Sub-titled, “Reflections on the God Debate,” British literary critic Terry Eagleton’s latest work takes on the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (the latter two he derisively and often combines into a single being, “Ditchkins”) for the lack of integrity in some criticisms of religion that are part and parcel of the New Atheism movement. At the same time, he takes on much of the vacuous nonsense which, at this moment in time, calls itself Christianity, especially in the West. Eagleton has been called “Britain’s greatest living literary critic” and, if this book be any indication, it is with good reason he is called thus.
The book is based on a Yale lecture series from April 2008. It reads easily through almost all parts, though, on the whole, it is not a walk through the shallows. Eagleton, a Marxist (avowed, loud and proud), takes on the New Atheists, Christianity, capitalism and politics through the volume’s four chapters.
Eagleton writes in an engaging style with characteristically British wit. Of Dawkins he writes,
There is thus a curious connection between the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the professional life of Richard Dawkins. Without God, Dawkins would be out of a job. It is particularly churlish of him to call the existence of his employer into question.
And of Daniel C. Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell,
He thinks [Christianity] is kind of a bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can’t see the point of it all.
Neither does he allow Christopher Hitchens to wriggle off the hook:
Hitchens is also unable to see much point in the scriptural injunction to conceal from your left hand what your right hand is doing, which is of course a warning against trumpeting your good deeds to the world. Since a vein of consistent self-vaunting runs through the writings of the later Hitchens, the particular blind spot is scarcely surprising. Neither he nor Dawkins is afflicted with an excess of modesty.
While Eagleton can hardly be accused of holding a traditional view of the Bible (he does not believe in the deity of Christ and his view of God is most probably deistic), he has a strong enough grasp on the New Testament to call into question the oft spiritual wrongheadedness of the church in the West. Consider:
For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.
Regarding religious fundamentalists:
The fundamentalist is like the kind of neurotic who can’t trust that he is loved, but in infantile spirit demands some irrefragable proof of the fact. He is not really a believer at all. Fundamentalists are faithless. They are, in fact, the mirror image of skeptics.
Or, how about this:
All theology is liberation theology.
You’d best think before you react on that last one.
Eagleton questions whether Christians even realize what it is that Jesus taught, thus what they are supposed to believe. Thus:
What is at stake here is not a prudently reformist project of pouring new wine into old bottles, but an avant-gardist epiphany of the absolutely new–of a regime so revolutionary as to surpass all image and utterance, a reign of justice and fellowship which for the Gospel writers is even now striking into this bankrupt, depasse, washed-up world. No middle ground is permitted here: the choice between justice and the powers of this world is stark and absolute, a matter of fundamental conflict and antithesis. What is at issue is a slashing sword, not peace, consensus, and negotiation. Jesus does not seem to be any sort of liberal, which is no doubt one grudge Ditchkins holds against him. He would not make a good committee man. Neither would he go down well on Wall Street, just as he did not go down well among the money changers of the Jerusalem temple.
Eagleton’s book is a worthwhile read even you do not waltz through it like a Grisham or Patterson thriller. It is worth the effort. It will stretch your vocabulary, your thinking and pat acceptance of some things you’ve uncritically accepted. It’ll also, to borrow a scriptural allusion, demonstrate how the New Atheist’s attempt to dethrone God has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.