I have an online subscription to the New York Times. Sometimes I wonder why. Not today. Stanley Fish carries the day with a review of three books: Sam Harris’s “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reason” (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” (2006) and Christopher Hitchens’s “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007).
Basically, he takes all three to the cleaners with wit and sparkle. As Fish says, “the objections Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens make to religious thinking are themselves part of religious thinking; rather than being swept under the rug of a seamless discourse, they are the very motor of that discourse, impelling the conflicted questioning of theologians and poets (not to mention the Jesus who cried, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and every verse of the Book of Job).”
Thinking about canon we are. The canon includes and embraces wails of doubt and despair that make the atheism of the above three seem tame. The psalms of lament, one of which Jesus appropriates in his darkest hour (Ps 22). In the darkness of despair, the psalmists blame God and no other for an unjust fate. The book of Lamentations, with its stark descriptions of exile, rape, cannibalism, and devastation, the author of which is said to be God. The protests of Jeremiah, who saw himself as a victim of sexual abuse, with God as the abuser, and he tells Him so (Jer 20:7-8). The defamation of God’s character by the innocent sufferer of the book of Job: see my introduction for an unwhitewashed overview of the whole. The searing skepticism of Qohelet, who saw no justice in the world.
Atheists, that is, those who passionately doubt God, are servants of God, as far as I’m concerned. They knock believers out of their complacency. In a paradoxical way, they are believers.
Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. If strong enough and sincere, doubt leads to faith, as it did for Thomas (John 20:24-28). And get this: if strong enough and sincere, faith leads to doubt before doubt leads back to faith again. We call this a circolo virtuoso in Italian. The opposite of a vicious circle.
The absence of faith is not doubt. It is saying, “God doesn’t care,” therefore, “I don’t either.” The non-caring folk: these, and these only, are the enemies of God in this world.
So how well do are our three atheists perform their service? Not very well, according to Fish. The three deal in straw men rather than the real thing. Fish remarks:
“I know of no religious framework that offers such a complacent picture of the life of faith, a life that is always presented as a minefield of the difficulties, obstacles and temptations that must be negotiated by a limited creature in his or her efforts to become aligned (and allied) with the Infinite. St Paul’s lament can stand in for many: “The good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not, I do…. Who shall deliver me?” (Romans 7:19, 24). The anguish of this question and the incredibly nuanced and elegant writings of those who have tried to answer it are what the three atheists miss; and it is by missing so much that they are able to produce such a jolly debunking of a way of thinking they do not begin to understand.”
The most lucid presentation of atheism was penned, not by coincidence, by a believer, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote The Brothers Karamazov. The chapter entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” is one of the great masterpieces of western literature. It is also Dostoevsky’s indictment of tradition’s perversion of the Gospel. This too, is thinking about canon.
If one makes a distinction between Tradition with a capital “t,” and the abuses of it by the church, which, if recurrent and systematic, are termed tradition with a small “t,” it is still possible to define all of Tradition as infallible. I for one find the distinction disingenuous, unless the person who makes it is willing to list ten abuses past and present the tradition of the religious formation he belongs to is guilty of.
By the way, Stanley Fish is just warming up in his review of the three. If you want to read the column he wrote today and the ones coming up for free, you can sign up for a 14 day free trial of premium content on the newspaper’s site.