Fish on Eagleton on Religion

Stanley Fish reviews Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith and Revolution in The New York Times and approvingly quotes him contra the excesses of Christopher Hitchens:

[T]he fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

This is a peculiar remark to make. Religion might not be in the business of offering explanations for natural phenomena now, but that is because it has, over an extended period, as a tactical and strategic move, ceded that explanatory function to science. Its history suggests that it has often seen itself in the business of offering explanations and indeed, comprehensive theories of the world that begin at its beginning and go on till its end. Hitchens’ remark is crude in suggesting the religious are only motivated by a desire to seek the kind of comforts made possible by technology but Eagleton’s suggestion that the description of religion is entirely misguided ignores the historical role that religion has played in the lives of its adherents in years gone by.

The same considerations apply to another one of Eagleton’s passages quoted by Fish:

[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

Again, one can provide metaphorical and non-realist readings of religion that do not see it as an explanatory theory but it is not clear such readings do full justice to the way that practitioners of religion see it, as a system which makes the world coherent. But systems which seek to provide such clarity are, contra Eagleton and Fish both, attempts to explain the world. If those systems are found wanting, it is because rival explanations for the same phenomena they claim to make comprehensible are found more satisfying, more able to do justice to the desiderata posed by the explanandum.

The move to cast religion as a non-explanation of anything is an interesting defensive move in light of the criticisms made of its extravagant ontological and ethical claims but it is not one that strikes me as likely to be successful. If religion did not seek to explain the incomprehensible then what comfort could it provide to the faithful? If you arrive at religion with a mystery and leave with one, then it hasn’t distinguished itself from the rest of this mysterious existence of ours.

6 thoughts on “Fish on Eagleton on Religion

  1. Great post! Science was originally designed to enhance the nature of religion, because it was assume that natural science was an exploration of God’s work. That science would inevitably be unable to sustain this role is the result of why many religious people choose pretenses to humility over arrogance.

    1. Mark,

      Thanks for the comment. Science and religion are in conflict when they offer rival explanations for the same phenomena – those that subscribe to either or both have a pretty well-developed sense of what they are looking for in these. .

  2. Have Fish and Eagleton not heard of “intelligent design”? Do they not know about the Creation Museum in Kentucky (, with its dioramas showing people and dinosaurs coexisting 5,000 years ago? To say that religionists don’t try to use religion to explain physical phenomena is either to be dishonest or stupid.

  3. A commercial airliner went down in Afghanistan several years ago, before the US invasion. The Taliban refused to plumb the black box for data that might be helpful in determining the causes of the crash. The reason for this refusal was simple: “It was God’s will.” That right there tells us that religionists – whether they’re Christians, Muslims, or anything else – *do* look to their religions for explanations of physical phenomena.

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