atheism, Terry Eagleton

Eagleton on Dawkins

I’ve mentioned on this blog in passing, Terry Eagleton’s fantastic slam of Richard Dawkins in the London Review of Books some years back. I’ve also recommended the review quite often in person. However, I neglected to give the piece its due on the blog here. A gross mistake I am attempting to rectify. So below is a quote, but please read the entire thing over at the London Review of Books. It is a great piece.

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

… Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.


11 thoughts on “Eagleton on Dawkins

    • The article in Commonweal backs up my presentation for Calvin. And I do like the idea of being able to say, Eagleton says something similar. As for this post, I simply forgot to mention this one earlier.

  1. John R says:

    My favorite line:

    “We have it from the mouth of Mr Public Science himself that aside from a few local, temporary hiccups like ecological disasters, famine, ethnic wars and nuclear wastelands, History is perpetually on the up.”

  2. Good critique. Now I have somewhere to point people who ask me about Dawkins. I don’t want to waste my time addressing him. Thanks for sharing.

    What was “the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator” all about? What the hell?

  3. dave says:

    I’ve always heard Eagleton talked about as a “Catholic Marxist,” but I’ve never seen anything to really back that up (I mean that I’ve never read or heard Eagleton himself talk in this kind of a way).

    I agree that it is a great piece. Another Eagleton work that I enjoyed as his short book on “The Meaning of Life” in the Oxford VSI series.

  4. Michael Westmoreland-White says:

    I dcn’t like Dawkins or the rest of the new “angry athiests,” but why should we “slam” him? Doesn’t this give him more press than he deserves?

  5. Chris Lawrence says:

    Hi there,

    I read Terry Eagleton’s review a number of times. Although he clearly objected to a lot of what was written in The God Delusion, it was less clear to me what Eagleton’s own position was. So I took the liberty of writing to him. He was kind enough to reply, & I responded again.

    If you are interested in seeing my letters & a summary of his response please visit Eagleton on Dawkins.

    Chris Lawrence.
    thinking makes it so

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