Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton, forensic theologians

In an op-ed, "God Talk," New York Times 3 May 2009, Stanley Fish approvingly writes:

When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of "the telescope and the microscope" religion "no longer offers an explanation of anything important," [Terry] 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.”

And yes indeed, Eagleton certainly does like that turn of speech. He's been liking it for years. Here he is, for instance, writing about Richard Dawkins four years ago.

On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, [Dawkins] is predictably silent. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.

-- "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching," London Review of Books 19 October 2006

By way of footnote to this wordplay, a small logical distinction.

Eagleton wants you to think that religion and chemical warfare are a matter of either-or, but of course they aren't. Some congregations don't make use of chemical weapons, but others do. The Inquisition isn't militarily active just now, but in 1985 the Rajneesh cult carried out a biological warfare attack on the town of The Dalles, Oregon. In 1993, the first Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center included an attempt to fill the buildings with cyanide gas. And about the Aum Shinrikyo cult, Wikipedia writes:

On the morning of 20 March 1995, Aum members released sarin in a co-ordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 commuters, seriously injuring 54 and affecting 980 more. Some estimates claim as many as 5,000 people were injured by the sarin. It is difficult to obtain exact numbers since many victims are reluctant to come forward. . . . Over the next week, the full scale of Aum's activities was revealed for the first time. At the cult's headquarters in Kamikuishiki on the foot of Mount Fuji, police found explosives, chemical weapons and biological warfare agents, such as anthrax and Ebola cultures, and a Russian MIL Mi-17 military helicopter. The Ebola virus was delivered from Zaire in 1994. There were stockpiles of chemicals that could be used for producing enough sarin to kill four million people. Police also found laboratories to manufacture drugs such as LSD, methamphetamine, and a crude form of truth serum, a safe containing millions of dollars in cash and gold, and cells, many still containing prisoners.

The depressing thing is, both Fish and Eagleton know all this. They know, too, what they're doing with language. They're transubstantiating truth into rhetoric.

Correction: In my original post, I dated Fish's article 3 May 2010. See comments below.