22 June 2009

Another Defender of Faith

Terry Eagleton is an English literary critic with a Marxist bent. From what I recall, he got involved in the debate over today's "militant atheism" a couple of years ago when he published a contemptuous attack on Richard Dawkins's God Delusion in the London Review of Books. Eagleton's opinion seemed to me to be besides the point. He knocked Dawkins for being ignorant of theology, claiming that the scientist had no credibility as a critic of religion without some familiarity with the subtleties of that discipline. My thought was: why should Dawkins bother with subtle speculations about the nature of a being whose existence he denies in the first place? The answer has something to do with the fact that Dawkins was commenting as much on religion as on God, and that religion, in Eagleton's view, is a more complex affair than Dawkins and his fellow authors acknowledge. Eagleton puts it this way in his new book Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, a lecture series he delivered at Yale last year:

It is, in fact, entirely logical that those who see religion as nothing but false consciousness should so often get it wrong, since what profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish? Who is likely to launch a time-consuming investigation of what Kabbalists, occultists, or Rosicrucians actually hold, when there is still War and Peace to read and the children to be put to bed? So it is that those who
polemicize most ferociously against religion regularly turn out to be the least qualified to do so ... It is as though when it comes to religion -- the single most powerful, pervasive, persistent form of popular culture human history has ever witnessed, as well as in many respects the most obnoxious -- any old travesty will do (50-1).

Now as then, Eagleton argues that the atheists' willful ignorance of theology blinds them to what religion is really all about. He ascribes to Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (often amalgamated for his purposes as "Ditchkins") and their peers a "primitive" understanding of religion and of God.

These intellectuals claim as Christian doctrine the idea that God is some sort of superentity outside the universe; that he created the world rather as a carpenter might fashion a stool; that faith in this God means above all subscribing to the proposition that he exists; that there is a real me inside me called the soul, which a wrathful God may consign to hell if I am not
egregiously well-behaved; that our utter dependency on this deity is what stops thinking and acting for ourselves; that this God cares deeply about whether we are sinful or not, because if we are then he demands to be placated, and other such secular fantasies (50).

Does this sound like Christianity to you? It did to me, so what is Eagleton talking about? Among other things, he takes the now-familiar apologetic position that religion is not a pseudo-science and doesn't aspire to a factual explanation of how the world came to be, and therefore shouldn't be condemned for failing at what it doesn't attempt. Eagleton sticks with a less anthropomorphic sense of God as that which sustains the universe and its natural law and explains why there is something rather than nothing. No dogmatic believer himself, he likes the idea of there being something the existence of which inherently limits human claims to mastery, that forces an acknowledgment from everyone that some things are not in their control or theirs to control. He also likes the Christian idea of a loving God that created life as a gratuitous act of love; he sees this as a model of every ideal of social justice (including his own socialism), all of which, at their best, express a compassionate love of mankind and of every person as an end unto itself. He fears that the materialism allegedly espoused by the modern atheists encourages an extreme rationalism that aspires to absolute inhuman or inhumane mastery, as expressed in everything from Stalinism to neoconservatism.

Eagleton isn't recommending religion to non-believers, but is defending his kind of believers from attack. He rejects Hitchens's argument that the best qualities of believers aren't based on their beliefs. To Eagleton, Hitchens's view is "rather like arguing that any advances made by feminists are due entirely to the benign influence of their fathers (97)." That glib line doesn't really refute Hitchens, however, if we understand him to mean that the benevolence of someone like Martin Luther King does not follow necessarily from Christian dogma, nor does it require acceptance of that dogma to be reproduced. Because Eagleton isn't really concerned with the tenets of conventional religion as most of us understand and encounter it, he doesn't attempt to prove that King's good works required him to believe in the Resurrection. His real agenda is to remind people that religion has motivated people to acts of good will and social justice, at least in their own accounts, and that people who still aspire to social justice should not want to cut off a source of sympathy and support in the form of religious faith.Anticipating the argument that the style of religion he idealizes is practiced by only a small minority of believers, he offers faith-based social justice movements of the past as proof to the contrary.

Eagleton belongs to that division of the "Left" that has discovered the usefulness of faith. He makes a plausible argument that some kind of faith, in people at least, is necessary for just about all social, cultural or scientific activity. He also argues that you can't really distinguish that kind of faith from the "substance of things unseen" in religious faith. He clearly believes that people need to adopt some sort of unconditional love for mankind, most likely founded on some form of faith, if his socialist ideal is ever to be realized. Again, he isn't saying that we'll have to believe in God or gods, but that we'll have to adopt something like the mentality that the atheists affect to despise. Reason, Faith, and Revolution is a plea for tolerance of humanity wrapped in a plea for tolerance of religion -- or vice versa, if you prefer. It is a warning that there's a precious baby in danger of being thrown out with the bathwater of dogmatic fundamentalist religion. It succeeds or fails depending on whether you finally accept his definition of religion. I'll offer my own verdict in a later post.


d. eris said...

I think many left-wing critical theorists have today reversed the relation between 'historical materialism' and theology posited by Walter Benjamin in his theses on the philosophy of history. In the first thesis, he likens historical materialism to a puppet being controlled by a man who is hidden from sight, and likens the man to theology. Among many critical theorists today, the situation is the opposite. Theology is the puppet and 'historical materialism' is pulling the strings.

Samuel Wilson said...

The concept of "political theology" that I see mentioned more often these days may be a synthesis of those opposite relations. There's less emphasis on historical materialism or objective conditions, depending on who you read, and more on "fidelity to the event," as Eagleton mentions while invoking Alain Badiou, as an analogue to religious faith.