Writing in The New York TImes Stanley Fish discusses two new books on the problem of evil.
Since Fish hails from the pompous, pseduo-intellectual school of writing, in which it is considered extremely low-brow to actually make a point with force and clarity, he has little light to shed on the issue. He does manage to take a few swipes at the atheist trinity of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, however:
What Milton and Paul offer (not as collaborators of course, but as participants in the same tradition) is a solution to the central problem of theodicy – the existence of suffering and evil in a world presided over by an all powerful and benevolent deity. The occurrence of catastrophes natural (hurricanes, droughts, disease) and unnatural (the Holocaust ) always revives the problem and provokes anguished discussion of it. The conviction, held by some, that the problem is intractable leads to the conclusion that there is no God, a conclusion reached gleefully by the authors of books like “The God Delusion,” “God Is Not Great” and “The End of Faith.”
We ought to point out that the authors of those fine books actually say very little about the problem of evil. What I find interesting here is Fish’s obvious contempt for people who are “gleeful” at the thought that there is no God. Personally, I subscribe to Hitchens’ view that the Christian God seems like a rather unpleasant character, and we should be relieved, if not happy, that He does not exist.
Fish closes with:
In short, these books neither trivialize their subject nor demonize those who have a different view of it, which is more than can be said for the efforts of those fashionable atheist writers whose major form of argument would seem to be ridicule.
While I don’t accept the premise that Dawkins and the others argue primarily through ridicule, I would simply point out that ridicule can be a very effective weapon, especially when it is aimed at sacred cows that are unused to being criticized, and that are, after all, pretty ridiculous.
Between these two paragraphs Fish summons forth a great deal of verbiage, none of it rising above the level of a grade school book report. One of the books he is discussing, Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, sounds like my kind of book. I am among those who regard the problem of evil and suffering as a decisive refutation of any meaningful sort of Christianity, and it sounds like Ehrman shares that view. His previous book, Misquoting Jesus, has been sitting on my shelf for a while, perhaps it’s time finally to read it!
Fish’s other book is Antony Flew’s There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. I haven’t had much to say about Flew. The basic story is that Flew was a prominent atheist for most of his career, who in 2004 decided, on the basis of some very bad scientific arguments, that there was a God. He immediately became a darling of Christians everywhere.
As described in an article from The New York Times Magazine, it seems that Flew, now in his eighties, is quite literally not in full possession of his faculties. The book that bears his name was not written by him, but was instead produced by certain unscrupulous creationists eager to use Flew for their own rhetorical purposes.
Incredibly, FIsh finds this unremarkable, because, you know, at least the book is polite. In a footnote to his essay Fish writes:
(In an article published Sunday — November 4 — in the New York Times Magazine, Mark Oppenheimer more than suggests that Flew, now in his 80’s, did not write the book that bears his name, but allowed Roy Varghese (listed as co-author) to compile it from the philosopher’s previous writings and some extended conversations. Whatever the truth is about the authorship of the book, the relation of its argument and trajectory to the argument and trajectory of Ehrman’s book stands.
Yes, of course. How silly to ponder the role of these books in a larger cultural struggle. How silly to find it relevant that a book bearing Flew’s name was not written by him and that he is merely being used for the purposes of others. Such pedestrian concerns are beyond Fish’s horizon. What really matters is that he’s not snide and nasty like that mean ol’ Christopher Hitchens, whose tone is all you need to know about him.
Update: Roy Varghese, Flew’s coauthor on the book discusses above, has responded to some of the charges levelled against him. I’ll simply note that I don’t find his response very convincing.