From the Archives: Humanist, Heal Thyself
By Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 2009
|Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate is a screed against the New Atheists that does what few but the true believers thought possible – it transforms bullies like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens into admirable idealists. Eagleton performs a competent job of detailing the misplaced confidence and contempt which characterize the colorless project of the crusading unbeliever. But not only does his own brand of half-belief suffer from the same narrowness it elsewhere condemns, Eagleton practices with abandon the art of evasion. What the New Atheists lack in charity and imagination, they can at least paper over with an autistic specificity – atoms are their household gods, and the granularity of the physical universe is their soapbox. The limit of their synthesis may be the Tuesday Science section. But at least they can put together reasonably clear agitprop on a weekly basis. One of the reasons writers like Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett entrance their readers is that they, paradoxically, believe in something and aren’t afraid to say it. The most cutting rejoinder to Eagleton’s project may be: “So what do you believe?”|
Eagleton’s an old Marxist and the must of dialectic hangs over his counterpoints. He proceeds by proposing one perspective, gaping at its myopia, proposing an opposite perspective, decrying its preciousness or misspent passion, and then suggesting that both of these simplicities must yield before a finer version of the truth. But, at each movement of this ritual equanimity, the subtle synthesis remains locked in the ark.
In the middle of the last century, Jewish scholar and spiritualist Joshua Abraham Heschel distinguished the tasks of philosophy and theology this way:
Philosophy is . . . a kind of thinking that has a beginning but no end. In it, the awareness of the problem outlives all solutions. Its answers are questions in disguise; every new answer giving rise to new questions. In religion, on the other hand, the mystery of the answer hovers over all questions. Philosophy deals with problems as universal issues; to religion the universal issues are personal problems. Philosophy, then, stresses the primacy of the problem; religion stresses the primacy of the person.
Eagleton indicts both the endless question and the mysterious answer. He is neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but a literary critic and political agitator, so perhaps his resistance to Heschel’s dueling categories is not surprising. But the God Debates that Eagleton enters into are very much a product of the eternal tension between the two ways of approaching reality which Heschel so well describes. Eagleton’s response is to deny the severity of the tension, and his book, when not talking about politics, is marked by nothing more than moderation. Its quest is for the middle ground, which Eagleton intuits is the only sane truth, between endless skepticism and blind obedience.
Eagleton has been led toward that middle ground by a hard path. Published only two years after Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which shook philosophy’s confidence in revelation-through-reason, Heschel’s God in Search of Man, from which the above quote was taken, elegantly if unknowingly prophesied the central drama of contemporary Western thought: a renewed confrontation between the demands of the philosophical-scientific and religious worldviews. If in the 18th century, Hume and Kant described for modern man the limits of human thought, and 19th century philosophy tried to displace those limits, the 20th century asked the forbidden question: why and how did those limits get there in the first place? At no time since the Jews wandered in the desert, torn by hunger and hope, had man felt so alternatively compelled and disappointed by what lay beyond the borders of his consciousness. The question of the origin of limit was the exilic question – only the crossing of all borders could make it real. During the first exile, the answer hovered in the still, dry night.
But as the world opened and the dead mounted, the finality of God became less self-evident and the inferior restraints of human authority became more obvious and onerous. Great revolutions followed – in knowledge, in sensibility, in social structure. They are our patrimony. But so is the humility and shame we have learned in the revolutions’ wake. Against all limits, these revolutions reacquainted the nearly super-human human with the palpable reality of limit. Aimed at unification, they uncovered the irreducible fissures between men and their meanings.
As Terry Eagleton astutely says of the rise of postmodernism, it was the failure of revolutionary thinking, the last compelling absolutism, that ultimately led to the twentieth century’s boldest intellectual project – the exploration of contingency. And although this exploration is often steadfastly secular in form, the contingency of human experience was first intimated in the experience of God. Our problem has become not so much the death of God, but his ghost. The signs of our finitude, our given-ness, our debt to the invisible and the unknown unbound. They are the basis of our science, our art, our culture, our hope and our despair. And these signs under-determine our response. Pushed against the wall, some read the writing there and become quiet agnostics, others absurdist culture-jammers or boisterous atheists, still others are born-again. Eagleton’s book, just like every previous contribution to the endless – and timeless – God Debate, tries to tell us how best to read the signs.
The lines of the debate are not neat. Many theologians, including Eagleton in his lay Catholic costume, argue vociferously that religion, at least at its best, is not a pure manifestation of faith, but is a complex mixture of faith and reason. And, as Eagleton himself demonstrates in the best moments of his book, philosophy and its recent offspring, natural science, cannot do without faith. It is this noble commitment to the complexity of the relationship between faith and reason that in part drives Eagleton’s distaste for Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their ilk.
Eagleton argues that the source of both the intellectual arrogance and political error of the New Atheists and their less noisy forebears – the “liberal rationalists” – is a failed understanding of the quarrelsome fraternity of faith and reason. People like Hitchens and Dawkins, or “Ditchkins” as Eagleton dubs their composite, think that their own beliefs are formed through reason whereas their opponents have arrived at their commitments through faith, which the New Atheists use as a synonym for thoughtlessness. Eagleton counters that reason does not “go all the way down” and that much of what we do and think, even the most hard-headed of scientists among us, is motivated by faith and not in spite of it. He points out that “a great deal of what we believe we do not know firsthand; instead, we have faith in the knowledge of specialists.” We are necessarily dependent on truths that lie outside ourselves, ones we cannot and do not verify.
Eagleton points repeatedly to the example of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, who believed that reason was only available to us thanks to God’s love for us, and our reciprocal love for him – our faith in his grace. This marriage of modern skepticism with Christian apologetics is not unique – Pope Benedict XVI kicked off his papacy with an encyclical to the same vein. But it is effective at putting religion in a relation to modern secular thought that is not at all antithetical. Rather, as our secular confidence in absolute truth wanes, religious truth, which always began from a sense of man’s limitations, looks prescient.
To explore what it means to say that reason does not go all the way down is to confront the problem of contingency. And in fact, the heart of Eagleton’s book is not so much a polemic against the New Atheists as an attempt to offer an account of the contingency of human reason which does not slip into relativism. Eagleton’s ultimate goal is actually political: he wants the socialist Left to rejuvenate itself with a mild faith, one that insists on love as a political principle and which remains hopeful about the possibility of social transformation. To this end, Eagleton needs to be correct in his normative outlook, even as he inveighs against the confidence of reactionary absolutists of both the secular and the religious persuasions. True relativism is devastating to any prescriptive project. In order to undermine his enemies, he must show why their confidence is unwarranted. But in order to put forward his positive program, he must not kick out his own soapbox. After discussing the multiple perspectives and interpretations people can have of any set of facts, Eagleton writes:
We might note, by the way, the difference between this and the dubious notion that reason can take us so far, after which an existential leap into the dark proves essential.
This caveat about “the dubious notion that reason can take us so far, after which an existential leap into the dark proves essential” is the thorn in Eagleton’s side. He calls the notion dubious but he never explains the alternative. This is the failure of his project. Relativism and faith are the two great vindications of the truth of human subjectivity. Neither the New Atheists nor a host of liberal or socialist or communitarian thinkers have chosen to deal with the appeal, perhaps the necessity, of these vindications.
What Eagleton does offer, in his first chapter “The Scum of the Earth,” is his own version of faith that doubles as a form of political Christianity, intended to serve as a cure for our age. He acknowledges that this brew is not what Christianity has always been or is today for the vast majority of its practitioners. But this nonetheless “orthodox” Christianity is attractive in a world where both the extremely secular and the extremely religious turn their backs on the socialist project most dear to Eagleton. At the root of Eagleton’s Christianity is a particular kind of love:
For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus the law is revelaed to be the law of love and mercy . . . The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarty with what the Bible calls the anawim, meaning the destitute and dispossessed. Crucifixion was reserved by the Romans for political offenses alone. The anawim, in Pauline phrase, are the shit of the earth – the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God.
Eagleton seeks to make the political implications of the God Debates explicit and extreme. Eagleton’s Christianity holds that “love is the focal point of human history,” and the martyred “political criminal” Christ is the great image of this love. One reason why “the Christian faith makes no sense to a great many modern men and women,” including men like Hitchens and Dawkins, is that “we live in an age” when love has been “privatized”:
For the liberal humanist legacy to which Ditchkins is indebted, love can really be understood only in personal terms. It is not an item in his political lexicon, and would sound merely embarrassing were it to turn up there. For the liberal tradition, what seems to many men and women to lie at the core of human existence has a peripheral place in the affairs of the world, however vital role it may play in the private life. The concept of political love, one imagines, would make little sense to Ditchkins. Yet something like this is the ethical basis for socialism.
Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris
Eagleton’s defense of religion is thus first and foremost an attempt to resuscitate a politics in decline and disrepute. And, contrary to the New Atheists’ more typical detractors, Eagleton reserves some of his deepest scorn for the New Atheists’ politics. Eagleton explains that his “antagonism” toward folks like Hitchens and Dawkins “is quite as much political as theological.” The “difference between Ditchkins and radicals like myself also hinges on whether it is true that the ultimate signifier of the human condition is the tortured and murdered body of a political criminal, and what the implications of this are for the living.” The rhythm of Eagleton’s prose in this first chapter beats a radical tattoo: everything good and politically correct is radical, transformative, climacteric, “flayed”; political evil is banal:
Christian faith, as I understand it, it is not primarily a matter of signing on for the proposition that there exists a Supreme Being, but the kind of commitment made manifest 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 trouble with the Dawkinses of this world, however, is that they do not find themselves in a frightful situation at all.
What is at stake here is not a prudently reformist project of pouring new wine into old bottles, but an avant-gardist epiphany of the absolutely new – of a regime so revolutionary as to surpass all image and utterance, a reign of justice and fellowship which for the Gospel writers is even now striking into this bankrupt, dépassé, washed-up world. No middle-ground is permitted here: the choice between justice and the powers of this world is stark and absolute, a matter of fundamental conflict . . . Jesus does not seem to be any sort of liberal, which is no doubt one grudge Ditchkins holds against him.
Eagleton’s rejection of the middle ground here is ironic. Underneath his often mocking tone, Eagleton’s criticisms of the New Atheists’ absolutism are frequently dead-on. But he has chosen easy prey. Absolutism of any kind is very hard to justify. The West has spent three thousand years developing stiff skeptical challenges to the kinds of certainty in which the crusader trades. Eagleton wields these skeptical tools well when he chooses to. But given that Eagleton’s project is not at heart negative – a critique of cartoonish beliefs – but positive – the espousal of a massive political, social and spiritual program – his real enemy lies elsewhere. Indeed, it is exactly the same enemy which the absolutists exist to oppose: pluralism, or what Eagleton often vaguely terms “postmodernism.” (What I mean here by pluralism is the belief that there are many truths, some of which will be absolutely incompatible with one another but nonetheless true.) Eagleton knows that just as much as religious and secular absolutists are a threat to his vision of a reasonable kind of belief inclining us toward leftist politics, the greatest threat to such a program is the egalitarian acid of radical doubt. How does Eagleton know his moral and political intuitions are better than anyone else’s?
Absolutism and pluralism are intimately related. If you accept one truth as absolutely true, then you face a choice when confronted with an inconsistent or conflicting truth claim. Either you accept that truth claim as also being true, just not true for you or for a particular context; or you declare the conflicting truth claim actually to be false. If you follow the former path, you are a pluralist; if you follow the latter path, you are an absolutist. Interestingly, then, holding strong, specific beliefs does not insure that you will be an absolutist. It does, however, make it very likely that you will have to make the stark choice between absolutism and pluralism. The way to avoid that choice is to hedge about your beliefs, to try to make them vague enough that they will not commit you to too many disagreements with directly contradictory truth claims.
Eagleton’s political project is not unusual in requiring a rejection of both pluralism and absolutism. If he wields his socialist Christianity absolutely, it will undermine its own ambitions of creating relatively tolerant and universalist community. But if he wields it pluralistically then he cannot justify his attacks on absolutists with recourse to some universal standard of rationality. So he has to hedge – that is, find a very large middle ground.
We can see Eagleton’s hedging begin toward the end of the first chapter. Referring to his account of Christianity, he writes that he is not “necessarily proposing it as true, for the excellent reason that it may very well not be. It may be no more plausible than the tooth fairy.” But, he continues, “even if the account I have given of it is not literally true, it may still serve as an allegory of our political and historical condition.” Eagleton repeatedly seeks to distinguish his politically-charged Christianity from the actual follies of evangelicals, Mormons, Islamic terrorists, and “suburban” believers: “What [religious belief] has going for it, to be sure, may not be what those who hold the doctrine consider it to be; but there are many possibilities between this and pure garbage. It ought always to be possible to extract the rational kernel from the mystical shell.” Indeed the real problem with Ditchkins is not their rejection of belief at all. “Plenty of people repudiate God for eminently creditable reasons; but as far as this point goes, Ditchkins rejects him for reasons which are boring and politically disreputable.”
While Eagleton supposedly embraces the extremity of Christianity as a political project, he is wary of its potential metaphysical commitments. Eagleton, just like the liberals he elsewhere decries, anathematizes the mystical, the irrational, the exuberant – except when it comes to leftist politics, which may be exuberant because they are axiomatically rational. The charitable way of stating his position is that what Eagleton prizes about religion is its potential for transforming the here and now:
Faith is not primarily a belief that something or someone exists, but a commitment and allegiance – faith in something which might make a difference to the frightful situation you find yourself in, as is the case say with faith in feminism or anticolonialism.
Put like this, Eagleton sounds like a pragmatic theologian, in the American tradition of William James. For James, the truth of religion was in its transformative potential in the lives of adherents. But the difference between Eagleton and James is that James was willing to take the radical nature of this pragmatic truth at its word. If truth is revealed as personal transformation – an overcoming of “the frightful situation” that Eagleton movingly describes – then that truth must always remain bound to a particular, subjective reality. Such a truth is no less real for being subjective but it is subjective nonetheless – we will each have our own truth. (This is so even if we have gained our truth from revelation. We know the truth is absolutely true. But our fellow man can still doubt us. The history of the prophets is the history of this great encounter and irreducible divide between the competing realities of absolute truth on the one hand and mortal justification on the other.)
Eagleton’s easy moralism and socialist dreams do not countenance the metaphysical and epistemological humility that results from this pluralistic picture. He loves the social possibilities of religion, but does not adequately deal with the inevitable tension between these possibilities and the maelstrom of interiority which provides both the mysterious precondition and frustrating stumbling-block for community. The personal commitment to a reality beyond all being may, in its dedication, unite people who share that commitment. The more intense the commitment, the more united people may become. But at the same time, the more this act of commitment is glorified, the more singular and all-important the individual act becomes. Glorifying God can inculcate humility, justice, peace, community. But even at its ethical best, such worship also may fill the glorifier with a new font of power, with a sense of radical singularity. At the heart of religion is a tension between public and private truth. This tension has been at work throughout history, from the binding of Isaac to the Reformation to Vatican II. It may not be logically – or spiritually – irresolvable. But our mortal species has not resolved it.
In search of his reasonable, publicly useful religion, Eagleton attacks the excesses of subjectivism and voluntarism – the notions that truth is anchored in our own subjectivities and that our wills craft our realities. Like the religious fundamentalists he elsewhere opposes, Eagleton sees in modern Western society a foolish Prometheanism:
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 certainly is one of the driving forces of Western neo-imperialism today.
For orthodox Christian doctrine, it is our dependence on God that allows us to be self-determining, as it is our dependence on language or history or culture which allows us to come into our own as persons. God for Thomas Aquinas is the power that allows us to be ourselves, rather as the love of parents allows us to be ourselves.
But Eagleton is stuck here. He rejects the idea that we can shape our reality or pick our truths, but he also wants to reject determinism – of the naturalistic or supernatural or culturally relativistic kind. Eagleton needs to believe in personal freedom and objective truth. He cannot condemn the screaming hordes of reactionaries, neo-Imperialists, and greedy capitalists that surround him if he doesn’t think they are fundamentally in error. If what we understand to be true stems from our surroundings or our God, how are we responsible for our beliefs, and how can we ever say someone else’s beliefs are wrong?
It is one of the greatest traditions of Western theology to argue that there is a kind of middle ground between pure freedom and pure determinism, absolute knowledge and human limitation – encapsulated in the idea that God gave us the gifts of freedom and reason. This paradox of the gift – by which we come to our autonomy through dependency – lies at the heart of Western religious thought. Eagleton acknowledges the importance of the gift: “The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not.” And he often seems partial to the gift account, noting the relationship between rationality and faith, freedom and dependency.
But to embrace the paradox of the gift may require a belief in a transcendent reality that exceeds the reality of a nature, where freedom and dependency appear at odds. This belief can only be accessed by faith, and faith is what cannot be ultimately justified to the unbelieving. The religious attainment of confidence in our freedom and rationality will thus always look like enslavement and irrationality from the outside. In the religious solution to the problem of contingency, objectivity comes at the cost of itself. Relativism is vanquished for the believer, but no one but believers will believe him. Eagleton himself is not prepared to make the kind of metaphysical commitment to a transcendent reality that can bootstrap the human out of relativism. He wants the middle ground without the divine solution.
Eagleton’s assertion that reason does not go all the way down invokes the logic of the gift. Something precedes our clarity. The problem with understanding this as faith, as something that is accessed by our subjectivity, is that if our faiths differ, how can we reconcile or judge them? An insistence on the importance of faith for reason quickly slips in an affirmation of radical pluralism. As Eagleton recognizes: “To claim that reason does not go all the way down, yet not thereby to cave in to irrationalism, is as hard for the political radical as it is for the Freudian or theologian.”
When, for instance, Christopher Hitchens writes mantra-like of his secular liberal brethren, “We distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason,” Eagleton rightly jumps in: “science contradicts itself all the time, and this is known as scientific progress.” But after reiterating that Hitchens could not possibly justify the objective truth of all of his beliefs, Eagleton introduces a similarly unjustifiable distinction:
Hitchens fails to distinguish between reasonable beliefs and unreasonable. His belief that one should distrust anything that outrages reason is one example of a reasonable belief, while his belief that all belief is blind is an example of an unreasonable one.
What is the criterion of reasonableness? That seems to be the central question lurking behind every page, and Eagleton endlessly makes a beggar of it. For instance, “There are legitimate disputes over the nature and status of rationality itself, which are far from involving a surrender to irrationalism.” Such legitimate debate topics, Eagleton explains, would be “to what extent, for example, reason encompasses the aesthetic, imaginative, intuitive, sensuous and affective; in what sense it might be a dialogical affair; what counts as a rational foundation; whether reason inherently implicates values of freedom, autonomy, and self-determination; and whether it substantive or procedural, axiomatic or constestable, instrumental or autotelic.” That’s quite a list. Given all the different things that reason might be like, it is hard to see how Eagleton plans to police the thick boundary abutting the “irrational.”
He gets in even deeper water when he searches for some general criterion under which we all might reasonably fit, regardless of our specific versions of rationality: “We reason as we do because of the kind of material creatures we are. We are reasonable because we are animals, not despite being.” This is a fine, naturalistic statement, one, incidentally, people like Dawkins and Hitchens would heartily agree with. But what help does it provide? The disputes that matter to us – the ones where we, like Eagleton, so often accuse others of irrationality – are the ones that we animals have with each other. Our animality may be the minimum for rationality but it certainly cannot be decisive in what we think is reasonable or not, or all of us humans would be in constant concord.
In the end, Eagleton is not happy with either classically religious or purely naturalistic accounts of the relationship between reason and whatever establishes for us what reason is and what kinds of reasons will be reasonable. Instead, he offers up the approach of a modern French philosopher, Alain Badiou:
Badiou grasps the point that the kind of truth involved in acts of faith is neither independent of propositional truth nor reducible to it. Faith for him consists in a tenacious loyalty to what he calls an ‘event’ – an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history, and which is unnameable and ungraspable within the context in which it occurs.
For Badiou, one becomes an authentic human subject, as opposed to a mere anonymous member of the biological species, through one’s passionate allegiance to such a revelation.
There is no truth event without the decisive act of a subject (only a subject can affirm that a truth event has actually taken place), which is not to say that such events are merely subjective. But there is also no subject other than one brought to birth by its fidelity to this disclosure. Truths and subjects are born at a stroke.
Alain Badiou; photo by Voranc Vogel
Badiou is in many ways the French response to American neopragmatists like Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, for whom Eagleton reserves some dismissive and conclusory criticisms in his final chapter. Unlike Rorty and Fish, however, Badiou vividly retains that residue of Judeo-Christian thinking that so compels Eagleton – the idea that we must usher the foundations of our reason into our lives through an act of commitment or even submission. But he does not offer any solution to the problem to which this dependency leads if we do not accept that there is only one all-knowing, all-organizing God or Principle, the ultimate and only true foundation.
If we, like Badiou, think there are many events, then we seem to be committed to an inherently pluralistic picture of truth. If we, like the absolutists Eagleton decries, think that there is only one true event – whether it is the crucifixion or the discovery of the double helix – then we can have a monistic picture of the world and be comfortable in the rectitude of our reasons. Eagleton sides with Badiou here, and yet he sees fit throughout his book to dismiss a whole variety of believers as irrational, pathological, and unworthy of the consideration of good, reasonable men. As usual, one asks, on what ground does Eagleton make these charges?
What Eagleton, like Badiou, has done is adopt the style of late-model Christianity in order to resist the excesses of both hyperrationalists and religious fundamentalists. But the logic of faith cannot sustain itself with formal tricks. Eagleton at one point triumphantly writes: “Like divine grace, a truth event represents an invitation which is available to everyone. Before the truth, we are equal.” But divine grace works in this way because there is only one divine grace, or at least only one source of it.
And whereas neither Badiou nor Eagleton make clear what we are before the event, under a traditional Christian account, God precedes the event of grace. It is his will which both creates and imbues that creation with grace. Badiou’s theory of the event does not have this antecedent act of creation. It is groundless. Which is not to say it is wrong. On the contrary, it may well be right. But its correctness will commit Eagleton to the kind of pluralism he is so eager to avoid – the kind that prevents him from adducing some general metric of rationality or sanity by which he can judge his political enemies as “irrational” or “pathological.”
Even more disappointing than Eagleton’s unwarranted proclamation of his own pre-eminent rationality is what this zeal for a partisan reasonableness does to other concepts he supposedly holds dear. As he recalls again the Christian vision of truth through love of God, he writes, “For Augustine and Aquinas, love is the precondition of truth: we seek truth because our material bodies manifest a built-in, ineradicable desire for it, a desire which is an expression of our longing for God.” Eagleton likes this story and it accords with his ideal of love as a central political principle. But just as his vision of public love needs to attack the romantic, privatized love of the maligned bourgeoisie, when Eagleton coopts the Christian idea of longing for God, he becomes not so much a heretic as a puritan and a bore. Unlike incarnation theology, which eroticizes and personalizes truth, Eagleton’s approach turns love into a procedure of verification. This is the numbed end to which Eagleton’s secular appropriation of religious argument leads:
only love (of which faith is a particular form) can achieve the well-nigh impossible goal of seeing a situation as it really is, shorn of both the brittle enchantments of romance and the disheveled fantasies of desire. . . . Love is the ultimate form of soberly disenchanted realism, which is why it is the twin of truth.
After reading these lines, we understand the lure of fundamentalism. Confronted with the possibility of total relativity or meaninglessness, Eagleton has chosen the most depressing of pieties – the worship of an alien, bloodless reason. In this, he is the twin of the liberalism he frequently attacks for its political sins. His pseudo-religion, however extreme its “liberation theology,” is as repressive and narrow as any conformity could be. Eagleton may be right that New Atheists and religious fanatics are similar in their stubbornness. But Eagleton is just as stubborn. What makes his opponents different from him is not their dogged certainty that they are right. He too is certain of his truth. The difference is that fundamentalists offer enchanting stories about why they are right. Eagleton is a self-described radical, but his account of how he has come by his own truths is so diffident, so unappealing, and so inconsistent, it is no wonder that new fundamentalisms have arisen to oppose the half-measures of Eagleton’s yesterday’s news.
The reason both extreme scientism and religious fundamentalism appeal is that the alternatives – liberalism or humanism or socialism – do not have a story to tell about the exhaustion of the West’s three-thousand year struggle with epistemology. Why can’t we convince each other of the truths that matter most to us? There is no proof waiting for us at the end of our debates. Eagleton’s book reminds us that it is not only extremists who claim certainty. Everyone is entranced by the mysterious answers forever hovering above the drama of dialogue. Modern extremism arose, in part, as a reaction to the self-professedly moderates’ unconvincing, and sometimes coercive, attempts to demystify these answers. In Eagleton’s book, we find reflected not the future of the God debates, but their origin.
Jeremy Kessler is a student at Yale Law School. Previously, he studied the history and philosophy of science at King’s College, Cambridge and literature at Yale College. Jeremy was born and raised in Queens, NY.