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Citing Chapter and Verse by The New York Times

In this article, published at The New York Times' "Opinionator" blog in March 2012, the philosopher and social critic Stanley Fish took some of the so-called "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins and skeptics like Steven Pinker to task for their appearance on the MSNBC show Up W/Chris Hayes. The show segment was meant to be a discussion of the statistical correlation between deniers of global warming and religious believers. Fish - who does not himself claim to be a Christian - found that Dawkins' and Pinker's reasoning was circular and faulty. (In it, he echoes the argument of the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard when he said in the 1970s that postmodernity was "incredulity toward metanarratives" and criticized scientism for claiming it was not, itself, a metanarrative, because it was based on "facts," not "belief.") The conflict Fish outlines underlies much of the presumed tension between faith and science today.

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.

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