John Cornwell

A Dig at Ditchkins

Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

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Yale University Press 208pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins invoked 9/11 and suggested worse was to come as the price of the continued existence of religion. According to Dawkins, faith means a step into barbarism: the irrationality of the suicide bomber, the unreasoning cruelty of the fundamentalist. 

There is surely no denying that religionists have caused much misery and violence down the ages in God’s name. Yet Dawkins has drawn severe criticism for his narrow and distorted understanding of religious faiths; not least from Terry Eagleton, who opined that Dawkins’s book was like someone holding forth on arcane aspects of biology who has read nothing more on the subject than The British Book of Birds.

Now Eagleton has returned to the faith and reason debate with an entire book on Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great swiftly climbed the bestseller list in Dawkins’s wake. Based on a series of lectures Eagleton gave in America last year, the book treats us to lots of knockabout stuff at the expense of the atheist duo, whom he characterises as an ill-assorted pantomime horse he calls ‘Ditchkins’. 

On the face of it, Eagleton makes for a queasy champion of religion. His defence of Christian theology is consistently qualified by personal disclaimers. He’s incorrigibly unclubbable and un-churchable: he’s a first mate who incites a mutiny and makes both the captain and mutineers walk the plank. Memories of the physical abuse dealt by ‘the authoritarian clerics’ who, he tells us, ‘knocked me around at grammar school’ remain fresh.

He sets out by contrasting his notion of God with that of Ditchkins. He tells us that, aged eighteen, he stumbled upon the theology of Thomas Aquinas in the company of a group of maverick Catholic friars. They did not see God, Eagleton writes, as ‘some kind of mega-manufacturer or cosmic chief executive officer, as the Richard Dawkins school of nineteenth-century liberal rationalism does’. It is the refusal to see God as a hypothesis about how the world originated, or as a super-explanation, or as pseudo-science, that places Eagleton squarely in the great scholastic tradition that rejects a simplistic choice between scientific, ‘provable’ truth and blind faith. ‘All the most interesting stuff’, Eagleton suggests, ‘goes on in neither of these places.’ To hold that Christianity is meant to be an explanation of anything, he argues, is ‘like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov’. 

Aquinas taught that an element of faith is what makes knowledge of truth possible. In other words, faith and reason are not opposed, but work in essential harmony. ‘Knowledge is gleaned through active engagement, and active engagement implies faith’, Eagleton writes. At the heart of the book is an eloquent plea for the interwoven nature of faith and knowledge in loving relationships: ‘It is only by having faith in someone that we can take the risk of disclosing ourselves to him or her fully, thus making true knowledge of ourselves possible.’ He quotes the Duke in Measure for Measure: ‘Love talks with better knowledge, and knowledge with dearer love.’

This is a rich, subtle and humane series of essays that deserves close study. Being Eagleton, a sinuous political intelligence is constantly at work. He is unabashedly, if critically Marxist, and evidently believes that the discredited political philosopher’s day will come again: hence the ominous word ‘revolution’ in the title. His capacity to distinguish between the many manifestations and shifting tides of religious faith in practice, including New Ageism, varieties of religious fundamentalism, liberation theology, and mainstream orthodoxies, makes the book a masterclass in the anthropology of religion. Crucially, Eagleton sees in our own postmodern era the privatisation of religion receding in the face of fundamentalist movements that have become public (massively so) – as in the American evangelical Right, and extremist Islam. At the same time he sees danger in a thirst for transcendence (the impetus of all religions) being directed towards the arts. ‘If the arts have accrued an extraordinary significance in a modern era for which they are, practically speaking, just another kind of commodity, it is because they provide an ersatz sort of transcendence in a world from which spiritual values have been largely banished.’ 

I should have liked Eagleton to include in his critique a comment on Dawkins’s ‘meme’ theory, which characterises religion as a form of viral disease. He might have tackled, moreover, Hitchens’s reading, or misreading, of Dostoyevsky in defence of atheism. As it is, Terry Eagleton has immeasurably raised the standards and the stakes of one of the most important debates of our time, while exposing the lamentable absence of complexity and depth in the Ditchkins performance. 

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