International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

by Terry Eagleton

Introductory Essay by Brian Heap

´╗┐This book is based on conversational lectures delivered by the author in April 2008.  It is witty, satirical, insightful and disturbing. While contending that religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs,Terry Eagleton shows how the caricature by critics of the Bible’s New Testament reveals their telling degree of ignorance and prejudice.  ‘It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinions of it’ [xi].   

Eagleton has been referred to as a non-ideological Marxist with a human face, or a sort of latter-day Jonathan Swift with his rich blend of humour, political conviction and lucidity.  But he is important to hear for he speaks as Professor of English Literature at Lancaster, Cultural Theory at Galway, and a combination of scholarship at Notre Dame.  Fortunately, his acknowledgement that he knows little about science or theology has not deterred him from engaging with the topic in a robust and uncompromising manner.  

In an early riposte, he conflates Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to ‘Ditchkins’ and proceeds to dissect their differences.  His ideas about God who creates out of love, not need, and of a Creation that is the original acte gratuit remind him that ‘without God, Dawkins would be out of a job’ [9].  But should you suspect his critique is one-sided, his first chapter, ‘Scum of the Earth’, excoriates fetishes, churches, ritual sacrifices, the Stars and Stripes, New Ageism, nations, sex, success, ideologies, martyrdom, Purity Balls, and original sin. Returning to his favourite target and The God Delusion he rebukes the book’s Pollyanna-ish thinking about human progress, and homes in on how the very frailty and depravity of humans becomes a redemptive power, a dimension unimaginable in the Delusion.  And just when it looks as if he credits Ditchkins with a thoroughly justified attack on religion, he compares it with the arrogance of one ‘who regards himself as competent to pronounce on arcane questions of biology on the strength of a passing acquaintance with the British Book of Birds [49].          

Turning to the crux of the matter, faith and reason, he argues forcefully that even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than reason.  He explores the liberal principles of freedom and tolerance as dogmas that are taught, of science that trades on certain articles of faith like any other form of knowledge, and, in a splendid sweep of literature and the history of science (including that of the Royal Society), asserts that a good deal of science (not unlike religion) has betrayed its revolutionary origins to become ‘the pliable tool of transnational corporations and the military-industrial complex’ [136]. 

Finally he comes to faith as a gift and explores how Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God – what an appetiser!  From the last chapter on the unlikely story of barbarism emerges the all-important distinction between himself and Ditchkins, tragic humanism and liberal humanism.  For Eagleton, it is in the process of self-dispossession and radical remaking that humanity comes into its own, and a transfigured future that makes us free; it is not a matter of shaking off ‘a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition’ [168].