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Fish on Religion and Science

Stanley Fish has a great new post following up on criticism of his review of Terry Eagleton’s new book:

Some readers find a point of vulnerability in what they take to be religion’s flaccid, Polyanna-like, happy-days optimism. Religious people, says Delphinias, live their lives “in a state of blissfully blind oblivion.” They rely on holy texts that they are “to believe in without question.” (C.C.) “No evidence, no problem — just take it on faith.” (Michael) They don’t allow themselves to be bothered by anything. Religion, says Charles, “cannot deal with doubt and dissent,” and he adds this challenge: “What say you about that, Professor?”

What I say, and I say it to all those quoted in the previous paragraph, is what religion are you talking about? The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.

The key event in that life is not the fashioning of some proof of God’s existence but a conversion, like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, in which the scales fall from one’s eyes, everything visible becomes a sign of God’s love, and a new man (or woman), eager to tell and live out the good news, is born. “To experience personal transformation that in turn can truly move and shake this world, we must believe in something outside of ourselves” (Judith Quinton).”The kind of religion that moves me,” says Shannon . . . is the story of hope and love . . . not the idea that any particular story describes concrete historical ‘truth.’” “It isn’t about moral superiority,” says Richard. “It’s about humbly living an examined life held up to the mirror of a higher truth. It certainly does not seem to be about comfort.”

So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.

2 Comments

  1. Adrian wrote:

    I’ve really enjoyed both of his articles on this topic. However, the comments on the nytimes website are often infuriating.

    Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  2. J. Gyllenhaal wrote:

    Once must not – at the pain of losing one’s faith in the possibility of human redemption and being reduced to a lifeless pool of despair – read the comments section on the New York Times. It is a recipe for madness. The temptation is great, but it must be resisted. At all costs.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink

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