Years ago I had a series of debates with the literary scholar Stanley Fish. Our topic was political correctness. I portrayed Fish as the grand deconstructor of Western civilization, and he fired back in There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, several chapters of which are an answer to my arguments. As I got to know Fish, however, I recognized that although he defended some of the practices being promoted in the name of multiculturalism and diversity, he was not himself a politically correct thinker. We became friends, and in 1992 he and his wife attended my wedding.
Fish has of late been demonstrating his political incorrectness by writing critically of separation of church and state, and also by challenging leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christoher Hitchens. Indeed Fish uses his detailed knowledge of Milton as well as his famous skills of literary deconstruction to show the emptiness of the atheist arguments.
In his New York Times blog, Fish takes up the argument advanced by Dawkins and company that belief in God is a kind of evasion. According to this argument, we avoid the responsibilities of this life by putting our hopes in another life. Religion makes us do crazy things.
Fish takes as an example of the Harris-Hitchens-Dawkins critique the behavior of Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Christian becomes aware that he is carrying a huge burden on his back (Original Sin) and he wants to get rid of it. Another fellow named Evangelist tells him to "flee the wrath to come." Evangelist points Christian in the direction of a shining light. But Christian can't clearly see the light. Still, he begins to run in that direction. Bunyan describes his wife and children who "began to cry after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal Life!"
For Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, this is precisely the kind of crazy behavior that religion produces. Here is a man abandoning his duties and chasing after something he isn't even sure about. Fish writes, "I have imagined this criticism coming from outside the narrative, but in fact it is right there on the inside." Bunyan not only has Christian's wife and children imploring him to return, he also has Christian's friends struggling to make sense of his actions.
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