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Reason, Faith and Revolution
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B- : well-turned phrases (and put-downs); muddling argument
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Reason, Faith and Revolution collects a series of lectures given by Terry Eagleton in April, 2008 at Yale University.
These are indeed, as the subtitle has it, 'Reflections on the God Debate' -- with Eagleton rather cleverly avoiding taking much of a position on the actual debate about whether or not there is a god.
His main points of reference (and attack) are the two popular and widely discussed books by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great) -- whom he catchily conflates: "for convenience to the single signifier 'Ditchkins'".
Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.The argument is typical: he exaggerates a silly Ditchkins-statement, and then turns a clever phrase to lull his listeners away from thinking about the actual gist of what he is saying.
Eagleton also has a specific idea of what god is -- necessary for his argument, but not substantiated by any sort of evidence or reasoning:
God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view, but simply for the love and delight of it.It's a convenient way of looking at things -- and a nice story --, but entirely arbitrary. Fair enough: maybe that's what the whole god-concept is, that everyone makes it up in their little heads what they'd like the big guy (or whatever) in the sky (or wherever) to be like, and fit his/her/its philosophy (of creation, morality, etc.) to whatever fits their experience and wishes. That seems rather pointless (but then so does the whole god-concept), but, hey, whatever works for you. But surely if you're trying to make larger arguments -- as Eagleton is here -- you've got to work with sturdier foundations.
Eagleton goes so far as to claim: "God, in short, is every bit as gloriously pointless as Ditchkins tells us he is", but he means it rather differently than they do; for one, they mean the god-concept itself -- the very idea of a supernatural deity -- whereas Eagleton won't step back that far and merely posits a laid-back guy in the sky who just leans back and doesn't get involved. Eagleton tries to take arguably the best of both worlds: yes, there is a god, but he has nothing to do with us:
Because God is transcendent -- that's to say, because he doesn't need humanity, having fashioned us just for the fun of it -- he is not neurotically possessive of us. He needs us no more than one needs a pet mongoose or tattoo. He is therefore able to let us be; and the word for this is freedom, which is where for Christian theology we belong to him most deeply.Given this very loose connection between man and his/her god, Eagleton criticizes those who see a much closer connection to their god, such as American Bible-thumpers and religious literalists everywhere; apparently their theory of religion is not the correct one. It remains unclear, however, why -- just because it is preferable -- Eagleton's understanding should be any more plausible.
Eagleton is a die-hard Marxist (of sorts -- as with religious believers, there are many variations), and Reason, Faith and Revolution is informed by that ideology, allowing him to frame his concern for humanity and society in a way that differentiates it from the reliance on cold science that Ditchkins prefer. So also for Eagleton:
Christian faith, as I understand it, is not primarily a matter of signing on for the proposition that there exists a Supreme Being, but the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.Sweet though that is, it begs the question: why bother with the whole 'Supreme Being' bullshit if the whole point is something else ? Why the need for a god ? If it's not primarily about signing on for the proposition that something supernatural exists, why is it about that at all ? Why the need for a church ? (Yeah, it's a convenient way of organizing things, but, as even Eagleton admits, organized religion has often made a hash of things -- and doesn't have a great track record with that whole promise of transformative love, at least when applied to others (love thy neighbor only going so (i.e. not very) far in most practice).)
Perhaps Eagleton is a realist: people are weak and need a sense of community and common purpose to embrace that transformative love, and to allow it to flourish. Sounds a lot like socialism -- and Eagleton sounds a lot like someone who realizes that socialism by itself has failed, so why not hitch the wagon to that of religion, which has had more staying power and done pretty well for itself over the millennia ?
Indeed, here is where what is truly his major difference with Ditchkins emerges, as he argues:
Even after Auschwitz, there is nothing in their view to be redeemed from. Things are just not that desperate enough. In their opinion, it is just shoddy, self-indulgent leftist hyperbole to imagine that they are. Your average liberal rationalist does not need to believe that despite the tormented condition of humanity there might still, implausibly enough, be hope, since they do not credit such a condition in the first place.Yes, Eagleton believes in 'hope' -- and apparently he's a better man for it (or at least better than Ditchkins). It's the Marxist ideal of a better world he still holds dear. Good for him -- but surely he goes too far in denying that Ditchkins and liberal rationalists have a similar wish for a better world. Their hope is admittedly a very different one from both the Marxist one of an ... improvable society (surely even the Marxists have given up on perfectible, right ?) and the Christian one, but arguably much more firmly grounded in the real world. Hey, even Eagleton thinks god is completely hands-off, letting folk do what they want ("the word for this is freedom", remember ?), so he/she/it doesn't seem someone/thing to expect much from.
Eagleton's refusal to credit Ditchkins and liberal rationalists with having the proper hope is political. He argues that:
Ditchkins and his ilk support, by and large, the political status quo, with varying degrees of reformist dissent.Eagleton embraces revolution -- and is certain that Ditchkins doesn't. And Eagleton repeatedly slips in his other revolutionary targets, most notably the root of so much evil, capitalism (which he finds: "atheistic in all the wrong ways, whereas Marx and Nietzsche are atheistic in what are by and large the right kinds of ways"). He even denounces Dawkins, because:
His campaign against fundamentalism has been signally unmatched by an equally forthright critique of global capitalism, a system which breeds so much of the anxiety and sense of humiliation off which fundamentalism feeds.Apples and oranges, Dawkins would presumably reply, and while there is a connection it only has peripherally to do with his arguments; not so for Eagleton: much as for the true believer everything has to do with religion, so for Eagleton everything has to do with economic systems. Certainly, the effects of 'global capitalism' (whatever the hell that ridiculously overbroad term might be taken to mean -- not that Eagleton takes a moment to explain it) touch most aspects of human life and society and thus is arguably not a separate question ... but for Ditchkins it is only one of many interconnected aspects of life; for Eagleton it is the central and dominant nexus.
For a while, Eagleton goes completely off the tracks here, complaining about how "avatars of liberal Enlightenment" (Ditchkins, Martin Amis (really), Salmon (sic !) Rushdie, Ian McEwan):
have much less to say about the evils of global capitalism as opposed to the evils of radical Islam Indeed, most of them hardly mention the word "capitalism" at all, however they may protest from time to time against this or that excess.Fair enough -- in a way -- that, for example, social unrest (as also manifesting itself in acts of terrorism) has complex roots which should also be addressed. But when Eagleton talks about 'capitalism' here he does little more than use a freighted word for effect (like 'Nazi' or 'fundamentalist'). He accuses Dawkins of holding forth on theology displaying a "truly shocking ignorance of many of its basic tenets", yet spits out the word 'capitalism' (and 'global capitalism') without bothering to explain what he understands by it. (Yes, yes, readers can well imagine the stock phrases -- 'exploitation of the worker', etc. etc. -- but there's a bit more to it than that, surely.)
(Eagleton does make one very interesting political-historical point (taken from Aijaz Ahmad): that between 1945 and 1965 "most Muslim-majority societies, from Indonesia to Algeria, were extraordinarily hospitable to leftist, secular ideas", and that it is Western intervention in countries such as Iran, Algeria, Egypt, and Indonesia that crushed that -- along with the nascent democratic efforts -- there. That's a lot to answer for.)
The strength of Eagleton's book lies in his willingness to acknowledge that faith is a very powerful thing and impossible (and even undesirable, at this point) to root out. For Ditchkins and those who do not believe in supernatural mumbo-jumbo, faith -- especially of the religious sort -- seems extraordinarily silly. What they have tried to do is point out how silly it all is, imagining that if rational human beings think about the question clearly they will see the light. They are, of course, mistaken. People are, on some level, insane, and prefer clinging to their beliefs, no matter how ridiculous these are.
Eagleton even knows what to blame for the current state of affairs:
A surfeit of belief is what agnostic, late-capitalist civilization itself has helped to spawn. This is not only because it has helped to create the conditions for fundamentalism. It is also because when reason becomes too dominative, calculative, and instrumental, it ends up as too shallow a soil for a reasonable kind of faith to flourish.Ditchkins and any non-believer would ridicule the oxymoronic notion of "a reasonable kind of faith", but Eagleton -- a longtime clinger to Marxism -- may, in his irrationalism (and anti-rationalism) be the more realistic one here. What he'd prefer to do is channel this faithful enthusiasm properly, where possible, and instead find another common ideological enemy to focus energies on. Bashing capitalism works for him, and he seems to think it would be an easy sell in most of the religious trouble-spots, too. It's not the worst idea, but it also evades much of the Ditchkins-argument.
Eagleton only promised: 'Reflections on the God Debate', but the meandering arguments of Reason, Faith and Revolution stray much, much further. These lectures certainly read well, as Eagleton turns many clever and nice phrases, but not enough of the argument is built up well. Part of the problem is his Ditchins-obsession, as they are too easy targets (which Eagleton makes easier still by conflating authors and books, attacking, for example, Hitchens' public political pronouncements as well as the contents of his book). Part of the problem is also his sneak attack, since he is less interested in religious belief systems than social-economic ones.
An interesting work, but ultimately also too frustrating.
- M.A.Orthofer, 8 May 2009
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Noted literary critic Terry Eagleton is a Professor of English at Oxford University.
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