Monday, June 25, 2007

Is Religion Man-Made?


By Stanley Fish
Think Again
The New York Times
June 24, 2007

Sure it is. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think that this fact about religion is enough to invalidate its claims.

“[R]eligion and the churches,” declares Hitchens “are manufactured, and this salient fact is too obvious to ignore.” True to his faith, Dawkins finds that the manufacturing and growth of religion is best described in evolutionary terms: “[R]eligions, like languages, evolve with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering – and sometimes dangerous – richness of diversity.” Harris finds a historical origin for religion and religious traditions, and it is not flattering: “The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.”

And, they continue, it wasn’t even the work of sand-strewn men who labored in the same place at the same time. Rather, it was pieced together from fragments and contradictory sources and then had claimed for it a spurious unity: “Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world” (Dawkins).

Hitchens adds that “the sciences of textual criticism, archaeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made.” And yet, wonders Harris, “nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity.”

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.

But that is exactly what you would expect. It is God (if there is one) who is perfect and infinite; men are finite and confined within historical perspectives. And any effort to apprehend him – including the efforts of the compilers of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran – will necessarily fall short of a transparency that will be achieved (if it is achieved) only at a future moment of beatific vision. Now – any now, whether it be 2007 or 6,000 years ago – we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians, 13:12); one day, it is hoped, we shall see face to face.

In short, it is the unfathomable and unbridgeable distance between deity and creature that assures the failure of the latter to comprehend or prove (in the sense of validating) the former.

O.L. (in a comment on June 11), identifies the “religion is man-made claim” as the “strongest foundation of atheism” because “it undermines the divinity of god.” No, it undermines the divinity of man, which is, after all, the entire point of religion: man is not divine, but mortal (capable of death), and he is dependent upon a creator who by definition cannot be contained within human categories of perception and description. “How unsearchable are his Judgments and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor” (Romans, 11:33-34). It is no wonder, then, that the attempts to contain him – in scriptures, in ceremonies, in prayer – are flawed, incomplete and forever inadequate. Rather than telling against divinity, the radical imperfection, even corruption, of religious texts and traditions can be read as a proof of divinity, or at least of the extent to which divinity exceeds human measure.

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.

Proving the existence of God would be possible only if God were an item in his own field; that is, if he were the kind of object that could be brought into view by a very large telescope or an incredibly powerful microscope. 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.

The criticism made by atheists that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a God whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a God; he would just be another object in the field of human vision.

This does not mean that my arguments constitute a proof of the truth of religion; for if I were to claim that I would be making the atheists’ mistake from the other direction. Nor are they arguments in which I have a personal investment. Their purpose and function is simply to show how the atheists’ arguments miss their mark and, indeed, could not possibly hit it.

At various points Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens all testify to their admiration for Shakespeare, who, they seem to think, is more godly than God. They would do well to remember one of the bard’s most famous lines, uttered by Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Fish has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books.

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