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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."
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on 25 January 2010
Terry Eagleton has grown in stature over the years. From the late 1960s as the editor of Slant, a left-wing Catholic magazine brought out in the heady days after Vatican II, he became a renowned literary theorist, Oxford Professor of English and expert on Marxism. He has written over forty books and always writes wisely and well. On his life's work, he comments wryly that `one of the best reasons for being a Christian, as well as a Socialist, is that you don't like having to work, and reject the fearful idolatry of it so rife in countries like the United States. True civilisations do not hold predawn power breakfasts.'

His latest book is an edited version of the Terry Lectures, given at Yale University on the subject of the links and disjunctions between science and religion. He professes to know only a little about each, but takes as his adversaries the so-called `New Atheists', principally Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom he irreverently joins together as `Ditchkins') and their disdainful dismissal of religion as the roots of all human evil, or most of it.

Writing for the defence, Terry returns surprisingly to his Catholic roots. His argument is that salvation is a political affair and all about the anawim (the poor and needy in Hebrew). He concedes that left-wing, radical Christians are a rarity, but that Christian faith is principally a matter of helping people, visiting the sick and the lonely and speaking up for them. It is a view that would be dismissed by most metaphysical, realist churchmen. After all, social workers can do all that.

Yet here is the point. Faith is not an intellectual assent to propositions; it is always faith-as-trust. As Kierkegaard would say, the facts do not really matter, nor even does universal truth. The truth for me is truth enough for me, a truth to live by. Most atheists miss this point. Not only do they have a naive understanding of God and theology, they inveigh against religion without understanding that they are the least qualified to do so. (After all, why go into it deeply when there are better things to do?)

Yet Terry's Socialism and critical background will not let Christianity off the hook. Clerical abuse of children - especially in Ireland where it was far, far worse than here - the demeaning of women, the move of the Church towards the bourgeoisie are all deeply disturbing. Christianity has betrayed itself badly. On the other hand, it is often more down to earth than the fantasies of the Enlightenment. It has the power to transform parts of human society without the hubris of Progress. Ditchkins and their allies cannot see that the Enlightenment was a mixed blessing. Neither are they willing to concede what Christian faith has indeed achieved, for that would mean putting tiresome qualifications on their dislike of it.

As the book and lectures progress, the reader is led into profound areas of religious belief. That it is not the opposite of reason, only of credulity or fanaticism. The relationship between belief and knowledge is complex: belief can be rational but untrue, but then quantum physics can be `true' but irrational (or at least deeply counter-intuitive). And then, most people believe in luck, but no-one knows what it is. Faith, as Terry constantly reiterates, articulates a commitment that precedes an description of the way things are. Suddenly a polemic against the New Atheists becomes a profound and stimulating reflection on the nature of religious faith. And this is the heart of the book, the pearl in the oyster.

And speaking of corny metaphors, sometimes there are things which jar the easy flow of the debate. Terry appears to join his enemies in exaggeration when it comes to organised religions faults. In his view, nuns (he means religious sisters) who ill-treated children were all `psycho-pathologically sadistic' He is also the master of the confusing simile. I puzzled for a while over his point that `it is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.' And yet some of his gnomic utterances bear thinking about. That 'there has been no human culture to date in which virtue has been predominant' is a notion that qualifies many beliefs - religious or secular.

This is a well-written and valuable work. Terry Eagleton is reaching a rich maturity and he has much to offer during the course of his debate. That it reaches no conclusion is no matter. We could profitably take a line from economics and concede that if we put all the world's theologians in a line, they still would not reach a conclusion.
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on 15 February 2012
I won't go on a long rambling journey with this review. This is a brilliant read and is, in my humble opinion, Eagleton's best book to date. It's also incredibly human and real. If you don't read this book, you have missed something that will stay with you for a long time. More please!
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on 2 June 2009
Eagleton is an amazing combination of Catholic believer and Marxist. He derides much of what Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens write, disrespectfully calling them `Ditchkins'. He is contemptuous of their Oxford/Washington/neocon etc scene, adding in Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan for good measure. His main critique is that whilst Dawkins and Hitchens critique religion, they do not apply the same critique to science or the enlightened modernity they promote, summed up in their castigation of the Inquisition but not of Hiroshima. Eagleton however commits the same errors he accuses Dawkins and Hitchens of. They attack a straw man of extremist religion rather than more credible expressions and interpretations - `this straw targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace he complains' - whilst Eagleton himself attacks Dawkins and Hitchens rather than the more credible atheist arguments of Simon Blackburn, Andre Comte-Sponville, Julian Baggini etc. He challenges that Dawkins and Hitchens should know more about religion before critiquing it but then himself freely lambasts multinational corporations about which he is equally uninformed. Eagleton deploys streams of similes to support his points - `it is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov' - which start as amusing but soon become irritating. He is clearly annoyed with Hitchens for leaving the Marxist camp where they were former fellow travellers. He doesn't like modernity's belief in its inevitable progress to a finer world, but he fails to say that belief in the kingdom of God offers the same hope. We are told of `the social devastation wreaked by economic liberalism' p145!

Eagleton simply assumes God. By page 7 he is writing in detail about the nature of God without any supporting argument - God is just as Eagleton says he is. He says on page 34 that he has given a theological account which he clearly hasn't. He has simply speculated on some ideal fabrication of an imagined God. And Jesus is Eagleton's revolutionary, a Che Guevara figure who stands for the poor, critiques the establishment, and himself suffers ignominy and bears injustice.

He does offer allegory as a useful interpretation of religion and this deserves further development. He says p48 `there has been no human culture to date in which virtue has been predominant' which is a succinct moral challenge to human society which should cause reflection and correction? For Aquinas p122 `all virtues have their source in love' so here is Eagleton's key virtue which compares to Iaian King's twin virtues of empathy and obligation and Comte-Sponville's 18 virtues in his 'A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues'.
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on 17 May 2012
Rollicking might seem an unusual description for a scholarly dissection of the arguments in the atheism/ theism debate, but Terry Eagleton grabbed my attention from page one and left me breathless as he battered away at a very wide range of modern liberal rationalist positions.

This book deserves more than a single reading; the first time is fun, but the breadth of subjects covered requires far greater thought to understand and appreciate the points underlying the wit. Poor old Ditchkins has been taking a bit of a battering in a number of recent books and although Eagleton spends a good portion of the book demolishing the New Atheists' views on religion, the balance is somewhat restored with insightful comments about the fundamentalist expressions of religion.

I found this to be a really enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
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on 24 June 2009
Terry Eagleton is such a joy to read. His text is actually very dense in the amount of content it conveys in such a modest page run, yet it is so entertainingly written that you barely notice the density. I think this book will be of great interest to anyone who is interested in what the solid, orthodox theology of Christianity (the original variety, dating back long before the DIY versions of the post-reformation period which are home to the anti-science and anti-justice lobbies amongst the so-called Christian right, especially in North America) has to say about the project of love, justice and radical living for the greater good of others which Jesus of Nazareth came to proclaim and live - which of course got him murdered by a world that can't tolerate unconditional love. This book gives what's at once a timeless account, and a very contemporary rendition of the Gospel, with emphasis on its social dimensions. It's not only about liberation theology - it is a liberating and diverting read in itself.
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on 20 March 2014
Eagleton seems to be annoyed by the fact that Hitchens was a gifted orator and Dawkins claims to find happiness in science and facts. Much energy is spent giving negative personal statements on "Ditchins", a term obviously ment for ridicule. Eagleton is also trying to construct a revolutionary Christianity by removing most of the negative aspects of religion, the ones that "Ditchins" focuses on, using only the "cozy" parts of the Bible, those that we unbelievers call human values. If Eagleton had lived in the old Greece, he would probably also rejected Socrates on basis of his eloquence.
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This is a good book. It's cheerful, straightforward, well argued and iconoclastic.

It shatters the idols that atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens have made for themselves. It shows up the shallowness and inadequacy of many atheist positions. The fact that Eagleton is himself an atheist increases the depth of his critique of much contemporary atheism.

He is also good at pointing out some of the flaws in Christianity and in other belief systems such as multiculturalism. The following quotes are particularly memorable,

"Multiculturalism at its least impressive blandly embraces difference as such, without looking too closely into what one is differing over. It tends to imagine that there is something inherently positive about having a host of different views on the same subject.....Such facile pluralism therefore tends to numb the habit of vigorously contesting other people's beliefs..."


"Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless."

This book is challenging to all participants in the debate over God, and what he means both here on Earth and in Heaven and Hell. Read it, enjoy it, disagree with it...but go prepared to enjoy a lively conversation...and to learn some new ideas from it.
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on 23 December 2013
Superb appraisal and criticism of contemporary religion, society and belief without the 'attitude' or despair. A book which genuinely moves one on, and gives the feeling that there may yet be a future. Wonderful paradox - gay atheist refurbishes church prospects. With many a LAUGH! I'll say that again - a L-A-U-G-H. Are any churches out there? It's called INTELLIGENCE, HONESTY, TOLERATION, REFLECTION, CONCERN and HUMOUR.
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on 27 April 2015
Excellent and provocative. Thought provoking
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