Eagleton, Terry - Religion, Faith and Revolution

  (09 May 11)

Reflections on the God Debate


 

A review by Peter Bore of Terry Eagleton’s Religion, Faith and Revolution:
Reflections on the God Debate
(Yale University Press 2009).

 

 

 

(Reviewed June 2010)

 

 

In the book about The Saint Mary’s Community, Peter Kennedy; The Man who Threatened Rome, there is a chapter by John Spong in which he says, “I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many rightwing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. … I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection.”

 

Terry Eagleton also has strong views about the shortcoming of fundamentalists and he expounds them at length in this book which is a transcription of a series of lectures (The Terry Lectures) he gave at Harvard in 2008. Eagleton is not an apologist for Christianity. His position is that of a Marxist (or at least socialist) atheist and he is forthright in his analysis of some of the failures associated with Christianity. His account of Christianity is informed and represents a blend which encompasses the progressive view whilst still acknowledging the conservative view of those who continue to occupy pews on a regular basis.

 

Eagleton understands that there are many different conceptualisations of god. This inevitably complicates any discussion but he does not try to avoid the problems that it creates. Conceptualisations of god range from an idea that only exists in someone’s mind, to an entity which created the world, listens to our prayers and actively intervenes in the affairs of mankind. In consequence, the word is now of uncertain meaning and anyone who wishes to be understood will make it clear, explicitly or by context, what they mean by the word when they use it. I try to use it only in a very wide sense which would include any and all of the likely interpretations of the word and I do not use a capital G unless I am referring to a specific god of a particular religion.

 

This book is not just about religion and atheists. Eagleton also examines and criticises many other areas of life and he takes issue with anyone who has a simplistic (ie fundamentalist) view of god, religion, socialism, liberalism, the enlightenment, capitalism, atheism, politics, science, sociology and history. The most cogent definition of fundamentalism that I have encountered is one which is a paraphrase of the O.E.D. A religious or political movement based on a literal interpretation of, and strict adherence to, doctrine, and that the doctrine should be implemented without interpretation or adaptation. A liberal interpretation of the words ‘religious or political movement’ allows the word to be applied in many situations. His final chapter reflects on the differences between culture and civilisation. “Civilizations kill to protect their material interest whereas cultures kill to defend their identity.”

 

Being a transcript of lectures the book reads easily and his arguments though sometimes complex are not hard to follow. Sometimes the colloquial lecture style is not appropriate. A little more editing in the translation from a lecture into a printed book would have been beneficial. Occasionally his consistency and logic seems to desert him for example when talking about “Islamic Suicide Bombers”. The term itself seems incongruous given what he has said earlier about suicide. Sometimes there appears to be an element of ‘bellicose raving’ in Eagleton though it is usually manifest as a somewhat raucous summing up of the preceding pages of evidence and argument. It seems that it is his literary style to conclude each point he makes with an earthy parting shot. For example after spending ten pages discussing the shortcomings of secular governments he concludes, “If ever there was a pious myth and piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world”

 

A brief digression into the meaning of some words

Mainstream. One often hears statements to the effect that mainstream Christian theology is etc etc… I doubt that “mainstream” Christian theology is any longer a credible entity. Less than 10% of the population go to church but of those who do it is probable that a substantial proportion still believe in a deity which can intervene in people’s lives. However several times that number people still consider themselves philosophically Christian and many of them still believe in a god though not necessarily one who can intervene in peoples lives. In a recent UK survey 50% of those questioned said they believed in Heaven but only 25% believed in Hell. Eagleton seems to recognise the diversity of theology that might be labelled Christian and avoids arguments which take a generalisation and then applies it inappropriately to the specific. This contrasts with Richard Dawkins who, in The God Delusion, is prepared to recognise that senior church figures (perhaps including the Archbishop of Canterbury) may not believe that a god who is capable of intervening in the world, actually exists but, having defined religion as a belief in the existence of such a god, will then declare that any misdeeds of the aforesaid clergymen can be attributed to religion.

 

Supernatural. A word that figures little in Eagleton’s text is supernatural. I try to avoid the word because modern usage effectively defines the supernatural out of existence. The word supernatural describes a concept not an actual event because there are no events that have been proven to be supernatural. When a thing or an event is described as supernatural all that is being said is that we do not recognise it as natural. i.e. we do not understand it. Many events which were once believed to be supernatural (earthquakes, thunderstorms) are now recognised and understood as natural and much of modern technology (guns, aeroplanes and radios) would have been considered supernatural a few hundreds of years ago. There are three categories of events:

 

1. Those which we know have happened and which we can explain (eg thunderstorms). These we regards as natural events.  

 

2. Those which we know have happened but which we cannot explain with any certainty (eg the origin of life). These events we assume are natural events and will be explained at some future date (even if we have to make changes to our current understanding of the natural laws of the universe).

 

3. Those events which are hypothetical. Though they may turn out to exist, there is currently no evidence that they do (eg life after death or an interventionist god). To these we may apply a label like supernatural but in reality it is futile, even irrational, to try and ascribe a mechanism to something which, probably, does not exist. And if they do turn out to exist we will immediately regard them as natural and start looking for a mechanism which explains them.

 

Thus most people, and especially those with any scientific background, will assume that if something has been shown to take place then it is a natural event. That assumption effectively defines the supernatural out of existence. If and when something is seen to happen which is a clear violation of a well-established scientific law the scientist’s response is not to accept that the supernatural exists but to assume that the scientific law in question will need revising.

 

Religion. Religion is another word whose meaning becomes less clear with the passage of time. To take a broad view religion is a view of life which enables those who hold that view to make some sense (not necessarily literal sense) of the world in which we live and of their own lives within that wider world. Religions usually include some values and ideas and commitments such as some kind of deity, a moral code and the promotion of values like freedom and justice. However none of these are essential. Most religions have an associated administrative, hierarchic and political establishment. (i.e. a church). The origins of the word (Latin - religeo - to bind) would suggest that a deity is not essential and current usage of the word may encompass a very wide range of meanings. Some assert that atheism is a religion. It is rapidly becoming a synonym for that other imprecise term, spirituality.

 

Church. A church is the administrative, hierarchic and political establishment usually associated with a religion. The distinction between a religion and a church is often of great significance. The ethos of Christianity may be impeccable. The teaching of some of the Christian churches (eg the prohibition on contraception which is responsible for considerable amounts of human misery) is patently not. Some of the actions of churches (eg torture and execution) are diametrically opposed to the Christian ethos. Again it is clear that Eagleton is well aware of this distinction though there are places where I would have liked him to make that distinction explicit.

 

Fundamentalist Atheists. As noted above a fundamentalist approach can be applied to many facets of life. Fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians have much in common in the way they think and argue about issues though they come to very different conclusions. Most of Eagleton’s comments about fundamentalism use fundamentalist atheists as their model and I will do likewise. I use the term “fundamentalist atheist” to describe a particular subset of humanity. Its most notable members are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Many other epithets are in use, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. They include “militant atheists”, “celebrity atheists” and the elegantly simple “Ditchkins” of Terry Eagleton. I prefer “fundamentalist atheists” because it embodies what I think is their most irrational and most dangerous characteristic and one which is fundamental to fundamentalism namely the belief that the truth is simple and they alone have access to it. It is a term also used by Karen Armstrong, Don Cupitt, and Terry Eagleton. Karen Armstrong refers to another property of fundamentalists. They are fearful for their own survival. Taken in conjunction will the quote of Terry Eagleton in paragraph 5 and comments by Sam Harris about fighting wars with religion, that might seem a little worrying. Whilst many fundamentalists are basically espousing political goals the two fundamentalist extremes of religion are alive and well. There are the fundamentalist believers who regard holy books as the literal, revealed word of god and there are the fundamentalist atheists who have an unswerving belief that the only truth is the truth arrived at by the scientific method, though they sometimes show a lamentable disregard for the methods and ethos of science when marshalling their arguments to declaim religion. (See below)

 

Dawkins denies that he is a fundamentalist (though his definition of fundamentalism only allows for religious fundamentalists) on the grounds that he would change his mind if new evidence came to light. This, I think, is disingenuous. As Eagleton says “Dawkins has an old fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence.” It is unlikely that he would accept any evidence that might be offered. The following quote from the London Review of Books (Stephen Shapin 7 Jan 2010) indicates that Dawkins probably qualifies as a fundamentalist by his own definition since he seems to have elevated Darwin to divine status and his books to sacred texts. Don Cuppit also thinks Dawkins is religious. (see Impossible Loves Chapter 4) “If T.H. Huxley was ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, the Oxford emeritus professor for the public understanding of science, Richard Dawkins, has been called his unmuzzled rottweiler; according to Dawkins, Darwin’s idea wasn’t just a great one (‘the most powerful, revolutionary idea ever put forward by an individual’), it is essentially the only idea you need to explain life and all its phenomena: ‘Charles Darwin really solved the problem of existence, the problem of the existence of all living things humans, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria. Everything we know about life, Darwin essentially explained.’ One-stop shopping for the inquiring mind in a hurry, though one can wonder why an idea of such evident and allencompassing power would a century and a half later need this aggressive marketing.” Dawkins is quoted as saying that evolution leaves god with nothing to do and has recently described evolution as the only game in town. I would see evolution not as a game but the product of games. The games, the mechanisms which for most of the last 3 billion years have driven evolution have been random mutation and natural selection. However, for the last 10,000 or so years natural selection has not been the sole determinant of survival and in the future random mutation may become of no more importance than it is in domesticated animals. Moreover there is no conclusive scientific evidence to indicate that random mutation and natural selection are the only mechanisms to have influenced evolution. Other mechanisms may have played some part. But perhaps a much more compelling argument to refute the claim that “Everything we know about life, Darwin essentially explained” is that physical life is not the only issue that concerns man.

 

Why do fundamentalist atheists lose credibility? The ‘seven deadly sins’ of fundamentalist atheists are:

 

(1)     Lack of scientific rigour and impartiality. Lack of even-handedness. They are less rigorous in analysing the arguments of those with whom they agree than with those with whom they do not agree. Eagleton notes the lack of even-handedness that Ditchkins exhibits. “Ditchkins considers that no religious belief, anywhere or anytime, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. And this, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism” He goes on to point out some of the good that religion has done, noting that Dawkins, in the 400 pages of The God Delusion, finds almost nothing beneficial to have had its origins in religion. Referring to Hitchins’ defence of Martin Amis he notes “It is remarkable how passionate some commentators can be in their disinterested search for justice and true judgement, except when it come to their friends.”

 

In the December 2009 edition of the SoFiA Bulletin James Richmond objected to Chantal Babin’s “reading into his (Dawkin’s) argument motives and agendas that he may not possess” but in the following paragraph felt free to promote his own speculations on the same topic. Later in the same article he defends “Dawkins anthropomorphising of the laws of nature” as “a kind of shorthand,” when in the preceding paragraph he demonstrates bias, or perhaps ignorance, in insisting that “when religious people talk of god intervening in the development of life…. they are talking about a supernatural process.” He does not define what he means by the notoriously imprecise appellation “religious people.”

 

Eagleton sums this up: “This strawtargeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals that is to say, among those who would not allow a firstyear student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance” and “In the face of socalled irrationalism, science yields to stridency with hardly a struggle. Like the socalled war on terror, such rationalism is in danger of mimicking the “irrationalism” it confronts in the very act of seeking to resist it.”

 

Dawkins has expressed the view that Hitler’s crimes would have been unremarkable in the age of Caligula and Genghis Khan. So too would the crimes of the church. A hundred millennia ago rape, theft, murder, and genocide were acceptable, neatly filed away under the heading ‘Survival of the Fittest’. Does that provide any mitigation for them today? Dawkins tells us about Hitler’s Catholicism and Stalin’s time in a seminary and whilst his conclusions are less strident than many of his claims, he obviously thinks we need to know about these matters. The possibility that Stalin’s professed atheism might have some connection to his purges and gulags does not sit well alongside the Dawkin’s assertion that atheists are more moral than religious people. In order to promote the argument that religion is responsible for the abuse of children Hitchins tells the story of Abraham. (This was in Australia but he did not mention the secular governments abuse of aboriginal children starting with the stolen generation.) If you were a fundamentalist Christian who believed the bible to be literally true, then the story of Abraham would present some problems though, from a 21st century medical perspective, you might think that if the story was true, then the likely explanation was that Abraham was schizophrenic and did hear a voice which he believed to be that of god telling him to kill his son. It still happens today. If you wish to paint the picture of a wicked god who tells people to kill their children it helps if you do not tell the whole story. The ending of the story, where neither god nor Abraham goes through with the killing, would not help your case. Hitchins omits the end.

 

A good atheist who believes that god does not exist and the bible is the invention of men can only see the story as metaphorical. If the story is only a metaphor then what does it mean? The views of an old testament scholar might be useful but it could be that it was simply a way of saying that there will come times in the life of a tribe when some will have to be sacrificed in order to preserve the tribe and/or its values. Karen Armstrong makes the point that the initiation rites of some cultures (where boys become men) involve the boy being made to believe that he is about to die. The rationale is that once having faced death and overcome it, the subject will be better prepared to face the situation when he has to fight, and thus face death, for the good of the tribe. The sacrifice of sons is something modern secular political systems still espouse and practise regularly by sacrificing sons in their thousands in wars. I would hazard a guess that modern military training still contains elements of preparing recruits to face possible death.

 

The Hitchins who moralises about a mythical god telling a probably mythical Abraham to kill his son but then rescinds the instructions before they are carried out is the same Hitchins who, in real life, supported sending American sons to be sacrificed in their thousands in Iraq - and that is before we start counting the Iraqi sons (and daughters). The only mythical element to that story was the evidence used to justify the war.

 

It seems that another device of the fundamentalist atheists is, whilst asserting that there is no such thing as gods or sacred texts, they are content to suspend that disbelief if a literal interpretation of the text gives them an opportunity to denigrate the non-existent god. Abraham is probably a mythical figure created by man. Fundamentalist atheists may not believe in god but they are happy to suspend that disbelief if there is an opportunity, however contrived, to blame god for some evil. Religion may be a product of the human mind but they are content to blame it for the world’s problems not the human minds which created and exploit it. The war in Iraq was started in the name of democracy and the GFC was a product of capitalism but we do not blame the abstract concepts of democracy or capitalism for the deaths and the problems we have subsequently encountered. We blame George Bush and the bankers. Similarly god and religion may be concepts that have arisen from human minds. These concepts, like freedom and justice may have consequences, some good and some bad, but the praise or blame for these consequences should not be attributed to the abstract concept but to the humans who devised it and who act on it. Unsupported assertions. “the increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperilled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.” (Lawrence Krauss, Scientific American, December 2009). The unsupported assertion is the antithesis of science but is grist to the mill of Ditchkins. Referenced examples are quoted in my review of The God Delusion which can be found on the SoFiA web site.

 

(2)     Ridicule The ethos of science requires a rational disciplined examination and interpretation of facts including an examination of the degree of reliability of the facts in question. Difference in views should be explored by reasoned argument not by resort to denigration and pejoratives. Again, referenced example can be found as above.

 

(3)     Theological and linguistic ignorance Eagleton “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” and “There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in to the grossest prejudice with hardly a struggle” There are many examples cited in the book but perhaps the most common and the one that has most consequences downstream is that concerning the words faith and belief.

 

The Greek word pistis (loyalty, commitment, trust) became in verbal Latin fides but in written Latin credo (I give my heart). It was ultimately translated into two English words. One was ‘belief’. At that time belief had the meaning of the Latin credo. Its root is the same as that of the word ‘love.’ It meant to hold dear, to love, to have confidence in, to trust. The second English word used to render the Greek pistis was ‘faith’ which is defined in the OED as belief, trust, confidence. However, belief has now acquired a second meaning which is the intellectual acceptance of something as factually true as in ‘I believe that the earth is a sphere’ This usage dates from the 18th century. Eagleton therefore is correct when he says “religious faith is not in the first place a matter of subscribing to the proposition that a supreme being exits” though one must acknowledge that is how religious conservatives and religious fundamentalist would use it. To many, religious faith or religious belief is simple a commitment to an idea.

 

As Eagleton graphically explains, “As far as theology goes, Ditchkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion consists in; it is just that Ditchkins rejects it while Pat Robertson and his unctuous crew grow fat on it.” With sales of The God Delusion at 1.5 million Dawkins is in little danger of being unable to afford his next meal.

 

(4)    Religion and what is done in its name The stated ethos of a religion and what is done in its name by its associated church or by its adherents may be very different. I alluded earlier to the distinction between a church and a religion. Eagleton notes that Islam forbids suicide and the killing of civilians and that Robert Pape’s study of ‘suicide bombers’ concludes that since 1980, 95% were politically, not religiously, motivated. He writes “Certainly Ditchkins’s disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center. It is true that some of the debate took its cue from there an ominous fact, since intellectual debate is not at its finest when it springs from grief, hatred, hysteria, humiliation, and the urge for vengeance, along with some deepseated racist fears and fantasies. 9/11 however, was not really about religion, any more than the thirtyyearlong conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility. (It says much about Dawkins’s obsession with religion that he subscribes in The God Delusion to the fallacy that the struggle in Northern Ireland was one over varieties of Christian belief) Radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence, as we have seen, to suggest that its actions are for the most part politically driven.”

 

(5)    Militancy Even if religion did need eliminating, the militancy of the fundamentalist atheists is unnecessary. The idea that belief in god means accepting the existence of god as being literally and factually true is relatively recent - few hundreds of years - and almost since its inception the idea has been on the decline. Over the last two hundred years the numbers of that kind of believer has fallen in most countries by an order of magnitude. Ditchkins and his “bellicose ravings” (Eagleton’s words) have only been active in the last few decades. If belief in an interventionist god disappears in the next 20 years I doubt that Ditchkins will be able to claim the credit.

 

(6)   Vanity Our celebrity atheists are not the brave pioneers they claim to be, daring to defy the societal norms that prohibit the criticism of other people’s religions. People have been criticising other people’s religions for centuries and on some occasions have even gone to war over it. People have risked execution to state their views for or against religion. Today the personal risks associated with being critical of religion are small.

 

(7) Arrogance They do not acknowledge that others who have had difference experiences may also have different limitations and different needs. As Eagleton points out philosophy tends not to be a preoccupation amongst those who spend their days in an incessant struggle to stay alive and that “faith….. is not primarily a belief that something or someone exists but a commitment and allegiance – faith in something which might make a difference to the frightful situation you find yourself in….” He then observes that “the trouble with the Dawkinses of this world is that they do not find themselves in a frightful position at all…”

 

Most of those, (including Ditchkins, Eagleton and myself) who comment on these matters, live more or less, securely and almost freely in Western democracies (of a kind). We are adequately housed and fed, are not on the poverty line and almost always have had the benefits of an education available to only a few percent of the world and a life experience much much broader than most. We are a very privileged group, and, as Julian Burnside points out, those in positions of privilege frequently fail to recognise it. We should have the humility to admit that what works for us may not work for others, particularly those who do not share the knowledge and comprehension which we take for granted. If you are a geographer, an airline pilot or a cosmologist it is important to recognize that the earth is a sphere. If you are a subsistence farmer in central Asia it is of no importance if you think the earth is flat. In my own case I discovered only recently (listening to a lecture by Lawrence Krauss) that the universe is flat. I had always assumed that it was spherical but as far as I am aware that false knowledge has had no deleterious consequences to my life.

 

They are uncritical of science Ditchkins gives value only to insights which emanate from science and are dismissive of almost everything else though if they stopped and reflected for five seconds on the scientific evidence which they used to choose their partners – one of the most far reaching decisions any of us ever make - they might recognize the absurdity of their claims.

 

As early as page 6 Eagleton alludes to the error of assuming that science and religion are competitors. “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 of the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places.” And on page 10 “Science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same thing any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are”. He moves on to detail the lack of any critical examination of secular politics or science.

 

Secular politics have not done particularly well – a fact not acknowledged by Ditchkins. We may approve of access based on merit to tertiary education (however briefly) and penicillin but we cannot ignore Hiroshima and Auschwitz.

 

“The language of Enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy.”

 

“Ditchkins does not exactly fall over himself to point out how many major scientific hypotheses confidently cobbled together by our ancestors have crumbled to dust, and how probable it is that the same fate will befall many of the most cherished scientific doctrines of the present.”

 

Eagleton notes that the idea that science might have contributed to our degradation as well as our refinement is not even cursorily considered. Science can only talk about subjects which are amenable to exploration by scientific methods. Most scientists recognize this and simply do not refer to gods except when they are making jokes. Science involves many constraints which may degrade its credibility. Scientists make mistakes sometimes through lack of diligence but often despite the utmost diligence. Some are deceitful and anyone engaged in science in the late 20th century will well understand the pressures which can lead to that. And perhaps above all else much of science especially biological science involves examining a sample and determining statistically the probability that that sample is a true reflection of the whole. By convention, if the statistics say that the chances of your sample being representative of the whole are nineteen out of twenty then your results are ‘significant’. Thus, on these grounds alone, there is a chance of up to 5% that your conclusions are wrong. Recent revelations about errors in climate change data will be no surprise to anyone with a minimal understanding of science.

 

Comment I agree with Richard Dawkins that an interventionist god is improbable and like him I choose to live assuming that such a god does not exit. I do this partly because there is no evidence for such a god - though that lack of evidence cannot in itself be a compelling argument for the non - existence of a god who may not conform to our current conceptions of the laws of the universe or who may be hidden in some of the invisible dimensions of string theory. I assume there is no god ( I could say that I have faith that there is no god) because my view of the world does not require that kind of god. However I do not agree that the mythical god conceived by the human mind is without value. The fictional (mythical) writings of Graham Greene, Nadime Gordimer and a host of other novelists along with the Little Prince of Antoine de St Exupery and Tycho and Nemesis of Greek mythology have a lot to tell us about how humans behave. Some have little need of the mythical gods of literature or the mythical gods of their own brains. They would argue, with justification, that even their existence is not supported by much scientific evidence but that is also true of other concepts which emanate from the human mind such as justice, peace and freedom. Even in Auschwitz where justice, peace and freedom were at their lowest ebb (and where modern secular man, not god or religion was the cause) these ideas were not abandoned. They remained as models which would eventually inspire a universal condemnation of such places (The UN Declaration of Human Rights). Some like Geoffrey Robertson, have expressed the hope that this is the first step to their total abolition, though the readiness of Western secular, liberal, humanist, democratic governments to enact laws which secretly detain their citizens and subsequently forbid any revelation of that detention suggests that these governments, regardless of any verbal commitments, will continue to violate human rights by whatever means they can.

 

Eagleton encapsulates these arguments; “Nobody has ever clapped eyes on the unconscious. Yet many people believe in its existence on the grounds that it makes excellent sense of their experience of the world.” That is exactly how I (and for that matter Don Cupitt - and I have to confess that he was first) would define religion.

 

Many of the things that fundamentalist atheists say are true. They are often rightly critical of the church. Because progressive religious thinkers are also unimpressed by the church it is easy to be superficially impressed by Ditchkins. Whilst much of the criticism of the church is warranted there is little that is new and most of the abuses perpetrated by the church have been mimicked by secular governments. However it does seem that in organizations like SoFiA, ridiculing the church has become a significant preoccupation and, I think, a distraction from an exploration of what the ideas, often hitherto expressed in religious metaphors, can contribute to the world today. I am very inclined to take a leaf out of John Spong’s book and decline to discuss with either fundamentalist atheists or fundamentalist Christians their particular dogmas.

 

Michael Schermer suggests that god is just an ordinary bloke in a far off universe where life began as a chance event and humanoid creatures evolved to be something like us. But it is a universe much older than ours with millions of years of science behind them. He knows about laws of physics which we have never dreamed of. He now knows how to create big bangs and thereby manufacture new universes and thus he created our universe. To us he is as supernatural as someone arriving in helicopter would have been regarded as supernatural by the ancient Greeks. With our few hundred years of scientific history a little humility would not come amiss.

 

In Chapter 4, Culture and Barbarism, Eagleton takes a look at the wider world. One of his conclusions is that; “In a world in which theology is increasingly part of the problem…. it is also fostering the kind of critical reflection which might contribute to some of the answers.” A similar view was offered in a review of Reason, Faith and Revolution by Paul Vallely in the Independent newspaper. (An elegant, brief but somehow comprehensive article still available on the Independent’s web site) “Religion might not have the answers but it asks the better questions.”

 

I will end with two longer quotes which give insight into Eagleton’s perspective on these matters.

 

“Freudians and political radicals, along with a great many people who would see themselves as neither, are aware that without reason we are sunk, but that reason, even so, is not in the end what is most fundamental about us. Richard Dawkins claims with grandiloquent folly that religious faith dispenses with reason altogether, which wasn’t true even of the dimwitted authoritarian clerics who knocked me around at grammar school. Without reason, we perish; but reason does not go all the way down. It is not wall-to-wall. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason.”

 

And talking about socialism not religion (though the parallel is clear):

 

“There are those nowadays who would regard faith in socialism as even more eccentric than the exotic conviction that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven. Why, then, do some of us still cling to this political faith, in the teeth of what many would regard as reason and solid evidence? Not only, I think, because socialism is such an extraordinarily good idea that it has proved exceedingly hard to discredit, and this despite its own most strenuous efforts. It is also because one cannot accept that this the world we see groaning in agony around us is the only way things could be, … because however hard one tries, one simply cannot shake off the primitive conviction that this is not how it is supposed to be, … because there is something in this vision which calls to the depths of one’s being and evokes a passionate assent there; because not to feel this would not to be oneself; because one is too much in love with this vision of humankind to back down, walk away, or take no for an answer.”

 

This book will make it onto my top ten booklist. Dawkins The Ancestors Tale is also there. The God Delusion is not.      

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