Russell Blackford has had a revelation.
Here’s the deal: among our friends on the political Left – which is where I have my roots – there are people, not just a few but many, who despise everything I hold dear. These are supposed to be my allies, but they despise liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment. They hate the so-called ‘New Atheism’, not so much because they think the doctrines of Christianity or some other religion are actually true, but because they see people like Richard Dawkins as providing a rallying point for … yes, liberalism, reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment. They see religion as a good thing, NOT just because it can provide a sense of meaning and community, and not despite its frequent opposition to those values, but precisely because of it. It’s not some sort of accident or coincidence that their commitments so often have them opposing liberalism and all the values associated with it. They know that that’s what they’re doing…
They’re not ready to move on to a post-religious society. They may not be religious themselves, except in some cultural sense, but the post-religious societies of contemporary Europe are anathema to them.
It’s prompted by Marxist cultural critic Terry Eagleton, who asks: ‘Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?’
Eagleton then gives the answer:
Well, I’ve finally come to realise that the revolutionary socialism to which I’ve dedicated my entire adult life is a total dead end. But I still need an anti-Western movement to support, and all that’s left is religious fundamentalism. Okay, theocratic movements and governments tend to consist of sadists and killers, but what the fuck, it’s not like I have to live in any of the countries where they are in power.
Actually, he probably hasn’t said this. But Eagleton appears to give an answer in his new book, which is out at the end of the month. In a positive review, Stanley Fish claims that ‘the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed.’
Fish goes on to concede that the relationship between religion and humanity is ‘not always benign.’ This piece of throat-clearing is meant to adumbrate all faith-based oppression past and present. But ‘at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions’ because ‘its subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.’
The other projects, [Eagleton] concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: ‘A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.’
By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, ‘Why is there anything in the first place?’, ‘Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and ‘Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?’
Sorry, but these are not just theological questions. In fact they are less theological questions than philosophical or scientific questions, because theology always pretends it has the answer. Above all, Eagleton’s questions are everyday questions. You do not need a theology qualification to wonder what it all means. Children ask their parents what it all means.
When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of ‘the telescope and the microscope’ religion ‘no longer offers an explanation of anything important,’ Eagleton replies, ‘But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.’
Really? Religion was never an attempt to interpret the universe? Did no one tell Galileo?
You might have gathered by now that Eagleton sees the West as hurtling into the black hole of decadence. But his idea of Sodom and Gomorrah appears to be… Oxford and Washington, seemingly only because these are the respective addresses of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. (Eagleton himself, I’m assume, is writing from a housing project in West Baltimore.)
[T]he inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead ‘adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress’ and put their baseless ‘trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.’
You’d think a professor of literature would recognise that the West hasn’t forgotten the anguish and uncertainty of the human experience.
Here Eagleton has imitated John Gray, asserting that us godless liberals do have faith of a kind. Fish praises him for ‘punctur[ing] the complacency’ of questions like: ‘Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature?”
Yet human beings find it hard to think in centuries. We don’t get complacent about universal health provision or the right to vote or increased workers’ protection or doubled life expectancy or the victories against racism and misogyny. We concentrate on the things that are wrong now, on Eagleton’s ‘corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy’. And that is as it should be.
Yet just because the ‘language of enlightenment has been hijacked’ does that mean that Enlightenment values are worthless? Fish doesn’t answer that question. But by now he doesn’t have to.
It’s at this point that I share Blackford’s disquiet, like a man looking around a crowded room to find that everyone he knows has vanished. What kind of person stands on the cusp of the twenty-first century at a time of economic and social change, a time when freemarket capitalism has taken a massive dent, when all that is solid is melting into air, and says: ‘No thanks – there is no potential for good here’?
And why on earth would a Marxist think that?
Or perhaps I’ve misunderstood Eagleton, for he also seems to be looking into the future. Religion ‘can lead, Eagleton insists, to ‘a radical transformation of what we say and do.” But Eagleton’s future is the past, and as Ophelia points out, it is already here: ‘it’s in Tehran, it’s in Kandahar, it’s in Mingora.’
Eagleton is big on Jesus: not as a historical thinker but as ‘the profound symbolic potency of Jesus — whether or not he believes that Jesus was the begotten son of God.’ The dividing line ‘hinges on whether it is true that the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal, and what the implications of this are for living.’
I wonder what the implications have been of having a supreme icon that is so bound up with guilt and blood and shame. Patti Smith had the best answer to Eagleton when she sang on Horses: ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine… My sins are my own, they belong to me.’
You might wonder the reason I’m engaging with this puritan bore after I explicitly said I wasn’t going to. It is this. I am consistently amazed at the contempt of the pro-faith left for religious believers. Their screeching denounciation of us heathens is nothing compared to the sheer, insensitive, unthinking, piss-on-the-face disdain for the majority of people in theocratic countries. Eagleton doesn’t really believe the ancient superstitions. But he’s happy to encourage millions of others to believe in them, to die for them, and to kill for them.
The point is to be on the winning side. Eagleton’s ‘liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals’ have never been a match for jihadi insurgents, indoctrinated suicide bombers, and Ba’athist secret police forces. Liberalism, enlightenment, pluralism, multiculturalism and all those cerebral shibboleths can be halted at the barrel of a gun. Eagleton knows this.
It is hard not to share Ophelia’s dishonourable wish to see Eagleton, Gray, Brown, Vernon and all the rest teleported into ‘a place bereft of progress, liberalism and enlightenment – the Swat valley would be just the ticket – and see how they like it.’
I am so sick of smug prosperous safe comfortable pale men urinating all over progress, liberalism and enlightenment while desperate threatened terrified women would weep scalding tears of joy and deliverance to get just a taste of some. I am so sick of safe prosperous men who are never, ever going to be grabbed on the street and whipped, or shot in the back, or locked up in their houses, or married off to some abusive bully, going on and on and on and on about how much they hate progress, liberalism and enlightenment.
There’s been loads of interesting comment on this and sadly, the term ‘eaglefish’ is not my own. Jason Rosenhouse reminds us that Stanley Fish can’t take a joke; there’s another rave for Eagleton in Salon; and Martin has weighed in. But the best take comes from P Z Myers, who finishes his flight from hell by wondering what it would be like if society had a different cultural signifier:
If we want a signifier for the human condition, imagine the culture we would live in now if, instead of a dead corpse on an instrument of torture, our signifier was a child staring in wonder at the stars. That’s representative of the state of humanity, too; it’s a symbol that touches us all as much as that of a representation of our final end, and we don’t have to daub it with the cheap glow-in-the-dark paint of supernatural fol-de-rol for it to have deeper meaning. We atheists, contra Eagleton, have aspirations, too; aspirations for humanity in all the meanings of that word. But we also expect that those aspirations will be built on reality.