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on July 22, 2009
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).
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.