Stanley Fish on the Distinction Between Religion and Philosophy

Stanley Fish, professor of law and humanities at Florida International University in Miami, and contributor to NYT.com, has posted a follow-up piece to his article, Does Philosophy Matter?.  In it, Fish argues that philosophical and religious belief are fundamentally distinguishable.  Both, he reflects, may be momentous—say, killing is always wrong.  But one may arrive at philosophical belief from many sources—one’s mother, a good book.  And though one may state philosophical belief in absolute terms, it is subject to the challenges and standards of philosophical reasoning.

On the other hand, he says, religious belief arises from commands—moral imperatives not subject to an umbrella system of reasoning or logic.  And, unlike a philosophical belief, which can be a passing intellectual exercise, one observes religious belief always: at temple, home, and work.  (Fish contextualizes this dichotomy in part by reference to Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997)—the Due Process challenge to Washington State’s prohibition of assisted suicide—and the so-called Philosopher’s Brief, the amicus curiae by Ronald Dworkin and five other moral and political philosophers opposed to the law.)

Is religious belief so absolute or unquestioning as Fish claims?  Of course, religious belief is theoretically based in divine commands not subject to question.  (Consider Job:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place[?]” [Job, 38:4, 12].)

But even as Job illustrates—“Job . . . cursed the day of his birth.  Job said: . . . ‘Why did I not die . . . ,/ come forth from the womb and expire? . . . Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,/ like an infant that never sees the light?’ ” (Job, 3:1–2, 11, 16)—, theology has always been spurred in part by doubt of the godhead and the claims of revelation—from Mark’s report of the passion (“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” [Mark, 15:34]), to C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.  Even great expressions of assurance admit doubt:  In The Facts & Issues, John Berryman writes, “I really believe He’s here all over this room/ in a motor hotel in Wallace Stevens’ town./ [It might] not be so;/ but frankly I don’t think there’s a molecular chance of that.”  Thus, even the broken poet, dying in Hartford, CT, yet assured in faith, detected that iota of disbelief.

It may be, then, that Fish’s account of religious belief is simplistic, admitting too little of the doubt that has been a foundation of theology from the works of the TaNaKh, to the collected Gospels, to the 20th Century.  But he may be correct insofar as all of these accounts of doubt admit the immutable truth that there is immutable truth (from Berryman:  “Let me be clear about this.  It is plain to me/ Christ underwent man & treachery & socks/ & lashes . . . .”).  And Fish says as much about the difference between religion and philosophy:  Religion understands that there is immutable truth where philosophy may not. (We would wade too deep to explore Philip Larkin’s “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die” [Aubade]—though I venture, and I believe Stanley Fish would agree:  That committed atheist believed more than he let on, for even to thumb your nose at God is to admit God’s existence.)

-DRS, CLR Fellow

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