Stanley Fish has recently written two op-ed pieces for the NYTimes, the “Three Atheists,” and “Atheism and Religion,” commenting on the books of Sam Harris. “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkins. “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007).
Here I’m posting the second of these pieces, Atheists and Religion, interspersed with my comments, in red italic type face, on what Fish is saying. Go to this link in order to read the first of his two pieces, The Three Atheists.
Here is Fish:
“Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens believe (in Dawkins’s words) that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world” and that “if there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural.”
In reply, believers, like the scientist Francis S. Collins (”The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”), argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic explanation of that?
And my commentary:
But why does Fish zero in on the lack of a satisfactory explanation for morality? This is not the main thrust of the three books. In any case, why can’t the universal presence of moral impulses be simply a given part of the nature of homo sapiens, why does its presence have to lead to hypothesizing a God?
I see impulses within myself that one might call moral, love of a partner, willingness to sacrifice for my children, a strongly felt friendship, and of course all the virtuous acts as they may or not appear in my life, illustrating courage, loyalty, compassion, tolerance etc.
There are even aspects of my dog’s behavior that I might call virtuous, but again why does this behavior need a God explanation? The “three atheists” in as much as they tried to explain moral behavior by Darwinian science did go beyond the theory’s present adequacy to the task.
But again, Fish makes too much of this, neglecting to comment on the much more important and well documented account of the terrible actions and multiple errors of religion that the authors present in these books and instead dwells on science’s up until now inability to satisfactorily explain moral behavior.
The weight of these writers’ criticism of religion falls not on the weakness of the believers’ arguments for the existence of God. It falls rather on the long series of atrocities committed by men on men in the name of religion. That is the main subject of these works, what seem to be the terrible failings of religion. Hypothesizing a rational or scientific explanation for morality is not what these books are mostly about.
In any case there is so far no completely rational, or naturalistic explanation for our so called moral, or ethical behavior, nor for our love of truth, beauty, and goodness. Why can’t we simply accept this fact about ourselves? Why can’t we simply believe that this is what we are, without feeling that we are required to come up with an explanation as to how it came about that we are this way? Isn’t it enough just to be?
Fish is too much taken up with this issue, and pays little or not attention to the evil that religions have and still do inflict on man, the main subject of these books. The most interesting question of all, what it is that keeps man from doing evil, is not the subject of these books, nor of Fish’s commentary.
For me God seems a much less satisfactory answer to this question than simply my own sense of right and wrong, wherever that may have sprung from. In my case I don’t think my sense of right and wrong came from my parents, from my church, and here I would agree with Fish that it certainly doesn’t come from current Darwinian theory.
Why can’t, just as between the Left and the Right, there be a middle ground where we are most comfortable, one that we might very well call humanism? And why need there be a link from this middle ground to God, unless by God we mean absolutes such as truth and beauty and justice and the like?
Fish’s biggest mistake is to overemphasize the opposition between believers and non-believers, in order to belabor the obvious point that in important respects the non-believers have no more “reason” on their side than do the believers. He doesn’t mention the middle ground, the ground where most of us are, and probably should be.
The rightness of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens’s books stems from the fact that in man’s history up until now religion has probably accounted for more of man’s cruelty to man than non-religion, although in the 20th. century the secular “isms” may have overtaken religion in this regard. Today the Islamists may be returning us to the more usual situation in history when religious fundamentalists are the main obstacle in the way of efforts to further social justice, bolster human rights, and strengthen mankind’s natural penchant to live and let live.
Easy, say Dawkins and Harris. (Hitchens doesn’t seem to have a dog in this hunt.) It’s just a matter of time before so-called moral phenomena will be brought within the scientific ambit: “There will probably come a time,” Harris declares, “when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgments themselves, at the level of the brain.” And a bit later, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”
Too much of Fish’s commentary addresses the atheists’ predictions of the future. This is an easy target to hit. For example, he cites Harris who says probably without justification that, “There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”
Much more important, however, to the arguments of these books, are the real accomplishments of Darwinian science and the real failures of religion to enable us to understand the way we are and thereby improve the quality of our lives together. It should be added, however, that neither science nor religion is yet a fully satisfactory explanation in these respects.
Fish confuses the “truths” of literature, such as those that we find in the poem by George Herbert, in Milton’s epic and Bunyon’s morality tale, those of with religion. These great works of literature are achievements of man, and should not be attributed to God or religion.
What gives Harris his confidence? Why does he have “every reason to believe” (a nice turn of phrase)? What are his reasons? What is his evidence? Not, as it turns out, a record of progress. He acknowledges that, to date “little convergence has been achieved in ethics,” not only because “so few of the facts are in” but because “we have yet to agree about the most basic criteria for deeming an ethical fact, a fact.”
But we will , if we are patient. The field of “the cognitive neuroscience of moral cognition” (a real mouthful) is young, and “it is clearly too early to draw any strong conclusions from this research.”
Of course one conclusion that could be drawn is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions will not be reducible to physical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in. No, says Harris, the reason for our small knowledge in this area is the undue influence of – you guessed it – religion: “Most of our religions have been no more supportive of genuine moral inquiry than of scientific inquiry generally.”
Fish is too much interested in pointing to the unsubstantiated claims of Harris in regard to the promise of natural science of one day reducing morality to physical processes. It’s too easy to point out that Harris was probably wrong to make too much of this “promise.”
But again, Fish avoids taking up the really important issues raised by these three books. He doesn’t confront the reasonableness of the Darwinian explanation, nor does he address the unreasonableness of the various stories of the origin of man that stem from religion. There is such a thing as “evidence” in science, which is qualitatively different from “evidence” in belief systems or religion. Fish ignores this.
Thiese are the sorts of things Fish ought to have been writing about. It seems, however, that it was just too easy to take pot shots at the atheist’s “beliefs” about the future, although it’s probably true that both Harris and Dawkins would have been better served to have rested with what we are and what we know, here in the present. I agree with Fish that when they speak of what natural science might accomplish in the future they are on very shaky ground.
It’s right here and now in the present that the moral underpinings of our lives, which we recognize and are there, ought to receive our attention, regardless of whether the ultimate explanation for our moral being is to be found in God or natural science. As of yet there is no ultimate explanation (for anything, let alone morality) and we ought not to live as if there were.
In this regard one might be justifiably critical of Dawkins and Harris, less so of Hitchens who is mostly taken up by the harm that true believers inflict on the rest of us, and not by Dawkins and Harris’s conceit that natural science will provide an explanation for it all.
This is a remarkable sequence. A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride – expectations based only on a first premise (itself asserted rather than proven), which, if true, demands them, and which, if false, makes nonsense of them.
Dawkins exhibits the same pattern of reasoning. He believes, like Harris, that ethical facts can be explained by the scientific method in general and by the thesis of natural selection in particular. If that thesis is assumed as a baseline one can then generate Darwinian reasons, reasons that are reasons within the Darwinian system, for the emergence of the behavior we call ethical. One can speculate, as Dawkins does, that members of a species are generous to one another out of a desire (not consciously held) to preserve the gene pool, or that unconditioned giving is an advertisement of dominance and superiority. These, he says, are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”
Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.
Too often Fish simply goes too far in his criticism of Richard Dawkins. For example, he cites Dawkins who declares, “I believe in evolution because the evidence supports it.” In response to this Fish says (incredibly, I think) that “the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it.”
Here Fish is clearly mistaken. The situation he describes is no different from my saying that I believe that the earth goes around the sun because the evidence supports it, and his then replying that my evidence is only evidence because I’m seeing with Copernican-directed eyes.
This is not the situation. The evidence of Darwin’s theory, as well as that for a sun centered solar system, no longer needs Darwinian or Copernican directed eyes. The evidence is now there for us all to see. Darwin may have been the first one to point to it, but he didn’t make it up. It’s out there and Darwin is not longer necessary for us to see it.
Dawkins voices distress at an imagined opponent who “can’t see” the evidence or “refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book,” but he has his own holy book of whose truth he has been persuaded, and it is within its light that he proceeds and looks forward in hope (his word) to a future stage of enlightenment he does not now experience but of which he is fully confident. Both in the vocabulary they share – “hope,” “belief,” “undoubtedly,” “there will come a time” – and the reasoning they engage in, Harris and Dawkins perfectly exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Again further on in his op-ed piece Fish, says that Dawkins is not less dependent on his faith in the promise of science than are the true Christian and probably other believers whose definition of faith is that of Hebrews 11, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
That may be so (I’ve always liked that definition from Hebrews), but to say that Dawkins is guilty of the same mistaken logic as those who believe in the Biblical explanations for things is not to say that the evidence for Darwinian evolution is no more substantial than the evidence for the existence of God.
Fish doesn’t address at all, and this is the major weakness in everything he has to say about these three books, the overwhelming evidence for evolution. Rather he goes on taking the easy pot shots, especially at Dawkins’ and Harris’ penchants for telling the future, where, of course, they stand on the shaky ground.
What is and is not seen will vary with the faith within which observers look. Bunyan glosses the scene in which the townspeople mock Christian as he flees toward a light he can barely discern and they do not discern at all: “They that fly from the wrath to come are a gazing stock to the world.” Paul comments in 1 Corinthians 2 that to the man “without the Spirit” the things of the Spirit are “foolishness”; he simply “cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Those who have not found the arguments of natural selection persuasive will not see what Dawkins and his colleagues see, not because they are blind and obstinate, but because as members of a different faith community – and remember, science requires faith too before it can have reasons – the evidence that seems so conclusive to the rational naturalists will point elsewhere.
Here Fish declares that “science requires faith too before it can have reasons.” In this he is just wrong. What was the faith that Charles Darwin had to have had before he could offer his explanation for the different beaks of the Galapados finches? The relation between faith and reason is just the opposite of this. Darwin’s belief in the origin of species came from the evidence of the finches, from his powers of reasoning about that evidence. His belief follows satisfactory explanation. He didn’t begin with that belief. In fact he even resisted “believing” in his theory for some thirty or more years, before the overwhelming accumulation of evidence gave him no choice but to “believe.”
But what about reasons? Isn’t that what separates scientific faith from religious faith; one is supported by reasons, the other is irrational and supported by nothing but superstition? Not really. One of the basic homiletic practices in both the Jewish and Christian traditions is the catechism or examination of one’s faith. An early 19th century Jewish catechism is clear on the place of reason in the exercise: “By thinking for himself , let [the pupil] learn the sunny nearness of reason.” Christian catechists regularly cite 1 Peter 3:15: “Be always ready to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” In short, and it is often put this way, at every opportunity you must give reasons for your faith.
The reasons you must give, however, do not come from outside your faith, but follow from it and flesh it out. They are not independent of your faith – if they were they would supplant it as a source of authority – but are simultaneously causes of it and products of it; just as Harris’s and Dawkins’s reasons for believing that morality can be naturalized flow from their faith in physical science and loop back to that faith, thereby giving it an enhanced substance.
The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them. Whatever you are doing – preaching, teaching , performing an experiment, playing baseball – you must always give a reason (if only to yourself) for your faith and the reason will always be a reason only because your faith is in place.
Some respondents raised the issue of falsification. Is there something that would falsify a religious faith in the same way that some physical discoveries would falsify natural selection for Dawkins and Harris? As it is usually posed, the question imagines disconfirming evidence coming from outside the faith, be it science or religion. But a system of assumptions and protocols (and that is what a faith is) will recognize only evidence internal to its basic presuppositions. Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.
It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package. There are still distinctions to be made, but they will be distinctions between different structure of faith, or, if you prefer, between different structures of reasons. The differences between different structures of faith are real and significant, for each will speak to different needs and different purposes.
Most of all Fish betrays clearly that he is not a scientist, and probably has had no scientific training. Otherwise, for example, he could never have said this: “It follows then that the distinction informing so many of the atheists’ arguments, the distinction between a discourse supported by reason and a discourse supported by faith, will not hold up because any form of thought is an inextricable mix of both; faith and reasons come together in an indissoluble package.”
The “faith” of the scientist is not the “faith” of the believer. Fish speaks as if the two “faiths” were the same. Mostly this shows an ignorance on his part, or a failure, an unwillingness to engage the position of the scientist on his own ground.
Fish thereby oversimplifies, reducing science to just another belief system. Although it may be in some senses a belief system, it’s not “just another belief system,” and it’s not a religion. And Fish never seems to acknowledge this.
Mine is not a leveling argument; it does not say that everything is the same (that is the atheists’ claim); it says only that whatever differences there are between religious and scientific thinking, one difference that will not mark the boundary setting one off from the other is the difference between faith and reason.
This does not mean either that the case for God and religion has been confirmed or that the case against God and religion has been discredited. (Despite what some commentators assumed, I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.) My point is only that some of the arguments against faith and religion – the arguments Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens most rely on – are just not good arguments. The three atheists needn’t give up the ghost, but they might think about going back to the drawing board.
His is a leveling argument. And finally, and disingenuously, he says: “I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.”
Well of course he is taking a position. To have written what he has written he has to be a believer, although probably more in the camp of Herbert, Milton, and John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, than that of any established religion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But again science is not a belief system like religion. It’s something else. And it has since its modern beginnings in the 17th century transformed our lives in ways totally different from the ways of religion in the past. Science is something else again and it ought to be looked at differently from the way we look at religion.
Perhaps Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens should not have published their attacks on religion in the way they did, speaking as if they knew more about man’s future than those who were not scientists. Perhaps they ought to have confined their critical commentary to the truly horrible things that religion has inflicted on mankind, with a view to putting a stop to this same sort of thing happening in the future. For these atrocities do seem to be happening right now in the present as Islam confronts within itself an extreme fundamentalist, Jihadist current that if left to its own devices would take us all back with it into a cruel and thoroughly inhuman past.