Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith and Revolution

Religion / Science

Stanley Fish, writing on his blog “God Talk” over on the New York Times website has a lovely essay discussing a new book by Terry Eagleton. The book deals with the dual roles of Faith and Science in contemporary society, and apparently takes on critics of religious thought like Christopher Hitchens directly.

“[T]he fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of ‘the telescope and the microscope’ religion ‘no longer offers an explanation of anything important,’ Eagleton replies, ‘But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.’

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: ‘[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.’ Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: ‘The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.’ Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead ‘adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress’ and put their baseless ‘trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.’”

Read the full article here.

Not having read the book, but intuiting from Fish, it appears that Eagleton’s criticism of scientism is that it has an inadequate anthropology. (To borrow a turn of phrase from Paul Zahl.)

The end of Fish’s essay though warns that Eagleton’s rhetoric becomes increasingly angrier as the book progresses. Fish thinks it’s because of Eagleton’s frustration with the simplistic thinking of those arguing for scientism.

But, either way, the book might well be worth the read.d I’m putting it on my to-read list. Hopefully I can get to it some time this summer.

Thanks to Prof. Hsieh for the pointer.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I saw something else about this book recently, and am looking forward to reading it. However, I would add the caveat that the book of Eagleton’s I read in college, The Idea of Culture, was the worst kind of useless academic socio-cultural-literary babble. In fact, I read it in a comparative literature class, and the professor was using it as an example of poor critical methodology. That being said, I am very pleased to see a formal academic response to Hitchens (and Dawkins).

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