05 December 2009

Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

"Reason, Faith, and Revolution" is based on lectures Terry Eagleton gave at Yale in 2008, and he begins his criticism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—or “Ditchkins” as he refers to them together—by asserting the atheists have made an error of genre. For Christians God is not a “mega-manufacturer” but “the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever.” God needs nothing for his own existence and creates the world out of nothing. Creation is the ultimate act of an almost reckless generosity.

“Because there is no necessity about the cosmos, we cannot deduce the laws which govern it from a priori principles, but need instead to look at how it actually works. This is the task of science.”

The scientist starts not only with matter but with the assumption of intelligibility, which means science isn’t talking about the same stuff Christianity is talking about. In a metaphysical sense, science does not go back far enough to explain existence.


For Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, God the Creator is not a hypothesis about how the world originated. It does not compete, say, with the theory that the universe resulted from a random fluctuation in a quantum vacuum. In fact, Aquinas was quite ready to entertain the possibility that the world had no origin at all. Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it is not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places…. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

Eagleton then describes how God’s independence from creation forms the pattern (because mankind is made in God’s image) and justification (because God by definition does not need humans) for human freedom. “God for Thomas Aquinas is the power that allows us to be ourselves, rather as the love of our parents allows us to be ourselves.”

According to Eagleton, “Jesus’s message is that God is on their side despite their viciousness—that the source of inexhaustibly self-delighting life he calls his Father is neither judge, patriarch, accuser, nor superego, but lover, friend, fellow-accused, and counsel for the defense.” On this basis, Eagleton interprets the crucifixion as an act of solidarity with “the destitute and dispossessed.” 



The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains. This traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body.

In the second chapter, Eagleton further unpacks his Marxist hermeneutic. He sees “Ditchkins’” disdain for this graphic image of Christianity as bourgeois shock on the part of those who don’t have categories for depravity or redemption. He writes, “The religion Marx attacks betrays just the kind of sentimental, disembodied understanding of the spiritual that one would expect from a hard-headed materialist.” He writes:

The Enlightenment was deeply shaped by values which stemmed from the Christian tradition. But it was also right, as Ditchkins argues, to see actually existing religion as part of the barbarism and despotism it sought to face down….

At the same time, this enlightened liberal humanism served as the legitimating ideology of a capitalist culture more steeped in blood than any other episode in human history…. Only Marxism recounts the story of how these two contrasting narratives are secretly one. It reminds of the mighty achievements of Francis Bacon, but also of the fact that he believed in torture….

Eagleton points out the narrative of reason and Progress has not eliminated faith and transcendence. Instead, he sees new age religion and fundamentalism (both Christian fundamentalism and Islamism in the Muslim world) springing from the same historical ground as “Ditchkins”—new age being a form of religious escapism and fundamentalism a reaction by those Capitalism left behind.

He indicts modern Christianity, particularly American Christianity, for betraying its revolutionary beginnings. And then he draws some strained connections, particularly when he’s critiquing the American cultural response to 9/11 for which he relies perhaps too heavily on Susan Faludi’s "The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed About America."

These events, Eagleton says, indicate an insufficiency in modern Progress, which does not eliminate religion but makes it into an increasingly political ideology. Protestant or Catholic social teaching might describe this movement as displacement of the civil category by the religious—with the accompanying distortion of religion. As he says at the end of chapter 1 and discusses again in chapter 2:


What is distinctive about our age when it comes to religion, then, is not just that it is everywhere on the rise, from Islamist militancy and Russian Orthodoxy to Pentecostalism and Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America. It is also that this resurgence often seems to take a political form…. Postmodernity is the era in which religion goes public and collective once again, but more as a substitute for classical politics than a reassertion of it….

Thus, Eagleton is apparently not surprised when terrorists readily mix 21st century weapons with what they claim is a pure historic religion. And though he discusses colonialism and subsequent policy as a political factor favoring the terrorists within the Muslim world, his thought leaves open the possibility a similar materialism lies at the root of Muslim terrorism and “Ditchkins’” belief in Progress.

He argues Western leaders misunderstand their enemies because they fail to recognize how Western ideas have robbed religion of its revolutionary transcendence and reduced it to materialistic, legalistic, political ideologies. The individualism the West depends upon to protect itself from oppression has erased “social solidarities” and undermined itself.

It is less clear how Eagleton distinguishes his Marxist interpretation of Christ from other forms of politicized religion.

In the third chapter, he argues reason cannot reach “all the way down,” that it must draw upon “resources deeper, more tenacious, and less fragile than itself.” Here Eagleton compares faith to love:


If I am in love with you, I must be prepared to explain what it is about you I find so lovable, otherwise the word “love” here has no more meaning than a grunt…. But I am also bound to acknowledge that someone else might wholeheartedly endorse my reasons yet not be in love with you at all. The evidence by itself will not decide the issue. At some point along the line, a particular way of seeing the evidence emerges, one which involves a peculiar kind of personal engagement with it; and none of this is reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.

If Jesus is not actually risen, Eagleton echoes the Apostle Paul, “Christian faith is in vain.” But faith is more than merely verifying a set of persuasive facts. And for Eagleton, this is also true for socialists or those who believe in individual freedom.

Thus, he believes “Ditchkins” fails to show people of faith are actually less reasonable or less rational. The disagreement actually involves different underlying assumptions, none of which can be proven in a way that would compel belief.

Postmodernism distrusts certainty because the 20th century’s murderous ideologies were characterized by certainty. But according to Eagleton, this reaction misses the way humans actually are, because these underlying belief systems involve more than intellectual persuasion or volitional choice. “It is more common to find oneself believing something than to make a conscious decision to do so—or at least to make such a conscious decision because you find yourself leaning that way already.”

In the Christian idea of “conversion,” Eagleton finds something closer to actual human experience.

In the fourth and final chapter of his book, Eagleton addresses how current pluralistic, multicultural democracy—or capitalism—requires a cultural consensus but at the same time cannot take these beliefs too seriously.

This presents a problem when pluralistic society runs into a full-blooded critique as it does when Muslims emigrate to European countries. Eagleton thinks of these issues in terms of “civilization” vs. “culture.” 



Civilization means universality, autonomy, prosperity, plurality, individuality, rational speculation, and ironic self-doubt; culture signifies all those unreflective loyalties and allegiances, as apparently as built into us as our liver or pancreas, in the name of which men and women are in extreme circumstances prepared to kill.

In these definitions and his subsequent discussion, Eagleton seems to conflate the idea of civilization with taking tea between meals, having a written alphabet, and refraining from cannibalism and the idea of civilization as a distinct group of cultures sharing some fundamental similarities that distinguish them from other groups of cultures. As a result, Eagleton tends to minimize the distinctions Samuel Huntington has described, and Eagleton’s definition of civilization ends up sounding Western rather than universal.

Historic religion powerfully united the transcendent and the everyday, the universality and personal peculiarity. Modernism increasingly tore civilization and culture apart. Postmodernism, he says, has made an absolute out of culture.

Eagleton isn’t optimistic culture will be able to unite peoples where politics have failed—or where Marxism has been defeated, but he observes the radical impulse to bring civilization and culture together has migrated to theology.

We find ourselves, then, in a most curious situation. In a world in which theology is increasingly part of the problem, as Ditchkins rightly considers, it is also fostering the kind of critical reflection which might contribute to some of the answers.

In conclusion, Eagleton contrasts his “tragic humanism” with “Ditchkins’” “liberal humanism.”

Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals did not continue to stand in its way.

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