Monday, June 11, 2007

The Three Atheists

By Stanley Fish
Think Again
The New York Times
June 10, 2007

Writings against God and religion have been around as long as God and religion have been around. But every so often an epidemic of the genre breaks out and a spate of such writings achieves the status of notoriety (which is what their authors had been aiming for). This has now happened to three books published in the last three years: Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens’s “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007). (Were this the kind of analysis performed in Lancelot Andrewes’s sermons, I would note the fact that the names of all three authors end in “s,” signifying, no doubt, the presence of Sin and Satan.)

The books differ in tone and emphasis.

Harris is sounding a warning against the threat of Islam and inveighing against what he regards as the false hope of religious moderation. “We are at war with Islam,” he announces, and he decides that, given the nature of the enemy — religious zealots informed by an absolute and terrifying faith — torture “in certain circumstances would seem to be not only permissible but necessary.” (This from someone who denounces religion because it is used as a rationalization for inhumane deeds!)

Dawkins doesn’t single out Islam for particular negative intention; in his eyes all religions are equally bad and equally absurd; and he wonders why obviously intelligent men and women can’t see through the nonsense, especially given that so many of the questions religion can’t answer have clearly been answered by the theory of natural selection.

Hitchens, the wittiest and most literate of the three, is a world traveler and will often recount the devastating arguments against religion he has made while lunching with a very important person in Belgrade, Bombay, Belfast, Beirut, the Vatican, North Korea and Washington, D.C., among other places.

Still, as distinct as the personalities and styles of the three are, they share a set of core arguments. (And they toss little bouquets to one another along the way.)

First, religion is man-made: its sacred texts, rather than being the word of God, are the “manufactured” words of fallible men.

Moreover (and this is the second shared point), these words have been cobbled together from miscellaneous sources, all of which are far removed in time from the events they purport to describe.

Third, it is in the name of these corrupt, garbled and contradictory texts, that men (and occasionally women) have been moved to do terrible things.

Fourth (and this is the big one), the commission of these horrible acts – “trafficking in humans…ethnic cleansing… slavery… indiscriminate massacre” (Hitchens) – is justified not by arguments, reasons or evidence, but by something called faith, which is scornfully dismissed by all three: “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse – constraints like reasonableness., internal coherence, civility and candor” ( Harris). “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument” (Dawkins). “If one must have faith in order to believe something,…then the likelihood of that something having any truth or value is considerably diminished” (Hitchens).

It’s time for an example of the kind of thinking Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens find so contemptible. At the beginning of Bunyans’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” the hero, named simply Christian, becomes aware of a great burden on his back (it is Original Sin) and is desperate to rid himself of it. Distraught , he consults one named
Evangelist who tells him to flee “the wrath to come.”

Flee where, he asks.

Pointing in the direction of a vast expanse, Evangelist says, Do you see the Wicket Gate out there?

No, replies Christian.

Do you see a shining light?

Christian is not sure (“I think I do”), but at Evangelist’s urging he begins to run in the direction of the light he cannot quite make out. Then comes the chilling part: “Now he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal Life.”

So what we have here is a man abandoning his responsibilities and resisting the entreaties of those who love and depend on him, and all for something of whose existence he is not even sure. And, even worse, he does this in the absence of reason, argument or evidence. (Mark Twain’s Huck Finn said of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”: “About a man who left his family; it didn’t say why.”) At this point, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens would exclaim, See what these nuts do at the behest of religion – child abandonment justified by nothing more substantial than some crazy inner impulse; remember Abraham was going to kill his son because he thought the blood-thirsty god he had invented wanted him to.

I have imagined this criticism coming from outside the narrative, but in fact it is right there on the inside, in the cries of Christian’s wife and children, in the reactions of his friends (“they thought that some frenzy distemper had gotten into his head”), and in the analysis they give of his irrational actions: he, they conclude, is one of those who “are wiser in their own eyes than seven men that can render a Reason.” 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, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians and poets (not to mention the Jesus who cried, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and every verse of the Book of Job).

Dawkins asks why Adam and Eve (and all their descendants) were punished so harshly, given that their “sin” – eating an apple after having been told not to – “seems mild enough to merit a mere reprimand.” (We might now call this the Scooter Libby defense.) This is a good question, but it is one that has been asked and answered many times, not by atheists and scoffers, but by believers trying to work though the dilemmas presented by their faith. An answer often given is that it is important that the forbidden act be a trivial one; for were it an act that was on its face either moral or immoral, committing it or declining to commit it would follow from the powers of judgment men naturally have. It is because there is no reason, in nature, either to eat the apple or to refrain from eating it, that the prohibition can serve as a test of faith; otherwise, as John Webster explained (“The Examination of Academies,” 1654), faith would rest “upon the rotten basis of humane authority.”

Hitchens asks, “Why, if God is the creator of all things, were we supposed to ‘praise’ him incessantly for doing what comes naturally?” The usual answer (again given by theologians and religious poets) is, what else could we do in the face of his omnipotence and omnipresence? God is the epitome of the rich relative who has everything; thanks and gratitude are the only coin we can tender.

Or can we? The poet George Herbert reasons (and that is the word) that if it is only by the infusion of grace that we do anything admirable, praising God is an action for which we cannot take credit; for even that act is His. “Who hath praise enough?”, he asks, but then immediately (in the same line) corrects himself: “Nay, who hath any?” (“Providence”) Even something so minimal as praising God becomes a sin if it is done pridefully . Where does that leave us, Herbert implicitly asks, a question more severe and daunting than any posed by the three atheists.

Harris wonders why the Holocaust didn’t “lead most Jews to doubt the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent God?” Behind this question is another one: where does evil come from, and if God is all-powerful and has created everything, doesn’t it come from Him? Again there is a standard answer (which does not mean that it is a satisfying one): evil proceeds from the will of a creature who was created just and upright, but who corrupted himself by an act of disobedience that forever infects his actions and the actions of his descendants. It is what Milton’s God calls “man’s polluting sin” (“Paradise Lost,” X, 631) that produces generations of evil, including the generation of the Holocaust, for, as Milton’s Adam himself acknowledges, “from me what can proceed, / But all corrupt, both mind and will deprav’d?” (825).

But, Harris , Dawkins and Hitchens object, if God is so powerful, why didn’t he just step in and prevent evil before it occurred? Not judge slavery, but nip it in the bud; not cure a blind man, but cure blindness; not send his only begotten son to redeem a sinful mankind, but create a mankind that could not sin? And besides, if God had really wanted man to refrain from evil acts and thoughts, like the act and thought of disobedience, then, says Hitchens, “he should have taken more care to invent a different species.”

But if he had done that, if Adam and Eve were faithful because they were programmed to be so, then the act of obedience (had they performed it) would not in any sense have been theirs. For what they do or don’t do to be meaningful, it must be free: “Freely they stood who stood and fell who fell / Not free, what proof could they have given sincere/ Of true allegiance?” (“Paradise Lost,” III, 102-104).

I have drawn these arguments out of my small store of theological knowledge not because they are conclusive (although they may be to some), but because they are there – in the very texts and traditions Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens dismiss as naive, simpleminded and ignorant. Suppose, says Hitchens, you were a religious believer; you would then be persuaded that a benign and all-powerful creator supervises everything, and that “if you obey the rules and commandments that he has lovingly prescribed, you will qualify for an eternity of bliss and repose.”

I know of no religious framework that offers such a complacent picture of the life of faith, a life that is always presented as a minefield of the difficulties, obstacles and temptations that must be negotiated by a limited creature in his or her efforts to become aligned (and allied) with the Infinite. St Paul’s lament can stand in for many: “The good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, I do .... Who shall deliver me?” (Romans, 7: 19,24). The anguish of this question and the incredibly nuanced and elegant writings of those who have tried to answer it are what the three atheists miss; and it is by missing so much that they are able to produce such a jolly debunking of a way of thinking they do not begin to understand.

But I have not yet considered their prime objection to religious faith: that it leaves argument, reason and evidence in the dust, and proceeds directly to the commission of wholly unjustified (and often horrific) acts. It is that issue that I will take up in the next column.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautifully written but what is its conclusion? Surely this author cannot presume that because the religious writings he cites do consider (at least many of) the objections raised by his Three Atheists, that mystical gods must therefore be responsible. It will be interesting to read the next installment.

8:47 AM  

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