28 June 2009

The True Faith?

Terry Eagleton is an agnostic defender of religion against today's bestselling atheist authors and anyone who would do away with it in the name of what he sees as a too-often ruthless rationalism. His book Reason, Faith and Revolution isn't a whitewash of religion, however. A long chapter explains that Christianity, in particular, has hurt its cause by so often selling out to power and failing at what Eagleton takes to be Jesus's mandate to be compassionate to the poor above all other priorities. He thinks that the monotheist religions, at least, provide a useful critique of an ego-driven individualistic materialism, buying into the canard that people who reject God believe in no restraints on their own power. He never goes so far as to say that there can be no morality (however he might define it) without religion, but he seems to fear that morality might have a much smaller constituency without it.

Of course, Eagleton tries to tell us that his idealized form of religion is the true faith. That would be a humility-inducing, compassion-encouraging sense of our dependence on some higher power, even if that awareness extends only to the knowledge that we didn't exactly make ourselves. That's an important point to our author, since he blames much of American arrogance on our sense that we are "self-made men." He seems to think that if we understood our existence as contingent, we'll be more humble, which means less greedy, less power-hungry, etc. Religion may be fine to him as long as it delivers the goods, but religion has a lot more to offer that Eagleton simply ignores because it doesn't fit his feelgood vision. He dismisses the notion that people embrace religion as an account of creation and doesn't even discuss the concept of religion as a form of bargaining for divine intervention that untold millions believe is genuinely effective.

The notion of Hell has little or no place in the rarefied theology he admires. When he deigns to mention the place, he tries to pass it off as a "living death" suffered by "those who are stuck fast in their masochistic delight in the Law, and spit in the face of those who offer to relieve them of this torture. (21)" In other words, Hell is a state of mind in the here-and-now rather than the destination of sinners after the Last Judgment. This is a fundamental misrepresentation of the common understanding of Hell, and Eagleton has no justification for preferring his notion apart from the alleged fact that a lot of intellectual believers think this way about it. This sort of willful omission forces the question of what, exactly, Eagleton thinks he's defending so chivalrously. He writes as if the mean old atheists are attacking his nice theologian pals (which I admit they are, to the extent that Sam Harris accuses them of enabling the fundamentalists) rather than the superstitious majority, members of which we have all encountered in everyday life. If he wants to refute the atheists, it would become him to defend the people the atheists have actually attacked, to work up a defense of superstition and the belief in divine intervention. Then his book would be relevant to something more than his own preference for certain personality types and his indifference to how they might be brought into being.

In the end, all we learn from Eagleton's book is what he likes and what he dislikes. To the extent that he dislikes capitalism, poverty and war, hooray! But unless he has proven that belief in a higher power than man is essential to social justice, his book is useless unless he also seriously weighs the trade-offs involved in indulging such belief, and this he does not do.

9 comments:

Crhymethinc said...

If there were such a thing as "the one true religion", it would have become self-evident to mankind long before now. Whenever I see anyone advocating faith over knowledge and superstition over logic, I am reminded of Col. Kurtz's mandate. "Exterminate the brutes." As long as humanity is held by religion, there can never be utopia. We can never hope to even come close to achieving our full potential. We will probably never even manage to leave the nest and take flight on our own. Religion and the power it represents must one day be smashed or it will destroy us.

Samuel Wilson said...

I should clarify that Eagleton isn't pushing any one thing "over" another. He believes, however, that reason or logic untempered by compassion is as likely to result in oppression as religious fanaticism. He takes Christopher Hitchens's support for the invasion of Iraq as proof that atheism doesn't guarantee peace, virtue or any high regard for human life.

d.eris said...

Since your last post on the Eagleton book, I've been thinking a bit about the rise of 'political theology' on the left, specifically, Badiou's notion of "fidelity to the event" and Zizek's defense of what he calls the Christian legacy. What's struck me is their focus on Paul and the apostles as kind of a revolutionary collective, and how different this focus is from the traditional (since Luther, that is) reading of the import of Paul's letters, i.e. man is saved by faith alone. In a way, they are reclaiming the Protestant focus on faith in the name of works, and thus giving it sort of a Catholic twist. I still think though, to touch on my previous post, that for them religion is the puppet and historical materialism is pulling the strings.

Samuel Wilson said...

D., for Zizek, at least, I'd suppose it's "dialectical materialism" pulling the strings. Eagleton emphasizes faith as a relational concept. Even in the sciences, you have to have faith in people as well as in facts, and the "political theologians" appear to think that this applies to religion as well. They would like to believe that fidelity to the event in the Christian case requires the mutual reinforcement of sociability, which they and Eagleton would like to recreate on a more or less secular basis as socialism. But Eagleton underestimates the extent to which Christianity empowers individualism simply because of the idea that each person must account for himself at the last judgment. He might want to argue that this concept deviates from Jesus's teaching, but he's still up against the fact of individualistic Christian experience through history.

Crhymethinc said...

If you take a deep look into the first few centuries of Christianity, there was not a single "brand" of the religion, but rather many different sects. This is evidenced by the "banned books of the bible" as well as the gnostic gospels, etc.

There was actually quite a bit of infighting over which faction or splinter group would be the "true voice" of Christianity, each of them claiming that their apostle was the favoured of Jesus.

And all of that is just a build on what the Jews believed. The fact that the Romans managed to beat the Jews out of the Holy land is proof that the Roman Empire was more powerful than Yahweh, or else Yahweh backed losers, which doesn't say much for His judgement. Either way, it pretty much proves "god" is neither omnipotent nor omniscient, therefore not "god" by definition. And anyone who claims that morality or compassion cannot exist with religious belief says more about themselves and their failings as a human being than it does about religion or atheism.

d.eris said...

Sam, it seems like Eagleton is de-emphasizing the Protestant side of modern Christian thought, which, at least to my mind, stresses the individual's relation to God more than Catholicism, which stresses mediation through the social body of the church. Or maybe I'm just getting caught up in the categories of the Christian bipolarchy!

Crhyme, you make a good point, but I think religionists would simply chalk up such defeats as punishment by God rather than refutation of God's existence, (I'm reminded of Falwell's remarks following 9/11), which is possible because, unlike a testable hypothesis, the belief system is unfalsifiable.

Crhymethinc said...

I'm not sure that a belief system is "unfalsifiable". For example - which version of christianity is the "true version"? And if only 1 is the true version, doesn't that mean the rest have been falsified? Or, if there is no god (and there is no factual evidence to support the existence of such a being) then wouldn't that mean that all belief systems are falsified?

d.eris said...

Chryme, I meant that it is unfalsifiable for the believer him or herself, who will always have a response to any proof of their belief's falsehood, even if this response is only to fall back on "the mystery of faith."

Crhymethinc said...

Which further proves the ignorance of religion and of those who subscribe to it. Anyone who is wiling to ignore factual evidence in front of them because they'd rather "believe" otherwise is nothing more than a fool.

"All of you of earth are idiots!"
-Eros, Plan 9 From Outer Space