As if taking a sheet from the revivalistic playbook, the New Atheists are planning their own Cane Ridge event. This March 24th, thousands of secular humanists will converge on the National Mall in the nation’s capital for The Reason Rally. The event, billed as “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history,” is advertised here. One sympathetic commentator, a scientist blogging on the NPR site, expressed fears that slating Richard Dawkins as a headline act may “drive a stake through the heart of The Reason Rally.” There’s good reason for that concern, as became obvious in Dawkins’s latest gaff reported in this excellent piece by London’s chief rabbi.
All of this reminded me to recommend Terry Eagleton’s book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale, 2009).
Reared in a traditional Catholic background in Ireland, Terry Eagleton—a celebrated Marxist scholar of culture and literature—has in recent years been drawn back gradually to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Christian theology. Having traveled in a pack with Christopher Hitchens and his kin, Eagleton had a long-running and quite public spat with Hitchens for abandoning the progressive agenda. More recently, at Yale no less, Eagleton took aim at the ironies and strawmen of “New Atheists.” The lectures are now published as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2009).
Leading the team of atheism revivalists is Richard Dawkins, who is so interchangeable with Christopher Hitchens that Eagleton’s critique refers repeatedly to the “Ditchkins” view. There are a number of points worth pondering from these published lectures. (Note: All blockquotes are from Reason, Faith, and Revolution)
First, a running critique is that the in their sweeping generalizations “New Atheists” are woefully ignorant of the actual teachings of Christian theology. Making light work for themselves, they are attacking a view of God, the world, and the relationship of faith and reason that may circulate in pop culture and may characterize extreme sects here and there but can hardly be equated with the serious (and reasoned) arguments of centuries. “As far as theology goes,” writes Eagleton, “Ditchkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists.” “Both parties agree pretty much on what religion consists in; it is just that Ditchkins rejects it while Pat Robertson and hiss unctuous crew grow fat on it…So it is that those who polemicize most ferociously against religion regularly turn out to be the least qualified to do so, rather as many of those who polemicize against literary theory do not hate it because they have read it, but rather do not read it because they hate it.” Eagleton is hardly finished with the rhetorical barbs. “Ditchkins on theology,” he adds, “is rather like someone who lays claim to the title of literary criticism by commenting that there are some nice bits in the novel and some scary bits as well, and it’s all very sad at the end.” In fact,
God is Not Great is also a fine illustration of how atheistic fundamentalists are in some ways the inverted mirror image of Christian ones. And not just in their intemperate zeal and tedious obsessiveness. Hitchens argues earnestly that the Book of Genesis doesn’t mention marsupials; that the Old Testament Jews surely couldn’t have wandered for forty years in the desert; that the capture of the huge bedstead of the giant Og, king of Bashan, might never have occurred at all, and so on…Fundamentalism is in large part a failure of the imagination, and in his treatment of Scripture (as opposed, say, to his reading of George Orwell or Saul Bellow), Hitchens’s imagination fails catastrophically…In any case, you do not settle the question of whether, say, the New Testament is on the side of the rich and powerful by appealing to what most people happen to believe, any more than you verify the Second Law of Thermodynamics by popular acclaim. You simply have to argue the question on the evidence as best you can.
By the way, I’d add that the New Atheists in many ways are not only mirroring their fundamentalist nemesis; they are also trading in a kind of old-fashioned positivism that few scientists themselves would hold today, dividing neatly between “fact” and “value,” as if science were concerned with the former and religion with the latter. We shouldn’t be too hard on atheists, by the way, since liberal theologians largely paved the way for this dualism. It was romantic liberals from Schleiermacher to Spong who have driven a chasm between faith (a purely subjective leap) as opposed to reason (actually, naturalistic presuppositions masquerading as reason).
Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on the neither of these places. Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that ‘thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.’
In any case, Eagleton argues that these simplistic antitheses don’t do justice either to theology or science. The former is not an attempt to explain take nature of atoms and energy, but it’s a fairly unenlightened and unreflective person who thinks that the questions addressed by science are the only important ones. Furthermore, science is hardly cold facts. When scientists like Heisenberg or Schrödinger tell us that “the elegant and beautiful are more likely to be true than the ugly and misshapen,” they demonstrate that “science is thoroughly and properly value-laden.”
Drawing especially on Thomas Aquinas, Eagleton points out that God isn’t a “celestial engineer” who exists alongside the world, but is the transcendent God who created everything from nothing “simply for the love and delight of it.”
He made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity…Because there is no necessity about the cosmos, we cannot deduce the laws which govern it from a priori principles, but need instead to look at how it actually works. This is the task of science. There is thus a curious connection between the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the professional life of Richard Dawkins. Without God, Dawkins would be out of a job. It is thus particularly churlish of him to call the existence of his employer into question…Unlike George Bush, God is not an interventionist kind of ruler. It is this autonomy of the world which makes science and Richard Dawkins possible in the first place.
Because of this fact, science has its legitimate domain, understanding the natural causes. But that doesn’t mean these are the only cause, or even the ultimate.
Where do our notions of explanation, regularity, and intelligibility come from? How can we explain rationality and intelligibility themselves, or is this question either superfluous or too hard to answer? Can we not account for rationality because to do so is to presuppose it? Whatever we think of such queries, science as we know it is possible only because the world displays a certain internal order and coherence—possible, that is to say, for roughly aesthetic reasons.
Was Einstein onto something or simply waxing poetic when he observed that ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,’ adding as he did that one would not a priori expect such a high degree of order in the world?…Is it equally reasonable for science to place its faith in the consistency of mathematics, even when Gödel’s second theorem demonstrates that it cannot be proved?
Impervious to Reality
Second, although Eagleton isn’t sure about how far to take biblical stories such as the fall in Eden as actual history, he confesses to having found its narrative of creation and the fall as “far more radical” and compelling than the cheerful myth of perfectibility and progress, “with its eminently suburban, smugly sanguine trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.” At the heart of Christian theology, Eagleton observes, is a humanism more radical than atheists can muster and an appreciation for the tragedy of the human condition that they are emotionally opposed to even considering. Christianity is the sort of faith expressed “by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”
The problem with the Dawkinses of this world, however, is that they do not find themselves in a frightful situation at all (unless, like myself, one counts Oxford High Table in that category), beyond the fact that there are a lot of semi deranged people called believers around the place. It is natural, then, that they have no use for such embarrassingly old-fashioned ideas as depravity and redemption. Even after Auschwitz, there is nothing in their view to be redeemed from. Things are just not that desperate…This is one important reason why God-talk makes no sense to them, though it is by no means the only reason.
However, this imperviousness to reality is hardly restricted to atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens.
A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics, and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the kind of depth where theological questions can even be properly raised, just as it rules out political and moral questions of a certain profundity. What on earth would be the point of God in such a setup, other than as ideological legitimation, spiritual nostalgia, or a means of private extrication from a valueless world?
For moderns, “religion retires from the public sphere in the West to be cultivated as a private pursuit, like troilism or marquetry,” while a fashionable posmodernism doesn’t even have the seriousness—or good humor—to ask the questions.
It is unlikely that words like ‘grace’ or ‘fallenness’ or ‘redemption’ can exert much force in a social order where even words like ‘emancipation’ are greeted with a bemused silence. Emancipation from what, exactly? Isn’t that just too sixties to be true?…What is the point of faith or hope in a civilization which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient, as being more or less as good as it gets, or at least as a spectacular advance on what went before?
It’s Not Reason vs Faith, But Plausibility Structures
In the modern world, Eagleton explains, God is pushed out—or rather in to the self, living “a shadowy afterlife in the form of respectable suburban morality, as indeed he does today.”
In Faustian spirit, Man would fall in love with his own apparently boundless powers, forgetful that God in the doctrine of the Incarnation is shown to be in love with the fleshly, frail, and finite. Besotted by his own infinity…Self-authorship is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence. Denying that our freedom thrives only within the context of a more fundamental dependency lies at the root of a good deal of historical disaster. It is certainly one of the driving forces of Western neo-imperialism today.
Like a good Marxist, Eagleton turns the tables on the historical critique:
Besides, if religion has so fragrantly failed to live up to its own founding principles, what about liberalism? What of the middle-class liberal or Enlightenment lineages which Ditchkins so zealously champions? Have these not been a little less than perfect in their fidelity to their own admirable doctrines? What of the violent suborning of freedom and democracy abroad, the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine, the warfare and genocide of sublime proportions, the arming and championing of one odious tyrant after another? What human carnage terrorism has so far murderously wreaked in the West is minor compared to the long history of slaughter and oppression of the West itself…One cannot imagine Ditchkins describing the capitalist system as ‘almost unequivocally demonic,’ words used of it by the greatest twentieth-century theologian, Karl Barth. Ditchkins, in short, is not just a liberal rationalist, but a readily identifiable kind of English middle-class liberal rationalist.
The popularizers of New Atheism aren’t on their home ground, not only when engaging actual theological positions but even in dealing with history more generally. “Ditchkins keeps throwing out the “Enlightenment view” as the destroyer of religion. “One should note that what counts as an ‘Enlightenment’ view is far from obvious. Francis Bacon was an enthusiast of magic, David Hume was a prominent Enlightenment figure with deep skepticism of reason, Newton dabbled in alchemy, while Voltaire believed in God.” To be sure, informed people cannot ignore the bloody legacy of Christendom.
At the same time, this enlightened liberal humanism served as the legitimating ideology of a capitalist culture more steeped in blood than any other episode in human history. This, one may note, is what Ditchkins unaccountably forgets. Only Marxism recounts the story of how these two contrasting narratives are secretly one. It reminds us of the mighty achievements of Francis Bacon, but also of the fact that he believed in torture. It insists that modernity means both contraception and Hiroshima, liberation movements and biological warfare…The radical answer to the question of whether modernity is a positive or negative phenomenon is an emphatic yes and no.
Again, “Ditchkins” reflects a simplistic confidence in human progress—in spite of the actual world we live in. “If ever there was a pious myth and piece of credulous superstition,” says Eagleton, “it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world…Radicals are those who believe that things are extremely bad with us, but that they could be feasibly much improved; conservatives believe that things are pretty bad with us but that’s just the way it is with the human animal; and liberals believe that there’s a little bit of good and bad in us all.” Ditchkins’s “Whiggish” view of history “is a stupendously simple-minded, breathtakingly reductive world picture, one worthy of a child’s crude drawing…In the nineteenth century, one of the most unlovely strains of religious belief, Evangelical Christianity, was hottest in the pursuit of the emancipation of slaves. There was no royal road, then, from the natural sciences to godlessness.”
It isn’t that Eagleton is against the idea of progress. In fact, he thinks that the only way it can be rescued is by freeing it from “the complacency of Ditchkins and the modish skepticism of the postmodernists.” “There is indeed progress—as long as we bear in mind that the civilization which manifests it is also one which seems bent on destroying the planet, slaughtering the innocent, and manufacturing human inequality on an unimaginable scale.” There’s no nuance in the Ditchkins view of history; it’s all steady progress from religion to enlightenment.
There are, Dawkins is gracious enough to acknowledge, ‘local and temporary setbacks’ to human progress (one thinks of such minor backslidings as Belsen, Hiroshima, apartheid, and so on), but the general upward trend is unmistakable. We have it, then, from the mouth of Mr. Public Science himself that aside from a few local hiccups like ecological disaster, ethnic wars, and potential nuclear catastrophe, History is perpetually on the up. Not even beaming, tambourine-banging Evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?
However, “Christian theology believes in the possibility of transforming history without the hubris of the idea of Progress.” “Modernity believes in grand narratives, while postmodernity does not; Jews and Christians hold that there is one still to come, which will operate retrospectively.”
At the same time, liberalism fostered an atomistic notion of the self, a bloodlessly contractual view of human relations, a meagerly utilitarian view of ethics, a crudely instrumental idea of reason, a doctrinal suspicion of doctrine, an impoverished sense of human communality, a self-satisfied faith in progress and civility, a purblindness to the more malign aspects of human nature, and a witheringly negative view of power, the state, freedom, and tradition…In this sense, the civilized and the barbarous [Western civilization and Islamic radicalism], the enlightened and the irrational, are by no means the simple antitheses they may appear” (94). “Liberal rationalism, that is to say, has its own metaphysical articles of faith, and to that extent has something in common with the religious belief it excoriates…How far is the dream of a thoroughly rational future a substitute for heaven? Is ‘Progress’ the liberal-rationalist translation of ‘after-life’? Has liberal rationalism really got out from under religion?
So if Christians need to own their own historical failures, secularists need to accept their share of blame for modernity. “Many Western liberals are careful to distinguish their criticisms of so-called radical Islam from a criticism of Islam itself; they are rarely so scrupulous when it comes to Christianity. It seems not to be the case that liberalism begins at home.”
Faith and Reason
Not everything Eagleton says is on-target, but there are a lot of gems. Despite the rationalist pose, Dawkins, for example, “seems to nurture a positively Mao-like faith in faith itself—in the hopelessly idealist conception, for example, that religious ideology (as opposed, say, to material conditions or political injustice) is what fundamentally drives radical Islam.” But the only thing that saves reason is to realize that it doesn’t “go all the way down.” We can’t live without reason. “Yet it is only if reason can draw upon energies and resources deeper, more tenacious, and less fragile than itself that it is capable of prevailing, a truth which liberal rationalism for the most part disastrously overlooks.”
The New Atheists misunderstand the nature of faith and reason.
There is probably no greater evidence of Ditchkins’s theological illiteracy than the fact that he appears to subscribe to what one might call the Yeti view of belief in God. I mean by this the view that God is the sort of entity for which, like the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, or the lost city of Atlantis, the evidence we have so far is radically ambiguous, not to say downright dubious; and because we cannot thus demonstrate God’s existence in the reasonably straightforward way we can demonstrate the existence of necrophilia or Michael Jackson, we have to put up instead with something less than certainty, known as faith. One scarcely needs to point out even to first-year theology students what a travesty of Christian faith this is. On the most elementary questions of theology on which he chooses to pronounce with such portentously self-regarding authority, Ditchkins is hopelessly at sea.
First, Christian theology argues that God is not one being among others in the universe, but is the Creator who transcends the world infinitely.
Moreover, faith is for the most part performative rather than propositional. Christians certainly believe that there is a God. But this is not what the creedal statement ‘I believe in God’ means. It resembles an utterance like ‘I have faith in you’ more than it does a statement like ‘I have a steadfast conviction that some goblins are gay.’ Abraham had faith in God, but it is doubtful that it could have occurred to him that he did not exist. The devils are traditionally said to believe that God exists, but they do not believe in him.
When it comes to reason, the assumptions are just as superficial: reason equals absolute certainty.
But only fully paid-up rationalists think that nothing certain but indisputable knowledge, if indeed such an entity exists…The virtue of hope for Christianity equally involves a kind of certainty: it is a matter of an assured trust, not of keeping one’s fingers crossed. Whatever else may divide science and religion, it is not for the theologian the idea of certainty. The certainty appropriate to faith is not, to be sure, the same kind as that of a well-entrenched scientific observation like, ‘It’s just turned red,’ or ‘The mouse is clearly drunk and the experiment is accordingly being abandoned,’ but neither for that matter are statements like, ‘I love you,’ or ‘Liberal democracy is a lot better than slavery,’ or ‘The overweening Emma Woodhouse finally gets her well-deserved comeuppance.’…A belief, for example, can be rational but not true. It was rational, given their assumptions and stock of knowledge, for our ancestors to hold certain doctrines which turned out to be false. They thought that the sun circled the earth because it looks as though it does. ‘Reasonable’ is not quite the word that leaps spontaneously to mind when we are told that the same nuclear particle can pass through two different apertures at the same time….Those who demand a theorem or proposition rather than an executed body are not on the whole likely to have faith in any very interesting sense of the term.
Only an inadequate view of reason and faith keeps them in constant friction between fundamentalists and atheists. “None of this is to suggest, as Dawkins seems to suspect, that religious claims require no evidence to back them up, or that they merely express ‘poetic’ or subjective truths.” In fact, Eagleton goes so far as to say, “If Jesus’s body is mingled with the dust of Palestine, Christian faith is in vain.” The key point in all of this is that Christian theology addresses the relationship between God and human beings in history. As in any relationship, faith and reason are intertwined.
We might clarify the relations between faith and knowledge here with an analogy. If I am in love with you, I must be prepared to explain what it is about you I find so lovable, otherwise the word ‘love’ here has no more meaning than a grunt. I must supply reasons for my affection. But I am also bound to acknowledge that someone else might wholeheartedly endorse my reasons yet not be in love with you at all. The evidence by itself will not decide the issue…All communication involves faith…There is no point in simply brandishing the evidence unless you have a degree of trust in those who have gathered it, have some criteria of what counts as reliable evidence, and have argued the toss over it with those in the know.
Truth is an event that interrupts the ordinary flow of history.
Truth is what cuts against the grain of the world, breaking with an older dispensation and founding a radically new reality…Such momentous ‘truth events’ come in various shapes and sizes, all the way from the resurrection of Jesus (in which Badiou does not believe for a moment) to the French Revolution, the moment of Cubism, Cantor’s set theory, Schoenberg’s atonal composition, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the militant politics of 1968…But truth is also a question of solidarity, involving as it usually does the birth of a believing community such as the church…Like divine grace, a truth event represents an invitation which is available to everyone. Before the truth, we are all equal.
This is why Christian faith is founded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is hardly a call to leap into the dark of subjective experience or personal therapy. “The resurrection for Christians is not just a metaphor.” And yet, faith (for or against) is already involved in the search for the truth on this score.
For Saint Anselm, reason is itself rooted in God, so that one can attain it fully only through faith. This is part of what he means by his celebrated asertion ‘I believe in order to understand’—a proposition which in a different sense could apply to believers like socialists and feminists. Because you already take a passionate interest in women’s liberation, you can come to understand the workings of patriarchy better. Otherwise you might not bother. All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment…Faith for Christian orthodoxy, then, is what makes true knowledge possible, which is true to some extent of everyday life as well.
The “rules” of belief—the reasons for specific convictions—are as different in each case as the object of that faith. Belief in individual freedom is as different from a scientific or rational proof as is belief in the resurrection. The following nicely summarizes his argument thus far:
Ditchkins cannot ground such beliefs scientifically, and there is absolutely no reason why he should. Which is not to suggest, of course, that he is dispensed from adducing evidence for them. We hold plenty of beliefs that have no unimpeachable justification, but which are nevertheless reasonable to entertain…Yet this, needless to ssay, is not to suggest that the whole of our knowledge and belief is a fiction. A hunger for absolute justification and belief is a neurosis, not a tenacity to be admired. It is like checking every five minutes that there is no nest of hissing cobras under your bed…Christopher Hitchens would appear to disagree about this question of grounding. ‘Our belief is not a belief,’ he writes of atheists like himself in God Is Not Great. ‘Our principles are not a faith.’…What he is really doing is contrasting his own beliefs with other people’s. ‘We [secular liberals] distrust everything that contradicts science or outrages reason,’ he observes. Most Christians do not in fact hold that their faith contradicts science—though it would be plausible to claim that in some sense science contradicts itself all the time, and that this is known as scientific progress. Hitchens fails to distinguish between reasonable beliefs and unreasonable ones…Humanists differ from religious believers, God Is Not Great informs us, because they have no ‘unalterable system of belief’ (250). One takes it, then, that Hitchens stands ready at any moment to jettison his belief in human liberty, along with his distaste for political tyrants and Islamic suicide bombers. In fact, of course, he turns out to be a skeptic when it comes to other people’s dogmas and a true believer when it comes to his own…Hitchens dislikes people who ‘know they are right’ (282), but most of the time he sounds very much like one of them himself.
The bottom line is that reason needs something deeper than itself to justify it. Reason and faith, evidence and trust, grow in specific communities, whether the church or the scientific guilds. There simply is no neat and tidy division between faith and reason, although there are certainly weak faiths and bad reasons.
It certainly makes sense that science should restrict itself to natural explanations, but even this “is indeed a postulate, not the upshot of a demonstrable truth.” “Science, then, trades on certain articles of faith like any other form of knowledge.” “Like religion, science is a culture, not just a set of procedures and hypotheses…Science has its high priests, sacred cows, revered scriptures, ideological exclusions, and rituals for suppressing dissent.” This doesn’t make science unreasonable, since its practitioners must still make arguments and offer evidence, even as Christians must do as well.
One of the reasons for the standoff between faith and reason is that the former has often taken refuge in irrationalism and the latter has been reduced to “dominative, calculative, and instrumental” reason. As a consequence, “it ends up as too shallow a soil for a reasonable kind of faith to flourish…Rationalism and fideism are each other’s mirror image.”
In modernity, religion becomes privatized and therefore relativized. Eagleton explores some of the ways in which cultural barbarism has been as much the result of secularism as anything else. “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.” The practices in which we’re enmeshed make any serious or ultimate questions irrelevant. ‘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.”
With the advent of modernity, culture and civilization were progressively riven apart. Faith was driven increasingly into the private domain, or into the realm of everyday culture, as political sovereignty passed into the hands of the secular state. Religion represented rather more belief than the liberal state could comfortably handle, hijack it though it might for its own legitimation.
Therefore, postmodern obsession with tolerance and openness (one of Eagelton’s pet peeves in other works) is really the consummation of modernity. Here’s one gem:
In a pluralistic age, conviction is thought to be at odds with tolerance; whereas the truth is that conviction is part of what one is supposed to tolerate, so that the one would not exist without the other. Postmodernism is allergic to the idea of certainty, and makes a great deal of theoretical fuss over this rather modest, everyday notion. As such, it is in some ways the flip side of fundamentalism, which also makes a fuss about certainty, but in an approving kind of way. Some postmodern thought suspects that all certainty is authoritarian. It is nervous of people who sound passionately committed to what they say…The line between holding certain noxious kinds of belief, and holding strong beliefs at all, then becomes dangerously unclear. Conviction itself is condemned as dogmatic.
Here, as with the Ditchkins simplification of “faith and reason,” postmodernists fail to distinguish between good convictions and bad ones. In this case (rather different from Ditchkins), certainties are inherently dangerous. To all of this Eagleton replies,
Certainties may indeed destroy. But they may also liberate, a point which Jacques Derrida, with his quasi-pathological distaste for the determinate, never seemed capable of grasping. There is nothing oppressive about being certain that your wages have been cut. For their part, liberals hold the conviction that they should tolerate other people’s convictions…Our age is accordingly divided between those who believe far too much and those who believe far too little—or as Milan Kundera would put it, between the angelic and the demonic. Each party draws sustenance from each other.
Actually, the more dangerous kind of religion or science or politics is the sort that is based on mere whim.
Faith—any kind of faith—is not in the first place a matter of choice. It is more common to find oneself believing something than to make a conscious decision to do so—or at least to make such a conscious decision because you find yourself leaning that way already. That is not, needless to say, a matter of determinism. It is rather a question of being gripped by a commitment from which one finds oneself unable to walk away. It is not primarily a question of the will, at least as the modern era imagines that much fetishized faculty.”
“Such a cult of the will characterizes the United States,” he adds. With great insight, Eagleton contrasts this with Christian faith:
The Christian way of indicating that faith is not in the end a question of choice is the notion of grace. Like the world itself from a Christian viewpoint, faith is a gfit. This means among other things that Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God. But neither is anyone in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in keeping fit, the supreme value of the individual, or the importance of being sincere. Only ultrarationalists imagine that they need to be…This is not to say that faith is closed to evidence, as Dawkins wrongly considers, or to deny that one can come to change one’s mind about one’s beliefs. We many not choose our beliefs as we choose our starters; but this is not to sasy that we are just the helpless prisoners of them, as neopragmatists like Stanley Fish tend to imagine.
There are many more intrigues in this book, but this will suffice to conclude this string of quotes:
The distinction between Ditchkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those like Ditchkins who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. This in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity; but it holds that this is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity’s worth in the end is one which, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and can see what Jonathan Swift’s king of Brobdingnag has in mind when he describes the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own.
There’s something quite Chestertonian about it all.