Review: Terry Eagleton’s “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate”

Title: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate
Author: Terry Eagleton
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Religion
Year: 2009
Pages: 185
ISBN13: 9780300164534
Binding: Soft cover (2010)
Price: 16.00

“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” (xi).

So Terry Eagleton begins his critique of the so-called New Atheist movement. Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, England, clearly is not advocating an uncritical acceptance of religion. In fact, his stinging analysis of the “Polyanna-ish” faith in human progress manifested by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (whom he humorously lumps together as “Ditchkins”) is balanced by his just-as-stinging indictment of a Christianity he feels has largely betrayed its initial ideal of social justice and human transformation.

Eagleton was invited to deliver the 2008 Dwight H. Terry Lectures at Yale University. His initial delight in the invitation was tempered when he discovered the lectures “are traditionally devoted to two subjects I know embarrassingly little about, namely science and religion” (2). His lectures were compiled and edited—retaining the conversational format—into the new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The author is a strange brew—part Marxist, part liberal Catholic, all rolled into a British literary theorist.

Eagleton’s four lectures are divided into the book’s four chapters: “The Scum of the Earth,” “The Revolution Betrayed,” Faith and Reason,” and “Culture and Barbarism.” Throughout each lecture he is outspoken in regards to money, politics and capitalism, post-modern foundationless self-congratulation, faith in the cult of science which some believe, if followed, guarantees a bright future for all, and perhaps above all, he damns the way certain critics of religion “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap” (xi). What does he mean by this? Essentially, such critics are taking the low road in their treatment of religion:

“A huge number of the charges that Ditchkins levels against actually existing religion are thoroughly justified…Indeed, it is hard to imagine how any polemic against, say, the clerical abuse of children or the religious degradation of women could be too severe or exaggerated. Yet it is scarcely a novel point to claim that for the most part Ditchkins holds forth on religion in truly shocking ignorance of many of its tenets” (49).

Indeed, while exalting science and condemning faith (a dichotomy Eagleton finds problematic to begin with) critics like Dawkins “castigate the Inquisition, for example, but not Hiroshima” (133). What many New Atheist writers put together is usually “a worthless caricature of the real thing” (xi).

But Eagleton doesn’t say he particularly blames them for such lapses. For one thing, he notes they view religion as silly from the start, so of course they won’t spend due time becoming properly familiar with it. “What profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish?” (51). For another thing, many Christians have, in his view, “squalidly betrayed” their own “revolutionary origins. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive” (55). Eagleton recognizes, however, that his own critique of Christianity would be impossible without the “Judeo-Christian legacy itself,” something most New Atheists seem pleasantly unaware of (58).

In the end, Eagleton explores the problems of Christian faith in a liberal (Western) society. There seems to be, he says, a “certain creative indifference to what people actually believe” as long as the economics work out. Taken to an extreme, “Liberal society’s summum bonum is to leave believers to get on with it unmolested—rather as the English would walk by if you were bleeding at the roadside, not because they are hard-hearted, but because they would be loathe to interfere with your privacy” (144).

Though Eagleton focuses mainly on Christianity for the “Religion” parts of the book, he occasionally includes Islam in the discussion. For instance, the peaceful integration of Muslims in the West, Eagleton argues, need not require their wholesale conversion, wholesale indifference, or wholesale destruction. Instead, “if the British or American way of life really were to take on board the critique of materialism, hedonism, and individualism of many devout Muslims…Western civilization would most certainly be altered for the good” (154). Not that Eagleton is really holding his breath. He is painfully aware of a “liberal paradox that there must be something close-minded about open-mindedness.” Liberalism (in the traditional sense) fears being overly-liberal when it comes to its own founding principles. The irony is made explicit in comments like that of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s: “Our tolerance is what makes Britain Britain. So conform to it, or don’t come here” (127).

Eagleton would counter what he sees as the liberal humanism of Ditchkins with his own sort of “tragic humanism” with a religious twist (168). “Tragic humanism,” he concludes, “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” (169).

Eagleton’s book is a brisk and welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion about the place of religion in the world today. Readers will find plenty to challenge them in this brief snapshot of today’s “God Debate.” The lectures are available for viewing here.

What might stick out to Mormons in Eagleton’s book?

  • Eagleton takes for granted several traditional Christian doctrines that run counter to LDS belief. These include creation ex nihilo and a concept of God that excludes embodiment (aside from the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that is). These matters arise only peripherally.
  • Eagleton takes exception to American exceptionalism, criticizing those who worship a “clean-shaven, short-haired, gun-toting, sexually obsessive God with a special regard for that ontologically privileged piece of the globe just south of Canada and north of Mexico” (55-56). His criticism of some US foreign policy decisions may seem unpatriotic to some Mormons.
  • Eagleton makes no bones about the problems he sees as inherent in capitalism.
  • Eagleton’s tone often contrasts sharply with the sort of homiletic and reverent tone of many LDS authors. For instance, his way of emphasizing the counter-intuitively shocking nature of the Christian view of God is tersely summed up: “Jesus is a sick joke of a savior. Messiahs are not born in stables” (19).
  • The only specific mention Eagleton makes of Mormonism is negative. While discussing “ideological versions of the Gospel” he criticizes the BYU facial hair policy. “But perhaps I have overlooked some vital antishaving verse in Luke or Matthew here,” he quips (59).
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