Reason, Faith, and Revolution

May 05, 2010

I’ve just finished reading Terry Eagleton’s book ‘Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate’ (2009). Terry Eagleton,  is Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland in Galway.  He has written more than 40 books including ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983), ‘The Ideology of the Aesthetic’ (1990) and the ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’. He is a literary critic first and foremost and political activist second. He is also a well-known Marxist and agnostic. He does not claim to be a philosopher or theologian, although he draws on both in this entertaining (but hardly ground breaking) book.

In this new book Eagleton offers a withering critique of New Atheism and its major proponents Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (who he refers to collectively as ‘Ditchkins’). The major thesis of his book is that faith and reason are not exclusive categories as 'Ditchkins' argues. He suggests that religion (particularly in those forms that he sees as ‘true’ and unadulterated) is not simply a matter of blind mindless faith, but rather requires a combination of faith and reason. He is particularly critical of the tendency of New Atheists to blame all the evils of the world on religion while blindly celebrating science without questioning its benefits. This same science he reminds us that gave us penicillin, artificial limbs and enhanced agricultural productivity has also been used to create weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare and environmental disasters.

Christians shouldn't read Eagleton expecting to find a generous assessment. He has plenty of negative things to say about Christianity today.  Some of the things he says have an element of truth, others are perhaps exaggerated (but that is his style), some are inaccurate or unfair. New Atheists will probably say the same. His general view is that the church has lost touch with Christ's example and teaching.  Of course, in saying this he has a particular view of Christ in mind which I suspect is an incomplete one. He suggests that “ is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins” (p. 55). As in some of his previous publications such strong views reflect a simplistic caricature in relation to Christianity. While he makes claims about some Christians throughout history being responsible for bigotry, injustice, cruelty, deception, hypocrisy and so on, it is just as easy to offer a list of the many examples of Christian contributions to society, including fighting injustice, the foundations of western government and the law, the establishment of most of the major aid agencies around the world, a record of care of the sick and homeless, being the catalyst for universal education, fighting for human rights etc.

Eagleton is just as critical of the rise of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, which he calls ‘New Age religion’). He suggests that “It offers a refuge from the world, not a mission to transform it” (p.41). So, the Christian right gets a giant serve as do Islamic extremists who he sees as politically motivated rather than inspired by Islam. Liberalism also receives some strong treatment, the general thrust of which I find myself in agreement:
Liberalism he suggests has “..fostered an atomistic notion of the self, a bloodlessly contractual view of human relations, a meagerly utilitarian version of ethics, a crudely instrumental idea of reason, a doctrinal suspicion of doctrine, an impoverished sense of human communality, a self-satisfied faith in progress and civility, a purblindness to the more malign aspects of the human nature, and a witheringly negative view of power, the state, freedom, and tradition.” (p.94).
But Eagleton's major focus and motivation for writing this book has been to challenge the simplistic separation of faith and reason. Both New Atheists and liberal nationalists he claims have failed to understand this relationship. Dawkins he points out assumes that his own belief is reflective of reason, while he sees Christians being guilty of blind faith. Rather, he suggests New Atheists hold a faith position of their own. In fact, he argues that scientists are also motivated by faith, indeed “a great deal of what we believe we do not know firsthand; instead, we have faith in the knowledge of specialists.” Hence, in this area alone, we are dependent on faith in truths that we cannot personally assess and verify.
Eagleton concludes that faith and knowledge are not antithetical but in fact are interwoven. Reasoning of any kind he suggests " conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.”
Atheists won't like Eagleton’s assessment of them any more than Christians will like some of the things he says about their faith, but his arguments from his perspective as a Marxist are of interest. His command of language and his wide ranging discussion of so many worldviews, makes this book an interesting read.  As well, his rebuke of those who support a simplistic separation of reason from faith is timely.

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