head.” Right, too bad that such “criticism” is then immediately dismissed by the same friends, who conclude that the fool is in fact “wiser ... than seven men that can render a reason,” because, as we all know, breaking the trust of your beloved ones for no reason whatsoever is the most highly commendable action a human being can undertake.

Fish admits that Dawkins has a good question when he asks why Adam and Eve were punished so harshly for disobeying a rather insignificant rule, eating from a fruit tree (tellingly, a fruit that would give them knowledge). Most of us would be content with a slap on the wrist, but God – in his infinite lack of wisdom – had to go the whole nine yards and punish not only the perpetrators, but all their descendants too. But, Fish remarks, this problem has in fact been pondered by believers, and answers have been offered. The brilliant conclusion of such analysis? “It is important that the forbidden act be a trivial one; for were it an act that was on its face either moral or immoral, committing it or declining to commit it would follow from the powers of judgment men naturally have.” Yeah, god forbid humans (hopefully Fish meant to include women as well and just forgot to slip out of Biblical mode) actually use reason – rather than faith – to decide the course of their life.

It doesn't end there, unfortunately. Fish quotes Hitchens as asking (again, seems to me, reasonably) why is it that God needs constant praise from us, he being all-powerful and all that. The faithful, again, are not caught off guard: “God is the epitome of the rich relative who has everything; thanks and gratitude are the only coin we can tender.” How humiliating for humanity, and how absurdly narcissistic of God.

No such list of nonsense would be complete without a reference to Hitler and the Holocaust. Harris properly asks in his book, where in the universe was God when his chosen people were being sent to the crematoria by the millions. A logical question, and therefore one not worth asking, according to Fish. The believer, as usual, has a ready “answer”: “evil proceeds from the will of a creature who was created just and upright, but who corrupted himself by an act of disobedience that forever infects his actions and the actions of his descendants.” “Himself”? I thought it was all the woman's fault... At least Fish has the decency to admit (in parenthesis) that this retort is anything but satisfactory. Needless to say (or is it?), just punishment ought to extend to the perpetrators of an act, not to their descendants in perpetuity (as in “forever”). To act as God is allegedly acting is monstrous and must be resisted at all costs.

Fish concludes by saying that atheists just don't understand. No, we don't. We cannot understand because we live by the apparently misguided idea that belief ought to be proportional to evidence, that one of the best attributes of humanity is its ability to reason, and that blind faith is not worthy of praise, but rather is the sort of evil that brings people to slam airplanes into skyscrapers, killing thousands whose only “sin” was to be born in a different culture. As Blaise Pascal (a highly religious philosopher) put it, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Ponder that one, Mr. Fish.


  1. "....the fact that believers are not at all oblivious to the criticisms raised against them (and hence don't need atheists to remind them). On the contrary, according to Fish, the essence of religious discourse is to be found precisely in how people of faith deal with such criticisms."

    What makes a quiet atheist become one of the "militant new atheists" is that believers don't ever deal with the contradictions of their faith. Not only do they not deal with them, they loudly and arrogantly dismiss criticism of their beliefs.

  2. Fish is actually not a lawyer, even though he is at a law school. He does, however, hold a Ph.D.

    1. He's probably more widely known for his work in literary criticism. His name is almost synonymous with John Milton. Given his intelligence and education, I don't quite "get" his religious bent.

  3. “It is important that the forbidden act be a trivial one”

    Brilliant! Here: Mr(s). X, regarding your parking ticket, please come to the electric chair department immediately. Do not forget to bring the kids, they are to be fried too. Thanks. DOT.

    As Sheldon said in more elegant terms, if the crackpots would keep their nonsense to themselves, no "new atheists" would be bothering. I've heard many times from several friends that they became vocal atheists (instead of remaining quiet ones) mostly after Dubya and friends took power and started the current (and hopefully short-lived) American journey to theocracy.


  4. I find the pro-religious commentary stale and tiresome. Their pundits repeat the word "militant" and say atheists don't undertand and then they appeal to emotions and epiphanies. Blah Blah Blah. When presented with facts, or the lack there of, believers fold like newbie poker players.

    P.S. Massimo, in one of your previous comments to Cal, on another post, you mentioned Julian Huxley's book "Evolution: The Modern Synthesis". I'd never heard of it before. But I found a copy, and it's great stuff. Thanks. You're a positive force in my universe.

  5. Thanks for the correction, Anonymous, I have updated the post accordingly.

  6. MarcusA,

    nobody has ever called me "a positive force in the universe" before, can I quote you on that? :)

  7. Massimo - Absolutely! You may quote me on that. :)

    And I expect to see my quote on the back of one your books sandwiched between the endoresments of Shermer and Futuyma.

  8. The Atheist books aren't for to-be-unborn-again Christians. The Atheist books are for atheists and agnostics who make up a sizable chunk of the population, even in America.

    They are about a public forum, as legitimate ideas worthy of open discussion.

  9. Fish was one of several lit crit theorists who was the bane of my grad school days in the '80s. His background is as a literary theorist of various stripes, none of them much to do with anything like culturally meaningful discourse. He was, and is, an obnoxious publicity-hound as well - talk about the pot calling the kettle burned. I'm not sure I have ever encountered anyone who so much likes the scrawl of his own pen.

  10. When Fish critiques the reasoning in these three atheist tracts, he isn't necessarily defending organized religion. (Although he may be defending the process of religious reflection, my understanding is that he is not a believer.) Moreover, it should be obvious that, whether or not he is in effect defending aspects of religious tradition, he certainly isn't defending religious fanaticism. In the context of what Fish wrote the Pascal line seems bizarre.

    I'm surprised that a philosophy professor wouldn't see there are more "sides" to this than Hitchens-style atheists and religious nuts. I'm also surprised that such a professor wouldn't know Fish's work. Fish is a relativist and a skeptic. His publications range from brilliant to mediocre, probably just because there are so many of them. He's done valuable writing on the incoherence of the so-called "textualist" and "originalist" theories of jurisprudence. Books worth reading include "The Trouble with Principle," "Is there a text in this class?" & (for those interested in lit) his publications on Milton.

    In this linked article he uses the same reasoning to point out absurdities in philosophical defenses of religion (i.e., religion being an essentially mystical and literary form of thought, even when it's not the phony religion of semi-literates): http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9602/articles/fish2.html

  11. The best argument to all religions is the one they use to dismiss all other religions: Those other religions are obviously made up of old wives tales, and ancestor worship, and wishful thinking, and misunderstanding of natural phenomena, and scheming false prophets and priests after money or power. Each religion dismisses all the others as erroneous, and in that assessment they are all correct.

  12. From the January 2006 issue of National Geographic (P 30), the top 5 mass killing events of the 20th century:
    1. Maoist China - 30 Million
    2. Stalin's Soviet Union - 20 Million
    3. Nazi Germany - 11 million
    4. Japan's Warlords - 10 million
    5. East Pakistan (Bangladesh)rebellion supression - 3 Mill.
    Total = 74 million

    Of these top 5, the 6 M exterminated by the Nazis should be attributed to religion, the other 68 to ???
    Atheist believers: deal with the contradictions of your faith

  13. Of the top 5 mass killings in history,

    1. Maoist China - 30 Million
    2. Stalin's Soviet Union - 20 Million
    3. Nazi Germany - 11 million
    4. Japan's Warlords - 10 million
    5. East Pakistan (Bangladesh)rebellion supression

    all can be attributed to irrational belief systems, not Atheism.

    1 & 2: Communist totalitarianism, corruption, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism
    3: Fascism and Racsicm
    4. Nationalism, militarism.
    5. Primarily ethnic hatred, also Muslim-Hindu tensions.

    It is true that communist countries suppressed religious activities, but this was not a proximate cause of the mass killings. The motivation was primarily political and ideological.

  14. "deal with the contradictions of your faith"

    What contradiction? Even if it were undoubtedly true (it's not!) that atheism alone caused the mass killings, would that mean God exists? Of course not, but to realize that would mean thinking carefully about an argument or having read any of the "new atheist" books, all of which (sucessfully or not) address exactly this topic.

  15. The only thing you did was repeat what Fish repeated, and then attributed those things to Fish himself. "Fish says that religious people say 'x.' I don't agree with 'x.' Therefore, Fish is wrong." What kind of argument is that?

    I would encourage people to read Fish's actual editorial. Fish doesn't say you shouldn't criticize religion, he just says that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchins are guilty of the same things they accuse religion of. Fish isn't defending religion, he's just saying that some specific criticisms of religion aren't coherent.

    And Fish does have a point... the religious proposition is that God exists and God's existence is beyond human comprehension. So if you ask for scientific proof of God's existence, you're not showing you're smart, you're showing that you don't understand the proposition in the first place.

    If the essence of religious discourse is how people who are persuaded of religion's truth deal with things they can't explain, then the essence of scientific discourse is how people who are persuaded of science's truth deal with facts that science can't explain, mostly through creating ad hoc theories. This isn't a criticism of science, it's just the way it works, and it works pretty well, for that matter. The point is that science and religion work the same way.

    Fish isn't saying science is wrong and religion can't be criticized, he's just saying the specific criticisms of these three authors are invalid. It's like criticizing the Bush administration for being partisan. All administrations (except maybe Monroe's) were partisan, so it's a stupid reason to target the Bush administration in particular. There are valid criticisms, but this just ain't one of them.

  16. The Sokal Affair tells us all we really need to know about Stanley Fish.

    For confirmation, we need only read the nonsense that Fish writes in the New York Times, a once-respectable publication whose financial problems have led it to abandon whatever standards it had left.

  17. stanley fish is a postmodern dumbass.

  18. Forgive me for speaking since it appears that my comments will be heartily dismissed, but you all sound like those you are criticizing. You reject those that disagree with you on the basis that your logic it better to you than theirs. You assume you can better understand their logic and evidence than they can and make simplistic statements and assume that any complex answer is ridiculous because it does not fit into your limited understanding.
    I am a Christian and believe in those things that you mock. But I am willing to read and listen to men like Dawkins, Hitchen etc. and consider their ideas as they present them. Are you willing to take the time to listen and dialog in depth with theologians who take their work seriously and take them seriously? We are all much more willing to listen to bad arguments from those with whom we agree and celebrate them. If you do not believe that there is a dialog worth having then stop ranting to the choir. Some of us would like to read some reasoned and respectful debate.

  19. Darryl,

    but the point of the post is precisely that Stanley's logic is so elementarily flawed that he just doesn't make an argument at all. Simply look at his treatment of the problem of evil.

  20. I would like to comment on a couple of the issues discussed here.

    _The mass murders of history._

    An anonymous writer argued that atheistic regimes were responsible for the greatest mass murders in history. Bormanc responded that the culprit was not atheism but irrational belief systems. This is a very valid point but there are other factors at work besides these –isms.

    The mass killings could not have been perpetrated unless the perpetrator had the means and the motivation to do so.

    The current US regime is another case in point. It is composed of a Christain President who actively circumvents the laws of the country and a non-Christian Vice President who has a long history of the vice which forms part of his title. The avowedly Christian President controls secret and not so secret agencies who are involved in the slaughter, torture and harassment of both Americans and foreigners, especilly, but not confined, to those who do not practice some form of Christianity. The non-Christian Vice President does not claim to be an atheist or to act from this basis.

    While religious extremism plays an ominous role in Bush's reign, other important factors in the equation are the love of power, the ability to wield it, and vulnerability to the kinds of persuasion which powerful corporations can wield.

    There is also a fatal statistical flaw in the argument put forward by “anonymous”. The populations controlled by those apparently responsible for the killings were nowhere near identical in volume. China is at the top of the list purely because there are far more people in China than in any other country in the world.

    The argument disintegrates when we consider a more equal playing field. Let's compare the numbers reportedly killed by the Judeao-Christian God and the Judeao-Christian Devil since both of these entities are supposedly in control of the same total population. The Christian Bible attributes far more deaths to the God Yahweh/Jehovah than to the Counter God Satan/Beelzebub. If Christianity were logical then this should make Yahweh the god of hate and Satan the god of love and believers would be doing their utmost to avoid spending enternity in close proximity to a mass murderer and torturer.

    _F amiliarize yourself with the other side._

    Darryl implored readers of this site to familiarize themselves with the writings and ideas of theologians and stop ranting to the choir.

    In the few weeks that I have been exploring the “new atheism” I have been struck by the fact that atheists know far more about Christianity and its sacred writings than most Christians do. A huge pool of avowed atheists have been extremely active in the religions which they eventually rejected. Unlike the standard religious believer they know both sides very well.

    Even more surprising are the numerous sites where atheists have actively encouraged their readers to thoroughaly explore the religion which they have left or which they are considering leaving.

    In contrast religious zealots and even liberal Christian believers almost always vigorously dissuade people from familiarizing themselves with opposing views from first hand sources. The exceptions are “main stream” theological schools which, ironically, produce various forms of what has been confusingly called “religious atheists” – people of the cloth who don’t believe in gods, miracles, virgin births, etc.

    Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit” episode of the Bible ended with Penn stating that they wanted more people to read the Bible because it was the best way to produce more atheists. While these two belong to the “in your face” form of atheism they have a valid point.

    Reading the Bible like an ordinary book instead of treating it like a set of unconnected magic verses was the most influential factor in me rejecting the belief systems which almost resulted in me becoming a Uniting Church minister. Other important factors were my study of pre-Christian belief systems in the Middle East, the decision making process which lead to the canonization of the books of the Christian Bible, the works of radical Catholic theologians writing shortly after Vatican 2, theological treatises by modern Protestant theologians and, finally, the professional study of social psychology and the psychology of religious belief.

    My academic studies taught me to thoroughly review all sides of a debate before coming to a (hopefully informed) conclusion. In spite of my emotional attachment to my original highly evangelical belief system I gave up one belief element after the other until there were none left that made any coherent sense. I eventually threw everything up in the air and waited to see what would come down after the dust settled and my emotions caught up with my reason.

    By the time I was exposed to Dawkins this year I realized that none of my original religious convictions had survived and that there was no way I could reconnect with them without doing a kind of virtual lobotomy. In other words, I am an informed atheist.

    The only “informed Christians” I have met in my 60 years of life have been either on their way out of the system (often painfully so), unable to comprehend the ideas they had been exposed to or living with a form of psychosis which allowed them to harbor an “encapsulated belief system” which was protected from normal critical analysis. It seems that current American society encourages and supports socially accepted encapsulated delusional system – religion and so-called patriotism being two examples.

    The only cure for the encouragement of group psychosis is a pervasive educational system which requires students to learn and demonstrate critical skills and scientific methodology from an early age. This quality of education is not widespread in the US and is rarely available anywhere but in the final graduate years of the few schools which provide international level doctoral training. The US needs to upgrade its educational system or continue to fall behind the social and scientific advancement of other developed countries.

  21. As a Christian, I would say that a problem on both sides of the theological pond is a tendency to dismiss attitudes that we do not understand or that make us uncomfortable. Also, it seems as though both sides like to single out raving lunatics, debunk them, and say "see? This is atheism," or "this is Christianity."

    Instead of books by Richard Dawkins, Christians should be reading books by atheist philosophy professors, or ex-theology professors. The same could be said for atheists, in the opposite sense.

    In a documentary on PBS called "The Question of God," the president of Skeptic Magazine said that both sides have their arguments, and both sides seem even. I guess that is because ultimately, belief or disbelief is a matter of faith.

    Militancy in Christianity or atheism is simply disappointing. We should just be asking honest questions, with an open mind.

  22. The last comment says it all. Brilliant anonymous. Thank you. I'm not sure what I believe, mostly because I am open to both ways of thinking. Stanley fish did make an excelent point though when he compared the "new athiest" thought to that of religionists. Any one who believes in religion has faith in one thing, while the athiests have faith other things like "material evidence," and science. The physical world is not where God is to be found or disproved. The problem with Athiests is that they think everything needs to be proven when in fact, the human race is limitted so whatever proof, theory, evidence they find will be fallable. If it is fallable at all, then any sweeping statement ruling out the possibility of God is fallable.

  23. Hi Massimo, I found my way via Russell Blackford's blog.

    Good post, I like the tone and sense of your writting? What's the secret? I'm not so good at clear writing.

    Just a quick query, you say:

    After starting his piece in the New York Times with an ad hominem attack (a logical fallacy), My understanding is that the ad-hom is an informal fallacy, that is, it is not necessarily invalid. For example, if the topic where Dawkins'/Hitchens'/Hariss' demeanour or character, then to say that on of those 3 were acting like strident twats would not be a fallacy, even though it were an ad-hom. Is this correct? Though in this case, Fish was probably using an ad-hom because he didn't have real arguments.

  24. If it is fallable at all, then any sweeping statement ruling out the possibility of God is fallable. Tim, just because we can't be 100% sure, doesn't mean we suspend all judgement and become inert. If something has the preponderance of evidence supporting it, or is necessary to function, we can accept it as true until evidence to the contrary that overhwhelms our initial evidence appears. That's why you don't exit a building via the 10th floor window, but take the lift. You can't be sure that gravity will operate, but you take it as a fact and act accordingly.

    Where's you preponderance of evidence regarding any god's existence?

  25. Brian,

    welcome aboard! Yes, ad hom is an informal fallacy, so it depends on the context in which the attack is used and for what purpose. I think Fish used it because, as you say, he didn't have a better argument.


    it is certainly not my intention to create "groups," but I think one of the good things about rationalists, secular humanists and so forth is that we (at least in theory) value dissent and diversity of opinions. One of the things that distinguishes us from the fundies...

  26. It was clear enough Professor that you are a biologist first and a philosopher second by reading the order your put those words in your self-description. This hierarchy of skills became even clearer as I read your post.
    Certainly many books and articles made in response to Ditchkins' claims do find it unacceptable at all to criticize religion. But many are simply outraged by the sheer rudeness and sophistry that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens display in their not-very-theologically-literate books. A very similar anger, and similar incredulity can be found in the arguments of Ditchkins. The title of Dawkins' book, for heavens sake, is the God Delusion, suggesting that it is intellectually unacceptable to believe in God. I won't go into detail about the hypocrisy of your suggestion that we should question religion on the grounds of its extreme followers while remaining conspiculously silent on questioning atheism based on its most militant followers. And shouldn't any philosopher, in the skeptic tradition, question everything (not saying that you do not, just that your writing does not). Even atheists such as Thomas Nagel have criticized The God Delusion for its lack of philosophical fiber and its lack of a collected, focused argument. What is being reacted to with Ditchkins (and especially Dawkins) is the fact that they remain highly ignorant of theology's greatest arguments, thus making them both offensive and lazy, a combination that is sure to take the piss out of anyone who has fortified his/her belief in God on hard-earned reflection and debate.


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