After reading Stanley Fish's "review" of Terry Eagleton's book (along with this one by Andrew O'Hehir) on the always tiresome and completely false notion that the modern atheist is just like the modern fundamentalist, only with Science as God, I'm tempted to spend some time in a bookstore reading it, or finding a pirated e-copy somewhere so I can see for myself if it's as loaded with straw-men and inaccurate assumptions about the New Atheism (which is really nothing more than atheists saying publicly that they're atheists, and not a creed as so many critics seem to desperately wish) as it seems to be.
The biggest problem with this argument is that Fish and Eagleton--and I include the former in this discussion because he makes clear who he sides with at the end of his column today--are stuck in dichotomy of Science/Reason versus God and assume that atheists look to the abstract notion of scientific progress as some sort of mystic leader that's going to tell us "what it all means," and I'll concede that if you look at science or reason in that way, then Fish and Eagleton are describing you accurately.
But most of the atheists I know don't look at it in those terms. Here's what I mean--from Fish's column, discussing Eagleton:
That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.Eagleton makes a ridiculous assumption here, that atheists are looking to science to tell us "what it all means." Speaking only for myself here, I'm not looking to science for that sort of information at all--a big part of my atheism is that I don't think there is a grand, over-arching meaning to the universe. I think it just is, and that we're damned lucky to have developed at all, that this life is all we've got and that we'd better make the most of it.
And I think this is the ultimate disconnect between religious people who rail against atheism and atheists who refuse to be quiet about it--people like Fish and Eagleton just can't seem to grasp the concept that there are humans who are willing to accept a purposeless universe. I am. The universe is transcendent, it's awe-inspiring, and it seems, to me at least, to be completely unconscious of me and the rest of humanity. It doesn't have plans for me; things don't necessarily happen for a reason. We just are--we struggle through each and every day, trying to make the best lives we can for ourselves and those close to us, and in some cases, for the rest of the human family, and for those animals we have chosen to take into our care. Some of us dedicate our lives to nothing more than that; some take on the creation of beauty through art; some seek after scientific knowledge; some seek a purpose for a universe which baffles or even terrifies them; some try to make the world a better place for everyone; some try to make the world better for only themselves.
What's most aggravating about Fish's, and if Fish is talking about it accurately, Eagleton's argument, is that when you boil it down to the basics, it's the same old crap:
and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.I can't tell you how tiresome and insulting it is to have God-bags tell me that my value system is emptier than theirs because I don't consider ancient writings to be Holy Writ. Why is it that religious belief aspires but reason is unaided and progress is contentless (not to mention, apparently, a laissez-faire capitalist)? What's worse--a scientific reason that is aided mainly by observation of the physical world or a religious reason that's aided by the writings of ancients who were struggling to make sense of a world that terrified and confused them? Not to get all scientific on you, but I think we're working with better data today than Moses and Mohammed and the writers of the Vedas (just to name a few) were. Hubristic? Compared to religionists who claim to have the answers to the questions of not only this life, but an as yet unproven next one, I'd say atheists are about as humble a group as you can find, even if we don't act like it at times.