Terry Eagleton on Religion

by Mark Wallace

Having earlier set down a few thoughts on historian Niall Ferguson’s advocacy of a religious society, I have moved onto the work of another well-known public intellectual of a deist persuasion, Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is known for his Marxist views, but he also published a series of lectures as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), which, despite the apparent balance of the title, is intended as a riposte to  the strident atheism of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great (2007) and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). Eagleton conflates his two nemeses into the singular “Ditchkins” in his book. In one sense, this is a legitimate device, as their position on many issues regarding ethics, religion and civilization is similar; Eagleton also differentiates between them with regard to several positions. On the other hand, the term he chooses carries highly derogatory connotations: ditch-kins, brothers of the gutter. At least that is what it suggests to me.

But that is not my interest here. Eagleton confirms something I found in Ferguson; something that seems to operate as the trump card for religionists of the western world in this era. It focusses on, and takes its validation from, Islamic fundamentalism. This is the subject of Eagleton’s last chapter, “Culture and Barbarism”. Here he states:

Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic. This makes it look particularly flaccid and out of shape when its paucity of belief runs up against an excess of the stuff. […] With the advent of Islamist terrorism, those contradictions have been dramatically sharpened. It is now more than ever necessary that the people should believe, at just the point where the Western way of life deprives them of much incentive for doing so. (143-4)


I have already argued that reason alone can face down a barbarous irrationalism, but that to do so it must draw upon forces and sources of faith which run deeper than itself, and which can therefore bear an unsettling resemblance to the very irrationalism one is seeking to repel. (161)

Eagleton retains his Marxist stance here, equating Marxism with faith and capitalism with the lack thereof. Otherwise, though, he’s in the exact same position as capitalist religionist Ferguson: if your opponents proclaim strong belief in irrationalities, you must adapt similarly irrational beliefs to combat them. Strength through irrationality. It is possible, if you try to believe really hard, to out-irrationalize the most fundamentalist of terrorists. What is missing from this debate is any sort of commitment to truth. In the earlier chapters, Eagleton does make some hazy theological pronouncements on God, the universe and everything, but nothing clear. His getout for this is that theology is abstruse and not easily explained; Ditchkins, et al., espouse “an abysmally crude, infantile version of what theology has traditionally maintained” (50). Yet it is no accident that the climactic parts of Eagleton’s book, the real meat in his arguments, totally discard theology and issues of truth in religion to focus on its social utility and Islamist-terrorism-fighting powers.

For the reasonable person who admits the undesirability of terrorism, what is left? As far as I can gather, Eagleton would tell that person to pretend to believe in some religion. To play along. Of course, you don’t call it pretending. Instead, you follow Eagleton by noting that “[Badiou] does grasp the vital point that faith articulates a loving commitment before it counts as a description of the way things are” (119). This appears to me vague and evasive; a “loving commitment” is great, but its dependence on religious faith is simply assumed, and used to excuse the fact that faith doesn’t help with understanding “the way things are”. As Lionel Hutz said, “There’s the truth [shakes head forbiddingly] and the truth [nods head vigorously]”. If you think there’s just the truth, you won’t be much help in the war against terror. So 21st-century religionists would have you believe.

In short, it’s not the imperative of all inhabitants of the Western world to believe, at whatever cost to reason and empirical observation, and at the risk of propelling themselves into a state of chronic cognitive dissonance. Rather, it is the imperative of a public intellectual like Eagleton to point out what he believes can be believed – to do it in good faith, without obfuscation and without simply playing on common fears. A return to old forms is out of the question. Eagleton, Ferguson and the rest would be well advised to “take off their old monastic and ecclesiastical spectacles”, as Thomas Carlyle put it (“Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets), and to begin to see once again with their eyes. If faith is so important, then let us have faith – only let it not be faith in cant and jargon (Carlyle again). That is not a dynamic and energizing force in the community, as Eagleton seems to think, but a sham obvious to all but those who will not see.