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Neuhaus on Fish on Dawkins (re-dated)
December 6, 2008, 11:23 am
Filed under: Atheism, Philosophy

Here’s a short excerpt from Richard John Neuhaus’ comments on Stanley Fish’s commentary on Richard Dawkins & Co.

“Writings against God and religion have been around as long as God and religion have been around,” writes Fish. (Of course God and religion have been around ever so much longer than writing.) The objections that the current band of atheists “make against religious thinking are themselves part of religious thinking,” Fish writes. Their objections are “the very motor of that [religious] discourse, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians and poets (not to mention Jesus, who cried, ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ and every verse of the Book of Job).” In other words, Hitchens et al. are posing the age-old questions of theodicy, except that, unlike poets, theologians, and other more reflective thinkers, they believe that posing the questions excuses them from wrestling with possible answers. Indeed, they believe that posing the questions is the answer: There is no God and anyone who thinks there is is dangerously deluded. 

These atheists launch an all-out assault on faith, pitting faith against reason and evidence. Yet, as Fish notes, in their claim that “science” will eventually explain reality by their reductionist mode of reason, they typically employ the same vocabulary as believers—“hope,” “belief,” “undoubtedly,” “there will come a time.” In fact, they are believers who, says Fish, “exemplify the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11, ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’” (The best examination of how science necessarily entails faith is, for my money, Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge.)


2 Comments so far
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Dawkins is the king of straw man. I read ‘The God Delusion’ and he set up faith as the extremism of American fundamentalism. He did, however, have some good points.

This is a straw man. Perhaps one chapter is questioning how believers believe in the face of so much negative evidence (ie, the problem of evil). To say this is the essence of their arguments is a very poorly thought out straw man.

As for faith required in science. This is true when thinking of faith in a certain way. Most of these writers set up religious “faith” as strict fideism when most, or at least quite a bit of it definitely is not. The faith an atheist has in science seems to me to be ideal faith, based on evidence.

That is most definitely not to say that I prefer it or want it, just that I can understand it.

Comment by Andrew

For the record, Neuhaus is commenting on (and quoting) Stanley Fish’s criticism of the new-atheist apologists. Fish is a ‘postmodernist’, high-profile, academic celebrity type of guy. There is a sense in which he tends to be ‘anti-science’ (although that’s not really what he means). I’m not sure Fish is trying to argue that theodicy is the ‘essence’ of their argument.

I think Fish’s main point is that, traditionally, doubt and questioning have been understood to belong to the very logic of biblical faith. Just read the OT. And he contrasts this with Dawkins view that faith only comes into play when you ignore the evidence and believe anyway just because you want to. Which, come to think of it, sounds very Nietzschean.

I suspect that you, I, Neuhaus, and Fish agree with each other on this. And in this way we are different from Dawkins and Co.

As far as science goes, I say there are plenty of ‘scientific’ beliefs and commitments which are NOT based upon evidence. They are the kind of basic beliefs and commitments which make the consideration of evidence even possible. Which is not to say that actual scientific work isn’t evidence based.

Then again, the idea that scientists formulate theories, test and falsify them, and then quickly leave them behind because ‘the evidence isn’t there’ is an idealized dream. In reality, all theories have anomalies (evidence which doesn’t fit). And there is no objective rule which tells scientists just when too many anomalies have piled up. Scientists often (usually?) believe in their theories such that they trust that contrary evidence will eventually be able to be incorporated. So, just to the degree that there are anomalies, scientists believe in their theories even in the face of contrary evidence. That’s OK. That’s just how science works. Or so it seems to me.

Comment by -the.pilgrim-

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