Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review - Terry Eagleton

Reason, Faith, and Revolution – Reflections on the God Debate
By Terry Eagleton, 2009
It is available on Google Books

This is a great book that unfortunately will (most likely) not find a wide audience. Eagleton has some good to say about the several sides of the God debate, but so much bad to say that few will embrace him. As he says, after giving his analysis of the New Testament, “Left-wing Christians are in dire need of dating agencies.” Personally I agree with his socialist perspective on the teachings of Christ, so the first part of the book was an easy read for me.

I also found his criticisms of both Christianity as a whole and some specifics of the so-called New Atheists a refreshing break from the shouting that passes for debate these days. He begins with “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.” But don’t get your hopes up atheists, because he immediately follows with, “But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinions of it.”

Eagleton does recognize that for most people, Christianity is a hiding place, something that they don’t think about in reasonable terms, but he notes that the average person’s view of evolution probably does not match that of Richard Dawkins either. We cannot determine what these things are by popular vote. For Eagleton, his religion is not an opiate: “For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety.”

But he does not end his defense of Christianity by simply attempting to repaint it as some sort of early version of Marxism. In fact he spends quite a bit of time in the second chapter exposing the many evils of religion. While doing so he occasionally stops to point out how both Dawkins and Hitchkins, sometimes concatenated into Ditchkins, tend to avoid doing this for science and reason. As Eagleton says, “It goes without saying that we owe to the Enlightenment freedom of thought,..” and more. But Eagleton does say it, and points out, “At the same time, this enlightened liberal humanism served as the legitimating ideology of a capitalist culture more steeped in blood than any other episode in human history.”

Eagleton goes well beyond a tit for tat comparison of which is better, science or religion, reason or faith. To do this, he looks at where each came from and where each has gone wrong. For example, “Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive.” “…it has become the creed of the suburban well-to-do…” not the type of people Jesus hung out with.

Thankfully, he does not stop at pointing out the problems, he attempts to find a solution. His answers are no simpler than the problem. He examines politics and culture and finds them both lacking. He recommends some faith and some reason mixed in with both will be needed.

What he means by faith and reason are not common definitions. His understanding of faith was the most interesting I have ever read. It comes by way of Alain Badiou, a French philosopher (and atheist) who says faith is a loyalty to an “event” – “an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history…” “Truth is what cuts against the grain of the world,…” Examples are the French Revolution, Cantor’s set theory, Schoenberg’s atonal composition, militant politics of 1968. “For Badiou, one becomes an authentic human subject, as opposed to a mere anonymous member of the biological species, through passionate allegiance to such a revelation.”

Eagleton does not redefine “reason” or denigrate it, but he finds it “too shallow a soil” for it to be counted on for the flourishing of humankind for millennia to come. Reason and science can cure polio and build bridges more important than the Bering land bridge, but reason alone can’t hold a political systems together, or inspire people to sacrifice for a common good. Something deeper is needed. Exactly what that is, is not thoroughly defined in this book. That may be Eagleton’s inability to do so or mine to understand him, or it may be more than can be expected of one book or one man. More likely it is something that we will all need to work on together.

What we call “civilization” is often expressed by cultureless transnational corporations only interested in their own material gain, but culture often only expresses itself as where it came from, not something to aspire to. We want the common values of cultures that have thrived, but we want the differences kept private, this can’t be done. The contributions of science are fairly well documented but we still need to sort out how to apply them. We are seeing the warning signs of doing a poor job of that. For what religion might be able to contribute, Eagleton says, “There are lessons which the secular left can learn from religion, for its atrocities and absurdities, and the left is not so flush with ideas that it can afford to look such a gift in the mouth.”

In an attempt to synthesize all points of view, Eagelton says, “The solution to religious terror is secular justice.” For some, Eagleton’s acknowledgement that even terrorists have something that requires our attention may be too much to swallow. For those who oppose any ascription of rationality to an Islamic radical, Eagleton suggests studying the British secret service who monitored the Irish Republican Army. They knew not to swallow the tabloid hysteria. They also understood the rational behind the IRA’s murderous actions, and that they needed to acknowledge it to defeat them. In the same vein, it is wise for the those from the more radical left to understand the rational of the CIA. “The other side of pathologizing one’s enemy is exculpating oneself. As long as we see faith as the polar opposite of reason, we shall continue to commit these errors.”

There is no simple “Sermon on the Mount” type list of good ideas at the end of this book, rather a more sober suggestion that ”only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own.” He is not so certain about how this will work out, but seems pretty certain that, “liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag wavers for Progress (with a capital P for those who see progress as an ideology), and Islamophobic intellectuals”, need to get out of the way.

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