Thursday, January 1, 2015

Book review: The Gospel According to Terry // Terry Eagleton on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Culture and the Death of God 
by Terry Eagleton

Reviewed by Eugene McCarraher 

God has been through a very rough patch over the last 500 years. Once the Creator and Ruler of the universe, He fell into a long and precipitous decline with the advent of modernity. Dethroned as Ruler in the North Atlantic by religious tolerance and democracy, the Almighty watched helplessly as science refuted His claim to be the Creator. Historians, archeologists, and literary scholars broke the spell of His holy books, impugning their inerrancy and exposing them as riven by myths, errors, and contradictions. Add popular education, material prosperity, and longevity extended by better diet and medicine, and God’s hold on the moral and metaphysical imagination grew ever more attenuated.
Secular intellectuals have been of two minds about the Heavenly Father’s demise. Hoping that the last king would be strangled with the entrails of the last priest, Diderot mused that God had become “one of the most sublime and useless truths.” Yet Voltaire—fearful that his own impiety would embolden his servants to murder and larceny—maintained that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. Diderot’s antipathy morphed into the revolutionary unbelief of Marx and Bakunin (as the latter snarled, if God did exist, it would be necessary to abolish Him); reached its zenith in the exuberant blasphemies of Nietzsche; and persists in brash but utterly derivative form in the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Yet despite His protracted dotage, God refuses to shuffle off into oblivion. If He lingers as a metaphysical butt in seminar rooms and research laboratories, He thrives in the sanctuaries of private belief, religious communities, and seminaries, and abides (sometimes on sufferance) in theology and religious studies departments. He flourishes in suburban evangelical churches everywhere in North America; offers dignity and hope to the planet of slums in Kinshasa, Jakarta, São Paulo, and Mumbai; inspires pacifists and prophets for the poor as well as bombers of markets and abortion clinics. David Brat claims Him for libertarian economics, while Pope Francis enlists Him to scourge the demons of neoliberal capitalism. He’s even been seen making cameo appearances in the books of left-wing intellectuals. “Religious belief,” Terry Eagleton quips, “has rarely been so fashionable among rank unbelievers.”
As Eagleton contends in Culture and the Death of God, the Almighty has proven more resilient than His celebrated detractors and would-be assassins. God “has proved remarkably difficult to dispose of”; indeed, atheism itself has proven to be “not as easy as it looks.” Ever since the Enlightenment, “surrogate forms of transcendence” have scrambled for the crown of the King of Kings—reason, science, literature, art, nationalism, but especially “culture”—yet none have been up to the job.
Eagleton demonstrates that all the replacements for God have proved abortive, and that secular intellectuals must concede the futility of all attempts to find proxies for divinity. It’s a simple and courageous contention, conveyed with Eagleton’s signature wit and learning and without a trace of sanctimony or schadenfreude. With brisk but never facile aplomb, he recounts an intellectual history of modernity as the search for a substitute for God and adumbrates, in his own running and spritely commentary, a political theology for the left.
Once upon a time—before modernity, to be precise—God was alive and robust, and religion united “theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses.” With its capacious embrace of the soul and the body, religion—clearly epitomized, for Eagleton, by Roman Catholicism—has repeatedly exhibited the capacity to “link the most exalted truths to the daily existence of countless men and women.” More attuned to our most fundamental needs and longings than the modern cultural apparatus, it has been “the most tenacious and universal form of popular culture.” With its theology, philosophy, liturgy, and morality, Roman Catholicism embodied a grand synthesis of the human condition that embraced both scholasticism and the Corpus Christi festivals, the Book of Kells and the peasant’s prayers, Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Bonhomme. Eagleton fondly evokes the sensuous felicity of Catholic religious life, how faith finds material expression in “the odour of incense, the colour of a chasuble, the crook of a knee.” (The redolence of Eagleton’s own Catholic past—recounted in his 2003 memoir, The Gatekeeper—is evident throughout this book.)
Shaken by the Reformation, the Catholic synthesis of religion and culture was finally demolished by the Enlightenment. Retailed to generations of undergraduates as a monolithically and militantly secular movement, the Enlightenment emerges from Eagleton’s account as a much more reformist affair, seeking not to écrasez l’infâmebut to make religion more urbane and rational, something gentlemen could espouse without an unbecoming zeal. Purged of superstition and fanaticism, religion would defer to Reason, defined in terms of logical consistency and effectiveness in practical affairs. Most philosophes rejected the churches, not the Intelligent Designer of the universe; the Enlightenment aimed “at priestcraft rather than the Almighty.”
If they mocked the clergy, the philosophes respected the magistrates, for they feared the common people as credulous rubes who needed an enlightened ruling class. Thanks to the spread of revolutionary ideas, the rifts formerly healed by religion—between theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and sense—threatened to rupture into violent tumult. Hesitant to dispatch religion because they saw its utility as political legitimation, the luminaires inaugurated the nineteenth century’s problematic of secularism: If God and religion must pass—and likely fail—the tests of Enlightenment rationality, is reason compelling enough to assume the vacant throne of the Almighty? Relentlessly critical and iconoclastic, Enlightenment reason tends to pulverize symbols and deprive them of hegemonic power. It became evident toward the end of the eighteenth century that reason defined in the philosophes’ terms was too irreverent, cerebral, and rarefied to generate symbols capable of commanding popular deference. How would a secular society—defined in terms of religion’s relegation to private life, not its abolition—achieve the unity once afforded by a common faith?
The answer was—or appeared to be—“culture,” first advanced by German Idealists and Romantics as the heir to the mantle of God. An “anti-political brand of politics,” Culture (or “the aesthetic”) would serve as an extension of Enlightenment reason, a beautiful accessory to supplement the homeliness of instrumental rationality. Providing cold, imperious Reason with the raiment of mythology, poetry, literature, and art, Culture, its devotees fervently hoped, would successfully impersonate the synthesis of religion, becoming “the sacred discourse of a post-religious age, binding people and intelligentsia.” Under the talisman of Culture, philosophers and poets aspired to establish a new, post-Christian clerisy whose art and literature would leaven the people with new myths, icons, and epiphanies. As Walt Whitman would put it in Democratic Vistas, “the priest departs, the divine literatus comes.”
The divine literatus came, and saw, but did not conquer the realm once enchanted by God and his priestly minions... read more:
Terry Eagleton reviews The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is theBook of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.
Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.. read more: