Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Not Even Marxists Like Richard Dawkins

Terry Eagleton is not everyone’s cup of tea. The April issue of Standpoint carried a short but highly critical article of the Marxist literary critic, best known as one of the last remaining diehard communists in academia. For many, he occupies a similar position to Naomi Klein or Noam Chomsky, left wing agitators who have been massively influential among their fellow travellers, but a turn-off for everyone else.

So, it would be an understatement to say that I don’t see the world with the same eyes that Eagleton does. But like many others who are not his fans, I found myself enormously enjoying his evisceration of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in the London Review of Books. (It would be true to say I don’t usually have much time for the LRB either and I simply don’t understand why it is given a £20,000 annual public subsidy. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, Eagleton was invited to deliver the Terry lectures at Yale and decided to continue his attack on Dawkins, with a few broadsides at Christopher Hitchens thrown in. These lectures have now been released as a book, Reason, Faith and Revolution which has received some positive notices and no little publicity. I read the book with interest, not least because Marxist agitprop rarely makes it onto my bedside table.

On the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, I suppose I should be a fan of Eagleton’s witty and well-written assault on the new atheists. I’ll even admit that I often did enjoy it. As a literary critic, Eagleton has spent his life claiming that fiction is tremendously important. So the argument that religion is irrelevant because it is not true would not wash with him anyway. And while he is not explicit about his own beliefs, I think he probably is a man of faith himself. I see him as the heir to medieval radicals like John Langland and the spiritual Franciscans.

But at base, his beef with Dawkins is political, not religious. Eagleton really is a unrepentant Marxist. He is against the market economy, against globalisation and against free trade. In other words, he takes the three factors that have lifted more people out of poverty than any other ideas in history, including Christian charity, and trashes them. His alternatives are an incoherent mishmash of socialism and wishful thinking.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his analysis of Islamic terrorism. Like many of the left, Eagleton sees the origin of 9/11, 3/11 and 7/7 (not to mention Bali and Nairobi) in poverty and injustice. He imagines that terrorism springs from politico-economic circumstances and not from ideology. Islamic countries, he claims, have been exploited and victimised by the West, particularly America. This ignores that reality that the terrorists themselves are rarely poor and that the 7/7 bombers were home-grown. I do not believe that Islam leads inexorably to terror, but there is no doubt that the motivation of many fundamentalists is primarily religious.

Eagleton is angry about injustice, and justifiably so. But his own philosophy would make things far worse than they are, worse even than if Dawkins and Hitchins were in charge. I can just about recommend Eagleton’s book, but I can’t say anything much positive about his philosophy.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Humphrey said...

The big critique of Eagleton (he has been charmingly dubbed Eagletosh by the New Atheist establishment) is that his concept of God is too vague. James Wood says for example:

'..according to Eagleton, God is transcendent, invisible, not a principle nor an entity, not even ‘existent’: indeed, ‘in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.’ This God is neither inside nor outside the universe, but is mysteriously ‘the condition of possibility’.

Which is fine; except that the new atheist critique is grounded in a crude scientism which would automatically discount this type of God as 'too fuzzy'.

Tim O'Neill said...

"Which is fine; except that the new atheist critique is grounded in a crude scientism which would automatically discount this type of God as 'too fuzzy'"

Well, I'm no "New Atheist" and I would discount Eagleton's "God" as "a load of wank". As someone with a higher degree in English I've had to endure more theoretical gibberish from people like Eagleton than I care to remember and reading his LRW article on Dawkins and extracts from his book, I began to get the shudders - it was the "Graduate Seminar with a Visiting Theorician-Critic" nightmare all over again, except minus the glass of sherry afterwards.

After sneering at Dawkins as an "elitist" (what the hell does Terry think he is - a frigging proletarian?) this walking anachronism proceeds to define "God" in such an abstruse, abstract and frankly bizarre manner as to render it not only outside Dawkins' terms of reference but also outside of the belief or understanding of vitually any actual theist.

Which is a nifty bit of rhetorical conjuring and a monument to high-wankery, but as a critique of Dawkins' popularisation of some standard arguments against belief in the God actual theists believe in it's pretty much crap.

Humphrey said...

Perhaps the problem here is that Eagleton is a rather verbose, Marxist fossil whose specialist subject is literary theory. Hence it's not at all surprising that his interpretation of God is some sort of vague 'condition of possibility' and he is more concerned with the symbolism and metaphors. Similarly, the great Historian Herbert Butterfield said that God is something that drives history through 'conjunctures' 'orchestrated by providence'. For someone like Henry Sidgwick, God is something you must believe in, in order to overcome the dualism of practical reason. Everyone approaches it through the prism of their own subject. Unfortunately much of what is produced in literary theory is 'a steaming pile of wank'.

For answering New Atheism it doesn't appear to be too helpful as NA is based on a metaphysical naturalist interpretation of the world revealed by science. If you want to attack it, you have to show the holes in this interpretation and go for the jugular of materialism, as for example someone like Stephen M Barr has tried to do.

Tim O'Neill said...

"For answering New Atheism it doesn't appear to be too helpful as NA is based on a metaphysical naturalist interpretation of the world revealed by science. If you want to attack it, you have to show the holes in this interpretation and go for the jugular of materialism."

It is? I thought so-called "New Atheism" was simply popularising some age-old arguments against the commonly held ideas of "God" or "gods" with a particularly evangelistic zeal, based on a vague idea that a world without religion would somehow be a better place.

And I'd hardly call Barr's warmed over attempt at yet another version of the Teleological Argument "going for the jugular".

Humphrey said...

I could be completely wrong here but I thought a major component of Nu Atheism was claiming the authority of science, e.g "evolutionary biology raises our conciousness by revealing that God does not exist and that there is no design in the universe", a sort of 'natural a-theology' in response to creationism. I suppose NA is a kind of catch-all term for a wide variety of views.

I used Barr as an example because he covered some of the traditional battlegrounds pretty well. I think in all the areas raised (fine tuning, order and beauty in the laws of nature, problems with purely materialist accounts of the human mind etc..) there is a kind of stalemate. Perhaps you disagree?.

Humphrey said...

Oh, and when is this review of 'The Closing of the Western Mind' I've been waiting for going to show up?. Don't tell me you don't have time to write it, I've seen how much time you devote to debating kooks on the RD forum.

jamierobertson said...

I'm inclined to agree with Tim on the rather bizarre fluffiness of Eagleton's "God" - although I think this was one of the main points of James's review...

Tim O'Neill said...

" I suppose NA is a kind of catch-all term for a wide variety of views."

It seems so. In my experience, it's generally been used to describe the recent Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris push for a more militant and evangelical atheism that doesn't just say "I have no belief in God" but adds "and neither should you".

The idea that various Teleological Arguments are unsatisfactly partially because of good scientific reasons to dismiss the idea of "design" or an anthropic cosmos is not "new", not an "a-theology" and certainly not exclusive to the NAs by any stretch of the imagination.

I wrote a first draft of the Freeman review but found it didn't quite capture the essence of what I found disatisfying about his book. So I've started again. It will appear, I can assure you. I've put too much effort into reading his book and reading around the edges of his claims to simply abandon it.

Humphrey said...

Well of course (again quoting 'The Whig Interpretation of History'), we have to be careful of 'standing on the summit of history' and looking down at the long chain of events that gave birth to us and succumbing to the illusion that they were all inexorably directed towards us as a final result.

However, when something unimaginably smaller than a subatomic particle suddenly bursts into an unimaginably large universe with 100 billion galaxies and then lays down the chemistry for lifeforms which emerge through a process of evolution into concious beings that are capable of pondering their circumstances, it does look a wee bit like teleology; to me it does anyway, but the conclusion is entirely subjective.