Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Those Ignorant Atheists"

An article at Salon reviews a new book by Terry Eagleton, in which he throws down with "Ditchkin" (Dawkins and Hitchens), claiming that atheism has gone downhill since the good old days of Nietsche.
April 28, 2009 | Here is how British literary critic Terry Eagleton begins his brisk, funny and challenging new book: "Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology." That's quite a start, especially when you consider that the point of Eagleton's "Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate" -- adapted from a series of lectures he delivered at Yale in April 2008 -- is to defend the theory and practice of religion against its most ardent contemporary critics.

But Eagleton, a professor of English literature and cultural theory who divides his time between the University of Lancaster and the National University of Ireland, is determined not to commit the same elementary errors he ascribes to such foes as biologist Richard Dawkins and political journalist Christopher Hitchens. (Those two, collectively dubbed "Ditchkins" by Eagleton, are the self-appointed leaders of public atheism and the authors of bestselling books on the subject, Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and Hitchens' "God Is Not Great.") Atheists of the Ditchkins persuasion have raised valid points about the sordid social and political history of religion, with which Eagleton largely agrees. Yet their arguments are fatally undermined by their own unacknowledged dogmas and doctrines, he goes on to say, and they completely fail to understand Christian faith (or any other kind) except in its stupidest and most literal-minded form.

A few years ago, I read an article by a Roman Catholic theologian who wryly observed that the quality of Western atheism had gone steadily downhill since Nietzsche. Eagleton heartily concurs. He freely admits that what Christian doctrine teaches about the universe and the fate of man may not be true, or even plausible. But as he then puts it, "Critics of the most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook."

As Eagleton ultimately admits, the discount-store atheism of Dawkins and Hitchens is something of a useful straw man, and his real differences with them are, in the main, not theological but political. Still, attacking them in broad and often hilarious strokes -- he depicts Dawkins as a tweedy, cloistered Oxford don sneering at the credulous nature of the common people, and Hitchens as a bootlicking neocon propagandist and secular jihadist -- lends his book considerable entertainment value. More importantly, it also allows him to develop an extended interpretive summary of what he describes as mainstream Christian doctrine, a subject about which (as he repeatedly reminds us) the Ditchkins duo, along with the Western intellectual elite in general, knows almost nothing.

"bootlicking neocon propagandist and secular jihadist"--that's gold!Biologist Stephen
Jay Gould's famous pronouncement that science and religion were "non-overlapping Magisteria" has sometimes been viewed as a cop-out, or as a polite attempt to say that the former is real and the latter imaginary. Whatever Gould's intentions, Eagleton agrees wholeheartedly, and finds this view entirely consonant with Christian theology. Dawkins is making an error of category, he says, in seeing Christian belief as a counter-scientific theory about the creation of the universe. That's like saying that novels are botched and hopelessly unscientific works of sociology, so there's no point in reading Proust.

Christian theology cannot explain the workings of the universe and was never meant to, Eagleton says. Aquinas, like most religious thinkers that came after him, was happy to encompass all sorts of theories about the creation, including the possibility that the universe was infinite and had always existed. Indeed, Aquinas would concur with Dawkins' view that religious faith is irrelevant to scientific inquiry. But there are questions science cannot properly ask, let alone answer, questions about "why there is anything in the first place, or why what we do have is actually intelligible to us." That is where theology begins.

If you haven't read Proust, just fill in your favorite classic author. I found his depiction of U.S. religiosity particularly interesting:
Among the many extraordinary positions Eagleton takes in this book, perhaps nothing is more startling than the highly original claim that the United States of America is not religious enough. All right, I am paraphrasing -- what he actually says is that our nation's nauseating, wall-to-wall public piety is strictly pro forma. It's a kind of ideological window dressing for a social and economic system based on the ruthless exploitation of human beings and natural resources, which is about as far from the teachings of that radical Jewish carpenter from Nazareth as you can possibly get.

In one of Eagleton's most ingenious turns of phrase, he describes contemporary Christian fundamentalists as faithless, because they specifically lack the kind of performative faith mentioned above. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has described fundamentalism as a species of neurosis, in which a person keeps demanding proof that he is loved and never finds it sufficient. In trying to shoehorn anti-scientific hokum into schoolbooks, or wasting money and time on a "creationist science" that strives to prove that the Grand Canyon is less than 6,000 years old and that Noah, for reasons unknown, kicked T. rex off the ark, fundamentalists have become the mirror image of atheists. Unsatisfied with the transcendent and unknowable nature of the Almighty, they've stuffed and jammed him into a dinosaur diorama.

This is what I have been saying for a while now: militant atheists of the "Ditchkins" variety and fundamentalist christians are merely mirror images of one another. They both read the Bible in a the same, literalist manner, and perform what I tend to call genre misrecognition--most poetry, for example, about the nature is NOT actually scientifically sound, but it was never meant to be. Same with Genesis 1. It is a liturgy; it is a poem.

Now, the kicker: everyone has faith in something, even, shall I say, scientists have to make "assumptions" about the universe and demonstrate a certain degree of faith. But that is nothing compared to the progressivist view of history, often viewed today as naive, demonstrated by "Ditchkins":
Much of the anti-religious fervor of the Ditchkins school, Eagleton says, derives from a high-Victorian idealism, in which humankind rides the upward-bound escalator of progress and civilization, held back only by the forces of unreason and irrationality. Its adherents see an absolute dichotomy between faith and reason, one that lacks any rigorous philosophical underpinning or an understanding of the inescapable relationship between the two. Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Fichte have all observed in different ways that unspoken assumptions about the world around us (that is, faith) are the precondition of all knowledge in the first place. As for the Enlightenment narrative of steady upward progress from superstition to reason, Eagleton is certainly not arguing that the first is superior to the second. He is suggesting, rather, that the escalator can go up and down at the same time.

What the rationalist myth sees in the modern age are the tremendous advances made in curing disease and in increasing agricultural yield, which neither believer nor atheist wants to do without. It views Zyklon-B and the hydrogen bomb as momentary setbacks, if it notices them at all, and it generally avoids comment about the contradictory and confused economic system our allegedly liberal-humanist age has produced. It's a system, as Eagleton sees it, that pretends to be entirely logical but produces a cruel and irrational result: the poor made poorer and the rich much richer. And what are the greenhouse effect and the melting of the glaciers, if not artifacts of the Enlightenment?

We were sent a man who preached a message of love and we killed him; we were given a beautiful blue-green planet to live on and we killed it. What do we do now?

1 comment:

Liam said...

Interesting -- I'll have to get that book when I have time. I read Eagleton's scathing review of one of those books -- I think it was Hitchen's -- and I thought it was brilliant. Smart, a bit too ad hominem, but as funny as can be and right on.

The whole "new atheist" thing has bored me a bit. I was like that too, when I was a teenager. Now I see these people who believe that "reason" has freed them from all their cultural baggage and that they see everyone else in history has been a gullible fool (but not them, of course)... ahh, I leave them to debate the dinosaurs with the fundamentalists.