Eagleton on Dawkins and Dennett on Science and Religion

Eagleton on Dawkins and Dennett on Science and Religion March 19, 2018


Second temple in England
The Preston England Temple (Wikimedia Commons)


A bit more from the British Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton’s 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale University, published as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009):


Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science.  Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell, he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world.  In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can’t see the point of it at all.  Why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber? . . .

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.  Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that “thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”  But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place.  It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.  (6-7)


One can hardly fail to be reminded in this context of an exchange in C. S. Lewis’s early novel The Pilgrim’s Regress — a book that seems to me more prescient with each passing year. The conversation revolves around the “Landlord,” who, in Lewis’s allegory, represents God:


“But how do you know there is no Landlord?”

“Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!!” exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.

“I beg your pardon,” said John.

“Eh?” said Mr. Enlightenment.

“I didn’t quite understand,” said John.

“Why, it’s plain as a pikestaff,” said the other.

“Your people in Puritania believe in the Landlord because they have not had the benefits of a scientific training. For example, I dare say it would be news to you to hear that the earth was round-round as an orange, my lad!”

“Well, I don’t know that it would,” said John. feeling a little disappointed. “My father always said it was round.”

“No, no, my dear boy,” said Mr. Enlightenment, “you must have misunderstood him. It is well known that everyone in Puritania thinks the earth flat. It is not likely that I should be mistaken on such a point. Indeed, it is out of the question.”

(C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism [Grand Rapids, MI.: Ecrdmans. 1992], 20-21 .)



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