Revolution by Religion

godwasntthereI’ve got a new review in The American Prospect of two books published by Yale University Press on the same day last month, both rejoinders to the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, etc.): Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions.

Only Nixon could go to China, so perhaps it is only Terry Eagleton, the irreligious British literary critic, who can stand up for theology. It has been three years now since evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins set off the New Atheist controversies with his bestselling The God Delusion. Following him has been an eager crop of fellow nonbelieving snoots, on the one hand, and no end of pious refutations, on the other, all as polemically audacious as they are cosmically unsatisfying.

With Eagleton, though, there’s a glimmer of hope. His October 2006 essay on Dawkins in the London Review of Books forged an intriguing middle ground in this usually polarized debate. Doubling the fun, Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, adds Christopher Hitchens to the dock, who apparently contributes so little to the discussion that the name “Ditchkins” suffices to encompass them both. The book’s scope may be somewhat wider, but Eagleton’s claim hasn’t changed: “Such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap.” When you actually bother to grasp what religious ideas mean and have meant throughout history, you’ll find guillotining them to be neither so easy nor so desirable, Eagleton argues. You might even come to like them.

Interestingly, both works have “revolution” in the title (Hart’s subtitle, far less hideous than his actual title, is The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies):

When Eagleton speaks of revolution, he calls to mind a pseudo-Marxist dream, admittedly betrayed by 20th-century history but still offering some hope of justice rolling down our earthly streams. Hart, though, means something rather more precise: a long, fraught process over the course of which Christianity transformed the West’s idea of what it means to be human.

For those of you who haven’t encountered Hart’s work before, I hope you take this as an invitation to explore it.





18 responses to “Revolution by Religion”

  1. ibc

    Liked your article. Though I have to say, I’m not sure why an argument that religion is “Sometimes useful, even if not true” would be a rebuttal to Dawkins.

    After all, Dawkins himself would grant you that religion is useful, effective, compelling or what have you. Just not rational. The idea that Pol Pot or Hitler were “rational” rather than a type of Godless irrationality–as irrational as religious belief–is a stretch.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I would suggest that the key lies in breaking down the distinction between “rational” and “useful.” The Hegelian vision, which equates reason with the unfolding of history, informed Eagleton’s Marxist tradition (as well as American pragmatism). If something is useful enough to affect the unfolding of history, therefore, it is, in some sense, also true.

    A very different idea of “truth” than Dawkins’s more positivist approach.

  3. ibc

    Right, in that sense, religion is of course “true.” But somehow I don’t think that’s what people of Faith have in mind. I seem to remember that Dawkins was willing to admit to the existence of God, if you were willing to define Him as, say, “Love”, but with the caveat that such a definition wasn’t getting you very far.

    I think that for most believers, the assertion that your core-beliefs are built on self-delusion, but that it’s okay, because it makes you feel better, would be more offensive than Dawkins’ position… 😉

  4. I enjoyed the article, too. I’d say that “the rebellion against religion” is a little misleading. It would appear to be more like “the rebellion against religious power”.

    Also, there’s a bit of a straw man in setting up “reason” as the moral paragon of the new atheists. Morally, there’s something much richer going on — the idea of atheism as enabling human beings to take responsibility for themselves.

    One other thing, and I know it’s a nit — using name-morphing like “Ditchkins” is very snarky and internet-y, but doesn’t do much to enable a conversation. It comes off as a little immature (IMHO).

  5. I like what you say about “enabling human beings to take moral responsibility for themselves.” Atheists generally should continue working to show the positive characteristics of their position. One of my favorite lines is what the novelist David Plante once told me: “Only an atheist can believe in what is unintended.”

  6. BTW, Nathan, I realize that you didn’t originate the name-morphing – so that wasn’t directed directly at you ;).

  7. “I like what you say about ‘enabling human beings to take moral responsibility for themselves.’ Atheists generally should continue working to show the positive characteristics of their position”

    Dennett would be the go-to guy for that. Unfortunately, critics of “the new atheism” seem to be hungrier for the red meat.

  8. Actually, Dennett is one of the main targets of Hart’s book (see his review of Breaking the Spell). And though I’m friendlier to Dennett myself (particularly a fan of Consciousness Explained, and I’ve been in touch with him lately about an upcoming project), I went after him a bit myself in my work on cognitive science of religion. He also has some interesting ideas about the power of teaching world religions that I’m a fan of.

    That said, I think he’s well earned the label that’s sometimes applied to him (along with Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris), a “horseman” (of the apocalypse). He still maintains this absurdly simplistic view that if we were only to get rid of beliefs in the supernatural, most human idiocy and brutality would disappear with it. That particular “meme” he has got in his head really gets in the way because it makes him think it’s useful to spend a lot of time being really angry at religion.

    The people who I think represent a better tone include the late Carl Sagan (and his widow, Ann Druyan), Phil Zuckerman (author of the recent Society without God), Slavoj Žižek, Iris Murdoch, and, yes, Terry Eagleton. People, that is, who reveal how atheism can be quite nice (though it isn’t always nice, of course—life remains complicated!) without also being obsessed with showing how religion is the root of all our problems.

  9. Having read the review, I don’t think that I could read an entire book by Hart without pulling my hair out. I kept wanting to send him back with the review, saying, “okay, now say this in half as many words”. After about four rounds of this, I would probably be able to engage his review at the level of argument.

    Breaking the Spell obviously isn’t Dennett’s best work. I wouldn’t say that he holds the simplistic view that you attribute to him (and I don’t really sense the sort of anger in his approach that’s obvious in someone like Harris, Dawkins or Hitchens), but I see your point. Once we dispense with supernatural beliefs, the interesting (and difficult) work begins. Dennett has spoken in various places about the idea of taking responsibility for ourselves as a species and the benefits thereof, but there’s a lot of philosophical work to be done.

    I’ll probably end up reading Eagleton. Some of the better pro-religion arguments I’ve seen revolve around the idea that “it’s not really about the supernatural beliefs”. It would be an odd thing if religion’s value arose from its “secondary qualities” rather than its explicit dogma, but maybe not all that odd. At any rate, I disagree with Hart’s (possible) assertion that a naturalistic account of religion has nothing to offer us.

  10. Great discussion. Thanks for checking back.

    I’m with you on the value of a naturalistic account of religion, big time. That article of mine I cited, indeed, argues not that the cognitivist approach isn’t valid, but that it won’t do the work Dennett thinks it will—it won’t make religious beliefs seem implausible. Indeed, many of the leading figures doing that work are themselves religious in one way or another.

    There are two points that Eagleton makes about supernatural beliefs. (1) Sophisticated theologies can have a much richer view of the supernatural than Ditchkins allows, and indeed, a much more reasonable one. Understanding this is central to grasping what religion has to offer. (2) Religion can be useful to politics even if you don’t buy the supernatural stuff.

    My argument is that (1) is a very important point and, in a sense, undercuts his (2). I think you’re gonna be in trouble whenever you try to separate theology from God, which Eagleton gestures toward doing. Yet the Eagleton of point (1) has a much more subtle and interesting approach—to realize that supernatural talk need not be as absurd as the New Atheists allege, and that perhaps there are important lessons to be found in it.

  11. I agree with you about point (1). There are some difficulties, though, when one starts to engage specific theologies. You have to approach a theology from a very open, I-take-this-as-seriously-as-any-other-intellectual-inquiry sort of stance, however provisional or tentative. With Christian theology, this is really tricky, since a lot of the dogma involved is arguably either bullet-dodging or manipulative (neither of which is easy to prove!).

    Also, I think it’s hard for atheists to deal with the charge (which Hart makes) that their understanding of Christian theology is simplistic or naive. Nobody wants to become an expert on something that they consider to be fundamentally hubbajubba in order to have an argument with someone about whether it’s hubbajubba. In other words, there’s a danger of at least appearing to assume what one is trying to disprove. I certainly wouldn’t want to step into this sort of argumentative position.

    The trick, I guess, is to engage with theology at a philosophical level and painstakingly try to avoid dogma. This is not so hard with some Eastern religions, but with Christianity, it’s a tortuous task.

  12. In my incoherent rambling, I wandered away from the point, which is that I agree very strongly that the horseman approach is fatally flawed. If we think a naturalistic account of supernatural belief or religion will take us anywhere, we have to consider carefully (and respectfully!) the idea that these things are of value to us — biologically, sociologically, etc. Starting with “these beliefs are absurd” gets us nowhere. And further, political or social agendas can’t be a starting point, because that should come after we’ve got some answers. That, I think, is why a lot of thinkers have a simplistic idea about the positive effects of simply abandoning religious belief — they haven’t examined the complex issue of what it means to abandon (or circumvent, or override) something that is quite possibly part of our nature.

    And that’s why I’m primarily interested in a naturalistic account of normativity in general.

  13. My own experiences with Eastern religions suggests that the dogma is just as present there. It’s just in different places, so Westerners aren’t as accustomed to seeing it.

    I sympathize with the point of not expecting atheists to be experts on theology. Personally, I’m glad Richard Dawkins hasn’t spent his life studying it—his excellent science writing shows that his study-time has been well spent. But I am sorry when he insists that nobody should bother with this stuff because it’s all total junk and that, in fact, we should blame it for our problems. I happen to pretty much agree with Dawkins on many things, but I also think that religion is something fuller and more resourceful than he allows.

    In my experience, though, I suspect you’ll be disappointed by the search for “a naturalistic account of normativity in general.” It’s a tree I’ve barked up before, sometimes quite enthusiastically. And you can learn a lot about neural correlates and mechanisms and evolutionary logics, and so forth. But I think normativity, in a crucial respect, is about as anti-naturalistic as you can get. Not that I’m saying it’s supernaturalistic, or requires a scary guy in the sky or something. But (and I’m thinking of a Continental lineage here, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, all nonbelievers), the very idea of norms is a phenomenon more construed in human experience than in outwardly observable nature. This should be taken as empowering—we have the power to discuss and craft the norms that we would like to adopt. They should be informed by good science, but they can never be fully captured and should never be dictated from the laboratory.

  14. Yeah, I will probably be disappointed. That’s okay, though. I think that if one gets general enough about normativity, the beginnings of it exist even for something like an amoeba (looking at it this way raises the specter of pragmatism and various naturalistic fallacies, of course but I’ve got glimpses of some rich ground in that direction nonetheless). If nothing else, cognitive science (linguistics, especially) will have some useful things to say, from the perspective of the difference between moral types of normativity and other prescriptive forms (like, “it’s safer to cross the stream here” and “don’t walk around alone in this neighborhood at night”).

    I certainly agree that science itself isn’t suited to prescribing norms.

    By the way, I enjoyed your article a lot. I especially liked the idea of biologizing as part of the ongoing transformation. It not only points up what is often a hidden assumption, but it also provides a fresh way of looking at the whole thing.

  15. Glad you liked the article.

    Sounds like we’re close to the same page with science and norms. Great discussion. I look forward to more.

  16. Sue

    The trouble with Hart is in the company he keeps.

    That is the right-thinking religionists who in one way or another claim.

    1. that Christianity via the catholic church is the only source of truth in
    the world
    2. that liberal Christians are inherently mis-guided and therefore need
    to come home (to the “true” church)
    3. that all other faith traditions are inherently false and are therefore full
    of relativistic errors
    4. that all attempts at ecumenism are essentially mis-guided and
    therefore should be resisted —we possess the “truth” so what is
    there to talk about!

    Any institution that claims to possess the one true way/faith/revelation has effectively declared war against all other faith traditions and their various cultural expressions. And what is more they will, given half the chance, inevitably use whatever means they can to “convert” everyone else to the one true way—-because they have “god’s” mandate or commission to do so.

    Both Islam and Christianity (in their right wing fanatical versions) specialize in this attitude and tactic.

  17. Louise Gordon

    Thank you, Nathan, for your perspective on all this. Very interesting on Eagleton and the Horsemen.