Religion for radicals: An interview with Terry Eagleton

posted by Nathan Schneider

Literary critic Terry Eagleton discusses his new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which argues that “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap.” He believes that, in these controversies, politics has been an unacknowledged elephant in the room.

This is the first in a series of interviews conducted by Nathan Schneider in conjunction with the SSRC’s project on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.—ed.

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NS: Rather than focusing on “believers” or “atheists,” which are typically the categories that we hear about in the new atheist debates, you write about “a version of the Christian gospel relevant to radicals and humanists.” Who are these people? Why do you choose to address them?

TE: I wanted to move the arguments beyond the usual, rather narrow circuits in order to bring out the political implications of these arguments about God, which hasn’t been done enough. We need to put these arguments in a much wider context. To that extent, in my view, radicals and humanists certainly should be in on the arguments, regardless of what they think about God. The arguments aren’t just about God or just about religion.

NS: Are you urging people to go to church, or to read the Bible, or simply to acknowledge the historical connections between, say, Marxism and Christianity?

TE: I’m certainly not urging them to go to church. I’m urging them, I suppose, to read the Bible because it’s very relevant to radical political concerns. In many ways, I agree with someone like Christopher Hitchens that most religion is fairly hideous and purely ideological. But I think that Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are gravely one-sided about the issue. There are other potentials in the gospel and in the Christian tradition which are, or should be, of great interest to radicals, and radicals haven’t sufficiently recognized that. I’m not trying to convert anybody, but I am trying to show them that there is something here which is in a certain interpretation far more radical than most of the mainstream political discourses that we hear at the moment.

NS: You’re a literary scholar, and you’re talking about religion. Is religion literature? Are you proposing that religion become a resource for politics to draw from in the same way as any other literary canon might be?

TE: No, not at all. I think the whole movement to see religion as literature is a way of diffusing its radical content. It’s actually a way of evading certain rather unpleasant realities that it insists on confronting us with. One of the things that happened in the 19th century was that culture—literary and other kinds of culture—tried to stand in for religion, and there was a lot of talk about religion as poetry and religion as myth. That was an attempt to shy away from some of the more uncomfortable challenges of religion when taken rather more seriously.

NS: And those are the political challenges?

TE: Largely. Or, if you like, the ethical-political. They were forgotten, or sidelined, and Christianity in particular became a piece of poetry or a piece of mythology. There’s a lot of poetry and mythology in the Bible, to be sure, but it interacts with other kinds of elements, and that’s what I was stressing.

NS: Do you think that these traditions need to be radically reinterpreted for the modern, secular world? Thomas Aquinas is mentioned in your book, but so are—perhaps even more—Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Is the religion you’re defending closer to that of the medieval scholastics or to these more recent figures?

TE: I think that the Christian gospel always stands in need of contemporary reinterpretation. Theologians have to determine what kind of discourse, what contemporary way of talking, can best articulate its particular concerns. There should be controversy and debate. While Marx and Freud and others are relevant to the contemporary interpretation of Christianity, that doesn’t mean one rejects tradition and simply concentrates on the present. The present is made out of tradition and out of history. What I’m offering in my book is what I take to be—although it’s couched very often in terms of Marx or Freud or radicalism in general—a fairly traditional interpretation of scripture.

NS: Though of course the Christianity you present doesn’t sound like a lot of the Christianity one hears in the public sphere, especially in the United States.

TE: I think partly that’s because a lot the authentic meanings of the New Testament have become ideologized or mythologized away. Religion has become a very comfortable ideology for a dollar-worshipping culture. The scandal of the New Testament—the fact that it backs what America calls the losers, that it thinks the dispossessed will inherit the kingdom of God before the respectable bourgeois—all of that has been replaced, particularly in the States, by an idolatrous version. I’m presently at a university campus where we proudly proclaim the slogan “God, Country, and Notre Dame.” I think they have to be told, and indeed I have told them, that God actually takes little interest in countries. Yahweh is presented in the Jewish Bible as stateless and nationless. He can’t be used as a totem or fetish in that way. He slips out of your grasp if you try to do so. His concern is with universal humanity, not with one particular section of it. Such ideologies make it very hard to get a traditional version of Christianity across.

NS: There are so many competing claims for supernatural revelation; some people say they adjudicate truth by the Bible, or by papal authority. How do you know one reliable supernatural tradition from another?

TE: Well, you have to argue about it on the basis of reason, and evidence, and analysis, and historical research. In that sense, theology is like any other intellectual discipline. You don’t know intuitively, and you certainly can’t claim to know dogmatically. You can’t simply, in a sectarian way, assert one tradition over another. I don’t think there’s any one template, any one set of guidelines, which will magically identity the correct view. Theology, like any other intellectual discipline, is a potentially endless process of argument. But that’s not to say that anything goes.

NS: One thing that stood out to me was your reassertion of liberation theology, which, for instance, the current pope repudiated when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was concerned that hope for a worldly liberation through revolution would become a substitute for spiritual liberation through Christ.

TE: It would certainly be a big mistake to identify any particular human society with the kingdom of God. If any liberation theology were doing that, then it would be properly rebuked. I don’t think that’s why the pope is averse to it; he’s averse to it anyway because of its politics. It would be a grave mistake to think that we’re talking about the difference between a material revolution and a spiritual one. That would be the kind of gnosticism, or dualism, which Judaism and Christianity challenge. A socialist revolution is quite as spiritual as the fight for the kingdom of God is material.

NS: Do you consider yourself a Christian per se, or a person who happens to like and be inspired by Christianity?

TE: I don’t think the pope will consider me a Christian. I was brought up, of course, a Catholic. I suppose it was fortunate that around the time of the Vatican Council I encountered, just when I might have rejected a lot of it, a very challenging version of Christianity. I felt there was no need to reject it on political and intellectual grounds, because it was highly relevant and sophisticated and engaging. In a sense one doesn’t have much choice about these things. What I find is that heritage very deeply influences my work, and probably has more so over the last few years. Quite what my relation to it now is is hard to say. But that’s just a historical dilemma, a matter of how to understand oneself historically.

NS: When you talk about it being beyond choice—I’ve been interested to see how Richard Dawkins calls himself a “post-Christian atheist” and talks about celebrating Christmas.

TE: I think, actually, he’s a pre-Christian atheist, because he never understood what Christianity is about in the first place! That would be rather like Madonna calling herself post-Marxist. You’d have to read him first to be post-him. As I’ve said before, I think that Dawkins in particular makes such crass mistakes about the kind of claims that Christianity is making. A lot of the time, he’s either banging at an open door or he’s shooting at a straw target.

NS: You say he emphasizes a “propositional” account of religious faith above a “performative” one. But how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?

TE: All performatives imply propositions. There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on. The performative and the propositional work into each other. But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance. Somebody who didn’t grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted. These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.

NS: Are there political reasons behind this mistake?

TE: Dawkins and I were recently asked to write articles for the front page of the Wall Street Journal, if you can believe it. I don’t know what the rationale behind this is, or even if it will come off. I said that I would do so, provided that my last sentence would be, “Jesus Christ would never have been given a column in the Wall Street Journal.” It is indicative of the strangeness and intensity of this debate that it crops up in the most peculiar places. It crops up at the very temples of Mammon. But, you see, I think that’s because these people really do think it’s just about a set of ideas, of propositions. That’s a pretty comfortable debate. But the point I try to make when I enter on these forums is that it’s not just that. It has a strong political subtext.

NS: Back to issues of faith and reason—your position reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s model of “non-overlapping magesteria.” Gould himself was not a believer, though he wrote about religion and science, and sometimes he has been accused of having a position that is only possible if you’re not really taking belief seriously.

TE: I think that Gould was right in that particular position. What is interesting is why it makes people like Dawkins so nervous. They misinterpret that position to mean that theology doesn’t have to conform to the rules and demands of reason. Then theologians can say anything they like. They don’t have to produce evidence, and they don’t have to engage in reasonable argument. They’re now released from the tenets of science. Traditionally, this is the Christian heresy known as fideism. But all kinds of rationalities, theology included, have been non-scientific for a very long time and yet still have to conform to the procedures of reason. The new atheists think this because they falsely identify the rules of reason with the rules of scientific reason. Therefore if something is outside the purview of science, it follows for them that it is outside the purview of reason itself. But that’s a false way of arguing. Dawkins won’t entertain either the idea that faith must engage reason or that the very idea of what rationality is is to be debated.

NS: The atheists have promoted themselves by wearing big red “A”s on their t-shirts and calling themselves “brights.” Is there a counter-movement you’d like to begin? What would you put on the t-shirt?

TE: Rather than simply man the barricades on either side, I’d like to step back and see what’s happening here. That sort of gesture has to be understood in terms of an American society in which a relatively small coterie of self-consciously enlightened atheists or agnostics are indeed confronted with a massively ideologized religion, which in many respects is very ugly indeed. What I think is wrong, and what I think is rationalistic, is to cast the argument in terms of intelligence. It may be that a lot of people who believe that they’re going to be rapt up into heaven are fairly dim creatures. On the other hand, Europe is full of dim agnostics. It is a rationalist error to think that your opponents are simply stupid. That betrays what’s wrong with this particular kind of new atheism: it casts the arguments largely in intellectual and propositional terms and doesn’t see that a great deal else is involved here.

NS: Do you think that it’s an accident that the most successful of the new atheists, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, come with English accents?

TE: No. England is a very agnostic society. It looks with amazement on the behavior of many Americans as far as religion goes. America, of course, is in all kinds of ways out of line. It’s still an enormously metaphysical and religious society, while the typical advanced capitalist culture is pretty skeptical. Advanced capitalist societies do not normally call upon their citizens to believe very much, as long as they roll out of bed and do their work. They are pretty post-metaphysical. In a sense, Britain is a post-metaphysical society. A very small minority of people go to church. Religion is not part of a public and political discourse in anything like the way it is in the States. The States is peculiar because it is, on the one hand, the most rampantly capitalist society in history and, on the other, deeply, deeply metaphysical. Really, those two things are inherently at odds. Markets are relativizing, pragmatizing, and secularizing. But to prop them up, to defend them, and to legitimate them, you may need some much more absolute values. That may be why there are a lot of psycho-spiritual stockbrokers around.

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13 Responses to “Religion for radicals: An interview with Terry Eagleton”

  1. avatar Dorene Braun says:

    Like so many others, Mr. Eagleton makes the mistake of thinking that bright refers to intelligence. It does not. It is simply a word that has pleasant connotations, as in a bright, sunny day. I prefer it to having to decide whether I’m an atheist, an agnostic, a freethinker, a secular humanist, etc. and because it describes my outlook on life–bright.

  2. avatar M. Elia says:

    What remains interesting to me is the ironic crossing of two features of the new atheism’s relation to a historically-informed understanding of religion.

    First, as Eagleton notes here, the new atheism often “casts the arguments largely in intellectual and propositional terms” (rather than a performative account) without addressing in sufficient depth the complex sociological and political contexts which situate and are situated by systems of religious belief in various times, places, cultures.

    Second, it nonetheless employs as a central rhetorical device (which invariably winds up echoing through the mouths of ‘dim agnostics’) a highly selective and now-achingly-familiar historical narrative of the grievous harm set loose upon the world by religious belief.

    I’m certainly painting a broad stroke here, but the social operations of ‘Ditchkins’ et al. and their best-selling popular books are this: wielding a particular retelling of cultural history as a weapon of persuading the mass public to embrace a particular mode of belief, viz., naturalistic scientism. What can we term such a dogmatic project but ideology at its purest, in fact, of the very sort which has come to characterize the medieval Church in popular imagination?

  3. TE: “Yahweh is presented in the Jewish Bible as stateless and nationless. He can’t be used as a totem or fetish in that way.”

    Yhwh’s “totem” is best understood in the hypostatic realities of Israel and Babylonia (which are juxtaposed as thesis and antithesis respectively and with all their attendant tensions). The boundaries between the two are ontologically dynamic and fluid (as we experience them) but they are real. Nor can they be glossed over by such arbitrary concepts as globalization.

  4. avatar Lillie Ross says:

    About “Britain is a post-metaphysical society” …

    The US has only religion (and autonomy) to believe in, many other developed countries have a tradition of faith in monarchy/bloodlines. Might this be a factor in how religious the US is?

  5. avatar JP McBride says:

    TE: “The scandal of the New Testament—the fact that it backs what America calls the losers, that it thinks the dispossessed will inherit the kingdom of God before the respectable bourgeois—all of that has been replaced, particularly in the States, by an idolatrous version. I’m presently at a university campus where we proudly proclaim the slogan “God, Country, and Notre Dame.”

    Then how can you blame Dawkins and Hitchens for engaging the version of Christianity that actually has influence?

  6. avatar Stephen Goodfellow says:

    @Dorene Braun

    I’m not sure your defense of the ‘brights’ is necessarily fair. Names and labels should chosen to be descriptive to the unfamiliar, not be some smug in-joke.

    For example, I could call someone ‘really gay’ and the majority of people unfamiliar with me (or him) would assume I was implying he was a homosexual. For me to then defend my statement by arguing of the pleasant cogitations of ‘gay’ in the traditional sense seems redundant; I should have made my meaning clear in the first instance.

    Dawkins has often made slights against the intellect of believers, so when his followers label themselves ‘brights’ it’s a natural connection for people to make.

  7. The problem with the Western Church is that she has relied on ancient formulae to deliver food that really must be freshly baked, if it is to provide nourishment. To quote Pope Paul VI (1972):

    “From some crevice the smoke of Satan has entered into the temple of God….we are not dealing with a deficiency, an evil caused by a lack of something…we face…an existing evil, evil that is a person…that we cannot classify as a corruption of goodness. We are speaking of an affirmation of evil and if this does not frighten us, it should.” (*).

    Peter’s successor oughtn’t to be afraid of giants in Canaan. However, the “crevice” Paul VI speaks of is actually an entire system of competing thrones and Dawkins who sits on one of them is right: Delusion reigns supreme (though God is not it’s source).

    Which reminds me. What are Harry Potter and the brights doing for the 100,000 temple prostitutes in India forced into slavery because of their caste?

    And who would believe (I found this really surprising) that each year twelve million Italians visit magicians and that 100,000 people making a living by extorting money for real delusion (pardon the oxymoron). Many of the 38,000 priests in Italy do not actually believe in a devil, nor I imagine do their Anglican counterparts (*).

    The Western Gospel has become humanistic. It is far more interested in Mary’s suffering than in the message of liberation: repentance unto salvation, in the power of the Resurrection.

    But what would the Church know about that? Goodness gracious me, that would be far too radical!

    On another note: The Evangelical Church is the US may not be perfect, but then it really is only the missionary churches that are pleasant fragrances before God’s throne.

    (*) Father Gabriele Amorth, 1992 (ex-chief exorcist of Rome).

  8. Those interested in reading or taking part in further discussions of this interview might like to read the comment sections at reddit and 3quarksdaily.

  9. avatar Lorne Brandt says:

    I really enjoyed Dr. Eagleton’s refreshing statements/views. At the same time, as I am sure he will affirm, what he is saying is not new. His discussion reminds me of the teachings of the Anabaptists vs. the rest of Christendom, as described in another Englishman’s book, The Naked Anabaptist, by Stuart Murray. Christianity is not the same as Christendom—that was introduced by Emperor Constantine and his supporter Augustine.

  10. Whilst I do not support Eagleton’s full position, he is right to challenge the simplistic rationalism of Dawkins et al – as he says in his book ‘reason does not go all the way down’. Similarly, he correctly indicates that, once you accept the many problems that religions have caused and can move past this, we can still find in religion the addressing of existential questions that secular discourse still struggles with. Habermas is the most articulate proposer of this view, and he stimulates the possibility of finding an almost secular sacred wherein we can find a rational approach to the concerns that religions have with such issues as: redemption, death and suffering, etc. Habermas’ wider sense of rationality, to be found in his concept of ‘communicative rationality’, provides the antidote to the positivism of propositional thinking whilst being able to accommodate performativism.

  11. avatar Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    Dawkins said that Darwin made it possible for a scientifically educated person to be an atheist. However, that statement is, like so much of Dawkins’ discourse on the import of the modern Darwinian synthesis, a distraction from a question that Darwin did not answer, and that his theory does not even purport to answer: Where did life come from in the first place? Even if we accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a completely satisfactory and sufficient explanation for the diversity of living things, it offers absolutely no answer the to question of how inanimate matter, which has no DNA, and none of the mechanisms that operate living cells, made the transition into living cells with the capacity to reproduce, mutate, and undergo natural selection?

    There are many conjectures about possible answers to this question, but none of them has proven strong enough to outcompete its competing theories. Confidence expressed by some that a totally naturalistic explanation exists is nothing but pure faith, without rational basis. The only argument for it is the circular one, “There is no God, therefore life HAD to come about through unintelligent processes.” At the very least, one would think that personal integrity would lead Dawkins and other atheists to be a bit more humble and circumspect about the logical limitations on their argument that science has eliminated the need to believe in a Creator. Instead, they try to make their audience forget that there is such a fundamental, unanswered question that still baffles science.

  12. avatar David Smith says:

    Eagleton confuses “England” and “Britain.” Religious culture in Britain is not the same thing as religious culture in England.

    Even such an anti-imperialist as Eagleton indulges in a bit of cultural imperialism here, thinking that Britain and England are the same thing.

  13. avatar Patrick O'Gara says:

    “Even if we accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a completely satisfactory and sufficient explanation for the diversity of living things, it offers absolutely no answer the to question of how inanimate matter, which has no DNA, and none of the mechanisms that operate living cells, made the transition into living cells with the capacity to reproduce, mutate, and undergo natural selection?”

    Very true, Raymond. But, if you look carefully – neither does it tell us what horse will win the Breeders Cup Classic on Saturday. But then, who suggested Darwin’s Theory should?

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