Monday, 13 July 2009

Tackling Terry Eagleton

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For our new issue, we sent our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor to Dublin to interview Terry Eagleton, arch-tormentor of the New Atheists. As you know, he has harsh words for Dawkins, Hitchens et al, but amid this Laurie uncovered a startling revelation:
"Listen. If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists."
Read Laurie take Eagleton to task on theology, Marxism and "Ditchkins", then leave your comments on this post.

[Photo: Cliona O'Flaherty]

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

But what about the silliness? I tried to read After Theory, but just couldn't get past all the jokiness - this is not wit, not Flann O'Brien, it's the guy at the party with lampshade on head.

Christopher Gray said...

Shorter Eagleton: a breath-takingly elaborate pile of bullshit somehow represents a stronger argument than a simple, easily ponderable statement. He tries to overthrow reason simply by overpowering the senses with the emotion-mangling smell of his argument's main constituent.

For any argument Eagleton puts forward, it's always possible to make a more complex, more opaque variation, and we therefore end up with less and less of what we understand as 'an explanation'. We could also replace his arguments with something patently ridiculous (such as the FSM) but which is exactly as self-consistent. How to distinguish between them? Illusions have a 'intrinsic potency' as well.

Reason is the the most efficient and reliable tool yet devised to distinguish between alternative hypotheses, which is presumably why Eagleton tries to brush it out of the way, so that he can say what appeals most to him without having to actually justify anything.

You can't use reason to argue against the use of reason.

Richard said...

I'm not entirely sure that moral progress isn't testable, at least in some respects. For instance, there is research on rates of societal ills (family breakdown, violence etc) in religious versus more secular societies. Something like Rummel's democide theory could also reasonably be described as a measure of moral progress.

Keith Sloan said...

Why does the Humanist give him copy? He is just not worth listening too.
A complete waste of space

Jumpin Jehosaphat said...

Bravo to Terry Eagleton for pointing out the puddle-deep arguments of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens regarding what they imagine to be "religion." Even our author, here, lamely attempts to claim some sort of irreconciliable difference between Marxism and faith; such "irreconciliability" is far from a fait accompli.

And what of Eagleton's silly critic who finds the "image of a child looking in wonder at the stars" a more "fitting" metaphor for our cultural progress? Has this man even attempted to give such a symbol a resonant mythical setting, in order to test its potential power to move mankind? Or is he waiting for, I don't know, Steven Spielberg? Positively absurd criticism.

What the obtuse, here, don't seem to realize is that Eagleton is not attempting to "brush reason aside" much less argue "against" it. Nor does he make any attempt to defend the witless Godbags who have indeed turned religion into a dirty word (indeed--his view of theology is hardly what would be considered "orthodox" today). Now, why this is so difficult to understand says less about Eagleton's position and more about his critics' prejudices.

Why, in a musical scale, does a major third connote joy and while a minor connotes sadness? Why can we be suddenly, profoundly moved by a painting we have seen (but not "gotten") many times before? Reason and science will only get us so far in understanding art--why should religion be any different?

Anonymous said...

'..outraging conventional students of literature at Oxford with his vigorous espousal of critical theory...'

I wasn't aware of students being outraged by Eagleton. For my part, I simply preferred grappling with the intellectual rigour of the theorists themselves, not filtered through a 'secondary source'.

valdemar said...

Jumpin J - sorry to be so awfully obtuse, old bean, but...

Religion is a dangerous political force, not some cosy bit of middle-class frippery to be enjoyed for a while and then put back in the cupboard till next time. Religion is not about nice music and pretty pictures and fuzzy feelings, it is about power - something a Eagleton either can't or won't acknowledge. Perhaps, like so many Marxists, he doesn't have a problem with ideologies that enslave, torture, degrade and kill people.

Anonymous said...

Well, if your definition of "profound" is "torrent of obtuse blathering with occasional pools of warm fuzzy imagery, cascading pointlessly from a fountain of confusion", then Eagleton is your man. Come on, God loved the world into existence? He maintains it through love? On what evidence - written or otherwise - does Eagleton base this conjecture? Just how does Biblical scholarship support this view? If this God has chosen the Bible as his means to reveal his "love" to the world, then I could do without that kind of love, quite frankly. And if the Bible is not literally true, then by what means are we to know anything about God? If God is not in evidence, if he is not literally "real", then what is the point of believing in him, or worshipping him, at all?

Eagleton's criticism of Dawkins, especially, is just as shallow as he claims Dawkins' understanding of religion to be. In 'The God Delusion', Dawkins points out that all of the true advances in human health, knowledge and society have come about not through the religions of the Bronze Age but from the advances of science, a product of the human brain. He also makes the point (very clearly, if the reader is capable of the "deep thought" that Eagleton claims) that there is no "why" or ultimate purpose to natural selection, and that there is nothing that exists outside of nature that cannot be subject to scientific examination. Claiming that God somehow exists outside of our reality is in fact claiming that he does not exist at all.

Maturin said...

Eagleton might now be ready to talk of religion as an allegory and to question along with Dawkins and Hitchens the literal truth of the Bible. But what he can never overlook in his opponents is their failure to ever engage in intellectual debate with the likes of the Dominicans who changed the course of his own life at Cambridge

Aye, and there's the rub for Eagleton- he can't bear that he has learn reams of rarified bullshit, can debate angels on a pinhead for Britain but that none of it is relevant to the simple question: 'Does your sky daddy exist'?

and so for the unforgivable sin of not being able or willing to regurgitate the vomit of empty dogmatism, to join the g-d assuming (mass)debate, Dawkins must be labled as someone who "bought their atheism on the cheap".

Eagleton it would appear to all intents actually IS an atheist- but he doesn't want to be told what he already knows- that it is the rationalist position.

One can only walk off shaking one's head in exasperation at the intellectual dishonesty of an embittered scrub

and then one comes on this gem:

"God didn't create the world. He loved it into being. Now what that means, God knows, but that's exactly what Aquinas was saying. "

At least he's honest in his plain befuddlement, but never mind, Aquinas said it- so it's gold-standard!

this is also funny:

"It was Leibniz after all who raised the question of why there is anything at all ...it has received an answer from the theologians. It is because of God. Now that might not be right but it is a question that theology tries to deal with."

..on account of the fact that: can you think of a question that theology 'tries' to answer that doesn't involve the answer: 'god'?

babrock said...

Dawkins did admit that questioning how correct his belief in progress to be a "fair cop", but it is not at all simply a matter of faith. Richard in another post states this position as well as me but there are measurable statistics backing up that fewer people die of violent deaths than ever befor( even w t Holacost figured in), life expectency is up, as is literacy, I believe, womens sufferage and all manner of absolutly measurable evidence supports a view that there are more people living well today than ever befor.

Even China and India are becoming first world cultures. Yes these do pose enviromental problems but it is not an at all ridiculouse hope that science and technology will deal w whatever problems. That is probably a bit overly optimistic, but not neccessarily by a lot.

Richard said...

Since when was Marx a materialist and enemy of religion?

I think my friend Cyril Smith deals with these points quite well - better than I can:

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/works/articles/cyril_01.htm

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-cyril/works/articles/religion.htm

Anonymous said...

You conducted a good interview with Eagleton, letting him have his say on theology. Eagleton's theology is not at all different from many contemporary theologians. You did end the interview too soon, though. Your last few paragraphs criticize Eagleton for not being in total agreement with Marx's judgement of religion as "the opiate of the people." Eagleton would be a weak thinker if he is limited to thinking just like Marx. Nevertheless, Eagleton makes clear in the course of the interview that religion can alternatively wake people up as well as put people to sleep!

Anonymous said...

You conducted a good interview with Eagleton, letting him have his say on theology. Eagleton's theology is not at all different from many contemporary theologians. You did end the interview too soon, though. Your last few paragraphs criticize Eagleton for not being in total agreement with Marx's judgement of religion as "the opiate of the people." Eagleton would be a weak thinker if he is limited to thinking just like Marx. Nevertheless, Eagleton makes clear in the course of the interview that religion can alternatively wake people up as well as put people to sleep!

Neil in Winnipeg said...

This was a superb article. I compliment Laurie Taylor for trying to dig deep into what lies behind and separates these two worldviews (even though I consider them two forms of atheism).

Christopher Gray: I agree that Reason provides a great way of stringing together true sentences. In the long run, it's the best we've got. In the medium run, we are still very clumsy in our ability to promote sustainable well-being. The new atheists could use a dose of something other than puddle-deep optimism.

The way I'm taking Eagleton, and perhaps he could be more transparent, is that he's appealing for us not to trivialize the source (even if misperceived) of a certain visceral and risk-taking style of caring which is not very obviously on the rise.

Jumpin Jehosaphat: I would say Marxism and faith are too reconcilable. Both make claims that fail empirical tests (despite brave efforts to denude them of their plainly intended claims). But I don't deny that they both inform and enrich what I hope to be an emergent naturalism.

Your last paragraph reveals a preoccupation with gaps that weakens your earlier remarks. There is excellent reason to think that in time the emotional reactions to musical scales and paintings will be understood. (Check out Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia for one.) Neurobiology is just getting out of the gate. Don't be incurious!

Thanks for the "puddle-deep" metaphor. And the Spielberg dig was a nice flourish.

George Daremas said...

An enjoyable and balanced conversation. If there is something in religion this concerns its ethical doctrine and the humane values it used to promote theologically. Eagleton's presentation of Aquinas is distorting. The idea of God's love does not concern primarily the sustenance of the world but its (God's sex has not been discovered yet)'function' as a connector of humanity through which human beings form a universalistic community and thus transcend "self-love" and egotism which was a major malaise (and still is) during the medieval epoque.

Religion, as against its organised ecclesiastical forms that have produced so many ills for believers and non-believers alike, today is just a form of literature that has constructed a mythical world which is as good as the (moral) advice it preaches. Certainly, the fact that its fiction is taken for reality bespeaks of the widespread prevalence of irrationalism that permeates postmodern social life.

Marx's description of religion (under certain conditions) as the 'sigh of the oppressed'in no way constitutes a legitimation of religion. To give another twist to his analysis, the recent resurgence of religious feeling indicates a regression in human capacity to self-determine its own mode of thinking about the world. It is a sign of immoral 'progress'. In most religious credos 'love' has been replaced by 'hate' and the insistent imperative to 'burn', 'totrure' and 'exterminate' the unbelievers. Eagleton avoided to comment on this deleterious turn in religious content. His conditional defence of religion reveals a conservative nostalgia of an idealised past gone forever.

skeptic griggsy said...

Ditchkins know that there is no cosmic teleology, and such teleology would contradict natural selection rather than be compatible with it as inane creationist evolutionists bleat. This is the atelic/ teleonomic argument, and it makes nonsense of advanced theology. Eaglegrath prefer to bleat in sonorous tones but fail to make their case.
God fails as any kind of explanation, and is a vacuous notion as we ignostics affirm. Whether God is love or the Ground of Being, theologians merely use it must be's, begged questions and guesses to describe Him. Their arguments for Him themselves bespeak ignosticism: there can be no First Cause, as that means nothing and the same for the Designer. Theology is merely a series of guesses,etc. about a mystery,surrounded by other mysteries, ostensible as the Ultimate Reason [ First Cause -Aquinas and Leibniz as Eagleton knows,not first cause as with Craaig's Kalam- temporal]. And it was Leibniz's big blunder with his why is there something rather than nothing? That is so inchoate.
I take on these advanced theologians, finding them as amusing as any fundamentalists!
Keith Ward claims his being better is due to his being born again. That is merely his own effort, inspired by his religion just as other reliigons or none and ideologies inspire others. See advanced theologians ever bluff! He does, however, call attention to the fact that faith cannot be a reason for ones belief in contrast to Alister McGrath, who overlooks that believers ever ask us skeptics to just have faith when he criticizes Dawkins as using an idiosyncratic definition of faith.
Yea, Eaglegrath cannot gainsay us new atheists with their obscurantism! PZ and Clifton Richard indeed have their number!

Bill E Pilgrim said...

Christopher Gray said...

I completely agree with you.

The silliness in Eagleton's main argument is evident right at the start of this article:

Saying that someone must be a scholar of theology in order to question the existence of God is like saying that if you're not a scholar of Greek Mythology, then you have no right to claim that Zeus doesn't exist.

This isn't just an academic and meaningless debate either. If a considerable amount of people were insisting that Zeus existed, and furthermore basing a lot of their moral, political, criminal, and other decisions on this belief, it would be well worth someone pointing out that there's no evidence for this belief.

Telling someone who raised this criticism "Oh you don't know what you're talking about because you're not an expert on Greek Mythology" would be a profoundly silly rebuttal.

Dawkins is "an important scientist", to quote Noam Chomsky, not just some fly by night writer as people seem to think.

His best line so far is the one:

"We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

Stephen said...

Laurie, let's settle this debate between Dawkins and Eagleton once and for all. A more appropriate showdown between the two, than even the one you mentioned, would be a Blasphemy board game event.

www.blasphemygame.com

May the best viewpoint win ...

Doug said...

Could I not make an argument that the Humanist religion is science and their faith is in the scientific methodology? However evolution is not science; it is educated guessing. It is not based on observation! You have no reasonable, testable explanation for the formation of any functional DNA strain, long enough to be viable. You put your faith and hope in a discovery for this dilemma. The Second law of thermodynamics shoots great holes in your theories of the evolution of the Universe. No where can you show order coming from disorder. Einstein knew this! Neither have you any reasonable theory for the evolution of carbon or any other of the elements that makes up the Universe. Neither can you explain the many problems in nature: oil pressure in the ground, amount of salt in the ocean, the distance of the moon from the earth, the bands in the Universe, what physical law would have produced the Big Bang.

I am in no way saying that the Bible explains these things. However, you have no good understanding of Scripture. You read Exodus 34:5-8 and have no understanding of the Old Testament. Without the Old Testament there could be no New Testament. You see what you want to see and make your arguments based on that view.

I used to agree with you. I was 36 years old before God changed my mind. You probably would be appalled that I could make such a statement. But I would say to you, that you have not been willing to honestly read the Scriptures apart from any preconceived ideas. If the Bible is God’s primary communication with man, it should be able to explain itself. (God did not kill the Amorites because He was a blood thirsty tyrant. If you think that you have not read what it says and you are ignorant of what the message is!)

If reason is your god, than use it to answer these questions; not for my sake but for your own sake.

Doug Davidson, NC USA

NMcC said...

Having read Eagleton on relgion - or rather, his sectarian preference for the Christ inanity variety of religion - all I can ask is: Why drag in Marx?

Marx's view of religion is completely at odds with Eagleton's will-o'-the-wisp wishful thinking. To turn the tables slightly on him, has Eagleton read Marx and Engels on historical materialism? Has he even heard of the term?

If the historical materialism of Marx, allied with Darwin's discovery of natural selection, still leave room for the 'truth' of Christianity for Eagleton and still permit him to claim to be - and considered to be by people who should know better to scratch below the surface of any self-administered political designation - a 'Marxist', all I can do is echo what, according to Engels, Marx said of the self-proclaimed French 'Marxists' of the late 1870s: "All I know, is that I'm no Marxist".

NMcC said...

Having read Eagleton on religion - or rather, his sectarian preference for the Christ inanity variety of religion - all I can ask is: Why drag in Marx?

Marx's view of religion is completely at odds with Eagleton's will-o'-the-wisp wishful thinking. To turn the tables slightly on him: has Eagleton read Marx and Engels on historical materialism? Has he even heard of the term?

If the historical materialism of Marx, allied with Darwin's discovery of natural selection, still leave room for the 'truth' of Christianity for Eagleton and still permit him to claim to be - and considered to be by people who should know better to scratch below the surface of any self-administered political designation - a 'Marxist', all I can do is echo what, according to Engels, Marx said of the self-proclaimed French 'Marxists' of the late 1870s: "All I know, is that I'm no Marxist".

NMcC said...

A note on the above double post: I had originally submitted the first of the two comments above, but saw no indication that the comment had been posted. I left the thing for a day or so (quite a while, at any rate) and then thought that I must have made a hash of the posting mechanism when the comment hadn't appeared. I submitted the second comment - fixing a misspelling of religion in the process - only to discover that BOTH comments then appeared. Strange moderation system, I think.

Kara said...

I find it more curious than almost any other feature of apologetics that the "god concept" seems to be written on a dry erase board and altered at whim, almost randomly, whenever it seems slightly convenient.

The fact that Eagleton employs a VERY rarely seen version of the "god concept" in itself is to be expected. But it's made worse by the fact that he labels his as "more sophisticated" than the one held by the majority of Monotheists; while it still suffers from the same incoherence and lack of evidence that all other versions seem to exhibit.

The only thing consistent about the "god concepts" are that they all impose an anthropomorphic, supernatural framework upon the universe in some way, and do so in a total absence of evidence for such a claim. In essence, how can he claim to have a more sophisticated concept of a god when that concept is even less coherent, less testable, and with even less explanatory value than more commonly held "god concepts?"

The rest seems to amount to claims that Christianity has social value and psychological resonance, claims which few Atheists would deny. If religion did not appeal to us emotionally, if it did not provide us with SOMETHING we needed or enjoyed, from the chance to sing with friends once a week on Sundays to the organizational structure for charity work, would it continue at all? The argument from our side is that there are far, far better ways of fulfilling these needs.

The one interesting aspect to this article was the examination of Dawkins' view of the moral zeitgeist. The idea that our human qualities of empathy and equality are on the whole increasing (and have been steadily, though with setbacks) does seem to be a testable claim, though I would certainly agree that Dawkins did not test it thoroughly before inserting it into "The God Delusion." I would be interested in finding a coherent exploration of the evolving zeitgeist, preferably written by a social psychologist.

Lastly, the "If the bad people would just leave us alone" caricature is ridiculous. Dawkins' humanism is about educating ourselves and conquering our limitations as human beings and as a whole, not dividing the human race into separate camps of good and evil. I do not know if Eagleton ascribes that task to his wispy, diaphanous image of a god or not--if he does, that may change next week.

Steve Barrett said...

I made an anonymous post above that Eagleton might not share all of Marx's socialism. I would only add that several have commented on Eagleton's unusual version of God. The last comment notes "his wispy, diaphanous ...god." In the interview, though, Eagleton, more than once or twice, says that his is Aquinas' idea of God. And we know that Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle, whose ideas were made known to medievalists by Islamic philosophers. I doubt that "wispy" and "diaphanous" are accurate descriptors of such thinkers. Such descriptors are merely an attempt to dismiss ideas that the commentator is unwilling or unable to entertain.