Monday, January 29, 2007

Eagleton on Dawkins - some comments

arrogant, superstitious and suburban

I've decided to abandon my The Faith Hope blog and to write my pieces on religion here, hopefully under the category of the faith hope. Easier to manage that way.

On Larvatus Prodeo the criticisms of Terry Eagleton are often mentioned. The reference is to a negative review of The God Delusion by Eagleton in the London Review of Books, and I want to turn to that now.

Eagleton's jeremiad against Dawkins is relentless [though he does let up toward the end] and rather astonishing, but it's so badly argued that I can only assume it passed muster in the LRB because it was guaranteed to stir up debate, which always sells copy.

I might start my critique of Eagleton by quoting his own of Dawkins – 'a molehill of instances out of a mountain of them will have to suffice' – but before delving down into instances I'll make some overall comments about Eagleton's approach. He shows very little interest in science, and the word 'evolution', so clearly dear to Dawkins, doesn't even rate a mention. Not surprisingly, therefore, he takes the line that science and religion are compatible, though he's none too coherent about it. Eagleton's bag is political and social theory, and as such he's prone to take a social constructivist view of what he terms Dawkins's 'rationalism', which he seems to treat as some fleeting middle-class movement. He of course accuses Dawkins of scientific triumphalism, and finds his idea of progress toward a rational secularism naïve to a fault. Unsurprisingly also, given Eagleton's background in literary theory, he has little sympathy for Dawkins's attitude toward post-modern relativism and the obscurantism of its dress - but instead of arguing the pros and cons of particular issues, such as relativism, or cultural determinism, he confines himself to sneering and personal jibes, many of which strike me as nonsensical. Maybe Eagleton is one of those who believes that truth is essentially a meaningless concept, and that there are only competing, politico-social viewpoints – that's the only way I can explain his constant references to Dawkins' 'Whiggish manner', his suburbanism[!], his liberalism, his 'Herbert Spencerish way', his 'very English brand of common sense' and so on, none of which made too much of an impression on me while reading The God Delusion. I was more concerned about the validity of his arguments.

Now let's look more closely at Eagleton's attack. He starts with what he no doubt considers a killer punch: Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

To me, this misses the point completely, unless by theology Eagleton means the question of whether a god or gods exist. The fact that Eagleton doesn't mean this is shown by these follow-up remarks: What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

In bringing up these names and issues, Eagleton is trying to argue that Dawkins is avoiding the ''toughest cases'' and seeking to score easy victories, but he neglects to mention that these theological debates or propositions exist within the context of absolute unquestioning belief in the supernatural entity Dawkins rejects. It is this kind of theological speculation, whether Christian, Judaic, Islamic or whatever, that Dawkins finds irrelevant, and having occasionally dipped into the Christian version of these interminable debates, I'm very much inclined to agree with him.

To further illustrate the irrelevance of most of these debates and disquisitions [and I don't believe all theology is irrelevant, only that theology which refuses to question the central thesis of the existence of supernatural creator entities – and that means most theology], I can point to the revolution, over the past fifty years or so, in the archeology of the geographical area that gave birth to the Judeao-Christian religion. With archaeological scholarship in these decades being wrested from the hands of those whose principal aim is to uphold the truth of the bible, a vastly different picture has emerged, in which Biblical writings have been found to be wholly unreliable as historical documents, serving as propaganda for the kingdom of David and his southern capital Jerusalem – barely even a village when David was supposed to have flourished. The implications of these findings should have been devastating to Jewish theologians, but they've scarcely caused a ripple because Jewish theology, like other theologies, rarely concerns itself with external evidence. It perpetuates itself via internal wrangling and dialectic.

Eagleton himself discusses theological issues as if the concept of evidence is completely irrelevant to them. He obviously finds certain aspects of Christianity appealing. He makes much of Jesus being an unlikely Messiah, and, not surprisingly given his politics, emphasizes the anti-clericalist, anti-ruling class aspects of the Jesus persona. He 'explains' the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection:

The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.

In entering into theology in this way, Eagleton isn't, presumably, claiming that Jesus is a god or the son of one, he rather seems to be saying that Christianity's emphasis on one tortured body and its unimaginable transformation through resurrection offers a better, ultimately more hopeful narrative of the human condition than the 'bright-eyed superstition known as human progress' he claims is offered by Dawkins. Leaving aside his clearly questionable characterization of both the Christian message and the Dawkins message, there is an implication that we should make our choices on the basis of what sounds right to us from the lessons of history. In doing so he sidesteps the supernatural aspects of Christian belief, presumably because he only has use for its socio-political aspects.

This is more than a problem. As he rightly says, the well-intentioned reformers and social democrats aren't radical enough for the Christians, because they believe in transformation through belief in Jesus Christ as their saviour, whose essential message is 'believe in me and you'll have eternal life.' Eagleton wants to emphasise another message – 'give away all your goods to the poor, and expect to be persecuted for your beliefs in this life of strife', without mentioning the promise, embarrassing to many a modern sensibility, of unearthly rewards.

So Eagleton shies away from the supernaturalism at the heart of this and every religion, a supernaturalism that Dawkins constantly targets. The political message of Jesus is irrelevant to Dawkins' discussion.

Is Dawkins an apostle of human progress? I don't know. I do find him an optimist, and I share that optimism. Eagleton, on the other hand, speaks of our 'currently dire condition'. It's probably useless to speculate here on Eagleton's meaning – whether our current condition, though dire, is better, worse or the same as it was a hundred or fifty thousand years ago. It reads like throwaway rhetoric to me.

I don't feel comfortable myself in talking of human progress. I don't know about such large claims. However, since Eagleton brings up history, I should say my own optimism comes from the reading of history. I'm presently reading Geoffrey Robertson's The Tyrannicide Brief, the story of the trial of Charles Stuart, king of England, and the subsequent trial of those who brought him to account. It's grotesquely fascinating, but it reveals a god-besotted nation. Charles and his followers were fighting for the divine right of kings, while the roundheads were convinced of the godliness of their cause. It was a world full of catholic and protestant enmity, puritan excess, joyless presbyterianism. Atheism seems to have been virtually inconceivable. The past is indeed another country. That world is dead forever. Have we progressed, or merely changed? I don't have the wherewithal to make such a judgement, and I'd distrust anyone who claimed they did. I do feel that I'd hate to have to live in that old dead country, knowing what I know now. And I'm very very glad that so many of the best minds of my own time have no truck with religion, Christian or otherwise.

Not sure if I have the heart to go on with Eagleton. Far too many issues. There's a point by point rebuttal here.



At 5:01 am , Anonymous Chris Tyack said...

Seemingly people love Eagleton's piece or hate it. I loved it, even if Eagleton was a little obscure at times. However, my background is humanities and law (and not science at all). I was a little surprised by Stewart's assertion that Eagleton's essay must have just scraped in to the LRB, if only because Eagleton is revered as one of giants of 20th century literary criticism.

Eagleton's main argument seems to be that Dawkins doesn't come to terms with the God of philosophy (and sophisticated theology).

He takes up Aquinas' doctrine of God, which represents the mainstream philosophical tradition. For Aquinas, God is not only the mysterious first principal, but that which holds all things in being. God is 'Being' itself and everything that 'is' is in Being. Goodness, Truth and One are convertible terms with Being. Further, Being is a kind of energy which infuses all things: it is not a finite thing, but the very 'life' or 'power' of a thing, which subsumes and grounds that thing. Eagleton could probably have been clearer on this point.

Much more could be said, including that Aquinas attributed a mysterious consciousness to the first principal (this is the meaning of the phrase 'a personal God'). But Aquinas' God is not a 'designer' in any crude or anthropomorphic sense: rather, God is the end of all things, or that towards which all natural things are orientated (into whose nature we are evolving??).

Readers can decide whether or not Dawkins gets a handle on the God of (scholastic) philosophy. But I suppose many of us can agree that coarse popular notions of God are regrettable and perhaps dangerous.

At 10:55 am , Blogger Stewart said...

Thanks for your comments. As an honours graduate in English lit, I'm well aware of Eagleton's reputation and have read at least one of his books and many of his articles, though I'd never consider revering him [curiously religious term]. I'm fairly unreverential by nature – probably only mathematicians, those Manipulators of the Mysterious, earn my unqualified admiration as thinkers. A piece of writing should be judged on its merits, not on the putative merits of its author.
It should be remembered that Dawkins's book is a critique of religion and religious thinking, not specifically Christian thinking – though of course he's a Christian non-believer, by virtue of his cultural placement, rather than a Moslem or Hindu one.
The Thomist gloss on the Judeo-Christian god may well be the standard theological/philosophical view of that entity, I really don't know, but it reads, in your presentation, very much like an imminent rather than a transcendent god, which strikes me as totally at odds with the highly anthropomorphised creature we meet in the bible, and it this creature, however crude, that still captures the popular Christian imagination.
This Thomist creation [to which Aquinas attributed 'consciousness' presumably quite arbitrarily, but probably as a species of back-door anthropomorphism, to retain something with which we could identify] is very much a matter of speculation, and seems to me a later development, the result of a realization that the original god won't stand up to too much scrutiny. Gods, I strongly suspect, always start out as crudely fashioned entities, fashioned out of the popular imagination and popular need. They usually stay that way, but with the new testament and the later scholastics there was a push to universalize the old provincial god Yahweh. The result, in the hands of Aquinas and others, was an entity completely unrecognisable to biblical literalists. The two different conceptions may help to satisfy a greater number of those with a will to believe, but of course there's no evidence to support either of them. The Thomist conception of course, being purely metaphysical and essentially unfalsifiable, can be made compatible with any scientific discovery or theory. A fillip for faith.


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