Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Christianity Fair and Foul

The Limits of Liberalism

Faith and Reason

Culture and Barbarism

. . . Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?  Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century, almost as surprisingly as some mass revival of Zoroastrianism or neo-Platonism?  Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled “Atheism,” and might even now be contemplating another one marked “Congenital Skeptic with Mild Baptist Leanings”?  Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question suddenly broken out anew?  Can one simply put it down to falling towers and fanatical Islamists?

I don’t really think we can, at least not for the most part.  Certainly Ditchkins’s* disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center.  It is true that some of the debate took its cue from there — an ominous fact, since intellectual debate is not at its finest when it springs from grief, hatred, hysteria, humiliation, and the urge for vengeance, along with some deep-seated racist fears and fantasies.  9/11, however, was not really about religion, any more than the thirty-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility.  (It says much about Dawkins’s obsession with religion that he subscribes in The God Delusion to the fallacy that the struggle in Northern Ireland was one over varieties of Christian belief.)  Radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence, as we have seen, to suggest that its actions are for the most part politically driven.

There are other reasons, too, to doubt this rather glib thesis.  For one thing, Islamic fundamentalism confronts Western civilization not only with blood and fire, but with the contradiction between the West’s own need to believe and its chronic incapacity to do so.  The West now stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a full-blooded “metaphysical” foe for whom absolute truths and foundations pose no problem at all (would that they did!) — and this at just the point when a Western civilization in the throes of late modernity, or postmodernity if you prefer, has to skate by on believing as little as it decently can.  In post-Nietzschean spirit, it appears to be busily undermining its own erstwhile metaphysical foundations with an unholy mélange of practical materialism, political pragmatism, moral and cultural relativism, and philosophical skepticism.  All this, so to speak, is the price you pay for affluence.

It is not quite that, just as the West was in the act of abandoning grand narratives, a new one — that of Islamist terror — broke out to confound it.  To put it that way misses the connection between the two events.  It also makes the situation sound more ironic than it actually is.  The much-trumpeted Death of History, meaning that capitalism is now the only game in town, reflects the arrogance of the West’s project of global domination; and it is that aggressive project which has triggered a backlash in the form of radical Islam, thus disproving the thesis that history is over.  In this sense, the very act of attempting to close history down has sprung it open again.  It is not the first time this has happened.  Assured since the fall of the Soviet bloc that it could proceed with impunity to pursue its own global interests, the West overreached itself, found itself confronting a freshly insurgent antagonist, and in doing so discredited the postmodern thesis that grand narratives were at an end.  Just when ideologies in general seemed to have packed up for good, the declining global hegemony of the United States put them back on the agenda in the form of a peculiarly poisonous brand of neo-conservatism.  A small cabal of fanatical dogmatists occupied the White House and proceeded to execute their well-laid plans for world sovereignty, like characters in some second-rate piece of science fiction.  It was almost as bizarre as Scientologists taking over 10 Downing Street, or Da Vinci Code buffs patrolling the corridors of the Elysée Palace.

Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic.  This makes it particularly flaccid and out of shape when its paucity of belief runs up against an excess of the stuff — not only an external excess, but an internal one too, in the form of the various homegrown fundamentalisms.  Modern market societies tend to be secular, relativist, pragmatic, and materialistic.  They are this by virtue of what they do, not just of what they believe.  As far as these attitudes go, they do not have much of a choice.  The problem is that this cultural climate also tends to undermine the metaphysical values on which political authority in part depends.  Capitalism can neither easily dispense with those metaphysical values nor take them all that seriously.  As President Eisenhower once announced in Groucho Marx style: “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief — and I don’t care what it is.”  Religious faith in this view is both vital and vacuous.  God is ritually invoked on American political platforms, but it would not do to raise him in a committee meeting of the World Bank.  It would be like appealing to the Platonic Forms or the World Spirit in choosing your wallpaper. . . .

As long as the populace get out of bed, roll into work, consume, pay their taxes, and refrain from beating up police officers, what goes on in their heads and hearts is for much of the time a strictly secondary affair.  The authority of the system is for the most part sealed in practical, material ways, not by ideological faith.  Belief is not what keeps the system ticking over, as it is what keeps the Salvation Army ticking over.  This, too, is an advantage in “normal” times, since demanding too much belief from men and women can easily backfire.  It is much less of a benefit in times of political tumult. . . .

A surfeit of belief is what agnostic, late-capitalist civilization itself has helped to spawn.  This is not only because it has helped to create the conditions for fundamentalism.  It is also because when reason becomes too dominative, calculative, and instrumental, it ends up as too shallow a soil for a reasonable kind of faith to flourish.  As a result, faith lapses into the kind of irrationalism which theologians call fideism, turning its back on reason altogether.  From there, it is an easy enough step to fanaticism.  Rationalism and fideism are each other’s mirror image. . . .   Fundamentalism is among other things the faith of those driven into zealotry by a shallow technological rationality which sets all the great spiritual questions cynically to one side, and in doing so leaves those questions open to being monopolized by bigots.

Conversely, reason, as I have argued already, has to ground itself in something other than itself to be authentic as reason.  If it grounds itself largely in material interests and political dominion, rather than in some kind of loving fidelity or peaceable community, faith and reason will spin apart from each other, becoming those bloodless caricatures of themselves known as fideism and rationalism.  There is another sense, too, in which a paucity of faith leads to a surplus of it, which is simply that if the West really did have faith in a gospel of peace, justice, and fellowship, it would presumably not spend so much of its time burning Arab children to death, and thus would not have to worry quite so much about people crashing aircraft into nuclear reactors in the name of Allah.  Nor would Muslims who knew something about their religious faith consider doing so.  There can surely be no doubt that if these values really were to prevail, the world would be a great deal better off.  Justice would be brought to bear on the conflict between Palestine and Israel.  Humanity would regard itself as exercising stewardship rather than dominion over Nature.  War would give way to peace.  Forgiveness would mean among other things forgiving the crippling debts which burden poor nations.  Mutual responsibility would oust selfish individualism. . . .


*  Terry Eagleton’s shorthand for Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Terry Eagleton is a former Thomas Warton Professor at Oxford University.  He holds Distinguished Professorships at the University of Lancaster, the University of Notre Dame, and the National University of Ireland.  He is a fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, and the author of some fifty books of literary, cultural, and political criticism.  The lectures shown in the videos above were delivered at Yale University on 1, 3, 8, and 10 April 2008 and later published in book form: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2009).  The text above is an excerpt from the lectures.

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