Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Aesthetic Atheism and Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution

In a previous post I discussed a talk Terry Eagleton gave at Santa Clara University.  Since then I have read his book Reason, Faith, and Revolution (New Haven:  Yale, 2009).  This is the print version of the Terry Lecture Series at Yale.  I confess an experience of strangeness here since reviews and commentaries insist that Eagleton remains an atheist, and yet I could find little evidence for it in this book. (He seems to think one can believe in God without believing that God exists, if that makes any sense.)  For the most part, the book reads like a classic form of Christian apologetics mixed with a lot of ranting against such atheists as Dawkins and Hitchens, which Eagleton, oh-too-cleverly, calls "Ditchens."  Whereas some readers find Eagleton funny, I do not ...but then in humor, there is no accounting for taste.  This comment is not however intended to be a book review.  I am more interested in treating him as an inspiration for thoughts about aesthetic atheism. (See my other posts on this topic.) I am actually sympathetic to Eagleton on some counts. 

But, to begin with, is he really an atheist?  When he describes to us what orthodox Christians believe, he does so in his own voice and frankly it sounds like he himself is talking here.  For instance he says that God created us in his own image, that he himself is pure liberty, and is also the source for atheism as well as faith. (p. 17) Which would be true, if there were a God (i.e. the Christian God he describes)! but which otherwise begs all the philosophical questions.  The oddest experience I have reading Eagleton is how often he seems to know (seems to think he knows!) exactly what God is or is not.  This is strange for a so-called atheist.  So he says, for example, that the view of "God as Big Daddy" is a "naïve misconception."  But in what way could any conception of God be more naïve than any other if you are an atheist?  How can you have more or less naïve knowledge of an entity that does not exist?  (That the Catholic God is more complicated than can be summed up by "Big Daddy" goes without saying...but the sum-up seems not bad to me, as sum-ups go.) Then he claims that many liberals fail to see that the liberal doctrine of freedom and the liberal belief in progress derive in part from the Christian notions of free will and Providence.  It would be foolish to deny that current Western ideas derive in large part from earlier Christian civilization. Yet this begs all the questions.

Sometimes Eagleton reads as someone who simply believes that to be a good Christian is to be a good leftist:  for example "You shall know him [God] for who he is when you see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away." (18) I confess some sympathy for this vision of distributive justice, but do not see why it has to be connected with some sort of belief in God or Jesus.  Is anything more being said than that it would be satisfying to see some of the wealth of the rich transferred to the hungry?  Eagleton's Christianity seems to be based on the idea that it is equivalent to the notion that political love, the ethical basis of socialism, should be the ruling principle of our lives. (p. 32)  I can see how this might be a creed to live by.  But Eagleton goes on to complain that atheists fail to see that faith "is not primarily a belief that something or someone exists, but a commitment and allegiance - faith in something..."  Maybe it isn't primarily belief in existence, but faith in something that does not exist is meaningless.  

What is faith?  Eagleton speaks of faith in feminism, as an example.  Certainly feminism is an ideal and, arguably, ideals do not exist (i.e., we do not exist in a world in which feminist ideals have been fully actualized), although they may be exemplified, partially.  So perhaps his point is that one can have faith in God in the same way one can have faith in feminism, or rather that faith in feminism is just one of the ways to have faith in God.  But faith in God is based on the assumption not that there is some ideal possibility but rather in the idea that something actual (God) is the ground of ideal possibility.  That's a very different thing.   

Eagleton says, "Even after Auschwitz, there is nothing in [the atheist] view to be redeemed from" -- to which one can only reply first, that if anything has disproved the existence of God it has been Auschwitz (the problem of evil has never been answered in any way that is not just absurd), and second, that there is no point in talking about being redeemed from Auschwitz if there is no redeemer God.  Eagleton somehow thinks that liberal rationality takes away hope from those who suffer torment.  Liberal rationalism has not only never denied such hope but has often been defined as a commitment to the elimination of cruelty.  One cannot be a liberal without hoping.  (All of this sounds deliberately like Richard Rorty.) Although Eagleton may well be right that "only through a tragic process of loss, nothingness, and self-dispossession can humanity come into its own," this does not mean that institution of the kingdom of God is to be recommended, especially if the meaning of that kingdom is interpreted by mainstream believers. (A woman's right to choose would be out, for example.)

Eagleton says that, like God, we exist, or should exist, merely for the pleasure of it.  Setting aside the fact that even if there were a God we would have no reason to believe He exists in this way, there is something to the notion that we should exist merely for the pleasure of it.   Eagleton further writes, that  "It [ethics?] is a question of how to live most richly and enjoyably, relishing one's powers and capacities purely for their own sake.  This self-delighting energy ...stands in no need of justification" (13) This is the Epicurean approach to life, one that, contra Eagleton, has little to do with Christianity or with faith in general.  But this is at least a sentence I could agree with.

Atheists do not have a problem with the question "why is there anything at all?"   They just do not think that the answer to this question is even plausibly "God."  Eagleton seems to think that questions like "where do our notions of intelligibility or explanation come from?" obviously lead us to believe in God, and yet science does a pretty good job (and the best currently available) of answering those questions:  they come from evolutionary processes. (p. 11) Do we presuppose rationality in accounting for rationality?  Yes, that's the way it works.  There is no real paradox here:  what alternative does Eagleton suggest, irrationality as way to account for rationality?

Is it a matter of wonder that we understand so much of the universe with no evolutionary advantage, as Eagleton says it is?  Well, it is not clear yet what evolutionary advantage we get from different kinds of knowledge (although it is clear that we are, by far, the most successful medium-size to large animal on the planet, currently  -- and this is probably due to this thing we call "knowledge"), and we haven't worked out the causality of the development of human knowledge, but this is no reason to go to a failed hypothesis, an intelligent creator-being, to "explain" it. 

Eagleton, in sum, gives us a not-too-objectionable socialist/Epicurean philosophy combined with a kind of nostalgic recounting of religious myth and a bit of theological oddity, including his own idea that God and the world are to be included among non-instrumental things, things good-in-themselves. 

Fondness for religious stories is not inconsistent with aesthetic atheism.  As this Christmas season approaches, it is hard to ignore this fact.  So I find myself wondering why I find Eagleton so irritating --- it must be his smug sense of superiority and his hypocritical attitude towards atheism which he seems, at best, to half-accept.  I also have a problem with the idea that anything is "in-itself" in any way:  no man is an island, and no good is disconnected from other goods.  Not even God (if he existed). 

1 comment:

John said...

"faith in something that does not exist is meaningless"

Don't you have faith in social equality? Does it exist?