Stanley Fish Deconstructs Atheism

Posted: Jul 16, 2007 12:00 AM
Stanley Fish Deconstructs Atheism

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.

Fish comments, "What this shows is that the objections Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens make to religious thinking are themselves part of religious thinking. Rather than being swept under the rug of a seamless discourse, they are the very motor of that discourse." Citing the atheists' portrait of religion as unquestioning obedienece, Fish writes, "I know of no religious framework that offers such a complacement picture of the life of faith, a life that is always presented as a minefield of difficulties, obstacles and temptations that must be negotiated by a limited creature in the effort to become aligned with the Infinite."

Fish observes that while religious people over the centuries have dug deeply into the questions of life, along come our shallow atheists who present arguments as if they first thought of them, arguments that Christians have long examined with a seriousness and care that is missing in contemporary atheist discourse.

In a follow-up article, Fish deepens his inquiry by looking at the kind of evidence that atheists like Hawkins and Harris present for their “scientific” outlook. Harris, for example, writes that “there will probably come a time when we will achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness and of ethical judgments themselves at the level of the brain.” Fish asks, what is this confidence based on? Not, he notes, on a record of progress. Science today can no more explain ethics or human happiness than it could a thousand years ago.

Still, Harris says that scientific research hasn’t panned out because the research is in the early stage and few of the facts are in. Fish comments, “Of course one conclusion that could be drawn is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions are not reducible to phyhsical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in.”

Fish draws on examples from John Milton to make the point is that unbelief, no less than belief, is based on a perspective. If you assume that material reality is all there is, then you are only going to look for material explanations, and any explanations that are not material will be rejected out of hand. Fish’s objection is not so much that this is dogmatism but that it is dogmatism that refuses to recognize itself as such. At least religious people like Milton have long recognized that their core beliefs are derived from faith.

Fish concludes that “the arguments Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens mostly rely on are just not good arguments.” We can expect our unbelieving trio to react with their trademark scorn, but Fish has scored some telling points.