186 of 209 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ditchkins?
Literary critic Terry Eagleton, who is, insofar as I can tell, an atheist himself, nevertheless engages in a nuanced take-down of some of the pretenses associated with contemporary atheism. And he focuses in particular on the two most articulate writers within the neo-atheist movement---Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For purposes of convenience (since Dawkins...
Published on March 29, 2009 by Santi Tafarella
45 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Guilty Pleasures
Reading books by the Marxist literary and cultural critic Terry Eagleton is one of my guilty pleasures. After reading his biting critique of religion in After Theory (2003), imagine my surprise when I found Terry Eagleton "defending" religion in his latest book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)...
Published on July 22, 2009 by John Williams
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186 of 209 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ditchkins?,
This review is from: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) (Hardcover)Literary critic Terry Eagleton, who is, insofar as I can tell, an atheist himself, nevertheless engages in a nuanced take-down of some of the pretenses associated with contemporary atheism. And he focuses in particular on the two most articulate writers within the neo-atheist movement---Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For purposes of convenience (since Dawkins and Hitchens, in numerous instances, offer similar arguments) Eagleton amusingly conflates their names into a singular entity that he calls "Ditchkins."
Eagleton sees the neo-atheist movement as a reaction to the resurgence of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism after 9-11, and he sees that reaction as largely obtuse, both intellectually and psychologically. Eagleton, for example, sees real value in the Bible, and in the story of Jesus in particular, and what it can teach us about life and social change. Eagleton's readings of the Ten Commandments and the story of Jesus were especially dazzling, and illustrated his point that one needn't throw the religious/mythic babies out with the fundamentalist bathwater.
Eagleton is also an unreconstructed Marxist, which I think is a rather dubious intellectual position itself. Nevertheless, it gives him a vantage for making sharp and astute critiques of Ditchkins's complacency with regard to the role that capitalism and Modernism have played in creating a world of religious fundamentalist reactionaries. Eagleton sees fundamentalism as the West's psychological shadow---and points us to Euripides's Bakkhai as a play we would do well to study. In that play, King Pentheus treats Dionysus, who inhabits the borders of his realm, with enormous arrogance and without self-critical awareness, and the result is his own destruction. In this part of the book, Eagleton is rehashing material that he dealt with in more detail in a previous book ("Holy Terror").
Eagleton's book is strongest in its first half. The first chapter was especially thought provoking, for in it Eagleton offered a brilliant aesthetic defense of God's existence that could (almost) make me a believer. Eagleton's argument is a reversal of Liebnitz-like utility, in which God must do everything perfectly---and this must be "the best of all possible worlds." To the contrary, Eagleton suggests that God may have made the universe for a very different purpose. The universe may be (if we are to attribute it to God) a contingent art project, utterly inefficient and without utility---an act of freedom, not necessity. This, of course, has its own problems, but Eagleton has offered a clever retort to traditional theodicy.
Why did Eagleton write this book? If I may engage in a bit of armchair psychoanalysis, I think it is because Eagleton perceives the universal acid of reductionist rationalism heading his way. It's coming after religion now, but it's coming after poetry, literature, and Marxism later. In other words, Eagleton's book is, at one level at least, a battle against an obtuse utilitarianism which sees the price of everything and the value of nothing. I saw Eagleton's (perhaps unconscious) motive leaping from page 34 of his book, in which he wrote: "That a great deal of [religion] is indeed repulsive . . . is not a bone of contention between us. But I speak here partly in defense of my own forebears, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void."
In some sense, this book is Eagleton (as a Marxist critic) fighting for his own life---defending the importance of nuance and measured judgment against the crassest forms of reductionist cynicism---and making a case for the value of some form of hope for POETIC JUSTICE in the future.
48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read if something has been troubling you about Dawkins and Hitchens,
This review is from: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) (Hardcover)It's astonishing how many people have reviewed this book thinking that's it's a defense of religion, when Eagleton himself is atheist, or agnostic at best. It indicates that not all of us are reading this book as closely as perhaps we should be. Clearly, quite a few of us are predisposed to take offense on behalf of Dawkins and Hitchens, every time Eagleton flourishes his dry British wit. But this is how the British debate: witheringly and dramatically.
I'm glad someone is pointing out that Dawkins leaps gleefully into a chasm of hypocrisy by attacking religion's crimes (which are many) while obtusely dismissing how science has enabled us to wreak havoc on one another. Eagleton romps from one end of the book to the other, slaughtering sacred cows, and is clearly enjoying himself.
Again, I don't claim to be an expert on textual analysis, but I'm seeing a lot of misfires in the reviews section here. It's a very nuanced style, and sometimes you have to slow down quite a bit to grasp what he's saying. For example, there is not, in fact, any indication that Eagleton thinks Hitchens is a closet Marxist. If anything, Eagleton repeatedly confirms the man's strident and misbegotten *fascism*. Which dovetails into his argument about how Enlightenment values can end up producing the opposite of the intended effect.
Then there's the matter of taking seriously such cast-off, joking comments such as the one he makes about the phases of the moon. For some reason, people are latching on to this as a confirmation of some character flaw. They are elevating it beyond the confines of the statement; erasing the ambiguous humor from the page because a certain interpretation allows them to dismiss more serious statements elsewhere. That's intellectually dissonant.
Basically, the message of the book is this: Dawkins and Hitchens see the debate on religion and secularism in overly broad terms, and their underlying worldview has an inherently *mystical* bias (such as blind faith in the Path of Progress).
You may not agree with it, but I don't see many people on these pages disagreeing with what Eagleton is actually saying. Many of them don't even seem to understand his personal religious disposition. In essence, they're proving his point about obtuse cognitive tunnel vision.
26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars dissing the "ditchkins",
This review is from: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) (Hardcover)The atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have suffered their share of critical reviews, but perhaps none have been as categorical or vociferous as this one from their fellow Brit Terry Eagleton. By some accounts, Eagleton is the most influential literary critic in Britain; by all accounts he is an unreformed intellectual bad boy, and not only for his Marxist socialism. In the present volume he combines his rapier wit, encyclopedic knowledge, and spirited prose to dismiss the "Ditchkins" as pitiful pikers whose ramblings deserve our disdain.
True, the "Ditchkins" make some good points. But their sloppy thinking, strident language, and dogmatic condescension are warning signs of an atheism bought "on the cheap." Their stock in trade includes vulgar caricatures of religion, an "abysmally crude [and] infantile version of what theology has traditionally maintained," ignorance, cultural supremacism, an "eminently suburban" love affair with the Enlightenment myth of liberal progress, the refusal to acknowledge that religion has done any good anywhere or that science has done any harm, and an either/or mentality that ignores ambiguity. They are defenders of the political status quo, and hardly the revolutionaries they purport to be.
Eagleton was raised as an Irish Roman Catholic in working-class England, and although he has been ambiguous about his own personal faith, he says that one reason he wrote this polemic was to defend the faith of his forbears as something worthy of a defense. Christendom has betrayed the truly revolutionary nature of original Christianity, he says, and so in addition to attacking the secular left he undertakes the Kierkegaardian task of distinguishing between the genuine article and its many counterfeits. The revolutionary gospel does not conform to the geo-political and economic ways of the world and, in the end, "is absurdly, outrageously more hopeful than liberal rationalism" and its myth of progress. "Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless."
Along the way, Eagleton has harsh words for capitalism, which he considers inherently atheistic (as did Karl Barth), postmodernism, Oxford High Table, globalization, the corridors of power in Washington and London, and western civilization's failure to understand and engage Islam in a meaningful way. If you enjoy unapologetic iconoclasm of the highest order, Eagleton makes for a good read. In addition to his forty books, he's scheduled to deliver a single Gifford Lecture in March 2010.
45 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Guilty Pleasures,
I use quotation marks because Terry Eagleton is still an unbeliever, but, curiously, he finds religion more congenial to his Marxism than the liberal humanism so prominently displayed in the recent books of militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great)and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).
I enjoy reading Terry Eagleton because his prose is often eloquent, stimulating, and insightful. His clever analogies make me smile. For example, he says the contention that science and technology have made religion superfluous is like "saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov" (7). He further observes that "science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same kind of things, any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are" (10).
Eagleton sees four worldviews competing for dominance in our time: liberalism (both economic and humanistic), socialism, religion, and science (136). In the books by Hitchens, Dawkins, and their ilk (a group he labels "Ditchkins"), he finds secular liberalism trying to ally itself with science against religion.
"The difference between science and theology," Eagleton opines, "is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not; and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present" (37). Thus, religion is fundamentally no more opposed to science than is socialism, and science must not become the private domain of liberalism or be commandeered to serve its capitalistic agenda.
While Eagleton rejects religion as simply unbelievable, he does see Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism in their purest forms as compatible with his ideal of socialism. "The mainstream Christian theology I have outlined here may well be false," he writes, "but anyone who holds to it is in my view deserving of respect" (33). "I also seek to strike a minor blow on behalf of those many millions of Muslims whose creed of peace, justice, and compassion has been rubbished and traduced by cultural supremacists in the West" (34).
As a radical thinker, Eagleton finds a kindred spirit in Jesus. "If you follow Jesus and don't end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do" (27). Obviously, though, Eagleton would rather deliver lectures at Yale than end up dead himself, so his radicalism is mainly limited to his thoughts. But liberalism can never become a true ally of religion, he maintains, because "the advanced capitalistic system is basically atheistic" (39). Why? Because its values, beliefs, and practices are "godless."
What really unites socialism and religion, according to Eagleton, is their sense of "tragic humanism," by which he means "that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own" (169). Neither religion nor Marxism is as optimistic about human nature and human perfectibility as is a secular humanism that puts its faith in the idea of progress and firmly believes religion is the chief obstacle to such progress.
While I find Eagleton's spirited defense of biblical theology gratifying, I also view it as disingenuous. As an unbeliever, he must know that the socialist's faith that "the powerless can come to power" (27) is far different that the Christian's belief that Christ was "crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God" (2 Corinthians 13:4). Socialism and Christianity may be compatible in many regards, but they have completely different outlooks. The New Testament's solution for sin and suffering comes at the Day of Judgment--and not by revolution on earth.
Likewise, Eagleton's naïve appreciation of Islam seems wrongheaded. If he has read the Qur'an (3:28; 4:56; 8:55; 9:5; 98:6), he is surely aware that it does not suffer infidels gladly. Were he to loudly proclaim his atheistic views in Bagdad or Kabul or Islamabad, I doubt he would find "peace, justice, and compassion" for very long.
Ultimately, Eagleton is not so much defending religion as he is taking advantage of a golden opportunity to criticize liberalism, the sworn enemy of his socialist philosophy. You might say he is temporarily and hesitantly making religion, the enemy of his enemy, his friend.
"Our age," he says, "is divided between those who believe far too much and those who believe far too little" (137). I suspect he himself belongs in the latter category. While his critique of liberalism as an ideology without the moral authority, intellectual insight, or political will to defend itself is often spot on, he never makes a convincing case for his own Marxism. It, too, has already been weighed in the balances of history and found sadly wanting.
The books of Terry Eagleton are my guilty pleasures. They are rhetorically and stylistically satisfying, but the food for thought contains a lot of empty calories and, in the last analysis, is not very good for you.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I Tired a Bit of the Ditchkins Label, But ...,
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Conversational Snapshot of the So-called "God Debate",
This review is from: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) (Paperback)"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" (Terry Eagleton, p. xi).
So Terry Eagleton begins his critique of the so-called New Atheist movement. Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, England, clearly is not advocating an uncritical acceptance of religion. In fact, his stinging analysis of the "Polyanna-ish" faith in human progress manifested by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (whom he humorously lumps together as "Ditchkins") is balanced by his just-as-stinging indictment of a Christianity he feels has largely betrayed its initial ideal of social justice and human transformation.
Eagleton was invited to deliver the 2008 Dwight H. Terry Lectures at Yale University. His initial delight in the invitation was tempered when he discovered the lectures "are traditionally devoted to two subjects I know embarrassingly little about, namely science and religion" (2). His lectures were compiled and edited--retaining the conversational format--into the new book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The author is a strange brew--part Marxist, part liberal Catholic, all rolled into a British literary theorist.
Eagleton's four lectures are divided into the book's four chapters: "The Scum of the Earth," "The Revolution Betrayed," Faith and Reason," and "Culture and Barbarism." Throughout each lecture he is outspoken in regards to money, politics and capitalism, post-modern foundationless self-congratulation, faith in the cult of science which some believe, if followed, guarantees a bright future for all, and perhaps above all, he damns the way certain critics of religion "buy their rejection of religion on the cheap" (xi). What does he mean by this? Essentially, such critics are taking the low road in their treatment of religion:
"A huge number of the charges that Ditchkins levels against actually existing religion are thoroughly justified...Indeed, it is hard to imagine how any polemic against, say, the clerical abuse of children or the religious degradation of women could be too severe or exaggerated. Yet 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" (49).
Indeed, while exalting science and condemning faith (a dichotomy Eagleton finds problematic to begin with) critics like Dawkins "castigate the Inquisition, for example, but not Hiroshima" (133). What many New Atheist writers put together is usually "a worthless caricature of the real thing" (xi). But Eagleton doesn't say he particularly blames them for such lapses. For one thing, he notes they view religion as silly from the start, so of course they won't spend due time becoming properly familiar with it. "What profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish?" (51). For another thing, many Christians have, in his view, "squalidly betrayed" their own "revolutionary origins. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive" (55). Eagleton recognizes, however, that his own critique of Christianity would be impossible without the "Judeo-Christian legacy itself," something most New Atheists seem pleasantly unaware of (58).
In the end, Eagleton explores the problems of Christian faith in a liberal (Western) society. There seems to be, he says, a "certain creative indifference to what people actually believe" as long as the economics work out. Taken to an extreme, "Liberal society's summum bonum is to leave believers to get on with it unmolested--rather as the English would walk by if you were bleeding at the roadside, not because they are hard-hearted, but because they would be loathe to interfere with your privacy" (144).
Though Eagleton focuses mainly on Christianity for the "Religion" parts of the book, he occasionally includes Islam in the discussion. For instance, the peaceful integration of Muslims in the West, Eagleton argues, need not require their wholesale conversion or destruction or the west's wholesale indifference. Instead, "if the British or American way of life really were to take on board the critique of materialism, hedonism, and individualism of many devout Muslims...Western civilization would most certainly be altered for the good" (154). Not that Eagleton is really holding his breath. He is painfully aware of a "liberal paradox that there must be something close-minded about open-mindedness." Liberalism (in the traditional sense) fears being overly-liberal when it comes to its own founding principles. The irony is made explicit in comments like that of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "Our tolerance is what makes Britain Britain. So conform to it, or don't come here" (127).
Eagleton would counter what he sees as the liberal humanism of Ditchkins with his own sort of "tragic humanism" with a religious twist (168). "Tragic humanism," he concludes, "holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals did not continue to stand in its way" (169). Eagleton's book is a brisk and welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion about the place of religion in the world today. Readers will find plenty to challenge them in this brief snapshot of today's "God Debate."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A devastating criticism of different sorts of fundamentalism,
This review is from: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) (Paperback)The Booklist description in the Editorial Reviews for this book is very accurate. This book is a brilliant and telling put-down of fundamentalism in various forms: the fundamentalist version of Christianity of, say, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the fundamentalist version of Islam of the suicide bombers, the fundamentalist version of the Enlightenment of Dawkins and Hitchens. This book also captures the essence of the New Testament gospels. It is ironic that today the most likely place to find such an exposition is in a book by a Marxist atheist, Terry Eagleton. This book is also a devastating put-down of the political, social, and economic policies of the United States of America, where Terry Eagleton occasionally (and justifiably) sounds like an Old Testament prophet. Thank you, Terry Eagleton, for this book.
I would like to add that the section on faith and reason contains a short discussion on the idea of an unexpected "event" which breaks through and is a pointer to a truth which hitherto was hidden from us. Eagleton writes about the importance of this idea to the left-wing, atheist, French philosopher Alain Badiou. "Badiou grasps the point that the kind of truth involved in acts of faith is neither independent of propositional truth nor reducible to it. Faith for him consists in a tenacious loyalty to what he calls an 'event' -- an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history, and which is unnameable and ungraspable within the context within which it occurs. Truth is what cuts against the grain of the world, breaking with an older dispensation and founding a radically new reality. Such momentous 'truth events' come in various shapes and sizes, all the way from the resurrection of Jesus (in which Badiou does not believe for a moment) to the French Revolution, the moment of Cubism, Cantor's set theory, Schoenberg's atonal composition, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the militant politics of 1968."
One can easily make a short list of these truth events for the United States: the utterly appalling realization that our leaders entertained that notion that it was not the height of evil to instantaneously kill 100,000 inhabitants of Hiroshima (and another 100,000 who died a lingering death), the non-violent protests of the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the coming within an inch of destroying the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the massive protests in the streets against the Vietnam War, the disastrous Crusader-like reaction or our leaders to 9/11 and our blindness to anything that we did that just might have motivated the destruction of the Twin Towers, the spontaneous outbreak of the Occupy Movement, the climate change crisis, the natural resources crisis, the population crisis. Whether one believes or not in the truth of the event known as the resurrection of Jesus, it might be a good idea for us all to read the New Testament gospels with an idea to what Jesus says about how we should live and see how he lived in accordance with that.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wait... what?,
This review is from: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) (Paperback)I receive the recommendation to read this book from an academic friend who saw it as a good short read on the "God debate" in its modern form. That it "wittily" deprecated Hitchens and Dawkins seemed an added bonus for me. I'd surely enjoy it.
That this is a work of colossal idiocy and failed wit was apparent within only a few pages. In being approachable and clever, Eagleton seems to have cast aside any semblance of logical argumentation, assured that his status and readability will leave his reader with at least a sense of accomplishment by the last page ("How clever I must be for deriving amusement from the work of this well-stationed pseudo-academic!").
So if you would like to impress your self-assured atheist friends with a rebuttal to their praise of "Ditchkins," look somewhere else. Or better yet, look for other friends. Don't waste your time with this book.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not run-of-the-mill,
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eagleton's well aimed blast,
It shatters the idols that atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens have made for themselves. It shows up the shallowness and inadequacy of many atheist positions. The fact that Eagleton is himself an atheist increases the depth of his critique of much contemporary atheism.
He is also good at pointing out some of the flaws in Christianity and in other belief systems such as multiculturalism. The following quotes are particularly memorable,
"Multiculturalism at its least impressive blandly embraces difference as such, without looking too closely into what one is differing over. It tends to imagine that there is something inherently positive about having a host of different views on the same subject.....Such facile pluralism therefore tends to numb the habit of vigorously contesting other people's beliefs..."
"Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless."
This book is challenging to all participants in the debate over God, and what he means both here on Earth and in Heaven and Hell. Read it, enjoy it, disagree with it...but go prepared to enjoy a lively conversation...and to learn some new ideas from it.
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Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) by Terry Eagleton (Hardcover - April 21, 2009)