Fish on religion and liberalism

I think Stanley Fish doesn’t understand either liberalism or religion. He writes (behind the Times firewall):

>First of all, I stipulate to the usefulness of teaching the bible as an aid to the study of literature and history. I’m just saying that when you do that you are teaching religion as a pedagogical resource, not as a distinctive discourse the truth or falsehood of which is a matter of salvation for its adherents. One can of course teach that too; one can, that is, get students to understand that at least some believers hold to their faith in a way that is absolute and exclusionary; in their view nonbelievers have not merely made a mistake – as one might be mistaken about the causes of global warming – they have condemned themselves to eternal perdition. (“I am the way.”) What one cannot do – at least under the liberal democratic dispensation – is teach that assertion of an exclusive and absolute truth as anything but someone’s opinion; and in many classes that opinion will be rehearsed with at best a sympathetic condescension (“let’s hope they grow out of it”) and at worst a condemning ridicule (“even in this day and age, there are benighted people”).

In the first place (as we noted in an earlier post), there’s nothing incoherent about studying the body of propositions that compose any particular religious doctrine without embracing their truth. For instance, Fish has made the doctrine and the seriousness with which its adherents believe it without making us affirm it. If what he said about religion were true–you cannot teach it–then he couldn’t talk about why you can’t. Since you can–he has–then what he says is false.

Second, the Rawlsian liberal will point out that there is no absolute truth when it comes to matters of foundational questions of justice and political structure. This is quite a different claim from that which says there is no absolute truth at all. Liberals are not relativists, as Fish seems to think. There is of course plenty of absolute truth possible in matters empirical. These may inform, but do not form the basis of, our conception of justice. So in the end, no controversial system of value can serve as the basis of a political structure.

3 thoughts on “Fish on religion and liberalism”

  1. I think Fish is also confused about truth, and perhaps the ethics of truth-telling in our “Liberal Democratic” society (thanks Foucault). Fish seems to make two claims here:

    The fact that some people hold absolute, exclusionary beliefs


    Absolute exclusionary beliefs cannot be taught in “Liberal Democratic” schools.

    The fact is most people hold absolute, exclusionary beliefs about reality, and most of them differ. We observe absolute, exclusionary beliefs from most philosophical writings. That doesn’t mean that we ought not learn them in a public setting for fear of being disagreed with, or any other negative consequence that might arise. I’m not really sure what particular epistemic position the average “Liberal Democrat” holds, but the liberalism model takes that knowledge to be irrelevant in designing a just society based on rights.

    In any case, i don’t think I’m saying anything much different from your analysis, but Fish defninitley seems confused about a great many things.

  2. let’s not parse words–fish isn’t confused, he’s equivocating, which is what he does best.

  3. I find it ironic that Fish seems to be both desperately attempting to overcome the “postmodern” conception of the non-propositional character of religious belief and attempting to argue in favor of it. Maybe that makes him the ultimate postmodernist…take that Rorty! See what happens when you so egregiously disconnect truth conditions from your knowledge claims. But, I guess that is just me and my “old” logic talking.

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