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. 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 are especially dazzling, and illustrate 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 is especially thought provoking, for in it Eagleton offers 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 nevertheless 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 see Eagleton’s (perhaps unconscious) motive leaping from page 34 of his book, in which he writes: “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.
Eagleton’s book can be found at Amazon here.