June 14, 2007

Fish Out of Water: An Open Letter to Stanley Fish

Seldom does an intellect as penetrating and deadly accurate as that of Stanley Fish miss its mark entirely. Imagine my surprise and disappointment, then, on reading Professor Fish's deficient critique of "The Three Atheists" - Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens - in his June 10 New York Times blog entry . It is telling, if altogether unsurprising, that this noted scholar's exceptional essay concerns the topic of faith.

Fish's chief complaint is that the Three Atheists make a tired habit of posing questions that have "been asked and answered many times . . . by believers trying to work through the dilemmas presented by their faith." Far from being an outside threat to religious belief, says Fish, such questions "are the very motor of [religious] discourse, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians and poets." Thus, he faults Dawkins for questioning why a benevolent creator would punish Adam, Eve and all their descendants so harshly for committing a "sin" -- eating a piece of fruit after being forbidden to do so -- which seems, in Dawkins' words, only "mild enough to merit a mere reprimand." Fish retorts that theologians have a ready answer: "that it is important that the forbidden act be a trivial one," rather than one that is clearly moral or immoral, so that "the prohibition can serve as a [true] test of faith." Likewise, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens each ask why God allows the innocent to suffer terribly; Fish, quoting Milton, makes the usual noises about humans having free will, and evil stemming not from God, but from "'man's polluting sin.'"

What is utterly lacking in Fish's riposte, of course, is any reasoned assessment of the theologians' answers to these questions. Under the normal rules of rational discourse, it is never sufficient merely to consider questions that undermine one's position. Nor is it enough to offer any dodge to problematic challenges. Rather, thinking people are expected to evaluate a given position, and the strength of challenges to it, in light of logic and evidence. Not so for Fish, who would have us congratulate believers simply for considering hard questions in the first place. Never mind about the reasonableness of answers. (How I would love to have taken one of Professor Fish's exams when I was a law student!) As Fish himself admits, he offers these theological responses to the Three Atheists' questions "not because they are conclusive (although they may be to some), but because they are there" in the religious literature.

Of course these answers are not conclusive. They are stupefyingly, mind-numbingly unconvincing. As Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens each point out, it is strangely cruel and intuitively immoral to punish innocent children for the "sinful" acts of long-dead ancestors. Forgive me for not cheering "answers" that appeal only to those blinded by faith. Dawkins does not ask why innocent children should suffer punishment for the "sins" of their predecessors because he thinks believers have no answer. He poses this arresting question to highlight the tortured reasoning underlying the "answers" theologians offer.

Atheists -- both New and Old -- have never accused members of the "faith-based community" of failing to consider obvious difficulties that beset their various worldviews. For millennia, atheists have had to answer to theologians' artful sophistry. Long have they been impressed by the oceans of ink spilled on defenses of irrationality, and by the various logical backflips, dizzying apologetic acrobatics, and feats of mental contortionism believers employ to loose themselves from the constraints of rational discourse. Practiced theologians commonly offer a diverse abundance of answers to the many questions that plague religious belief. Much harder is offering answers that withstand the light of reasoned scrutiny. The point, as Fish ought to know, is not whether believers have answers to give, but the reasonableness of their answers.

Consider the scores of millenarian sects, from early Christians to Jehovah's Witnesses, that have fabricated post hoc rationalizations for the failure of the apocalypse to occur at predicted times. Are doomsday prophesiers to be congratulated for making the abysmal failure of their predictions "the very motor of [their religious] discourse, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians?" Some young-earth creationists have rationalized away fossil evidence of an earth far more ancient than that of the bible, by reasoning that God placed these fossils in a way to make a young earth merely appear old. Would Fish fault paleontologists for pestering creationists with questions that have been "asked and answered many times . . . by believers trying to work through the dilemmas presented by their faith?"

I suspect that Fish would not be so quick to applaud these believers, for the very reason that their "answers" to tough questions fail to persuade. Fish is well familiar with the rules of rational discourse, and several of his passing comments reveal his discomfort with "answers" that make no sense. When discussing the problem of evil, he sheepishly notes that the "free will" line of response is "a standard answer (which does not mean that it is a satisfying one)." These seemingly minor qualifications are telling. Fish seems well aware that atheists do not bemoan an imagined failure to confront questions that gnaw at the roots of religious faith; he implicitly acknowledges that atheists criticize the answers believers give to those questions, and the reasoning -- when we are blessed with any -- believers use to arrive at those answers.

Recognizing this, why, then, would Fish go through the trouble of composing his lengthy critique? Chalk it up to faith's uncanny ability to cause otherwise intelligent people to act in mysterious ways. From the start, Fish's theophilia shines brightly through the clouds of confusion that blight his essay, alongside an overt disdain for atheism. He begins by labeling the trio's bestselling books an "endemic" of the atheistic genre. His description of Hitchens as "the wittiest and most literate of the three" authors apparently relegates Harris and Dawkins -- the one a winner of the PEN Award for non-fiction writing, the other arguably our greatest living expositor of science -- to Salieri status. By describing faith as a way of "thinking" that the authors "do not begin to understand," Fish achieves the very arrogant, belittling tone he accuses the three of employing towards believers. To say that the authors cannot even begin to understand faith-based belief is bizarre, considering that at least two of the three (Dawkins and Hitchens) grew up steeped in religion, as they attest in their books.

Is it unthinkable to Fish that three able and insightful minds could consider utterly irrational systems of belief in all their intricate detail, yet reject them for insufficient evidence? Probably not. I will not insult Professor Fish by describing the rules of rational discourse as "a way of thinking he does not begin to understand." Judging from the conscious evasions and sidesteps he makes around the Three Atheists' piercing questions, it appears to be a point he understands all too well.

Derek C. Araujo
Executive Director, Center for Inquiry-New York City
daraujo [at] cfinyc [dot] org