The recent death of Christopher Hitchens has brought forth a host of recollections about him, and he is as controversial in death as he was in life. We hear that he was a brilliant writer who always met his deadlines, and always said what he thought. We hear that he was a drunk, whose support for the Iraq war showed him to be a racist and a bully. He was also, famously, a militant atheist, who thought the world would be better off without religion. The title of his 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything pretty much sums it up.
In Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Terry Eagleton calls God Is Not Great “stylish, entertaining, splendidly impassioned, [and] compulsively readable.” But he also shows how shallow Hitchens’s conception of religion is, and how feeble a straw man he set up for himself. (Eagleton includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in his indictment; he refers to the whole crowd as Ditchkins for rhetorical purposes.)
Religion has much to answer for, Eagleton freely concedes, but that’s all the more reason for understanding what it’s really about, as Ditchkins does not. The question of “whether God exists,” for instance, presumes a God who’s an entity to be looked for in the world, which is exactly what Christian orthodoxy does not presume. Eagleton is not surprised: “It is, in fact, entirely logical that those who see religion as nothing but false consciousness should so often get it wrong, since what profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish?”
Eagleton does not speak as a believer. Roman Catholic in his youth, he’s a literary critic and a Marxist (who ran in the same radical circles with Hitchens, back in the day), but when he reads the Bible, he sees what’s on the page in front of him. It’s a radical vision. “The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.”
Is that supposed be the religion that Ditchkins derides as mindlessly comforting, an opiate of the people? Of course, over its lifetime, Christianity has certainly acted like it, which is where Eagleton’s critique lies. “Apart from the single instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive.”
A great deal of the Christianity we see practiced today is busy comforting the comfortable, and leaving the afflicted to their miseries, or indeed inflicting more. “Far from refusing to conform to the powers of this world, Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neocons, as well as an immensely profitable industry in its own right.”
Here’s a critique of religion worthy of the name. Relentlessly comparing the most prominent vein of our current religious life to its own founding principles, Eagleton convicts it utterly. “The social order betrays in its everyday practice that it does not and cannot believe in the spiritual values it supposedly holds dear, whatever it may solemnly claim on Sundays or in presidential addresses to the nation. What it does, and the way it justifies this to itself, are grotesquely at odds with each other.” While Ditchkins rejects religion because it doesn’t really mean anything, Eagleton holds that it means something important, and fails to deliver on it.
Would the Ditchkins offering in place of religion be any better? Could humanist rationalism, while denying that the world needs saving, save the world? Will liberal politics bring about a more just, humane social order? Should we pin our hopes on an Enlightenment ideal of inevitable progress? That’s the comforting myth Ditchkins would substitute for the Gospel story, and Eagleton has none of it. “An enlightened trust in the sovereignty of human reason can be every bit as magical as the exploits of Merlin, and a faith in our capacity for limitless self-improvement just as much a wide-eyed superstition as a faith in leprechauns.”
Yes, we make progress toward liberty and justice in some times and places, frequently at the cost of savage oppression in others. The highest values of the Enlightenment continually spawn their own opposites. “Political individualism, intended to safeguard us from the insolence of power, results in a drastic atrophying of social solidarities. The vital Enlightenment project of controlling Nature, which frees us from being the crushed and afflicted victims of our environment, has resulted in the wholesale pollution of the planet.” And so on. How does the American fetish for Freedom square with the incarceration industry? To what countries have we exported Democracy at the end of a gun, only to overturn the results if we find them unpalatable? If civil liberties are our most important value, why do we find habeas corpus dispensable?
Rationalism, apparently the highest good for Ditchkins, is opposite of irrationalism only in the most intimate, flip-side-of-the-coin sense. Hitchens’s wish to “shake off the lingering remnants of superstition and leap bravely forward into high Victorian rationalism” sounds like a pipe dream, and a breathtaking bit of cultural arrogance.
It would be much healthier, Eagleton argues, to acknowledge that faith can have plenty of reason in it, and reason plenty of faith. “Without reason, we perish; but reason does not go all the way down.” For reason to be well-founded, we much address such matters as what kind of data we admit as evidence, what witnesses we trust, and why we care in the first place. Without some kind of working decisions about these issues, we can’t know anything; and such decisions, because they require us to act on our choices, are a species of faith. This is as true for science and literature as it is for religion.
On each of these subjects, some people are mindlessly dogmatic and others are not. The zealots, of whatever stripe, tend to resemble each other: “Hitchens dislikes people who ‘know they are right’ but most of the time he sounds very much like one of them himself. It is sheer bad faith for him to claim that he is provisional about his own liberal-humanist values. He is nothing of the kind, and there is no earthly reason why he should be.”
Eagleton’s own values include seeing things from all sides. This, as he tells it, stems from his commitment to Marxism. “No other doctrine I know of claims that the liberal Enlightenment that Ditchkins champions has been at one and the same time an enthralling advance in humanity and an insupportable nightmare.” The same century that brought us airplanes and space flights brought us incendiary bombs and ICBMs; where there’s credit, there’s always some blame, and it seems to be folly not to acknowledge it.
In Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Eagleton comes down on the side of religion not only because he thinks the arguments against it are arrogant and disingenuous. He also believes in believers. “In the end, only love (of which faith is a particular form) can achieve the well-nigh impossible goal of seeing a situation as it really is, shorn of both the brittle enchantments of romance and the disheveled fantasies of desire.” An unvarnished view of the fix we’re in may not be sufficient, but it is surely necessary. Then—whether we’re Marxists, Christians, or humanists of whatever tribe—we have to get to work.
Carolyn Roosevelt reads, writes, and sings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and reviews books at Any Good Books/Mixed Reviews. She has recently resumed her labors at the best little stationery shop in Harvard Square.