The literary critic and professor Terry Eagleton has made a timely contribution to the God debate, and a unique one. Up until the delivery of his Terry Lectures given at Yale, and their publication in 2009, the God debate had largely consisted of scientists and evolutionists on the one side, and religious writers on the other. The scientists, led by Richard Dawkins, have been writing about God and religion as if they were akin to the gods found in the recent cinema blockbuster Clash of the Titans. In this Louis Leterrier film the pagan gods are moody and capricious supermen and women, who confound and frustrate humanity to the point where humans get thoroughly fed up with them and declare war on their stronghold of Olympus.
On the other side of the debate have been religious apologists trying to defend their faith, quite courageously in most cases, from the emotionally charged harangues of Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the French philosopher Michel Onfray. In doing so, however, they have themselves, at times, presented a watered down and simplified view of religion in their efforts to defend the literalism of the bible and strange forms of New Age spiritualism.
Eagleton aligns himself with neither of these camps, but has a good deal to say in defence of the religionists, whom he considers abused by the caricature of religion presented by Dawkins and Co. Eagleton was raised in an Irish Catholic household, but left the Church during his years as an undergraduate and in his subsequent academic career he adopted a Marxist outlook. This he has tempered somewhat after the failures of Soviet Communism, but he retains an allegiance to socialism.
In Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate — the published and expanded version of his lectures — Eagleton argues that the description of religion, and mainly Christian religion, offered by Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, largely consists of a 101 course on the Crusades, the persecution of Galileo, and the case of Pius XII during the Holocaust. For good measure they throw in the consequences of 9/11 — just to show that they have some idea of the religion outside of the Christian context. Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, and Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto, draw on some well worn clichés and straw men to show why we should shun religion.
Eagleton points out that such a view of religion is biased and unfair. The importance of religion for a great many people today and throughout history is excised in a view that narrows down to the controversies in its history. These atheist writers make little or no mention of the contributions made by religion to education, health, civil planning, and to the development of such institutions as the university where Dawkins himself is gainfully employed. Eagleton is right to pull these authors up on their unsophisticated analysis of what religion actually is, and he will have struck a chord with any informed religious person who has read the work of the new atheists and grimaced at their simplistic notions of religion, faith and churches.
Ironically, these writers have risen from obscurity only because of the contemporary resurgence of interest in religion. As Eagleton points out, even Marxists and cultural theorists are again pondering issues of faith and ritual. Predictions that religion would fade away before the forces of secularisation have proved to be hubristic. The secularisation thesis proposed that advances in technology and industrialisation, along with the prevalence of rationality, would awaken humanity from its religious slumber to realise that God was redundant in a world of instant coffee and microwave ovens. The thesis was itself based on an atheistic and agnostic outlook, transferring faith to the mechanisms of social change and Progress (yes, with a capital P). As Eagleton makes clear, the new atheists place a great deal of faith in science. But science alone cannot provide all of the answers to life and its meaning; it may tell us what a quark is, but it cannot tell us how it impacts upon our daily lives. Likewise, secularisation suffered from a misplaced trust in the powers of social science, and that social progress would benefit humanity more than would belief.
What Eagleton also brings back into focus is the importance of the Christian scriptures for modern social life. The gospels, according to Eagleton, are revolutionary texts and a wake-up call to all of us living in the complex times of modernity and globalisation. One might be tempted to think that Eagleton is in the same camp as the liberation theologians who drew similar conclusions from the gospels as they did from Marx’s call to arms in The Communist Manifesto. Where Eagleton departs from such a reading is in his insistence that the gospels are essentially about how we live each day, regardless of the social situation we find ourselves in. The gospels call us to help our neighbour, thus they are a call to action, immediately and always. Eagleton shows us a view of the gospels that are revolutionary, but in a different way than they were interpreted by the liberation theologians; not reducible to political texts, but a call to lead a better life, through the love of others, in the here and now.
This brings us to one of the essential points about the gospels and religion generally that the new atheists completely miss: that faith is not about proving the existence of things, but is rather about what makes us truly human in the first place. Dawkins, Hitchens and Onfray attempt to capture the mantle of reason for themselves, arguing that religion is irrational, a “delusion” in Dawkins’ words. In doing so, they sound increasingly unreasonable. Says Eagleton: “Hitchens fails to distinguish between reasonable beliefs and unreasonable ones. His belief that one should distrust anything that outrages reason is one example of a reasonable belief, while his belief that all belief is blind is an example of an unreasonable one.” (p 125). Reason, it seems, has it limits.
Terry Eagleton shares an outlook with many new left intellectuals who continue to draw sustenance from the upheavals of the 1960s. Although his beliefs differ from Christians and people of faith more generally, he has provided something of a service to the “believing classes” who labour under the misrepresentation of their faith by the new atheists. The new atheists have dug in, to use a military term, for a long and drawn out campaign, and it will be interesting to see whether they maintain their influence on public debate about religion.
Dr Andrew Lynch teaches English and History at Redfield College, Sydney.