Fishy reasoning

Yeah, that's a pun in the title. Sometimes I can't help myself.

Stanley Fish has a column in today's NY Times Select section (which I only have access to because they decided to make it available to anyone with an .edu email address) which strikes me as, well, aggravating. It's about the "truth claims" of religion and it's related to the teaching of the Bible in schools, a subject I've addressed in the past.

Fish says "The truth claims of a religion — at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity."

Fair enough. Problem is that we're not talking about religion here. We're talking about teaching the Bible, and much as many religious types like to conflate the two, they are not synonymous. Religion, even ostensibly Bible-based religion, is a wide net which gathers in an enormous number of disparate and often hostile groups. Throw a question about doctrine into a room full of Christians and you're liable to not get the same answer twice, and these are people who claim to use the Bible as a basis for their belief system.

Set aside for a moment the problem of translation and the many, many internal contradictions in early manuscripts, (a topic discussed nicely by Bart Ehrman) which give any reasonable person pause when thinking about the inerrancy of scripture. There's a reason there are thousands of Christian churches--the Bible as a basis for doctrine is a mess, and a lot of what gets into churches as doctrine has no Biblical foundation. The Trinity, the immortal soul, hellfire--they're extensions and stretches of "reasoning" on passages often taken out of context. The only way to teach the Bible in a classroom without having it turn into an argument over dogma is to leave the truth claims out of any discussion.

Fish's problem in this piece is that he fails to acknowledge the diversity in belief among Christians, and what's worse, he puts together this particularly bad analogy:

The difference between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of other academic topics lies in the penalty for getting it wrong. A student or a teacher who comes up with the wrong answer to a crucial question in sociology or chemistry might get a bad grade or, at the worst, fail to be promoted. Those are real risks, but they are nothing to the risk of being mistaken about the identity of the one true God and the appropriate ways to worship him (or her). Get that wrong, and you don’t lose your grade or your job, you lose your salvation and get condemned to an eternity in hell.
Chemistry and sociology classes don't deal in "truth claims." They deal with facts and theories and hypotheses and observations. They leave matters of truth to the philosophers. Fish ought to know this, as he's a professor of law. Furthermore, his analogy presupposes not only a God, but a Christian one at that, and a religion in which hell is indeed a place of torment. Pardon me for being so blunt here, but I'm a lot more concerned about whether my future pharmacist understands the chemistry of drug interactions than I am whether I picked the right side in the Great God Contest.

He concludes the piece with this question:
Once it’s Judeo-Christian, it will soon be Judeo-Islamic-Christian, then Judeo-Islamic-Native American-Christian and then. ... Teaching the Bible in that spirit may succeed in avoiding the dangers of proselytizing and indoctrination. But if you’re going to cut the heart out of something, why teach it at all?
The answer is simple--the Bible as a cultural relic and as a work of literature is a fantastic resource, a series of snapshots of emerging cultures and religions, and in many cases, a great lesson in how not to tell stories (Jesus disappearing from age 12 to age 30 is a good example). And it's the foundation for most western literature--you need at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible to be able to understand the references. So that's why you teach it, not because of any truth claims it may or may not make, but because it helps us understand where we've come from in a social sense.

On a side note, I would like to applaud the student who stood up for his religious rights as a Pastafarian. I always love it when students know enough about the system to make an argument based on their rights as citizens.

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