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If you want to write about Theology, you ought at least to understand it first.
on 30 March 2011
This is a passionately engaged book, written as a response to the work of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (an entity the author refers to collectively as `Ditchkins') who, Eagleton argues, have set out to demolish any possibility of belief in God but have completely missed their mark. This is because they have not the slightest idea of what belief in God is or may be, only the most caricatured idea of Theology, and a blinkered and untenable (`dewy-eyed') view of History as a Grand March to Progress, from the Enlightenment via Hegel and Darwin to... well, to Ditchkins, really. Eagleton, an atheist Marxist himself, has set himself to wind the argument back a way, and to say, OK, so the establishment of Christianity has betrayed the radicalism of Jesus and the early church (he is aware of the parallel with Stalinism) - even so, what can the secular left learn from Religion? And his answer is, a lot. "What other symbolic form," he asks, "has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?"
The major problem I have with this book is that, whilst this in itself sounds a worthwhile aim, we don't actually get all that much of it. What we do get is a sustained attack on Ditchkins. I read substantial portions of "The God Delusion" in order to check whether Eagleton was representing his arguments, and he seems to have done so fairly to me, though I confess I've not looked at Hitchens' "God Is Not Great." He points out that Ditchkins does not register that faith is not an intellectual belief, but an active commitment, and goes on to show that Ditchkins' rationalism is just as much a matter of faith. There is no such thing as objectivity; Ditchkins cannot ground his belief in the value of individual freedom scientifically - and there is no reason why he should. It is a matter of faith, based upon values to which he is committed. Science has not disproved the existence of God, because God is not an entity `existing' in the world, to be found and examined - and what is more, no theologian has ever claimed that he is. God's rationally-proved existence is what Ditchkins seems to think all Religion is based upon; but it is not. It is a matter of faith, based upon values to which the believer is committed.
Twenty pages or so of this stuff would have been fine, but after that I found myself starting to wish that the `D' word would just disappear, and we could hear more about Eagleton's ideas. There are still many questions going begging. How much is any form of reason or rationalism underpinned by faith? What room is there for aesthetics in reason? And there are notes here that could turn into a fascinating Marxist reading of Aquinas. It's certainly valuable to gather all the misinformation and mistakes of Ditchkins' books (there are some real howlers), but it threatens to become an obsession. Because actually, a key factor here is that Eagleton's issue with Ditchkins is clearly a political one; he sees them as class overlords, arching disdainful eyebrows at the less-evolved religious barbarians around them from the comfort of their North Oxford dinner tables. He may well be right. Let's be honest here: it's not really all that difficult to demolish the poor thinking of mindless fundamentalists, as Ditchkins certainly does. But it is either laziness or dishonesty to claim from that that one has said anything important at all about Christianity, or Islam, or Religion in general. Eagleton has shown that it is possible to turn the telescope back upon a liberal rationalist who ignores the dark heart of his own philosophy; that Auschwitz and the Gulags are not just minor wobbles on humanity's march toward freedom; they are quite as much products of Enlightenment rationalism as the wonders of modern science and medicine.
"Reason, Faith & Revolution" was clearly written quickly, which gives it verve and dynamism. In some few places it seems to be in a hurry, which means that there are repetitions and slight contradictions (Capitalism is described as "inherently atheistic" on page 39, and "inherently agnostic" on page 143, for example). None of these seriously undermine its points, but a little more revision might have helped the book to carry. Similarly, his discussion in the closing pages of Culture and Civilisation is far too broad-brushed to be really convincing. For a brief moment, Eagleton almost resembles a Ditchkins himself, firing out generalisations left and right. But even at this point, he is stimulating and perceptive in the questions he is asking, and, unlike "The God Delusion," he is prepared to countenance the idea that he might be mistaken. And in places, there is genuine vintage Eagleton here. For instance, Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, is "not the opium of the people, but its crack cocaine." Its criticisms of godless, hedonistic and shallow consumerism are often correct, he argues, "but its cure is worse than the disease... The only cure for terrorism," he concludes, "is justice."