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This book is really a collection of free associations, coming in response to two kinds of stimuli, from two fields of action. One is politics and the other is religion. Terry Eagleton is at his best as a critic, and much of the book, which is really a series of lectures delivered at Yale University, is devoted to incisive and angry analyses of what is wrong with our world in the twenty-first century. I can tell you from the outset that I find myself in complete agreement with his devastating dissections of modern capitalism and imperialism and with his vision of a world marked by freedom and equality.
His analyses go often beyond what one could expect from left-wing observers in Western media. Thus, when Eagleton discusses the rise of Islamists movements over the past 50 years, his analysis is not only pertinent, but eminently reasonable. When he states that secular political movements in the Islamic world were on the ascendancy between 1950 and 1965, and that these movements were defeated by Western imperialism, we can easily remember relevant historical events (the 1956 attack on Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel). This forces the reader to think anew about what has been happening in the Islamic world over the past few years, and what Western powers have been doing in West Asia in North Africa for quite a while. The creation of Israel is part of the story, and I wish that Eagleton had said more about that.
When it comes to what Eagleton says about what he calls the "God debate", I have to part with him, and in this case saying goodbye is rather easy and far from painful. Most of what Eagleton has to tell us about religion is simply the standard apologetic fare we can hear every day, if we wish to, except that in this book it is adorned with the kind of name dropping that you would expect from a major literary critic.
Religious believers number billions and comprise most of humanity. They all share the supernaturalist assumption, which affirms the existence of greater and lesser spirits inhabiting an invisible world, affecting our universe, and demanding our attention and worship. We know that particular religions become the focus of social identity, and are tied to claims of uniqueness, superiority, and to competition with other groups, which promote identical claims.
Eagleton arguers that his own religion does not embrace the supernatrural premise and heaps scorn upon those who make this observation:"With dreary predictability, Daniel C. Dennett defines religions at the beginning of his Breaking the Spell as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought," which as far as Christianity goes is rather like beginning the history of the potato by defining it as a rare species of rattlesnake" (p. 50).
What Eagleton really wants is to lead a new Reformation, going back to Christian basics: "Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its revolutionary origins.... For the most part, it has become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the riffraff and undercover anti-colonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out." (p. 55). Beyond the fantastic claims about "Jesus" and the "anti-colonial militants", Eagleton wants us to realize how wrong are those who believe that "the idea that God is some kind of superentity outside the universe, that he created the world rather as a carpenter might create a stool; that faith in this God means above all subscribing to the proposition that he exists; that there is a real me inside me called the soul, which a wrathful God may consign to hell if I am not egregiously well-behaved; that our utter dependency on this deity is what stops us thinking and acting for ourselves; that this God cares deeply about whether we are sinful or not, because if we are then he demands to be placated" (p. 50).
His new Christianity is expressed in the following claims: "God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects…There is a document that records God's endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible" (pp. 7-8). "God is …gloriously pointless…He is a kind of perpetual critique of instrumental reason" (p. 10). This kind of rhetoric will be embraced by very few believers in this world. To me it makes as much sense as any other religious statement.
In the same way, I could make the assertion that Zeus wants us to eat lettuce twice a day, or that Osiris wants us to worship a sacred cat, or that 720 virgins are waiting for you in paradise if you do the right thing. Religion has changed little in the past 100,000 years and religious discourse is still made up of any assertions you wish to make about the invisible world of the spirits.
This is how the book begins: "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." (p. xi). This statement is designed to disarm critics, but I find it totally irrelevant. The argument for atheism is not about the disputed benefits or torts of religion, but about its basic premise. Religion makes ontological claims, about entities such as gods, angels, demons, and souls. Is there an invisible world inhabited by such entities? What kind of evidence could we find for the supernatural premise?
Despite his awesome rhetorical ability and the statements about God "…not being any sort of entity ", we find that Eagleton yearns for evidence, especially of the physical and the forensic kind: "If Jesus's body is mingled with the dust of Palestine, Christian faith is in vain…"(p. 116), because "The resurrection for Christians is not just a metaphor" (p. 119). So Eagleton is ready to join the search for the "historical Jesus", which has led nowhere. Two centuries of diligent digging in Palestine have not found any physical evidence for any of the claims made about "Jesus" in the New Testament (To be fair, Old Testament mythology has not done any better). In 2002, one Oded Golan produced an ossuary which had "James, brother of Jesus" on it. He is now on trial for faking not only this artifact, but hundreds more. But then, Eagleton also says that "The evidence by itself will not decide the issue" (p. 116), and it remains unclear what will.
Despite his acknowledging the historical horrors tied to religion, Eagleton, like other religionists today, brings up various 20th-century horrors, with the obligatory mention of Hitler, as evidence of the evils of a secularized civilization. Let's look at this case. It should be noted first that Adolf Hitler was a member in good standing of the Roman Catholic Church until his dying day. The Third Reich was far from being a secular enterprise, and most Nazi leaders made frequent references to the Christian God in their speeches and writings (Bartov & Mack, 2001; Steigmann-Gall, 2003). Most Nazis came from Christian homes (in 1933, 95% of Germans were Christians), and in Nazi-occupied Europe, the political forces that supported the occupier were always pro-religious.
Eagleton has become the Blaise Pascal of the 21st century. His heartfelt plea to take religion, in his case Christianity, seriously, leaves me cold. I see no reason to do this, in the absence of anything more than cleverly written apologetic maneuvering.
Time and again in this book atheists like myself are being told to read up on theology, which is described as an exciting field of research. All the supposedly sophisticated philosophizing in theology books boils down to the supernatural premise. If you accept it, then we can start speculating about the 72 virgins, Krishna, Jesus, the tooth fairy, Santa, and the reindeer. If not, I don't think I should spend a lot of time looking at the evidence for fairies or for Little Red Riding Hood.
Bartov, O. & Mack, P. (2001). (eds.) In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century. Oxford & New York: Berghahn Books.
Steigmann-Gall, R. (2003). The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press
© 2009 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi teaches psychology at the University of Haifa and has authored numerous books on the psychology of religion. Among them: Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion, and Psychoanalysis, Identity, and Ideology.