Reason, Religion, and Revolution

Terry Eagleton
2009

Eagleton is nothing if not provocative, and in Reason, Religion, and Revolution he manages to provoke every philosophical and political system he can find. This is the third review here about the books of Terry Eagleton, and it may not be the last, as he’s quickly become one of my favourite authors.


Whether it’s a cheeky memoir (The Gatekeeper) or an apologia for Marxism (Why Marx Was Right) or, in this case, a disquisition on how everyone has missed the real message of Christianity, Eagleton writes with equal parts eloquence, brass, and feeling.

Reason, Religion, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009) is a deceptively short book for its weighty subject, which is no less than Eagleton’s argument that, with the exception of a few true radicals like himself, everybody — conservative, liberal, theist, atheist, rationalist, postmodernist — has misunderstood the true, revolutionary gospel of Jesus. Fundamentalists and their enemies have similar blind spots, and both groups fail to see that they are arguing two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

Coming in for particular scorn are Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whom Eagleton often conflates into the single entity “Ditchkins.” This hybrid character shows up again and again in Eagleton’s sights, and he never fails to take a good shot or two. When he does treat them separately, Eagleton is especially critical of Hitchens’s fall from radical grace and of what he characterizes as Dawkins’s suburban middle class liberalism. To an ardently spiritual if non-religious Marxist like Eagleton, these are serious sins, indeed.

No one escapes unscathed in Eagleton’s little tome. Consider this description from the first chapter, “The Scum of the Earth,” whom Eagleton views as the true targets of Jesus’s essentially political rebellion. Here, he writes of the bankruptcy of “Late Capitalism” and the postmodernism that both enables it and expresses its vacuousness:

The advanced capitalist system is inherently atheistic. It is godless in its actual material practices, and in the values and beliefs implicit in them, whatever some of its apologists might piously aver. As such, it is atheistic in all the wrong ways, whereas Marx and Nietzsche are atheistic in what are by and large the right kinds of ways. A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics, and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the kind of depth where theological questions can even be properly raised, just as it rules out political and moral questions of a certain profundity. What on earth would be the point of God in such a setup, other than as ideological legitimation, spiritual nostalgia, or a means of private extrication from a meaningless world?

Here, as elsewhere, we see Eagleton’s admirable ability to hold his punches, to favour civil discourse over polemical derision. Would that all writers were this even-handed!

Consider another example from Chapter 1, this time concerning the liberal values of Ditchkins, values, Eagleton argues, that completely misconstrue the revolutionary truth behind the blood sacrifice of the crucifixion:

The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains. The traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body. Those who do not see this dreadful image of a tortured innocent as the truth of history are liable to adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress, for which … Ditchkins is a full-blooded apologist. There are rationalist myths as well as religious ones. Indeed, many secular myths are degutted versions of sacred ones.

It would be wrong to draw from passages like this the conclusion that Terry Eagleton is a closet believer. His is a spiritual but unbelieving Marxism. He insists that there is more to us than reason, but he rejects the notion of an embodied deity. His philosophy is neither irrationality nor its opposing twin reason; rather, his appreciation of the abstract and the non-linear is a call to return to the kind of faith he attributes to Christ, whom he views as an entirely human and thoroughly political revolutionary, one whose message has been distorted and perverted by both the church and the secular.

In Chapter 2, “The Revolution Betrayed,” Eagleton expands on these ideas. First, he indicts Christianity for its abandonment of the true message of its creator:

Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive. The liberal Establishment really has little to fear from it and everything to gain. For the most part, it has become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the riffraff and undercover anticolonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out. The suburbanite response to the anawin, a term which can be roughly translated into American English as “loser,” is for the most part to flush them off the streets.

Later, he gives the same rough treatment to reason:

The chief threat to enlightened values today … springs from some of the fruits of the Enlightenment itself, which has always been its own worst enemy. The language of Enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy.

An enlightened trust in dispassionate reason has declined to the hiring of scholars and experts to disseminate state and corporate propaganda. Freedom of cultural expression has culminated in the schlock, ideological rhetoric, and politically managed news of the profit-driven mass media.

Today’s rationalist atheists are not spared, as Eagleton notes the shortsightedness in their too cavalier dismissal of the real human needs that make the superstitions of religion attractive:

A self-preening Enlightenment reason was largely blind to the nature of religious faith. It could not see how it encodes needs and longings which will not simply evaporate at a touch of tough-minded analysis. Because it could find in that faith nothing but laughable superstition and childish irrationality, it proved incapable of overcoming it. Ditchkins is likely to meet the same fate. … Karl Marx, who … heard in religion what he called the sigh of the oppressed creature, was rather less naïve. Religion needs to be patiently deciphered, not arrogantly repudiated.

In Chapter 3, “Faith and Reason,” Eagleton argues that rationalism is not the opposite of faith that some of its adherents claim it is. Like faith, reason resides, at least in part, in the realm of belief.

“Our belief is not a belief, [Hitchens] writes of atheists like himself in God Is Not Great. “Our principles are not a faith.” So liberal humanism of the Ditchkins variety is not a belief. It involves, for example, no trust in men and women’s rationality or desire for freedom, no conviction on the evils of tyranny and oppression, no passionate faith that men and women are at their best when not laboring under myth and superstition.

Eagleton’s is not a postmodernist, relativist critique of reason, however; his disdain for postmodernism is evident in Reason, Religion, and Revolution (not to mention in his 1996 work, The Illusions of Postmodernism). Eagleton’s philosophy may reject the truth of religion’s dogmas, but, unlike postmodernism, it never rejects the possibility, indeed, the need, of a kind of faith. Science, he argues, like all reason, stands on a foundation of belief.

The implicit certainties or taken-for-granted truths which underpin all our more formal reasoning are as obvious in the case of science as anywhere else. Among the assumptions that science takes for granted, for example, is the postulate that only “natural” explanations are to be rules in. This may well be a wise supposition. It certainly rules out a lot of egregious nonsense. But it is indeed a postulate, not the upshot of a demonstrable truth.

There are, then, still a great many telescopes up which science is churlishly reluctant to peer. Science has its high priests, sacred cows, revered scriptures, ideological exclusions, and rituals for suppressing dissent To this extent, it is ridiculous to see it as the polar opposite of religion.

This doesn’t mean that for Eagleton there are no truths, no really reals. His chief indictment of postmodernism is in fact its moral neutrality, its willingness to believe nothing at all rather than to be suckered by a belief that proves to be false.

Postmodernism is allergic to the idea of certainty, and makes a great deal of theoretical fuss over this rather modest, everyday notion. As such, it is in some ways the flip side of fundamentalism, which also makes a fuss about certainty, but in an approving kind of way. Some postmodern thought suspects that all certainty is authoritarian. It is nervous of people who sound passionately committed to what they say. In this, it represents among other things an excessive reaction to fascism and Stalinism. The totalitarian politics of the twentieth century did not only launch an assault n truth in their own time; they also helped to undermine the idea of truth for future generations.

The fourth and final chapter, “Culture and Barbarism,” concludes Eagleton’s criticism of the emerging culture of the 21st century.

A surfeit of belief is what agnostic, late-capitalist civilization itself has helped to spawn. This is not only because it has helped to create the conditions for fundamentalism. It is also because when reason becomes too dominative, calculative, and instrumental, it ends up as too shallow a soil for a reasonable kind of faith to flourish. As a result, faith lapses into the kind of irrationalism which theologians call fideism, turning its back on reason altogether. From there, it is an easy enough step to fanaticism. Rationalism and fideism are each other’s mirror image. The other side of a two-dimensional reason is a faith-based reality.

Finally, Eagleton identifies what he believes to be the crucial difference between his philosophy and that of his fellow non-believers.

The distinction between Ditchkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those like Ditchkins who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. This in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity; but it hold that it is possible only by confronting the very worst.

Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be  born. But it might arrive a little earlier if literal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals did not continue to stand in its way.

Eagleton is nothing if not provocative, and in Reason, Religion, and Revolution he manages to provoke every philosophical and political system he can find.

Every one other than his own, of course.

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