Prof. Stanley Fish has a great column in the New York Times on the issue of how we determine what we believe.
He sums up eloquently a point that I’ve made before about the general tendency to formulate beliefs and then assume that everyone who doesn’t share them must just be sadly misinformed. Atheists tend to do this with believers. Democrats with Republicans. Christians with Muslims. And vice-versa, of course.
Here are some good bits in which he discusses the opinions of two famous atheists:
The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had already made: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.
The argument is circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma. To be sure, those who stand with Dawkins and Pinker could also add that they believe in the chapter and verse of scientific inquiry for good reasons, and that would be true. But the reasons undergirding that belief are not independent of it.
People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point…
And then end he takes aim at liberals:
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not criticizing Dawkins, but thanking him for affirming the argument I made last week in Campaign Stops, the argument that despite invocations of fairness and equality and giving every voice a chance, classical liberals, like any other ideologues (and ideologues we all are), divide the world into “us” and “them.” It’s just that rather than “us” being Christians and “them” Jews or vice-versa, “us” are those who subscribe to the tenets of materialist scientific inquiry and “them” are those who don’t, those who, in the entirely parochial judgment of liberal rationalists, subscribe to nonsense and superstition.
Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not criticizing liberals for standing up for, and with, their own, only for pretending that they are, or could be, doing something else. Liberals know, without having to think further about it, that those who oppose global warming on religious grounds are just ignorant nuts; and they know that those who deny the Holocaust, no matter what so-called facts and statistics they marshal, are just bad people; and they know that those who want creationism taught in the schools are just using the vocabulary of open inquiry as a Trojan horse. (Incidentally, I agree with all three of these liberal positions.)
But the desire of classical liberals to think of themselves as above the fray, as facilitating inquiry rather than steering it in a favored direction, makes them unable to be content with just saying, You guys are wrong, we’re right, and we’re not going to listen to you or give you an even break. Instead they labor mightily to ground their judgments in impersonal standards and impartial procedures (there are none) so that they can pronounce their excommunications with clean hands and pure — non-partisan, and non-tribal — hearts. It’s quite a performance and it is on display every day in our most enlightened newspapers and on our most progressive political talk shows, including the ones I’m addicted to.
Good stuff — and the same message applies to whatever tent where you’ve planted a stake.
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