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Wednesday, June 13, 2007


A couple of days ago, Stanley Fish, famous academic bigwig, wrote a post on his New York Times blog concerning books written in the last few years by the prominent atheists, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Normally, I would link to an article such as this one, but since it falls under the "Times Select" banner, such a link would be useless for anyone who doesn't subscribe. Those who do should be able to find it fairly easily.

Now, Professor Fish takes arguments he finds commonly presented in these three books and tries refuting them by going to the Johns, Milton and Bunyon, among others. This post has garnered 213 comments so far, which is an enviable number of comments and shows how dearly people hold their opinions on these matters. Now, I had considered responding there, but would have had to write a very long comment to match his very long post. Instead, I thought I'd just note a couple of observations here, both of Professor Fish's post and the attendant comments and of the subject that those writings led me to.

First of all, I found it interesting that both Professor Fish and the Three Atheists (as well as the vast majority of commenters) limited their discussion to what my junior high textbooks called The Three Major Religions ("The Triumph of Monotheism" was the actual title of one of the information boxes in a history text book. This was in a public school. So much for the separation of church and state! Also, in terms of monotheism, I find Christianity to be the best buy: Three Gods for the price of one.) No one gave the time of day to any other outlook on divinity, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Shinto, any of a variety of nature religions, or Satanism. Can any discussion of the concept of God be considered valid if it limits itself to only the Abrahamic religions? Isn't that a tad parochial in the now-a-go-go, Information Superhighway, One World we now live in?

This is part of why I didn't jump into the fray. The ambit of the discussion was too circumscribed. And, at the end of the day, isn't such a discussion just the kind of thing that college sophomores indulge in on sombre evenings, only with fewer big words and arcane references?

One of the commenters, a William Theo, pointed out that atheism is itself a belief system and a fundamentalist one at that. I thought that a very interesting insight, and one that points me to what I consider to be the shallowness (however gussied up in language or quotation) of both sides of this argument. Neither side takes into account that the stories that constitute the sacred writings for The Three Great Religions are myths, that is, symbol systems designed to open one's being to a different way of perceiving reality. Both sides assume that the stories they are dealing with are facts instead of metaphors, perhaps no one more fiercely than the atheists.

Professor Fish spends some time expounding on the tale of Eve eating the apple, which he presents throughout as a historic event. He and the early modern cohorts he brings with him into battle present this tale as one of corruption and sin and the exercise of free will. However, when looked at as myth, it becomes a tale about epistemology and how our ability to acquire and use knowledge separates us from the reality that surrounds us. Eve eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and her consciousness moves from an experience of the unitary and the eternal to one that is fragmentary and rooted in time. Her world becomes binary, and she becomes aware not only of good and evil, but naked and clothed, dark and light, and death and life, among a myriad of others. Sin, then is not a matter of behavior, but one of awareness. Sin is being lost in fragmentation and time and being unable to experience the divine, which is unitary and eternal.

I say this all merely as one sinner to another.

In Buddhist terms, Eve (and then Adam) went from Nirvana to Samsarra, just to bring an idea or two formulated somewhere besides the Near East.

I will go on about this, particularly the symbolism inherent in the Near East religions tomorrow. Unless I don't. Only time, fragmentary time, will tell.