Since the beginning of time, students have been admonished not to use introductory sentences which are wildly general. I’ve been indoctrinated with this principle since high school, and I’ve even been warned in college. My TA in my philosophy of mind class advised us not to start our essay with something like, “Since the beginning of time, people have wondered if ‘I’ refers or not.” Not only is it bad writing, but it is inaccurate. We didn’t start wondering about it until the 20th century (however, most of us don’t worry about it at all).
Imagine my surprise when a writer for the New York Times uses this type of shitty introductory sentence for a blog entry. Stanley Fish, from behind the TimesSelect wall tries to defend theism from the onslaught of the recent books by Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens. I’m going to show you the offending sentence, with a few follow-up sentences for context:
Writings against God and religion have been around as long as God and religion have been around. But every so often an epidemic of the genre breaks out and a spate of such writings achieves the status of notoriety (which is what their authors had been aiming for). This has now happened to three books published in the last three years: Sam Harrisâ€™s â€œThe End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of Reasonâ€ (2004, 2005), Richard Dawkinsâ€™s â€œThe God Delusionâ€ (2006) and Christopher Hitchensâ€™s â€œGod is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everythingâ€ (2007).
I know, I know, who am I to criticize someone’s English? What authority do I have? What have I published? Who have I taught? Good questions. Who am I? I’m just an observer, and I’ve observed that that sentence is horrible. I make no other remarks on anyone’s command of the English language. Furthermore, if you disagree with me on the merits of wildly general introductory sentences qua good English [Note: Is this even grammatically correct?], then you can at least agree that the sentence leaves out a lot of history.
First of all, writing itself hasn’t been around as long as religion has been around. But that’s just nitpicky. The second, and better, point is that writings against God and religion haven’t been around because such writers have been fearful for their reputation, livelihood, and lives for most of the time God and religion have been around. I’d argue that religious tolerance and freedom of religion are modern concepts, let alone freedom from religion. John Locke’s landmark A Letter Concerning Toleration advocated religious tolerance, but left out atheists.
Religion has long suppressed criticism. Galileo was punished for contradicting Church teaching, even though he had no quarrel with God himself. Even if criticism has occasionally surfaced, the critics weren’t around for very long afterwards.
While there is evidence of anti-theist writing from antiquity (namely, Epicurus), this does not excuse the poor sentence. Among Socrates’s charges was believing in strange, new gods. He received the death penalty. After the Roman Empire fell, humanity took great steps backwards. “Every so often an epidemic of the genre breaks out”? Please, point to me an epidemic of these writings before the Age of Enlightenment.
For a long time, the Catholic Church forbid translating the Bible into the vernacular. The Bible was in Latin, while the people didn’t speak Latin. The absurdities of the Bible were hidden from the public. How could anyone criticize the Bible if they couldn’t read it?
To me, Stanley Fish’s introductory sentences are not only overly general, but also misleading. Atheists have not always had such opportunity to point out the flaws in the concepts of God and religion precisely because of the horrific actions of the followers of God and religion.