Olde Tyme Religion

Stanley Fish ought to dump the subject of religion. In his last blog entry, he moves the goal posts far away from the Atheist trio of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris. According to Fish, they argue that textual criticism shows the Bible to be a bunch of made up stuff by people who lived along time ago. So therefore there is no God–at all (so Fish says they say). He writes:

>So there’s the triple-pronged case. Religions are humanly constructed traditions and at their center are corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today. Sounds devastating, but when you get right down to it, all it amounts to is the assertion that God didn’t write the books or establish the terms of worship, men did, and that the results are (to put it charitably) less than perfect.

Then Fish goes on to point out how dumb that is, because:

>If divinity, by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of God be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him.

But that just changes the subject. As Fish says, Hitchens, et al. are talking about religions and their historical and textual basis. To be exact, Hitchens et al. in this particular instance deny that the Bible, with its stories of a man who walked on the earth, healed the sick, and blessed the Greeks (and so on and so on) constitutes reliable evidence for the existence of God. Skepticism regarding the literal historical truth of a foundational religious text, however, is a different matter from denying the possible existence of a Pseudo-Dionysian God beyond being. Denying the existence of such a Being–that is to say, a God, on Fish’s description, beyond existence, proof, knowledge or interaction with the world–is impossible.

*clarity edit 6/28. Thanks Ugo.

47 thoughts on “Olde Tyme Religion”

  1. Fish writes that, “God is perfect and infinite” while humans are “finite and confined within historical perspectives.” He writes that efforts to “apprehend” God will “fall short of the the transparency” achieved in some future “beatific vision”, that the creator “by definition cannot be contained within human categories of perception,” and that attempts to “contain” God are doomed to be incomplete. And, he summarizes it all with such profundities as

    1. “the unfathomable and unbridgeable distance between deity and creature…assures the failure of the latter to comprehend or prove…the former”
    2. “the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him”
    3. “Proving the existence of God would be possible only if God were an item in his own field”

    and this gem

    4. “God, however – again if there is a God – is not in the world; the world is in him; and therefore there is no perspective, however technologically sophisticated, from which he could be spied. As that which encompasses everything, he cannot be discerned by anything or anyone because there is no possibility of achieving the requisite distance from his presence that discerning him would require.”

    There are so many logical defects in this kind of reasoning it’s hard to know where to begin. He sounds like medieval philosopher here. Do any modern scholars really think this way?


  2. jc,

    This isn’t the first time you’re deconstructed ridiculous arguments against Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc. (goodness knows it’s easy to do). One of the biggest mistakes Fish and most like him make (purposefully?) is that they don’t address, specifically, any of the arguments that these authors make. Accordingly, they wind up strawmanning their positions (horribly) and looking foolish (also easy to do!). It’s as if they didn’t even read the books.

    I find this rather annoying, but somewhat unsurprising. What is surprising (and just as annoying) is that you go out of your way to mention you have not read them either. I know you don’t have to read them to point out the flaws in Fish, et.al.’s arguments, but every time you say “mind you, I haven’t read Dawkins” I hear the hint of “so maybe he really is saying that” and this aggrevates me as I have read them and I know Fish et.al. are making a mockery of what these authors are saying.

    It seems it would be worthwhile to read at least some of these authors considering their popularity (and subsequent blog entries/editorials/letters they spur and you deconstruct) and their crossover with your interests (as I understand them). Even if you don’t read them, at minimum it seems that familiarizing yourself with their positions would be in order since you take several responses to them so seriously. Anything would be better than the hands off treatment I’m sensing from your discussions in this area.

  3. i think a lot of this silly piece stems from fish’s belief in an “imagined coomunity of readers,” who supply a given meaning to a text which only bears validity for them. this validity, however, as wholly subjective, cannot, on fish’s view, be called into questio. he’s even written a book on the subject called “is there a text in this class?”

  4. To me, the quasi-debate between Hitchens et al and Fish seems to be something like this.

    Religionists: God exists. People should believe God exists and should incorporate this belief into their decisions and actions, in part because the Scriptures provide evidence God exists.

    Hitchens: I don’t believe God exists and therefore will not alter my decisions and actions. Moreover, I recommend that, since most people seem to have adopted the premise that one should avoid believing in magical beings and phenomena which are unsupported by evidence (I infer this from the observation that most people, including religionists, seem not to believe in elves, faeries, unicorns, etc.), in order to be self-consistent these people also should not believe in God, whose existence also is unsupported by evidence. Finally, since the Scriptures are the most commonly alleged source of evidence for God, I shall scrutinize them carefully. Having done so, I conclude that, contrary to the claims of the religionists, the Scriptures have all the earmarks of being a human and not a divine record.

    Religionists: You fool. We never said the Scriptures were evidence that God exists. Who would say such a preposterous thing?


  5. Sorry for the lengthy comment, but I wanted to say why this sort of debate (between people like Fish and people like Hitchens) is important to me, yet I can’t figure out how to say it with more concision.

    Religionists like Fish seem to want non-believers to start believing in God, and to apply religious principles to our daily lives. No doubt some of them (perhaps at least one of the wealthy televangelists) regard converting non-believers as a means of obtaining leverage to be used for personal gain, such as to extract money from us, but I’ll give religionists the benefit of the doubt and assume their proselytizing derives from their own (perhaps misguided) compassion and from the commands of their faith. In addition, some of them are not satisfied merely with whatever persuasive powers they natively possess, but want to amplify their influence using the awesome powers of the state. In any event, at the end of the day, they want non-believers to start believing in God, so that we behave differently (eg., going to church, giving money, praying in school, stop watching porn, etc.).

    Of course, in all fairness, some non-believers (such as Hitchens) are about as vocal as are the religionists. One purpose of this, again, is to modify behavior. Get folks to stop believing in God, and you just might curb some of the conflict that flows from the collision of conflicting creeds. But, another purpose is not so much to change beliefs or to modify behavior, but rather to deprive religionists of the imprimatur that logic and reasoning confer, when it’s something they haven’t earned.

    This brings me back to Fish’s column. Suppose Fish wants to convert me (I’m a non-believer) to a belief in God. I don’t know for certain that he does want to persuade non-believers, but such a desire certainly would be consistent with his frequent writings on religion. Well, he could just ask me to believe, but obviously that approach rarely gets anyone very far. It’d be like asking someone to change their tastes to suit someone else. He could rely on his own personal experience, by saying “I’m telling you that being religious is so much fun. Why don’t you try it?” That might work a little better, especially on friends of his who know Fish very well and who trust him, but it certainly lacks any kind of mass appeal. In fact both these approaches, as well as others (eg. emotional pleas), are just that, appeals. What provides much more persuasive punch than “appeal”, is “coersion”. An appeal tries to get someone to WANT to believe something. Coersion COMPELS them to believe something, whether they want to or not. Of course, coersion is what you get from a reasoned, rational argument. If I’m a rational person, than I have to accept a certain conclusion if you’ve given me a valid REASON to (and if I accept the premises). So that’s what Fish has got to do. He’s got to use empirical evidence and logical reasoning to construct a compelling argument (a “proof”, if you will) for why God exists, and if he succeeds the dividends would just keep rolling in. I.e., like things turned to gold by Midas, anyone who is touched (i.e., reads and understands) by Fish’s argument for God would instantly become converted.

    It’s so tempting that Fish (or again, some other religionist) tries to construct rational arguments, which frequently are built on “evidence” gleaned from Scripture and are strung together with declarative statements that sound like reasoning (such as “God is infinite, while Man is finite”). Well, ok, if Fish (or others) is going to so bait his hook he’s got to be prepared for what he might catch. What such religionists do catch is a shark like Hitchens who, finding no nourishment in the pseudo-argument presented, tears it to shreds and tries to bite the anglers’ heads off. The galling epilogue to this story is that Stanley Fish then has the nerve to complain that, what we non-believers seem to misunderstand is that Scripture does NOT provide evidence for God, and that logical, rational arguments for believing in God cannot be constructed.

    To sum up. They seem to want us to believe in God. They know we’ll only be convinced by logical, rational arguments based on evidence. Lacking both the logic and the evidence, they throw together a crude facsimile, the fakeness of which we easily spot. Then they turn around and say, “Oh, well, God is beyond mere ‘logic’ and ‘evidence’.”
    What a dodge.
    END RANT—–


  6. Hey David,

    I’m not sure that Fish is a “religionist”–he doesn’t give any sense of his beliefs one way or the other (so it seems to me). That said, your analysis of his argument is right, however. Hitchens casts doubt on scriptural evidence for religious belief (because such evidence is either corrupt, contradictory, or false–or worse), and concludes that such evidence does not rationally lead the religious beliefs in question. So far so good. We’re having a discussion about evidence. If Hitchens’ evidence is no good, then Fish can point that out. But this is not the discussion Fish wants to have. Rather he changes the conclusion of Hitchens’ argument to a different and stronger one: i.e., no God of any sort exists. Hitchens is not in a position to to justify that particular claim. Worse than that, the way Fish sets it up, no one is a in a position to say anything at all about such a God (thus the reference in my post to negative theology). But that particular version of theism is hardly the one that many Bible-believing Christians will claim to believe in. They believe in the one that Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris talk about (complete with young-earth creationism).

    In an attempt, therefore, to characterize the debate between religion and Hitchensites as a debate between two incommensurable systems of belief, Fish has simply misrepresented the views of both.

    Finally, a word in defense of medieval philosophers (you mentioned that above). As a student of medieval philosophy, I have to say that there views on religion are many thousand times more sophisticated that what gets called religious discourse in America today (like Fish here); they are still considered serious participants in discussions of philosophy of religion. Having said that, I know what you meant by that comment and you’re basically right–Fish is just plain confused.

  7. “Rather he changes the conclusion of Hitchens’ argument (no God of any sort exists). Hitchens is not in a position to to justify that particular claim.”

    Does he make that particular claim? I’m not as familiar with his writings as I am with Dawkins, Harris and Dennett (who definately make no such claim), but I have read some of his work and have not found him saying this. This is part of my point in the post I made earlier (which I hope you will address). I have heard him say we have no reason to belive any sort of god exists, and thus to believe in god is irrational, but not the untennable claim that no god of any kind exists. Or do you mean that “[Fish] changes the conclusion of Hitchens’ argument [TO] “no God of any sort exists.”?

  8. Right Nevyn. My bad. He changes the conclusion TO that. I have edited above.

  9. David,
    I have a question about your word “religionist.” Who falls into this category? It would seem to me it would apply only to a vocal minority, if it parallels an Islamist’s relation to Islam. If you mean something more universal then a small vocal minority you may want to look for a different term.

    I like your distinction between persuasion based on appeals versus persuasion based on coersion. I think religous discussions must be based on some sort of appeal, to use your term, because faith is at the crux of any religous discussion. And faith is not necessary irrational. It is not necessarily rational either, but arational. We can go into whether it is acceptable to belief on something outside of rationality, but that is another discussion. My point with anyone who trys to prove or disprove the existence of God is missing the point entirely. You can’t coerce people into faith. Your religionists are likeley to annoy as many believers as non-believers.


  10. “I have a question about your word “religionist.” Who falls into this category? It would seem to me it would apply only to a vocal minority”

    Not to step on David’s toes here, but “religionist” (as I’ve seen it used and used it myself) has come to cover any traditionally religious person (or person of a traditional religion, though I suppose it would cover pagans and such as well). I like it because it is less . . . ardent perhaps, than some terms like “faith-head” or “god botherer” but less ambiguous than simply “believer”. It eliminates the distinction between Christian, Muslim, Hundu, Jew, etc., who are all religionists. As far as many atheists are concerned, “religionist” is a convenient shorthand for one thing they all have in common. Of course, David may have a different opinion.

  11. Please don’t get hung up on the word “religionist” on my account. I performed some elision and lost some concision along the way. It is, as Nevyn suggested, just a shorthand, and a clumsy one at that. I should not have been so lazy.

    I also didn’t mean to imply that Fish literally is trying to convert anyone. However, when he writes that God exists (even though this cannot be proved) I assume that he either a) wants the reader to know that Fish believes God exists or b) wants the reader to believe that God exists. I don’t understand what the point of (a) would be, so I assume his motive is (b). In other words, while he may not be peddling “The Watchtower” door to door, he nevertheless has made a modest attempt to get his readers to believe in God. Anyway, I just wish he would spare us non-believers the lecture that Scripture doesn’t provide evidence for God, because that is precisely what we have been saying (or at least, it’s what I say, and what I *think* Hitchens et al. say). If he feels that strongly about it, I argue a more appropriate target would be those people of faith who DO try to convert non-believers.

    Also, I didn’t mean to malign medieval philosophers. It’s just that Fish’s argument that God’s infinitude cannot be “apprehended” by humans–who are finite–to me sounded like a lazy mind getting confused by the ambiguities of his own poorly-chosen words. It also reminded me of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God. But those are two different things, and I shouldn’t have lumped them together.

    Chip, precisely what are the differences between things that are “irrational” and things that are “arational”?


  12. Nevyn
    Not to step on Chip’s toes, but I think the following is note-worthy. When you say –

    “It eliminates the distinction between Christian, Muslim, Hundu, Jew, etc., who are all religionists. As far as many atheists are concerned, “religionist” is a convenient shorthand for one thing they all have in common.”

    I would say to this that many, if not all of the above-mentioned classes would deny that they have anything in common. I’m only a member of one of the above classes, Christian, but I would definitely deny any commonality. And so, from my end of the discussion the term would be too vague to be of any use.

    You’re right when you say that “as far as many atheists are concerned” it’s a convenient shorthand, but whether or not it’s a shorthand that does justice to the the actual range of beliefs in question is another matter. If, as you say, the term is meant to imply those who believe in “any sort of God,” then what becomes of the term when a member of the above mentioned classes says that on his view the phrase “any sort of God” is nonsensical?

    I’m just wondering if it’s fair to use such a term if it’s used to categorize a person in a manner that, they feel, implicitly denies what in fact they claim to believe. Could they then call this straw-mannish?

    If the reply is merely “But they all have belief in [a] God in common,” then it seems important to note that they mean nothing similar by the term.

    Am I making sense? Please let me know if I’m not.

  13. Religionist:

    “person adhering to a religion; especially : a religious zealot” — Merriam Webster

    That definition seems to cover about all uses of the word I have read over the last few years.

    So, one part of a “commonality” between Christian, Muslim, Hundu, Jew, etc. is that their members can be called “religionists.” — they are all “religous persons.” One may, though, think this more of a sharing of a “classification” trait rather than of having anything in “common.”

    But then, if one were to read about the origins of these religions, and read the teachings of Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha, etc., one would find a great deal in common.

  14. The issue raised was that the assignment of commonality seemed to ignore that adherents of one or more of the positions assigned to that commonality might contend that there is no commonality in the contents of their belief… and the answer comes that there is in fact commonality **because** they can in fact be so-called?

    That’s an interesting answer.

    The second claim requires justification. Many adherents would deny it as well.

  15. If that first part there was a few too many ‘commonalities’ for one paragraph, what I meant was this:

    If you say “religionists” refers to the fact that all claim to believe in ‘God’. Then the reply is, I think, that the spectrum of god-concepts among the classes you’re lumping together as “religionists” is so variegated as to render such classification unhelpful and/or uninformative.

    If you maintain in the face of this contention that it is still helpful because they all do believe in “some sort of god,” then it can be urged that this misrepresents those that would hold that “some sort of god” is a contradiction in terms. (I guess this is a sort of species of the previous objection rather than a separate objection).

    And if you say “okay then, ‘religionists’ are quite simply that class of people who hold religious beliefs.” Then someone is going to surely contend with you on what qualifies as a ‘religious’ belief, and likely they’ll insist that everyone holds religious beliefs.

    If you were to then modify to something to the effect of “okay but for religionists a significant part of their view is not based on reason but rather on faith,” then it is likely that the reply will come back that there is no unanimously agreed upon and unambiguous conception of just what Reason is and what its parameters are. In fact one might for instance point out that everyone has a view of ‘reality as a whole’ that they take on faith, which largely determines the parameters that their Reasoning process is committed to. (Also this objection is sort of a species of the previous also I suppose).

    Anyway, just wanted to try to clarify my confusing statement above.

  16. Isn’t it true (and so necessarily true that it might be called ‘obvious’) that, like any other act of reasoning, the validiity of your classification scheme (“religionists base their views on faith”) is contingent on the the meanings of the words? And, is it not possible to come to come agreement (if only a temporary, working agreement) about the meaning of words like “faith”, in order to see what conclusions can be teased out of it?


  17. To the first question, of course, yes. But to the second I’m not so sure. I mean, the assumption that it is possible is the whole thing I’m drawing attention to in the difficulties with in Nevyn’s use that I suggested.

  18. Owen, suppose you and I decide to agree to *assume* these things are true (so as not to lapse into solipsism):

    *We perceive a reality that is external to ourselves. That is, reality exists.

    *We feel certain sensations in the same way. That is, we can make objective observations of reality.

    *We feel other sensations differently from each other. That is, we also make subjective observations of reality.

    *We deduce certain aspects of reality, contingent on generalizations drawn from inferences based on objective observations. Since other people can and often do make the same observations, we’re confident they would make the same deductions. That is, we’re confident our deductions are true.

    *We also deduce other aspects of reality, based on subjective observations, but since other people commonly do not make the same observations, we’re not confident these deductions are true.

    *Religious people are those who have confidence that deductions they make from subjective observations are nevertheless true.

    You and I do not have to agree on these premises, but isn’t it possible that we could?


  19. I think it is fair to try to group people of different religions together based on shared characteristics. We speak of Abrahamic religions or New Religous Movements. Certainly there are huge differences between Judaism and Islam or New Ageism and Neo-Paganism. But for a term to be useful it must be obvious what the shared characteristics are. Personally as a Christian I think I have more in common with some Pagans, Muslims, or even some atheists compard to my fellow Christians. “Religionist” is too broad a term to be very meaningful. It does more to obscure the shared characteristics of a group than it does to explicate them.

    To my mind it is the same as speaking of eastern and western philosophy. It is misleading to think that there is any useful reason to pack all of Western philosophy together, besides a geographic proximity. Geographic proximity is at best a secondary consideration in philosophy, I think. If anything it obscures the historic exchanges between these two “monolithic” religions. Likewise my conception of God shares more gross charactaristics with people of other faiths than some in my own faith.

    I think it is a false dichotomy to seperate everything into a rational or irrational belief. Do you prefer the Beatles or the Stones? Can you rationally justify why you have this preference? I doubt you could. Is this pereference irrational? I wouldn’t say so. This dichotomy just doesn’t apply

    You may object that aesthetic considerations don’t involve themselves in theological or scientific discussions. I would recommend reading Kuhn’s essay “Objectivity, Value Judgment, and Theory Choice.” He argues that scientific progress is not completely rational (in your “coercive” sense), but informed by rationality and by a number of aesthetic judgements such as the simplicity, fruitfulness or consistency of a given theory. These considerations are not completely dictated by some outside factor; people can reasonably disagree on whether simplicity or consistency are more important. These disagreements would lead scientists to make different choices between two opposing theories. Is one scientist rational and the other irrational for preferring simplicity to consistency, or vice versa? Again I would say not.


  20. David,
    Not everything in the world can be divided up into that which is rational or that which is irrational. There are cases in which those terms don’t apply. Obviously green is not rational, nor is it irrational, its just green. That is a trivial example. I am arguing that some ideas or beliefs don’t necessarily fall into the realm of rational or irrational. It is false to think that everything is subsumed under these categories.

  21. It’s easy misread intent (in fact, the fault, dear Chip, lies not in your reading, but in my writing) on the Web, so let me try to be more precise. In my most recent post to Owen, I was not trying to divide beliefs about the world into “rational” ones and “irrational” ones. Instead, I merely was trying to offer one set out of many possible different ways of *defining* what is meant by “religious person”.

    But suppose that, similarly, I had treated “rational” and “irrational” as definitional, that I’d *defined* characteristics by which beliefs could be placed into either of these categories. As long as I do not assert that my definitions are themselves “objective” or “real”, or that others have to accept them, am I not permitted to make my definitions however I like (so long as they’re logically consistent)?

  22. I was just responding to your question on Friday, I didn’t think you where using rationality to define a religionist. I was just trying to explain my term arational.

    Sure you can make any definitions you like, and I don’t think they even have to be logically consistent. However a definition must be capable of getting an idea across. Words don’t exisit in a vaccuum. The connotation of some terms make them inappropriate for some cases although there denotation might not rule them out. A religionist could be as “someone who practices a religion.” I think anyone who claims to be part of a religion would say they practice it. However does this really get any useful information across? Does it help explain your point of view? What are the connotations of that term? Does the term make clear the difference between different practitioners? I would say no. Shorthand is necessary, but sometimes its too short. But again this might just boil down to an aesthetic preference . . .