During a recent bookstore browse, I came across Terry Eagleton’s recent anti-New Atheist book Reason, Faith and Revolution. I was tempted to buy it in spite of Eagleton’s deeply silly review of Dawkins in the London Review of Books. This review was, in large part, the motivation for P.Z. Myers to coin the term Courtier’s Reply. By this Myers meant people who responded to Dawkins not by addressing his arguments in any serious way, but instead by rattling off a load of irrelevant theological esoterica Dawkins is expected to master before ever opening his mouth on the subject.
Since I am always interested in getting the other side I picked up the book and opened to a random page. I noticed that Eagleton had taken to referring to RIchard Dawkins and Christopher HItchens simply as “Ditchkins” and immediately put the book down. Combining names like that is a sure sign that crankery is afoot.
Now here comes that most odius and content-free New York Times columnist, Stanley Fish, to tell us all about Eagleton’s book. In an essay that reads suspiciously like a nine-year old’s book report, Fish hits Eagleton’s major points. Let’s have a look:
By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”
The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.
None of those questions is especially well-posed, but for the purpose of this discussion I’m happy to agree that there are certain ultimate questions that science can not address. But religion hardly fares any better. To the extent that religion and theology provide answers to life’s ultimate questions they do so only by making things up, or by reposing their confidence in highly dubious religious revelations. Evolution has far more to tell us about our origins and place in the world than does any religious tradition.
And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
What a steaming load of crap that is.
Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything? Really? Why, then was Augustine mocking people who believed the world was older than six thousand years old on the grounds that he knew from reading scripture that it was not? What did Basil think he was doing when he wrote at length about the meaning of the Genesis account of creation (and, incidentally, interpreted it in much the same way as modern young-Earthers)? If Christianity was not about explaining aspects of nature, then why was the Church so threatened by Galileo? How could a scientist’s ideas about the motions of the planets be a threat to the Church’s authority unless the Church saw discoursing about nature as part of their domain? Was James Ussher confused about the nature of Christianity when he tallied up the generations in Genesis to conclude the world was created in 4004 BC? And what of the nearly fifty percent of Americans today who accept the young-Earth view of the world? Every one of them is confused about Christianity? They need Professor Eagleton to come in and tell them how they are doing it wrong? Really?
The fact is that Eagleton is far more disrespectful of Christianity than is Dawkins or Hitchens. They at least take Christianity seriously, and engage it on its own terms. By pretending the empirical claims of Christianity are irrelevant or never what it was meant to be, Eagleton is simply conceding that those emprical claims are arrant nonsense.
Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?
Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “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,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.
Can someone tell me, please, what any of that means? The idea of progress is a superstition akin to those of religion? I am not aware of anyone who worships something called “progress” in the same way that the devout worship God.
And what of Eagleton’s little list? Corporate greed is the result of a superstitious belief in progress? Police states and war economies are the result of secular liberalism? Really?
Religion is the antidote to politically corrupted science? Eagleton presumes to set himself up as the arbiter of what does, and does not have true value? This man is from Mars.
One suspects that Eagleton would not be willing to give up very many of his creature comforts in the service of an enlightened spirituality. HIs railing notwithstanding, it is liberalism, capitalism and secularism that, working together, have produced a higher standard of living and more social justice for more people than any other governing philosophy ever tried. It is because of them that Eagleton is free to pursue a career as a Professor of Cultural Theory (whatever that is), and to muse about the benefits that would accrue from a more respectful treatment of religion.
And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a 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.”
More demented fiction. Liberals and rationalists believe we are steadily en route to a finer world? That’s news to me, and I consider myself a member of both camps. Certainly Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens don’t believe any such thing, and they are the main targets of Eagleton’s ire. Surveying the world we note that much of the misery and racism in it is the result of despotic theocratic governments, which is why we spend so much time inveighing against it. We also note that religion is at the core of a great many other social pathologies, and is a main reason that the ideals of liberalism have not managed to become as widespread as they ought to be. If we thought the world was just naturally proceding towards greater social justice and elightenment there would be no need to constantly refight these old battles. It is precisely because we don’t believe progress is a given that we do what we can to argue on its behalf.
And, really, is Eagleton seriously suggesting that more religion is the solution to his little list of social ills?
Fish, parroting Eagleton, drones on in this ridiculous way for several more excruciating paragraphs. Go read it if you must, but I am growing impatient with this. So let us proceed right to Fish’s closing paragraph:
The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.
Poor Dr. Fish, having to deal with rabble like Dawkins and Hitchens. One suspects he’s still bitter about the Sokal hoax, which would help explain his incessant nattering imbecilities about science.