Monday, 18 May 2009

On Rationality

So, among the myriad sins of the New York Times is that they let Stanley Fish blog, which seems unfair, like how people used to make bears dance. This meandering shout-out to Terry Eagleton has mostly attracted criticisms of Eagleton, but since I haven't read Eagleton (nor will my limited book budget stretch to buying publications I already know are idiotic from the quotes pulled by its supporters) I'll settle for stepping up to Fish on the nonsense he's peddling.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Of course, what religion does exactly is not a question any of this lot are interested in answering. This appeal to literature and ballet is smoke and mirrors, because then they'd be in agreement with the atheists. We're happy to treat the Bible as a work of literature, fold RE classes into English classes and regard somebody who treats the New Testament as a guide to life with much the same suspicion as we'd regard somebody who treats the Iliad as a guide to life. But no, religion isn't just literature, it's something more. Well, then, what the bloody hell is it?

After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.”

ARGH. You know, what I find the most apoplexy-inducing thing in this paragraph is Fish's blithe "of course", there. It really exposes the poverty of these arguments. Fish and Eagleton happily excoriate atheists for not understanding "what religion is going for". Look how stupid Hitchens is for thinking that religion explains the world! And then, "of course" Fish and Eagleton can't tell us what religion is for. Do you know, at the end of this article Fish has the nerve to sigh over how irritating it is to waste energy over the "shallow arguments" of "school-yard atheists"? I think I need to go to bed.

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