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
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.