Religion, agnostics, and the cure for baldness
And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”
I’m always on the lookout for religion’s latest counter-arguments, the new rhetorical approaches that God People are constantly fine-tuning for use in pimping the righteousness of faith (and for demonstrating the moral dissoluteness of agnostics like myself). There isn’t an inherently irresolvable metaphysical challenge that comes close to wasting as much of the world’s time and energy as this particular one. It’s the intellectual equivalent of the eternal R&D quest for a baldness cure: you just never stop being surprised at how many different ways men can find to fail at growing hair.
This latest salvo is fired by author/professor Stanley Fish, a prominent religion-peddler of the pointy-headed, turtlenecked genus, who made his case in his blog at the New York Times. Fish was mostly riffing on a recent book written by the windily pompous University of Manchester professor Terry Eagleton, a pudgily superior type, physically resembling a giant runny nose, who seems to have been raised by indulgent aunts who gave him sweets every time he corrected the grammar of other children. The esteemed professor’s new book is called Reason, Faith and Revolution, and it’s sort of an answer to the popular atheist literature of people like Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens. If you ever want to give yourself a really good, throbbing headache, go online and check out Eagleton’s lectures at Yale, upon which the book was based, in which one may listen to this soft-soaping old toady do his verbose best to stick his tongue as far as he can up the anus of the next generation of the American upper class.
Like almost all great defenders of religion, Eagleton specializes in putting bunches of words together in ways that sound like linear arguments, but actually make no sense whatsoever. In one speech he takes issue with what he calls the “Yeti” view of faith as espoused by atheists, i.e. the idea that religion is based upon the belief in an object whose existence, like that of the Yeti or the Tooth Fairy, cannot be verified by observation “in the reasonably straightforward way that we can demonstrate the existence of necrophilia or Michael Jackson” (one of a disturbingly high number of Eagleton jokes that nonsensically reference pop culture figures of at best semi-recent vintage). Eagleton’s response to what he calls this “travesty” of illogic:
For one thing, of course, God differs from Unidentified Flying Objects or the Yeti or the Tooth Fairy in not being even a possible object of cognition… it’s not just we cannot see Him, it is as it were that our not seeing him is inherent to God Himself, which is presumably not true of the Yeti.
Got that? It’s not that we can’t see God — it’s that God is inherently unseen! Take that, atheists! He goes on:
For another thing, faith of course is traditionally regarded as a question of certainty… not as a question of probability or speculation or guesswork, but actually as a question of certainty, which is not to say that it’s not also traditionally regarded as being inferior to knowledge. But only fully paid-up rationalists think that nothing is certain but knowledge. Faith, as the author of the epistle to Hebrews writes, is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Whatever else may define the science of theology, or religion, it is from a theological view certainly not the question of certainty. I don’t think Ditchkins [this is what Eagleton gleefully and repeatedly calls Hitchens/Dawkins] understands that.
I listened to this argument at least five times and at the end still had absolutely no idea what the hell Eagleton was talking about. I thought at first he might be saying that faith does not require certainty, but then again nobody who wanted to say that would bother with all that extra verbiage. Anyway this is the kind of stuff that permeates Eagleton’s work: a lot of masturbatory semantics and naked goalpost-moving buried in great gnarled masses of old-world sneering and unnecessary syllables.
Eagelton’s main idea, the one trumpeted by Fish in the Times, is an even sillier piece of syllogistic sophistry than his “God isn’t like the Yeti! We’d be able to see a Yeti!” trick. The basic premise goes something like this:
Reason dismisses faith because faith lacks the certainty of knowledge.
But, reason alone has been proven to be completely inadequate to solve the problems of the world, and has proven especially feeble at providing man with the answers to his questions about the nature of existence.
Therefore, reason was wrong about faith.
The whole premise recalls Woody Allen’s famous syllogism: “Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates.” And…well, I’m not going to get into this too much, because taking an axe to some soggy old Catholic academic is beginning to feel wrong somehow. But something tells me we’re going to be hearing more of this rhetoric, if for no other reason that whenever money gets tight and the times get nervous even intellectuals will suddenly start talking about God. You see this same phenomenon played out on a more crude level in Southern fundamentalism, where the megachurches are smart enough to send their missionaries to rehab centers and prisons and everywhere else you find people stumbling, confused, and vulnerable to a soul-snatching out of their various existential car wrecks — and now that 21st century capitalism has hit the wall and yuppies everywhere are flying through the windshield into debt and foreclosure, the God-hawkers will show up here, too, to argue that where materialism and science have let your postmodern liberal self down, religion comes ready with answers.
Fish/Eagleton spell out the failures of science and materialism as follows:
Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a priori specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.
First of all, why is that no professor alive can make it ten feet from his front door without sticking an a priori into a sentence? Is there some kind of subterranean lair where academics are beaten with whips and clubs until they learn to write alliterative book titles (“Pus, Primates, and Pessimism: Jane Goodall’s Descent into Septic Shock”) and lard up perfectly good sentences with epistemological catch-phrases? Weird. As for the actual argument, it’s the same old stuff religious apologists have been croaking out since the days of Bertrand Russell — namely that because science is inadequate to explain the mysteries of existence, faith must be necessary. Life would be meaningless without religion, therefore we must have religion.
But this sort of thinking is exactly what most agnostics find ridiculous about religion and religious people, who seem incapable of looking at the world unless it’s through the prism of some kind of belief system. They seem to think that if one doesn’t believe in God, one must believe in something else, because to live without answers would be intolerable. And maybe that’s true of the humorless Richard Dawkins, who does seem actually to have tried to turn atheism into a kind of religion unto itself. But there are plenty of other people who are simply comfortable not knowing the answers. It always seemed weird to me that this quality of not needing an explanation and just being cool with what few answers we have inspires such verbose indignation in people like Eagleton and Fish. They seem determined to prove that the quality of not believing in heaven and hell and burning bushes and saints is a rigid dogma all unto itself, as though it required a concerted intellectual effort to disbelieve in a God who thinks gays (Leviticus 20:13) or people who work on Sunday (Exodus 35:2) should be put to death. They’ll tie themselves into knots arguing this, and they’ll probably never stop. It’s really strange.