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