Terry Eagleton’s “Reflections on the God Debate”

eagleton bookVia 3quarksdaily, an interview in which Terry Eagleton discusses his book, first published this March, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.  In his introduction, the interviewer quotes Eagleton as saying that the “New Atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc) “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap.”  In the interview, he enlarges on this point, claiming that Dawkins and his ilk reduce religions to sets of propositions and behave as if arguments for and against these propositions were grounds for accepting or rejecting religions.  So far from being new, this approach represents positivism at its most naive.  They ask only, “What do the believers say about their creeds?,” never “What do believers accomplish by saying what they do about their creeds?”  For Eagleton, the life of the religion is in the relationship between beliefs and actions, and it is a ruinous mistake to treat a system of religious beliefs in the same abstract way that we would treat the propositions in a geometric proof.  Indeed, this is the same mistake fundamentalists make:

NS: You say he emphasizes a “propositional” account of religious faith above a “performative” one. But how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?

TE: All performatives imply propositions. There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on. The performative and the propositional work into each other. But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance. Somebody who didn’t grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted. These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.

3quarksdaily headlined its post about Eagleton’s book “Religion for Radicals,” and we can see why:

NS: Though of course the Christianity you present doesn’t sound like a lot of the Christianity one hears in the public sphere, especially in the United States.

TE: I think partly that’s because a lot the authentic meanings of the New Testament have become ideologized or mythologized away. Religion has become a very comfortable ideology for a dollar-worshipping culture. The scandal of the New Testament—the fact that it backs what America calls the losers, that it thinks the dispossessed will inherit the kingdom of God before the respectable bourgeois—all of that has been replaced, particularly in the States, by an idolatrous version. I’m presently at a university campus where we proudly proclaim the slogan “God, Country, and Notre Dame.” I think they have to be told, and indeed I have told them, that God actually takes little interest in countries. Yahweh is presented in the Jewish Bible as stateless and nationless. He can’t be used as a totem or fetish in that way. He slips out of your grasp if you try to do so. His concern is with universal humanity, not with one particular section of it. Such ideologies make it very hard to get a traditional version of Christianity across.

Eagleton is always worth reading.  I’m sure his book includes some sort of response to each of the obvious objections to a casual assertions about “the authentic meanings of the New Testament.”  For one sort of objection that one would hope would be obvious, see Duncan Mitchel’s blog, here and here.   

For Terry Eagleton’s Terry lectures (a lecture series not named after him,) on the theme “Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation?,” click here.

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  1. Thanks for the link, acilius. I think my posts on Philip Kitcher might be useful, especially this one.

    I’ll have to have a look at Eagleton’s book and those lectures.

  2. acilius

     /  September 23, 2009

    Thanks for the comment, Duncan! You have a great site, it’s one of my regular reads. And thanks for pointing me to those posts of yours.

    I haven’t seen Eagleton’s book. His interview and the lectures are intriguing, but include some lines that are extremely surprising to see coming from someone as supremely erudite as Terry Eagleton. To take an example from the interview: “God actually takes little interest in countries. Yahweh is presented in the Jewish Bible as stateless and nationless.” Hmm… which Jewish Bible is that, exactly? The God presented in the one I’ve been reading may represent something beyond states and nations, but it doesn’t really seem to lay out any way we humans can transcend states and nations. And turning to the specifically Christian side, the Greek scriptures often suggest that we ought to transcend states and nations, but that only at the end of history will we be fully able to do so. I’d go so far as to say that the most prominent theme which unites the Christian scriptures with other writings that ancient Jews produced and regarded as sacred is precisely nationality, is culture conceived as something we inherit from our ancestors and develop in a particular place on earth.

  3. Yeah, Yahweh is anything but stateless and nationless in the Hebrew Bible. It’s hard to see how Eagleton can claim that. In some of the later strata, like Second Isaiah, Yahweh lays claim to the whole world, promising to extend his favor to the nations if they keep his commandments of something. He also claims that Cyrus of Persia, who conquered Babylon and ended the Exile, was his instrument and devotee. (Some scholars have suggested that II Isaiah is Persian propaganda; I find that plausible. But stateless and nationless? Huh-uh.)

    The idea of culture as something we inherit from our ancestors and develop in a particular place on earth doesn’t seem to me a theme peculiar to Judaism — isn’t it almost universal? (There’s some tension in Israelite religion between the idealized nomad days — “To your tents, Israel!” — and the Eretz Israel, the land given by Yahweh to his chosen. (You idol-worshipers get off my lawn! That may have changed in the diaspora, but the idea of Israel as a virtual nation seems to have persisted, and now of course it’s back with a vengeance.) My impression is that Judaism is more like Hinduism, or the gods of Greco-Roman antiquity (who, like Yahweh, also took great interest in countries), or most religions — as you suggest, they’re tied to place and ancestors, though traders and other travellers can take their gods with them wherever they go. Salvation-oriented religions like Christianity and Buddhism are transnational, but they end up colliding with and compromising with the place-based paganisms they encounter.

    Oh, and thanks for the praise. 🙂

  4. acilius

     /  September 28, 2009

    I still haven’t read Eagleton’s book, so I don’t know what he’s getting at. I’m sure that he has a very clever argument and lots of surprising examples- he is Terry Eagleton, after all. But I can’t imagine that he’s right.

  5. cymast

     /  October 14, 2009

    So many people, believers and atheists alike, try to complicate atheism. It’s really not at all complicated.

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