The other day, I read this fawning review by Andrew O’Hehir of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, and was a little surprised. I’ve read a smattering of Eagleton before, and the words “brisk, funny and challenging” or “witty” never came to mind, and the review actually gave no evidence that these adjectives were applicable in this case. I felt like ripping into O’Hehir, but was held up by one awkward lack: I hadn’t read Eagleton’s book. Who knows? Maybe he had found some grain of sense and some literary imperative to write cleanly and plainly.
So I was in New York the other day, and was offered a copy of Eagleton’s book, and took the first step in my imminent doom by accepting it. Then I tried to fly home on Saturday, one of those flights that was plagued with mechanical errors that caused delays and long stretches locked in a tin can, and also flights that were packed tightly with travelers…so crammed with people that they actually took my computer and book bag away from me to pack in the cargo hold, and I had to quickly snatch something to read before the baggage handlers took it away. I grabbed the Eagleton book. Thus was my fate sealed.
I was trapped in a plane for 8 hours with nothing to read but Eagleton and the Sky Mall catalog.
This is an account of my day of misery.
There was a part of O’Hehir’s review that I could scarcely believe, and was even more astounded that O’Hehir thought it was clever: Eagleton invents an antagonist. He is specifically writing this book as a rebuttal to Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett and all those other rowdy atheists, and while he does address some of their arguments directly (and poorly), he has also created this composite character he calls “Ditchkins”. Ditchkins is a straw man, a dummy he can flog without fear of reply, and without worry that someone might actually find that his description of Ditchkins views is a caricature, because Ditchkins doesn’t exist.
It’s a bit disconcerting. There is a fine literary tradition in having a Simplicio foil to bounce ideas off of in a rhetorical exercise, but this one goes off the rails quickly. We’ll have a section of the essay in which Eagleton is discussing some idea by Dawkins, for instance, and then suddenly he’s telling us that “Ditchkins thinks…” or “Ditchkins believes…” or “Ditchkins says…” — it’s rather creepy and more than a little cowardly. After all, Dawkins might be able to speak up and say that no, he doesn’t think that…but Ditchkins never will. Ditchkins exists only to absorb abuse.
Ditchkins is a central figure in this book, and seems to have about as much reality to Eagleton as Jesus — at least, he seems to be mentioned about as often. One of the most tedious aspects of the book is the way poor uncomplaining Ditchkins is constantly dragged out for a flogging, a torture that lacks even the visceral thrill of a little blood and suffering, since Ditchkins bears his torment without even a squeak. Apparently, we’re supposed to be impressed with the way Eagleton grunts with effort and sprays sweat around as he wields his whip. I wasn’t; he’s playing a futile game.
It ends sadly, too. Eagleton seems to lose himself in his metaphorical opponent.
Will Ditchkins read this book and experience an epiphany which puts the road to Damascus in the shade? To use no less than two theological terms by way of response: not a hope in hell.
I think it’s safe to say that no, Ditchkins will not read the book, Ditchkins will not experience an epiphany, and Ditchkins will not convert to Christianity. Well, unless Eagleton writes a sequel, and makes Ditchkins dance to whatever tune he wants to play. Heck, maybe someone will write some internet slash fiction with Ditchkins and Harry Potter, and Ditchkins will do all kinds of interesting things. Except, of course, that most of us will recognize that Ditchkins is not real.
You must understand that I was cooped up with Eagleton’s book for 8 hours. I read it twice. I began to hate the Ditchkins punching bag with an abiding passion, one that was exceeded only by my detestation for Eagleton’s persistent tics. There’s another that came up frequently: he’s trying to argue that Ditchkins’ image of religion is inaccurate and uninformed, and he frequently resorts to the incongruous analogy to back that assertion up, as in this example from the very first page of the preface.
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.
Ha ha, see? Feminism and Clint Eastwood, they’re so different! As different as the New Testament and Dawkins! But wait…I don’t actually know what Eastwood’s opinions of feminism are, and from what I know of his movies, they might be fairly complicated. I suddenly wanted to know what those opinions might be — maybe this analogy is accurate in a way Eagleton did not intend. (But I was trapped on a plane! With no laptop and no internet! Only Eagleton!)
One peculiarly ambiguous analogy we can forgive, but Eagleton does this repeatedly. Here’s a sampling. You too will begin to cringe at the repetition.
But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to electric toasters we can forget about Chekov.
Yet is is scarcely a novel point to claim for the most part Ditchkins holds forth on religion in a truly shocking ignorance of many of its tenets—a situation I have compared elsewhere to the arrogance of one who regards himself as competent to pronounce on arcane questions of biology on the strength of a passing acquaintance with the British Book of Birds.
With dreary predictability, Daniel C. Dennett defines religions at the beginning of his Breaking the Spell as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought,” which as far as Christianity goes is rather like beginning the history of the potato by defining it as a rare species of rattlesnake.
I happen to know as a fact, for example, that the moon deeply affects human behavior, since as a mild species of lunatic I am always aware of when the moon is full without even looking (though I draw the line at baying or sprouting hair on my cheeks). I doubt, however, that scientists who valued their corporate grants would fall over themselves to investigate this remarkably well-evidenced phenomenon. It would be rather like a literary critic publishing a three-volume study of Goosey Goosey Gander.
It did get tiresome. Eagleton also uses it as an excuse to not address the issue he’s brought up: in the Dennett quote, for instance, he seems to be offended that anyone has dared to find any point of commonality between his precious Irish Catholic potato and all the venomous vipers of those other religions, but he does not bother to tell us exactly why the comparison should be so odious…except, of course, by his constant praise of the special and unique character of Christianity.
That last quote is an amusing revelation of exactly how little Eagleton knows about science. His “fact” of a “well-evidenced” influence of the full moon on human behavior has been investigated — it’s the kind of claim about reality that’s relatively easy to check. Surprise: the evidence for it is extremely weak and anecdotal, and analysis of such things as police reports has found that the “fact” isn’t.
But let us not get bogged down in the trivial details like evidence — I’m sure Terry Eagleton would agree that that misses the grand point he is making, which is completely independent of facts or reason, and represents a Greater Truth unhampered by those footling requirements. His claim is that the atheists are criticizing a version of religion he finds disagreeable and not at all like his version of religion…Ditchkins has made the ghastly error of failing to write The Eagleton Delusion or Eagleton Is Not Great or Letter to an Eagleton Nation. His irritation at this omission is essentially the driving force behind this entire book.
So what, exactly, is Eagleton theology, that we may critique it as representative of religion as a whole? We have a little problem here. Throughout this rambling, incoherent collection of pages, we get no clarity, no clean explanation of what exactly religion is; he can chastise Dennett for offering a definition of religion with which he vehemently disagrees, but you will not then find Eagleton carrying through with his definition. This is probably because Eagleton has no need for clarity — his own contradictions are worn with pride as emblems of ineffable profundity instead of addlepated murkiness. Even his own defenders don’t have an answer: Stanley Fish, clearly a kindred spirit in the world of blathering pseudoscholarship, admits this:
Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”
Well then. What are we to do? I dug into his book (remember, trapped on a plane for 8 hours with nothing better to do) trying to find the worthy kernel of faith we have been shamefully besmirching, and failed. And, as Eagleton says, this is my moral obligation.
Many reflective people these days will see good reason to reject religious belief. But even if the account I have given of it is not literally true, it may still serve as an allegory of our political and historical condition. Besides, critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront the case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook. The mainstream Christian theology I have outlined here may well be false; but anyone who holds it is in my view deserving of respect.
Hang on, there: if we critics have a “moral obligation to confront the case at its most persuasive”, shouldn’t the defenders similarly have a moral obligation to present their most persuasive case? Even here, he’s admitting that his version of religion may not be “literally true”, may in fact be false, and may only have value as an allegory — it may in fact be nothing but Goosey Goosey Gander — but somehow he expects the critics to have at their disposal a strong and persuasive case for religion with which they should grapple. This is somewhat inconsistent.
There is a hint in that quote, however. He claims to have given an account of religious belief already, and that quote is from page 33. Reductionist-materialist-naturalistic-scientific thinker that I am, I assumed that this meant that somewhere between pages 1 and 32, I would find an explanation of the belief that Ditchkins (and I; we are all Ditchkins) should focus upon. Alas. You can try, as I did, but you will not find it. You will find many pronouncements about God’s nature, however — he is a very Catholic creature, blurred by Eagleton’s own fuzzy thinking.
But here, decide for yourselves. This is a sampling from those 32 pages. He’s got a theology, all right.
God, in short, is every bit as gloriously pointless as Ditchkins tells us he is. He is a kind of perpetual critique of instrumental reason.
God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning.
Jesus is a sick joke of a savior.
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 worth adding that Jesus’s attitude toward the family is one of implacable hostility. He has come to break up these cozy little conservative settlements, so beloved of American advertisers in the name of his mission, setting their members at each other’s throats; and he seems to have precious little time for his own family in particular.
My first thought is that, while this may be representative of some theologians, it’s awfully remote from the real world of religious belief. There are parts of this rambling mess that, if presented at the local Missouri Synod Lutheran church, would have gotten him lynched…or at the very least, left his listeners very confused about what the lunatic was doing in the pulpit. Eagletonism is not mainstream.
It’s also rather sectarian. Eagleton simply assumes that Jesus is the legitimate son of a god, and that the founding myths of Christianity are literally true. In his defense of True Religion against the atheist hordes, he ignores the fact that his particular god, even ignoring his peculiar interpretations of that deity, is worshipped by a minority on this planet. Nowhere does he bother to address this central issue, that most people find his religion silly and incredible…while most of them are believing in something else that Eagleton finds silly and incredible.
Most importantly, he is completely oblivious to the actual criticisms the atheists have made of religion. We all know that religion inspires great towering erections of byzantine logic, and all kinds of twisted rationalizations for just about anything, from the torture-murder of a Jewish rabble-rouser on a Roman cross to his manifestation in the brown marks on a piece of pita bread. We are also aware that all the ambiguities and contradictions in the stories do a wonderful job of spawning weird associations in the minds of literary theorists, sending them into raptures of babblement. But so what? We are addressing the premises. What is the evidence for the existence of any god? What is the source for your information about the nature of this god, as well as all the specifics about what he wants right now? Why have the prophets and priests of your god, who apparently have a communications line to an omniscient being, done such a poor job of describing the world and how it works? If god’s will is the fundamental arbiter of moral behavior, how do we determine god’s will? Why is it that when the defenders of this god-centric view sit down to write books that should answer these kinds of questions, they always, without fail, write such vapid tripe?
As I was marking up his little book with these questions, something routine happened: the plane hit some turbulence, bounced about for a bit, and I looked out the window and had the fleeting, morbid thought, “What if we crashed?” We’ve all had that thought, and I usually dismiss it with little concern, but this time I had a new worry: I was sitting there holding Reason, Faith, and Revolution. You know that grandmotherly admonition to always wear clean underwear because, what if you had an accident, and they’d know? I had a vision of my broken corpse on a slab, and the sneering pathologist pulling the book out of my dead clenched hand, and making some mocking comment in his notes. Eagleton would be the skidmark at my autopsy. I resolved that if the plane did go down, the first thing I was going to do was fling the book as far forward as I could, both removing it from association with my body and satisfying a primal urge that had been prodding me since I opened it to page 1.
I confess that my prior exposure to Eagleton was in small doses, little dribs and drabs of essays and interviews, and that while my opinion of him was uniformly negative, I had to admit that I’d never really plunged deeply into anything he had written. I was seriously baffled by all the praise for him that I saw, but OK, I must be missing something. But now that I’ve read this entire book (twice! Ack!), I was really baffled. What’s going on here? I thought the other side of campus, the one with all those arty lit-crit types, was where the good writing was done…but Reason, Faith, and Revolution is one of the most poorly written and poorly argued books I’ve ever read. Admittedly, it didn’t sink to the levels of incompetent mangling of the English language that I’ve seen in books like The Spiritual Brain (still my all-time champ for bad writing), but there’s nothing there: no organization, no sense, no argument. It’s taken from a series of lectures he gave at Yale, and the impression given is that he gulped down a couple of scholarly sherries, stepped up to the lectern, and started talking off-the-cuff about things he didn’t like — a kind of tweedy Andy Rooney with longer sentences and more complex vocabulary, and a lot more ego.
I tried, however, to find something charitable to say. I tried to pretend for a little while that I was a fellow traveler, that somewhere in this stewpot of words there was a message and a virtue beyond my prejudices about books being accurate and honest and forthright. I pretended that this was a holy book, a bible, and that I was convinced contained a great truth, that I would then tease out and engage in a little exegesis of my own — the message might be obscure, but there must be something there.
Well, maybe not. Here’s the closest thing to a germ of an idea that I could find.
The difference between Ditchkins and radicals like myself hinges on whether it is true that the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal, and what the implications of this are for living.
Radicals like Eagleton? An apologist for dogma? Wait, no, stop. I promised to try and see the world through his eyes for a moment.
It is true that the symbol of the crucified Christ is a powerful one, especially if you’ve had that image dunned into you constantly, from an early age. It appeals because we can identify with suffering — all of us have or will suffer, and we all face death at some point in our lives. It resonates. Christianity has also coupled this strong image of suffering with the idea of redemption; we can be free of our pain, and in addition, we have a potent champion in Jesus who sympathizes with us. And once we identify with the tortured Christ, and love the gift of a loving hand that he gives us, perhaps this will translate into greater social responsibility — we will see those around us who are weaker and hurting more than we are, and we will also make sacrifices for the greater good.
In that sense, it is a manifestation of a liberal ideal, an inspiration to do better for the commonality. I can see where Eagleton wants to promote the virtue of sacrifice, and I can even share that with him; I can also see where he views his religion as a constant reminder of that duty.
But throughout his book I am confronted with Eagleton’s limitations.
For one, he is incapable of recognizing that his signifier is not the only one possible for representing his ideals. He constantly portrays Ditchkins as a smug bourgeois stooge wallowing in his comfort in North Oxford (oh, Eagleton has nothing but contempt for North Oxford, which makes frequent appearances as a hellhole inhabited by uncaring atheists), and his ultimate gripe is really that the Ditchkins of the world are so illiberal. Why? Because they do not accept the message of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what they think, what they do, or what they write: that they do not bow down before the icon of a crucified Jesus, they must not accept all the other meanings with which Eagleton has imbued it.
For another, he doesn’t recognize that millions of people see that same image, and do not see it as a symbol of all the good that he proposes. For some, it is a badge of superiority — they are so much better than the infidel. For others, it is a signifier of something other than Eagleton’s liberation theology: the prosperity gospel, for instance, or the church militant. For most, it has been reduced by repetition and rote to meaninglessness. How else to explain that regular church attendance in America is correlated with a greater willingness to condone torture? How can people contemplate Christianity’s symbol and think it grants permission to cause suffering?
There is also a profound difference between what we want, and what is. Eagleton thinks the symbology is good because he wants it to be so, because he reifies aspiration and wants it to replace reality. That isn’t good enough for me. I look at the history of religion and Christianity, and I see the actions carried out in its name now, and I see that his wish has failed, and failed repeatedly.
We live in a culture where the contorted body of a tortured criminal is an important signifier of the human condition. Eagleton believes this is a good thing. My imaginary friend Ditchkins and I do not; it is an image that captures the imagination, for sure, but it has done us harm. It has short-circuited natural human thoughts and feelings into a dead-end chase after the transcendant rather than the immanent.
If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars. That’s representative of the state of humanity, too; it’s a symbol that touches us all as much as that of a representation of our final end, and we don’t have to daub it with the cheap glow-in-the-dark paint of supernatural fol-de-rol for it to have deeper meaning. We atheists, contra Eagleton, have aspirations, too; aspirations for humanity in all the meanings of that word. But we also expect that those aspirations will be built on reality.
That was my frustrating, horrible, awful day on a plane with Terry Eagleton, and that’s enough of my wallowing in that miserable and interminable experience, so I’ll stop there. I’m thinking I ought to turn it into a screenplay, though, but only if I get a guarantee that Samuel L. Jackson will play me.