Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Terry Eagleton

When Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, and other polemicists from the “new atheism” movement launched their full-scale assault on religious faith, they were met by a ferocious counter-attack from a most unlikely quarter.  Terry Eagleton is one of Britain’s leading intellectuals; as a Marxist, he is no friend of religion, a fact he makes clear right at the beginning of Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009).  Writes Eagleton:

Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs.  For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology.  I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. (p.xi)

However, while Eagleton is severely critical of religion as a social phenomenon, he is even more critical of the “new atheists”, whom he regards as little better – and every bit as bigoted, oppressive, and close-minded – as the fundamentalists whom they excoriate as typical of the products of religious belief.  Indeed, it is this very point – engaging in the exercise of berating a crass caricature of the real thing – that attracts Eagleton’s wrath: as far as he is concerned, instead of pointing out all the many things about religion that are actually wrong, “new atheists” choose instead to indulge in a game of setting up straw men and bowling them over.   This, Eagleton says, is a matter of buying their rejection of religion “on the cheap”, through which they parade an ignorance and prejudice every bit as profound as that which they ascribe to religion.

Across the course of Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Eagleton launches three intertwined assaults upon “new atheism”, articulating what he regards as the essential deficiencies of its position.  These are:

Intellectual shabbiness.  Eagleton can barely contain his outrage that Dawkins and co. have launched their assault upon religion while themselves remaining entirely ignorant of the precepts and implications of theology; a situation not improved by the fact that “new atheists” habitually absolve themselves of any necessity to become acquainted with theology on the grounds that it is not worth knowing in the first place.  As far as Eagleton is concerned, this makes about as much sense as dismissing socialism without first having at least acquired a passing acquaintance with the writings and opinions of Marx.  Moreover, Eagleton seems to feel that it discredits reputable critiques of religion through guilt by association; the destruction of “new atheism’s” claims to intellectual credibility and scientific objectivity taint the credentials of other liberal humanist critics.

Eagleton, by contrast, displays an astonishing grasp of theology (despite his assertions that it is a subject on which he is largely ignorant), both in terms of its content, and its implications for the nature of religious belief and how that belief forms and informs the lives of believers.  Eagleton is not so naive as to think that there is no such thing as popular piety, or that the existence of this equivalent of religious folklore means that there isn’t a gap between “pure” theology and the way belief manifests itself in the lives of individuals and communities.  However, he is also able to grasp the point – unlike his “new atheist” interlocutors – that popular piety and fundamentalism represent both extremes and  minority understandings of faith, and that in neither is to be located a representative outworking of religious belief.

Critically, however, Eagleton’s own theological literacy means that he is able to expose the “God” excoriated by “new atheism” as an imposture and a fake, a “God” who is not the God worshipped by mainstream Christian faith – indeed, a God which that faith rejects as vigorously as Dawkins and Hitchins.  Rather than being the monstrous tyrant intent on victimising humanity portrayed by “new atheism”, Eagleton shows that Christian theology is grounded in a God who exists for the sake (to borrow Eagleton’s phrase) of the “scum of the earth”.  Dramatically, Eagleton puts it thusly:

The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarity with what the Bible calls…the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the Kingdom of God.  Jesus himself is constituently present as their representative.  His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity, and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition.  (p.23)

If this sounds like liberation theology, this is hardly surprising, since it is on this point that Eagleton most thoroughly criticises Christianity as a religious movement.  For him, Christianity was founded to set people free and deliver them into an abundant form of life characterised as the Kingdom of God; instead, it has, over the course of its history, mostly delivered people into oppressive and tyrannical servitude.  Which isn’t to say that Eagleton – again, unlike Dawkins and Hitchins – isn’t able to acknowledge those occasions when (in his estimation) Christianity has acted as a liberating force,or that untold good has been done by untold numbers of people acting out of genuine religious conviction; for Eagleton, however, these occasions have been the exception not the rule, and represent a large-scale betrayal of Christianity’s heritage.  This is also an accusation which Eagleton levels against “new atheism”.

Idolatry.  Eagleton is perfectly aware that atheism is itself a religious position, since it is a response – in the negative – to the possibility of God.  However, what Eagleton finds especially repugnant is that Dawkins and co. have turned “new atheism” into a fundamentalist religious movement every bit as extreme as the fundamentalist Islam or Christianity.  By setting up a false dichotomy between religion and reason (or, in the case of Dawkins, religion and science) that relies on both a fraudulent construction of God and a hubristic image of “reason”, Eagleton charges that Dawkins and co. have invented a secular mythology whose essential narrative is the (fictional) story of the struggle of the forces of Light (science, reason) against the forces of Darkness (religion, superstition).  In this secular mythology, Reason (and Progress) are the idols whose worship is articulated through the metaphysical claims of logical positivism; claims, which it hardly needs saying, are presented as “truths”, unlike the metaphysical claims of theology.

But for Eagleton this is mere idolatry; and like all idolatry, it is utterly self-serving.  The idolatry of “new atheism” stems from its inability (or unwillingness) to recognise that its own presuppositions and assumptions are not objective truths verified by experimental process or sensory experience.  Rather, the notion that “truth” is confined only to that which can be either tested experimentally or experienced personally is a statement about the ordering of the cosmos; in other words, it is a metaphysical statement not a scientific hypothesis amenable to the scientific method.  It may, Eagleton concedes, be both eminently reasonable and ultimately true; however, since it can be neither experienced directly nor demonstrated objectively, it remains within the realm of the speculative.

This being the case, Eagleton argues that “new atheism” simply cannot allege the “irrationality” of religious belief on the grounds that no evidence can be found for the existence of God since, afterall, no evidence can be found for “new atheism’s” claim that only that which can be proved evidentially or experientally can be regarded as “true”.  “New atheism’s” claim to be founded on “reason” may, after all, be entirely irrational; the point is, we will never know, any more than we will ever be able to prove the existence of God.  The point, as Eagleton says, is that Dawkins and co. cannot grasp the fact that “faith” and “reason” are not implacably opposed, any more than “religion” or “science”.  The evidentalism of “new atheism”, masquerading as “Reason”, is merely an idolatrous imposture as absurd and offensive as Biblical literalism.

Hypocrisy.  Eagleton postulates that Christianity, liberal humanism, and Marxism all share one essential quality: they are, at base, liberation movements whose core mission is to transform human life beyond the squalid reality of its material existence.  But the charge which Eagleton levels against all three is that the historical experience of each has been a betrayal of this mission in favour of sectional or individual interests.  What matters is that this betrayal be acknowledged in order for the mission to be recaptured.

“New atheism”, for Eagleton, represents a betrayal of the emancipating mission of liberal humanism, which, among other things, developed as a reaction against both the oppressive authoritarianism and degrading superstition of medieval Christianity.  However, in its intellectual shabbiness, neo-idolatry, and hectoring, bullying close-mindedness, “new atheism” represents the secular re-creation of the very religious tyranny from which liberal humanism was meant to deliver humankind.  For Eagleton, this is especially representative in “new atheism’s” refusal to accept the historical fact that secular society has been just as guilty of moral shabbiness and criminal brutality as any theocracy.  Like the Communist apologists who turn blind eyes to the mass-murders perpetrated by Stalin and Mao, Dawkins and co. regard the horror of Auschwitz and Belsen, or the “disappearances” of left-wing dissidents in Latin America, as “blips” in an otherwise triumphal march of secular society toward an enlightened, religion-free future.  As Eagleton himself puts it:

The God Delusion, by contrast, manages only one or two shadowy gestures to the fallibility of the enterprise to which its author has so flamboyantly pinned his faith.  On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked upon humanity, he is predictably silent.  Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare. (p.133-4)

The point for Eagleton is that, ultimately, all human movements are to be judged, not by the terms of their critics, but by the standards established by their own founding ideologies.  In this regard, Christianity, liberal humanism, and Marxism are all failures and betrayers of the emancipatory revolutions which they sought to inspire.  But that doesn’t mean they are irretrievably lost; recognition of painful truths and resumption of the originating mission hold the potential to revive and reform all three.  As far as Eagleton is concerned, however, “new atheism” will not revive the liberal humanist project; Dawkins and co. represent nothing more than a retreat into betraying obscurantism.  As Eagleton argues:

Like religion, a good deal of science has betrayed its revolutionary origins, as the pliable tools of transnational corporations and the military-industrial complex.  But this should not induce us to forget its emancipatory history.  Like liberalism, socialism, and religion, science stands under the judgement of its own finest traditions.  (p.136)

Reason, Faith, and Revolution is challenging and confronting reading for both Christians and atheists.  Polemical in style, biting in wit, and uncompromising in its call for intellectual integrity,  Eagleton’s book (itself a collection of addresses he gave for Yale University’s Terry Lectures series) is a plea for the kind of generosity and graciousness that enables serious debate and examination of issues, contra the derogatory mud-slinging and name calling that passes for engagement in the present environment.  Eagleton himself is a dab hand at razor-sharp sarcasm; but it is employed, not to establish his own moral superiority, but to destroy the pretensions of protagonists too arrogant to admit that the other side might just be right.  It may be that, for future generations of atheists, they will say of Eagleton that which Marx said of Nietzsche vis-a-vis Christianity: “Shame on you! Shame that it took a non-believer to show you the essence of your own faith!”.

(c) Copyright Brendan Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.