Notes from the field (2010):

Terry Eagleton, New Atheism, and the War on Terror

posted by Joseph Blankholm

Last Wednesday evening, eminent theorist of literature and culture Terry Eagleton gave a talk at Columbia University entitled “The New Atheism and the War on Terror.” New Atheism is also the subject of last year’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections  on the God Debate, which developed as the product of his Terry Lectures (no relation) given at Yale in 2008. Having never seen Eagleton speak before, the talk surprised me in a few ways, so I’d like to give a short review and also use the occasion to address some issues that were conspicuously absent given the title of the lecture.

The lecture’s tone was extraordinarily light. The jokes were wry and frequent, and while some were worth a chuckle and many worth a smirk, a few were odd enough to tempt analysis. After making a funny and self-effacing remark about his own youthfully leftist political leanings, Eagleton took a shot at the man whom he seems to see as his nemesis: “Hitchens tells us in God Is Not Great that he feels no less radical than he did then, as a young man. A view about as widely shared as the view that Kate Winslet is the Antichrist.” The joke was met with dead silence, but a Google search later helped me realize this was a reference to the 1999 film Holy Smoke in which, as far as I can tell, Winslet plays a role similar to that of Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. This joke and the ensuing silence say a lot about a lecture that was more interested in an obscure moment in Winslet’s career than a deep analysis of the confluence of atheism and the War on Terror.

Eagleton takes a similarly jocular tone in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, and at the time I read it, I assumed he was, for better or worse, adopting the dry, flippant style of of his bestselling interlocutors. The problem: I found myself picking apart the jokes as I would those of a comedian who’s still honing his chops. The material is decidedly uptown in its headiness, but, frankly, it’s totally off-topic and distracting. I’m unamused by the ham-fistedness of Eagleton’s “Ditchkins” moniker (a combination of Dawkins and Hitchens that’s meant to lump the two together) for entirely nerdy reasons, i.e., I think the two thinkers are actually quite different, and it undermines Eagleton’s argument to treat them as one. In particular, their approach to politics differs greatly: where Dawkins is mostly interested in discussing evolution, morality, and occasionally education policy, Hitchens is downright hawkish in his foreign policy suggestions (as is Sam Harris, who received no attention in Eagleton’s lecture, but who was the avant-garde of the New Atheist trend with 2004’s The End of Faith).

Given that the second part of the lecture’s title is “the War on Terror,” the conflation of Dawkins and Hitchens and the omission of Harris are important. The thesis of the lecture, in my best distillation, is that there is a hypocrisy in late capitalism, both in America and in Western Europe, when it comes to belief in God. Eagleton argues that at the heart of late capitalism is an atheism; they/we have killed God, yet they/we insist on behaving as if this isn’t so—a position Eagleton self-consciously develops from Nietzsche. He then goes on to read the resurgence of religion in the United States (though some of us would argue that it never went away) as a symptom of this hypocrisy and as false piety. He suggests what he sees as a Nietzschean move of doing away with the outmoded superstructure of belief in God, which he thinks is out of step with the true character of late capitalism, the implication throughout the talk being that all of this stuff about religion is epiphenomenal, an outgrowth of the relations of production peculiar to this moment. Ditchkins et al. participate in this hypocrisy by affirming simplistic distinctions between science and religion and by behaving as divisively and ignorantly as the religious fundamentalists they decry. In good Marxian analysis, Ditchkins v. Islam is a sideshow, mere distraction from the real conflict between the haves and the have-nots in a time of global capital. Worth noting is that I’m driving home the Marxian conclusion, which Eagleton only alludes to, and I’m not quite sure whether I’m doing him a favor by putting a bow on a meandering lecture, or if I’m drawing a conclusion that he intentionally avoided. Perhaps that’s a debate worthy of the comments section.

There does seem to be a kind of true religion, of which, Eagleton repeatedly reminds us, even the first-year theology student knows the character; yet he refuses to elaborate it. If we’re to glean what he means by religion from Reason, Faith, and Revolution, real belief or real theology or real religion are grounded in a postmodern theology that spurns the more vulgar claims of the Enlightenment, a sharp break between science and religion, and strict adherence to the primacy of scientific knowledge. On the critiques and theology he proposes, I find Eagleton quite compelling, though it’s worth noting that his claim is located within Christian theology, i.e., doesn’t have much to say for those of us who don’t feel particularly Christian (and in particular, Catholic).

The question I posed to Eagleton following his talk is one that I face in my own work on atheism and that he did little to answer. What I really wanted to know is, Why does all of this matter? So there’s a hypocrisy in late capitalism—sure. We can go back to any number of touch-points if we’re looking for a clear statement of the hypocrisy of late-capitalist logic, and one that quickly comes to mind is Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which is clearly one of the finest articulations of the contradictions of late capitalism. So what’s new here? What are the practical politics of this articulation? What even is the danger of New Atheism? Why should we care about Dawkins and Hitchens (and don’t forget Harris and Daniel Dennett), and if it’s because there’s something to fear, what are we afraid of? Let’s put it another way: if we’re going to start talking about the heroine of Titanic, and if we’re going to start focusing on soft philosophy bestsellers, we’d better have a good reason for doing so.

Though I see some compelling arguments for indifference, I’m going to give my best argument for why we should care—the kind of argument that I wish we had heard from Eagleton. According to 2008’s American Religious Identification Survey, 12% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey puts this number at a much lower 4%, though if you add in the “nothing in particular” crowd, that figure jumps to a more comparable 16.1%. There are a lot of problems with figuring out whether people are “really” atheist or agnostic, so I don’t want to dwell too long on these figures, but the larger point that I’d like to emphasize is that a relatively small but significant portion of the United States consists of nonbelievers, and, surprising as it will be for some, the numbers for Britain are similar (though the data on which I’m relying are older, and there are more people who declined to answer the question). The larger question for me is one of influence, or better still, to use Michael Warner’s term, one of publics. It’s hard to put numbers to the influence of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, but inasmuch as they participate in a public, their readership is at the very least in the tens of millions, through their books, essays, shorter journalistic pieces, public appearances, and recorded appearances (including TED Talks and primetime television interviews). How many people agree with them is another question altogether.

I ask this question of their influence and public because I don’t want to read them as symptom, as Eagleton does, but as narrative-producers in a larger public battle of narratives. Particularly in the work of Hitchens and Harris, I see a concerted effort to identify for the United States (and arguably “Western civilization,” however these authors might construe it) a clear enemy, an effort that is pertinent in the wake of 9/11, but also in the aftermath of the Cold War. As Akeel Bilgrami noted in a question following Eagleton’s lecture, there is an older history of scapegoating Islam, which he referred to as a “Cold War against Islam,” and which goes back to before the end of the Cold War and certainly precedes 9/11. But Bilgrami also notes that New Atheism seems to sit atop this older tradition as a kind of popular and less sophisticated manifestation. I would continue in that line of reasoning and argue that it is a product of a popular consciousness (a larger public) that only reached its present height in the aftermath of 9/11, in conjunction with a concomitant public awareness of the religious right (which itself has a much older history that Randall Balmer dates back to before Roe v. Wade, in the battle over the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University that began in 1972).

In other words, we have two phenomena, anti-Islam and the politicization of Evangelicals in the United States, that reach a fever pitch of public awareness after 9/11 and lead to Harris’s 2004 publication of The End of Faith. In the latter book and in Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, there is a rhetorical effort that operates under the logic of Carl Schmitt’s political as he articulates it in The Concept of the Political, i.e., Harris and Hitchens attempt to align the domestic and foreign enemies under a single criterion: religion. If we follow the Schmittian logic, which I think many policy makers clearly do, in order for Americans or other nations to see themselves as such, they need an external enemy against which to define themselves (we should be hearing strong echoes of Durkheim on society here). That friend/enemy distinction is for Schmitt the very criterion of the political, which in turn is the defining characteristic of the state.

What’s at stake, then, is the definition of the enemy that constitutes the political, in a state that operates within the Schmittian terms that demand an enemy. Following the Cold War, the absence of an enemy was so clear to some that Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history. While President Obama has stated as recently as September 11th, 2010, that Islam is not the enemy, that debate is hardly over. Let’s articulate it clearly then: the primary danger of New Atheism is the enemy it asserts, i.e., the religious enemy. This also seems like the clear connection between New Atheism and the War on Terror. Rather than operating in the abstracted domain of the hypocrisy of late capitalism, it’s no joke that the dangers of New Atheism are clear and present as the United States in particular gropes to find an enemy against which to define itself. My concern here over the formation of the religious enemy echoes that found elsewhere, such as in Gil Anidjar’s The Jew, The Arab: A History of the Enemy and William T. Cavanaugh’s more recent The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. How influential is the New Atheist public? Will these arguments affect public policy? I’m not sure. Part of the aim of my research is to answer the first question, and despite the fact that it would make my work a heck of a lot more relevant, I hope the answer to the second question is, No.

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6 Responses to “Terry Eagleton, New Atheism, and the War on Terror”

  1. avatar Sami says:

    Interesting read. I wonder if there is a way to connect this to “the contradictions of capitalism.” Like the US is at war because it needs to open and exploit new markets and radical Islam has basically become the most militant force against globalization. New Atheism is the neoliberal ideological justification for neocon policy (whereas Evangelical Christianity is a conservative ideology used for the same goal). So New Atheism is a means of getting the liberal/anti-religious crowd in line with capitalism in the way that conservatives did it for the religious crowd by criticizing communism’s “godlessness” and the wickedness of Islam.
    I don’t know if this addresses your criticism of Eagleton at all. Basically I just want to defend him because I share his view of Hitchens.

  2. avatar Joseph Blankholm says:

    I think you’re right to extend the argument the way you do, to say that one could subsume this as part of a larger neoconservative political movement and a more elaborate set of cultural narratives. Like you said, it then looks like a way to win over a group of the intellectual left (let’s maybe think of them as the Enlightenment hard-liners) that might’ve previously been out of reach. This would’ve been a great argument for Eagleton to make, I think, but I just don’t see his hypocrisy point adding much. It’s an irony argument, appearance and reality, the appearance of piety, the reality of godlessness. It seems like most things have these kinds of contradictions, especially any large-scale societal enterprise (always founding myths, etc.), and so that criticism of New Atheism doesn’t add much for me. While I’d hesitate to start talking about capitalism because the term’s too unwieldy for my already speculative framework, if I did want to talk about capitalism, your argument seems like the one that should be made–that Eagleton might’ve made and didn’t. Thanks.

  3. avatar Stewart says:

    I find Eagleton the most irrelevant and absurd of all the critics of the so-called new atheism. He’s completely ignorant of modern scientific discourse and is generally anti-science in a shallow “post-modernist” way. And he has tried to create a political dimension to these critiques which doesn’t really exist outside of the US. Religious belief is a matter of evidence and human psychology—forget the po-mo discourse, it’s as wearisome, self-generating and endless as theology.

  4. avatar Geoffrey says:

    Thank you for a different, and far more critical, appreciation of Eagleton’s main points. I, too, was surprised by the way he ignores Harris in Reason, Faith, and Revolution. I came to the conclusion that Harris—shallow, ignorant, absurd—was hardly worthy of refuting (he does mention Dennett in passing a few times; being British, however, I think his main reason for engaging Hitchens and Dawkins is that they are, too). I, too, found his overuse of the metaphor-as-one-liner a bit tiresome. Then again, it is a speech, not a thorough-going systematic text, so I give him some leeway.

    The danger of the New Atheism is precisely, I think, its shallowness, as part of that larger shallowness of what Eagleton identifies as “late capitalism.” While there are differences between Dawkins and Hitchens, the end result of both their intellectual projects and political projects is the same—a defense of certain elements of the status quo that, in the end, are destructive of human beings.

  5. avatar Liesl King says:

    Thank you for your post on Terry Eagleton and the (lack of) information provided on why the New Atheism is potentially dangerous—it was helpful as I was looking for insight into his key points while considering whether to go to an upcoming lecture he is giving near me in Yorkshire. I too would be sympathetic with a theoretical, philosophical, and in fact ‘spiritual’ position which aimed to open up dialogue between those involved in oppositional thinking—e.g. those who believe that ‘God’ is great, and that scientists are blinkered, or those who think that religious people are all brainwashed, since they cannot accept the evidence provided by science. Ursula Le Guin in The Telling (2000) satirises both of these narrow-minded perspectives beautifully. Gabriel McKee, in his book on religion in science fiction, explains that the desire to know, to understand, to find answers about who we are and why we are here is one common to scientists and religious believers alike. And psychologist Dr Stephen Gibson is doing research at York St John University which examines the way people tend to behave like sheep under hierarchical conditions—e.g. if we are asked to inflict pain on others by a socially acceptable authority we tend to do so. My point is that our most human impulses—laudable or despicable—are profoundly inspired by the social contexts in which we move. For me, then, the answer can only be an increase in cross-fertilization—as a Humanities scholar and tutor, I know I need to look at what the scientists, philosophers, artists and religious historians have to say before I make comments about the term ‘spiritual’, for example. A Higher Education system which offered what the American university offers to its Freshman and Sophomores on a global level would be magnificently transformative—the aim would be to offer every young adult a wide range of conflicting, diverse, and sometimes dovetailing perspectives which would allow him or her to develop a considered, tolerant, and individualised world view. Of course this is utopian, but if we are wondering where to invest our energies I can’t think of a better place. Perhaps it is telling that Dawkins didn’t attend American university. As an American living and teaching in Britain, I take it upon myself to assign him a 5000 word essay in which he reflects upon the term ‘spiritual’, an essay in which he must weigh up perspectives from at least five celebrated voices from different disciplines. And thanks again—I will go hear the lecture.

  6. avatar Aaron says:

    @Stewart: I have seen the charge of postmodernism leveled at Terry Eagleton a couple of times during the God debate. It leads me to think that people either don’t know what postmodernism is, or completely misunderstand Eagleton’s points. First of all, Eagleton has spent much of his career attacking postmodernism, and even wrote a book about it. In his Terry Lectures that the new atheism book was based on, he even said at one point that he loves science mainly because the postmodernists hate it. Eagleton’s critique of new atheism is, if anything, pre-modern. It hearkens back to pre-Enlightenment theology, before we started trying to isolate religion from all of life’s other interconnected ideas and institutions.

    Also, I don’t know what “anti-science” means. I have never met anyone who was anti-science. Every human being in the history of the world, including scientists, has utilized the tool of science to advance his own goals and values.

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