Patiently deciphering religion

Reason, Faith and Revolution by Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Andrew Johnson

In recent years, there has been quite an outpouring of books on the subject of religion, or more precisely of arguments for and against atheism. Two of the most popular atheist polemics have been The God Delusion by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and God Is Not Great by journalist Christopher Hitchens. Although the two books are bracketed together, they serve somewhat different purposes. Hitchens, who had previously authored an entertaining attack on Mother Teresa, is interested mainly in turning his formidable store of rhetoric against Islam, although he takes in many other targets on his way; Dawkins seeks to put forward a rigorously materialist scientific worldview as an alternative to religious belief. Which approach the reader prefers is largely a matter of taste.

The unwary reader might expect Terry Eagleton, an atheist and a Marxist, to add to the chorus. Yet, in this new book, he does the opposite of what is expected. What he has instead produced is a witty and often devastating polemic against “Ditchkins” (his portmanteau term for Dawkins and Hitchens). In the course of his argument, Eagleton ranges between theology, philosophy, literary criticism and contemporary politics to damn his antagonists, and more than once traps them in their own categories.

Eagleton’s argument is a complex, multi-layered one, and at points rambles off on tangents. Any summary of his argument therefore risks misrepresenting it. However, Eagleton begins from a sensible starting point, which is the separate domains of religion and science. This is a risky area, since Dawkins, the great exponent of Darwinian evolution, is at his best when deconstructing American creationists and other religious fundamentalists who make scientifically dubious claims. However, as Eagleton points out, most Christians do not regard their faith as being incompatible with science – holding that the validity of the Christian message does not stand or fall on the literal truth of the creation story in Genesis, or whether Jesus really performed miracles.

There is more than reason

What scientific progress has done is to render supernatural explanations of the natural world unnecessary. However, Eagleton argues that this is largely beside the point. Physics does not explain Elvis; and increasingly sophisticated scientific explanations of the natural world do not render metaphysics redundant any more than they render art redundant. The major concerns of theology are with questions such as justice, truth, love, solidarity and what it means to live a good life. No faith in God is necessary to be interested in these questions – Greek philosophers and Indian Jains and Buddhists were exploring them in an atheistic context more than 2000 years ago – but the answers to them cannot be deduced from science. Reason, as Eagleton says, is a necessity; but reason is not all there is.

In recognising that metaphysical propositions cannot be either proved or disproved by science, Eagleton thereby avoids getting bogged down in sterile arguments over the existence or non-existence of God. He knows very well that all of those arguments have been around for centuries, and have never convinced anyone who did not already want to be convinced – Aquinas’ famous proofs of God’s existence already presuppose belief in him, just as Dawkins’ arguments to the contrary will seem feeble to a believer. Eagleton is more interested in why people choose to believe or disbelieve – which is as much an aesthetic question as an intellectual one – and what they mean by it.

Repeatedly, Eagleton accuses Ditchkins of buying his atheism on the cheap. What he means by that is that there are plenty of good reasons for rejecting religion, but his antagonists choose bad ones. As an illustration, he mentions the tendency of Irish people to reject Catholicism based on the shocking history of clerical abuse of children. This he regards as equivalent to renouncing the idea of socialism because of the Stalinist purges. Dawkins and Hitchens both present a lengthy account of crimes committed by organised religion, some of which is inaccurate or overstated – for instance, Dawkins’ curious idea that the conflict in the north of Ireland has been over rival interpretations of Christian doctrine. However, even if we accepted their entire charge sheet, finding a justification for the Inquisition in the teachings of Jesus would be as difficult a proposition as finding a justification for the Gulag in the writings of Marx.

In fact, Ditchkins’ account of the history of religion is so unremittingly grim and lacking in any redeeming features that it should be nothing short of a miracle that huge numbers of people freely subscribe to it. Does religion have nothing going for it at all? Eagleton, a confessed non-believer, who does not spare organised religion responsibility for its crimes in this book, nonetheless outlines at length what he believes would be a positive, emancipatory theology. This can be derived directly from the Gospels, which after all form an account of Jesus’ struggle against organised religion. Jesus appears in Eagleton’s account as almost a guerrilla fighter, contemptuous of the wealthy, the powerful and the hypocritical. Instead of acting as a respectable middle-class vicar, he challenges the authorities and preaches the overthrow of existing social relations. He consorts openly with the lowest elements of Palestinian society – lepers, money-lenders, prostitutes and the heretical sect of Samaritans. In contrast to many centuries of Christian puritanism, Jesus is so relaxed about sexual morality that he says virtually nothing about it.

Scandalous Jesus

And, having established Jesus as a scandalous figure in his own time, it follows that there is much here that does not form an easy fit for conventional organised religion. If it sounds like liberation theology, then that is because it seriously addresses what should be the proper concerns of theology. In this context, Eagleton remarks on Hitchens’ brusque dismissal of Latin American liberation theology, on which subject Hitchens is at one with the most hidebound Vatican conservatives. Eagleton also remarks on Dawkins’ proposed alternative Ten Commandments as a terribly boring, suburban vista – which may be uncharitable, as, in trying to deduce an ethical code from natural science, Dawkins is wrestling with a problem that has confounded the best philosophers, who too often have to fall back on mere utilitarianism.

More generally, Eagleton convicts Ditchkins of a number of interlinked philosophical faults. For materialists, they are remarkably idealist in their view of religious belief as the source of most of the world’s evils. The question of their positivism is not quite so clear. Dawkins, as a distinguished scientist in his own right, is well aware of the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, and certainly knows that scientists disagree with each other all the time – as they would have to for there to be any scientific progress. The air of absolute certainty Dawkins adopts – which stands him in good stead with those laymen who are in awe of scientists – is to a large extent a matter of style, and is less in evidence in Dawkins’ scientific writings. As for Hitchens, he is always more comfortable with concrete political issues than theoretical ones, and his great sweeping statements are not so much a case of dogmatism as of his using rhetorical flamboyance to cover up the gaps in his knowledge.

Finally, Eagleton regards Ditchkins as guilty of a strongly Whig interpretation of history, in which the commitment to reason and hope for progress – without which we would have no socialist movement – is replaced by an ideology of Reason and Progress. It is here that we see Dawkins at his most mid-Victorian, as he takes a rather complacently liberal view of civilisation constantly progressing along with scientific knowledge, a few minor hiccups like two World Wars and the Holocaust notwithstanding, and further progress only held up by man’s inability to shake off primitive superstition. But again, perhaps Eagleton is a little harsh on Dawkins, who is much better when he leaves his speculations on the broad sweep of history for more concrete matters. Though he is a strict Darwinian in his writings on evolutionary biology, Dawkins is by no means a follower of the dubious theories of Social Darwinism, and has often said that the best thing about the human condition is the ability to rise above one’s genetic programming. Dawkins is not an amoralist, as his strong opposition to the Iraq war made clear, whatever problems he may have trying to deduce ethics from science.

Rambunctious anti-religious polemics

Hitchens is another matter, and if Eagleton is a little too harsh on Dawkins at this point, perhaps he could have been harsher on his former comrade. As noted, Hitchens’ rambunctious anti-religious polemics go back a long way, but his current preoccupation is with Islam. It is not implausible to suspect that the urgency of Hitchens’ current need to battle religious obscurantism is intimately connected with his support for recent imperialist wars and his alliance with Washington neoconservatives. Since at least 2001, the pro-war “left” has been loudly insistent on its narrative of Western civilisation versus Islamic barbarism, often with Hitchens setting the tone. Here we see something that Eagleton has touched on in recent articles and especially his polemics against the Islamophobic ramblings of Martin Amis, a sense in which evangelical atheism can replace the evangelical Protestantism of the nineteenth century as a justification for imperialist aggression and the White Man’s Burden. It would have been helpful for him to have developed this theme a little further.

But, as Eagleton would remind us in the Marxist dialectical spirit, both religion and irreligion can be either oppressive or emancipatory – often both at the same time. The evangelical Protestantism that justified Britain’s imperial expansionism also fired the reformers who abolished the slave trade and fought to improve the lot of the poor, following through into the Methodist roots of the British labour movement. At the same time, anti-religious campaigns could be an effective weapon against clerical reaction in Spain, while becoming an aspect of Stalinist totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. (Which is why Hitchens’ strange belief that Stalinism was a religious regime cries out for debunking.) As with any set of intellectual prisms for understanding the world, they are to be judged by the uses to which they are put.

As Eagleton puts it:

“Karl Marx, who as we have seen heard in religion what he called the sigh of the oppressed creature, was rather less naïve. Religion needs to be patiently deciphered, not angrily repudiated. It springs from a realm to which reason should be no stranger. Only if reason is able to acknowledge the a-rational interests and desires from which it draws so much of its force can it prove sturdy enough to prevent those desires from sliding into anarchy, thus overwhelming reason itself.”

And following in this spirit of Marx, the criticism of religion – which requires understanding it rather than simply denouncing it, grasping the ways in which masses of people decode their social existence – remains fundamental for any socialist project, which must seek to fuse the struggle for (lower-case) reason and progress with the subjective drive towards truth, justice and equality, which – like a commitment to reason itself – does not simply spring from reason, but is a subjective moral choice.

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1 Comment on Patiently deciphering religion

  1. I feel forced to write a comment on the review by Andrew Johnson of Terry Eagleton’s book Reason, Faith and Revolution which left me angry. The central theme of the review could be preached by an Anglican clergyman or Roman Catholic priest: “The major concerns of theology are with questions such as justice, truth, love, solidarity and what it means to live a good life …. but the answers to them cannot be deduced by science .. (because) reason is not all there is.”
    Scientific development has impacted on Christian theology on a multitude of levels, most importantly acceptance that scripture does not determine the veracity of scientific discoveries. How many scientists were tortured and executed before that was won? Non-miraculous Darwinism finally ended theological consideration as scientific arbiter, even in the descent of the human species. Christian theology changed tack, re-defined itself* and now fights a rear-guard action (apparently endorsed by Johnson) of “recognising that metaphysical propositions cannot be either proved or disproved by science”. This is a way of denying science the necessary authority to refute religion.
    This is the line propagated by such organisations as the Templeton Foundation which offers an annual science prize for outstanding contributions for “research or discoveries about spiritual realities”. In 2002 the winner was a former particle physicist who had become an Anglican priest. John Polkinghorne, then aged 71, who won the £700 000 prize for his treatment of theology as a natural science. He was quoted on Physics Web as saying “Contemporary science is all about trying to answer the ‘how’, religion examines the meaning and purpose of life.” It appears Johnson and Polkinghorne share a common approach.
    To a materialist, to a scientific socialist, justice, truth, love, solidarity and what it means to live a good life are all explainable, and will be explained by the scientific study of human kind and human society. In fact, the first steps towards explaining these phenomena in terms of optimising the chances of survival of the individual, their offspring or the group have already been made.
    Johnson ends his review with the claim that socialist criticism of religion “must seek to fuse the struggle for reason and progress with the subjective drive towards truth, justice and equality, which – like a commitment to reason itself – does not simply spring from reason, but is a subjective moral choice”. A conclusion which should be rejected by all scientific socialists because Johnson is claiming; the drive towards “truth, justice and equality” is non-rational, “commitment to reason” is non-rational, and “subjective moral choices” are non-rational. To what, then, can we attribute these factors which lie outside “reason”. The church, of course, offers a ready solution – the God-given conscience or soul. Socialists should offer an alternative, one based on the ABC of Marxism which is materialist to the core and which affirms each person’s consciousness is determined by the material and social environment, not non-rational factors. We should be firmly convinced that capitalism is the last refuge of religion, and once socialism is established this ‘spiritual booze’ as Lenin aptly branded it (CW10:83), will soon expire on the garbage heap of history, where it belongs.
    *Let us remember that “natural theol¬ogy” (understanding God by studying His work) was formerly a term for science.

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