Review: Reason, Faith, and Revolution

9780300151794Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Review by Gary Presley

Terry Eagleton opens his defense of humankind’s God-search with “Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs.”

Be you evangelical, fundamentalist, mainline Protestant, Orthodox Jew or Reformed Jew, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, or even a theo-centric Muslim, you might sigh and wonder what sort of ally has enlisted in the defense of the divine.

No need to worry. By page two, Eagleton says “…I may know just about enough theology to be able to spot when someone like Richard Dawkins or Christoper Hitchens, a couple I shall henceforth for convenience reduce to the single signifier ‘Ditchkins,’ is talking out of the back of his neck.”

That’s the impetus for this short book: a response to two popular tomes authored by the evangelical atheists Dawkins and Hitchens. Only a few pages in, a reader begins to see the author’s least favorite of the pair is Dawkins, a man whose opinions he apparently cannot tolerate, and finds gleefully easy to denigrate.

“…let me draw a contrast between the stylish, entertaining, and splendidly impassioned, and compulsively readable quality of the former’s God Is Not Great and Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which merits absolutely none of these epithets.”

In a few short pages, though, Eagleton reveals he also is willing to pillory the righteous, which he finds most prevalent in American Christianity, in most of its forms.

Jesus was a social, cultural, and political revolutionary, the author writes, and an apocalyptic one at that. Eagleton’s theology posits a true follower of the Nazarene carpenter must live out the Truth of God: love and mercy; justice and compassion. Eagleton believes understanding and accepting that the holy truth message left Jesus a flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary is central to living in faith.

Eagleton writes plainly, but his arguments are a tightly knit garment woven from threads of mysticism and strands of liberation theology. The book is an adaptation of lectures he gave at the invitation of Yale University as part of the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy. It is presented in four parts: “The Scum of the Earth;” “The Revolution Betrayed;” “Faith and Reason;” “Culture and Barbarism.” The author joined good company, for the Terry lectures have featured Paul Tillich, Erich Fromm, and Carl G. Jung among others.

Eagleton is a literary critic, but his style here incorporates the unsheathed blade that entertains us when CSPAN televises the activities of the British House of Commons. That can occasionally come across as too witty by half, as if the author might be extending a point merely to inflict one more cut. Deep into Eagleton’s argument, the appellation of “Ditchkins” even begins to wear on a reader, becoming almost a schoolyard taunt.

Despite its slim size, the book is inordinately thick with intellectual concepts. Eagleton sees Jesus as the divine presence of God on earth, and he preaches Christ’s message in a tightly reasoned liberation theology-cum-socialism. Much of the author’s argument requires the reader to stop, re-read, and even close the book in contemplation. The power, complexity, and originality of Eagleton’s apologia will find an eager audience only among the intelligent, the open-minded, and the curious.

This is especially so when a reader is confronted with matters such as Eagleton’s view of the truth of the Christ’s life and message.

The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.

With that, the reader finds the heart of Eagleton’s argument, albeit one few fundamentalists or evangelicals or Protestants or Mass-attending Catholics or Eastern Orthodox will share. Why? Because Eagleton seems to show little concern for a Jesus who walked on water or turned water to wine. Eagleton sees Jesus and his revolutionary message of love and justice as miracle enough, especially when compared to Hitchens’s and Dawkins’s faith in mankind’s progress through the mechanics of secular humanism, the great machine that produces antibiotics and stem-cell research, the integrated circuit and the internet, free speech and assembly and racial integration.

And Auschwitz.

He refers to Hitchens and Dawkins as “astonishingly tight-lipped about the cock-ups and catastrophes of science…“

One of the more straightforward and closely reasoned arguments against the liberal establishment’s position that Islam (as a religion) is at war with the Enlightenment.

“It is rather that, without the vast concentration camp known as the Gaza Strip, it is not all out of the question that the Twin Towers would still be standing.”

Eagleton then traces anti-western sentiments to the CIA’s part in bringing the shah to power in Iran and to our support for Wahhabbi feudalism in the Arabic pennisula. Why? Perhaps we can point to a colonial-like search for raw material and markets.

“Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic … Modern market societies tend to be secular, relativist, pragmatic, and materialistic.”

This side of the Atlantic we add religion to the mix whenever we want to spice up an argument. Evolution? Intelligent design? Is it a baby or simply a fetus? Eagleton thinks little of that sort thing.

“This brand of piety is horrified at the sight of a female breast but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor.”

For me, the most difficult segment was “Faith and Reason.” I quickly grasped his argument that atheists and agnostics have too much faith in reason; or to state it conversely, reason requires faith. But then Eagleton presents a thesis that God is “not a possible object of cognition,” and “that faith is for most part performative rather than propositional.”

Does that mean that we prove God exists by acting in love and compassion, justice and mercy? The issue is further dissected when the author discusses “knowledge” and “belief,” and suggests the “reduction of belief to positive knowledge” destroys the truths to be found in faith.

Readers interested in He Who Was Before the Big Bang and She Who Lives Beyond the Universe’s Edge will find the author’s work is erudite and powerful and will profit from reading and thinking about his thesis.

This review originally appeared in The Internet Review of Books under the title Defending the Divine.

Related Links:
Terry Lecture series at Yale on YouTube (the lectures the book is based off of)
Terry Eagleton on Wikipedia

About the Author

25 Responses to Review: Reason, Faith, and Revolution

  1. The issue is further dissected when the author discusses “knowledge” and “belief,” and suggests the “reduction of belief to positive knowledge” destroys the truths to be found in faith.

    I did not quite get the meaning of the sentence. His definition of belief is not clear to me. Some theologians distinguish between faith and belief but maybe here they are synonymous.

  2. He seems to be saying that because God is not an act of cognition (not a mental conjecture) and faith is performative (a call to action) and not propositional (a statement that expresses a concept that can be true or false), therefore reducing faith to merely positive knowledge (an mere act of congnition) takes the life out of faith. So faith involves an act of cognition but constitutes much more than that.

    But is would be helpful to read it in its greater context.

  3. Some of the comments on that link are worth considering. One of the readers feels that the author should be clear about what kind of reason he is attacking. It is the reason based on the naturalistic or reductionist model.The faith tied to this reason is that the naturalistic model tested through empirical examination gives the best access to truth.

    I have come across a good argument about how thinking of this naturalistic faith based reason as the best means to get to the truth is flawed. This thinking which is called “rationalism” in Dawkins’s words is incompatible with the evolution theory in its raw form. According to the evolution theory, human intelligence is not anything special that has been carved or designed to discover methods to unravel the truth. The combination of random undirected mutations and natural selection leads to generation of intelligence fine tuned to survival rather than objective truth. So it can said that placing the value of empirical data over everything else is more to to do with human survival than unraveling of absolute truth.
    So using intelligence in this “rational” way may not mean that we are getting closer to understanding the nature in itself what to speak of transcendent Godhead. So rationalism and evolution are incompatible and every person including Mr Dawkins has to live a life with contradictory and circular logic. He should stop attacking religion through his logic and examine his own thoughts with the same lens of objectivity.
    If the above though looks interesting then I can write something about it.

    It makes sense that anything that values empirical data can fulfill the desires and craves of the animal needs of a human. But only genuine spiritual experience can fulfill the needs of the human heart.

  4. Intelligence is the ability to solve problems – from obtaining food from a tall jar to designing a space suit. It is something observable, just like survival. Animals and plants are content with basic existential survival, humans also search for the meaning of their life. If we see this search for meaning as a problem than the intelligence is required to solve it. When is that problem solved? When an individual preceives and understands the meaning of his life.

    Some people see the meaning of their life in helping others avoid what they see as ‘existential traps’, or pursuing a goal that is of no value. For some religious minded people pursuing material happiness is of no value. For the atheists, pursuing a religion is of no value. The way they see it, religion is a very easy con game, because it is selling a product to be delivered only after death. I am not an atheist but I can see their point. Religion CAN be a big con game. Here is one extreme example: when somebody tells you to kill others in a suicide bombing so that you may enjoy in heaven, that is is most certainly cheating, and you are a fool to buy such an idiotic concept. Here is an example much more common and less extreme: when religious leaders sweet-talk people into giving them money and power so they may live an easy life of luxury and privilege, that is cheating as well.

    IMO atheists do have a valid point when they criticize religions. And the way to address it is not by attacking their philosophy but by showing the existential value of religion and spirituality.

  5. I don’t get your point. Yes intelligence is required to search for meaning of life, but it alone won’t get you far. One’s heart or faith has to be in the right place for the intelligence to have value. Your faith in the naturalistic reductionist model has to be broken in order for you to find deeper meaning in life. After exploring the limits of your intelligence you will realize the importance of grace. “The absolute truth cannot be unknown until it decides to reveal itself”. Then intelligence will be tempered with humility, sincere inquiry and prayer and we can get somewhere. I feel right now you trust your intelligence too much. You need to read mathematical logic,axiom of Choice and godel’s incompleteness theorem to see how the most sophisticated logic and intelligence cannot give you conclusive answers.
    Science is not a search for meaning of life, and according to science such questions are meaningless. These are why questions and they need to eliminated according to many scientists.
    Genuinely spiritual people are interested in finding the mystic not some show-bottle religion that you are talking about. Just delve into the core of religion and ignore the periphery.

  6. I think that there is a need to attack the philosophy if you are dealing with an arrogant person like Hitchens who thinks that religious people are irrational and he is smart enough to have figured out everything . Smartness is a function of the time you live in: when Gauss and Newton were there being an atheist was not smart.
    Obviously if the atheist has a lack of faith in religion but is not trident and disrespectful like Hitchens, a different approach can be adopted.

  7. Gaura-ji, IMO everything is verified by practical experience, and that includes spirituality. If the path you are on does not satisfy your heart and your innermost aspirations in this life, what guarantee do you have that somehow it will do so after you die?

    Real spirituality can and should be experienced in this lifetime – that is the proof you are on the right path. It is not that I overly trust my intelligence – I trust my experience and I have faith in the results that can be experienced. That is by no means limited to material items as our consciousness and perception are not limited to material experiences only. Yet I refuse to believe in things that directly contradict that experience. I may try them initially to be evaluated but if the experience is negative I see no reason to have faith in them.

    Therefore, based on my experience, whenever you talk to people who have a different value system I see that you must first address their concerns or you will be ignored. You can speak to them about ‘absolute truth’ all you want, but they will not listen. They will be open to trying your path (acquire the experience) only if you convince them that there is value in it. When atheists see confused, fanatical, unhappy, conflicted spiritualists why should they consider spirituality a path worth exploring? After all this is the prevalent face of religion today and in historical times. Religious wars, religious bigotry, religious hatred, religious discrimination are a significant part of the recorded human history.

    You have to present the positive, practical, satisfying side of spirituality in order attract sceptics. Showing the fallacies of their philosophy is useful but it must be done in conjunction with presentation of the positive alternative using the language and arguments these people can understand and relate to.

    Right now even most of the people initially interested in taking up the path of Krsna consciousness give up this process after a short time. What makes you think that the current approach in our preaching will be effective with true sceptics and hardline materialists? The practical experience does not support such a belief.

  8. On the subject of Revolution…
    As a well known song says:

    “You say you got a real solution
    Well, you know
    We’d all love to see the plan
    You ask me for a contribution
    Well, you know
    We’re doing what we can
    But when you want money
    for people with minds that hate
    All I can tell is brother you have to wait
    You say you’ll change the constitution
    Well, you know
    We all want to change your head
    You tell me it’s the institution
    Well, you know
    You better free you mind instead
    But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
    You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow…”

    That captures the sceptical spirit most mature thinking people have when it comes to revolutions. In the name of “Christian Revolution” untold miseries were inflicted on millions of people over the span of two thousand years. The communist revolutions were just as bad… all in the name of ‘love and justice’.

    We do not need revolutions. We need practical alternatives that people can take inspiration from to change their lives for the better. We need to show people how happy we are living the ideal life we preach about.

    If after some 40 years we can’t produce a tangible proof of the superiority of our chosen path perhaps we need to look at that path again, this time using a more critical approach. Don’t tell me. Show me how it is done.

    • Revolutions do not need to be violent ones and I seriously doubt the author is suggesting such.

      The superiority of any spiritual path can also be determined by its philosophical/theological/aesthetic reach, despite the fact that attaining its summit is rare. The failures of Gauidya Vaisnavism are all explainable within the context of the path itself. It suffers largely from a lack of genuine spiritual leadership, and this lacking can to a large extent be traced to serious Vaisnava aparadha.

      Here is where Lennon went wrong:

      “Don’t you know it’s gonna be

      Things are not alright, and they never will be without a revolution in the realm of thought. Of course one shoud walk their talk and example speaks louder than precept, but must devotees do not even understand the precept yet. Thus the need for philosophy.

      • I think that all revolutions carry an element of violence (or at least intense pressure), including ours.

        Gaudiya Vaishnavism exists in a very real and tangible form of it’s preaching missions and their followers. That observable manifestation can be evaluated for success of failure in a number of ways.

        I think our revolution failed (or at least stalled in a major way) because we have made the same mistakes other revolutions made. The money was taken for ‘people with minds that hate’, we tried to explain our failures by blaming ‘the institution’, and we went around with portraits of our infallible leader who supposedly has a solution for every problem ailing mankind, like a typical personality cult movement that most people fear.

        Yes, it was a failure of the leadership, as is typical for most revolutions. Unqualified people making crucial decisions affecting lives of other people in an almost totalitarian way. Dogmatism removing both pragmatism and common sense.

        Another reason for this failure might be the adoption of the ‘end justifies the means’ doctrine by our movement, which is also a typical feature of the revolutions. All kinds of questionable practices were justified in the name of the revolution, leading to serious abuses of power, truth, and trust.

        The aparadha part, IMO, was a side effect of these two main factors. Revolutionaries usually believe that they have the exclusive patent to being right all the time and that makes everybody else and their approach… wrong. And because the end justifies the means, you can use anything you want to destroy those who stand in your way, including lies, slander, deception, and even physical threats.

        Gaudiya Vaishnavism may have the best philosophy and the best religious doctrine but some of its followers make it very hard for others to see the value of this path. If a path produces an abundance of such negative followers that is certainly reflected on its value to most people. It will take a lot of effort to change that perception and I am glad that some Gaudiya Vaishnava leaders like yourself are working on it.

        • It will take a lot of effort to change that perception and I am glad that some Gaudiya Vaishnava leaders like yourself are working on it.

          We need your help!

        • I am sorry if what I write seems negative. I would love to see the ideas of Gaudiya Vaishnavism spread among the people in general as they have a very high intrinsic value IMO. My intent is to encourage what can be labeled as ‘more rational approach’ in both philosophy and practice.

        • This is a fantastic analysis, IMO.

    • Luke Matthewson

      If after some 40 years we can’t produce a tangible proof of the superiority of our chosen path perhaps we need to look at that path again, this time using a more critical approach. Don’t tell me. Show me how it is done.

      Perhaps is wrong to claim superiority. On which basis and why? Claiming superiority over something else to me looks so much like a komala sraddha worldview and approach. It’s very prominent in movements and institutions. Isn’t it a time we go over such a view? Aesthetic vedanta is a way of conquering oneself, and not the world.

        is a link about a Madhava saint Vyasa tirtha, who is mentioned in Gaudiya disciplic succession also. And it was refreshing to to read about his dealings with people from other sects:advaita and visistiadvaita. Although fixed in his philosophy he was warm to his opponents. Maybe in a similar way in which chaitanya mahaprabhu was to sarvabhauma.

        • Yes, thank you for the link. I’m glad you’ve mentioned the examples of Chaitanya and Sarvabhauma, because it’s important. We find something very unique in that case. Chaitanya did show exemplary humility and tolerance, but Chaitanya didn’t disapprove Sarvabhuamas conclusions with some old worldview or dogmatic stick wielding, but rather with a higher synthesis with the help of his own deep insights.

          Sarvabhauma was not an idiot, for sure, but he was unprepared for something new, for unexpected new conclusions Chaitanya offered.

          In my opinion that’s the only way you can tell something to people today. If you want to preach, or offer an advice, follow that example. Make a higher synthesis of everything available, but in a inspired new way. Your inspiration must then come from insights in contemporary mathematics, philosophy, cosmology, physics, dialectics, psychology, own traditional philosophy, etc. Not an easy task, isn’t it? Of course it’s not — it seems almost impossible. Thus many take a shortcut that goes through fanaticism. That’s easy.

          Modern era presses an unbearable task to everyone, simply because we (as many others) were dozed inside the clepsydra, in a slumber of self-assurance that whatever we do is best in the world. But the sand was sipping from above …

  9. I agree with most of what you said about the fallacy of the preaching approach but Swami Tripurari’s preaching is not like that. He asks you to explore and experience spiritual life here itself in the present. At the same time it is important that the skeptic should also be skeptic of their faith in naturalism or skepticism. So if they try to find logical inconsistencies in our philosophy, we can do the same, and ask them to be open enough to attempt a new path.
    Nothing will satisfy human logic completely and one drop of spiritual experience can give more faith than any kind of reason. Yes when you talk to strong atheists and argue with them without losing your composure, they can get very edgy. You just don’t have to get provoked by them.
    And btw we are not there just to change the faith of hardcore atheists and materialists. There are enough open minded people out there willing to try a spiritual path. Everybody will take their time to voluntarily align with the will of Krsna. There is no hurry.

  10. I found this very interesting site that provides defense of the evolution theory from all its opponents. In the website, I came across an interesting piece which claims that philosophical naturalism is not an assumption of science. He further adds that science disassociates itself from Richard Dawkins who believes in philosophical naturalism. He says science can investigate supernatural things like reincarnation, fairies etc, if they can be repeatedly tested using empirical evidence. He gives the example of how science has investigated the influence of prayers and other phenomenon which can be related to the supernatural. I think that even when they see that prayer has a positive effect, the scientists will try their best to use chemical secretions to explain this effect and remove the necessity for the supernatural.

    Obviously the person writing the excerpt is trying his best to make science look as objective as possible. However, he does admit that science has achieved so much success explaining things through natural causes that scientists try to explain things in that direction. The basis for this reasoning is parsimony,aka Ockham’s razor. According to him, this parsimony is compromised by the introduction of a supernatural power whose actions cannot be repeatedly tested and observed. Thus Intelligent Design does not fit the definition of science according to this article.

    I would really love some feedback on this issue as I am trying to study evolution and its implications for GV.

    • Luke Matthewson

      the scientists will try their best to use chemical secretions to explain this effect and remove the necessity for the supernatural.

      Why necessity for supernatural at all?

      All is already in the nature, all is natural. We’re part of nature too. When scientists try to eliminate supernatural, they do the right thing — there’s nothing supernatural. Only natural.
      As St Augustine said, “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

      Do you indirectly blame scientists because they want to know more and because they don’t believe in miracles and supernatural?
      Researching in their way, by following tracks and residues, is nothing new. Didn’t even gopis from the 10th canto of Bhagavata Purana follow tracks of Krishna in the woods, and by reading those tracks and marks they’ve constructed a whole story of what happened (because they were not there to witness).

      You take their conclusions as facts and use them to build your faith, just because they come from a specific religious background you admire, although Krishna might have done something else too that resulted in same tracks. But you find same scientist’s method inadequate.

      Sorry dear friend, you contradict yourself. 😉

      • I never said I believed everything in S.B literally. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I am just saying that science tries to favor explanations based on materialism( which says matter is the only reality) even when investigating the supernatural(effect of prayers,meditation etc). Otherwise I try my best to be critical of my own tradition so that I am not on a self-aggrandizement trip.

      • It maybe natural for me to put mind and consciousness in a separate category than matter, but for scientists, it will be completely “unnatural” or “supernatural”.

      • This quote it interesting,
        “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
        —Albert Einstein

  11. Here in this website supported by Francis Collins, a scientist who believes in the theistic evolution, this article tries to point on the deficiencies in using the God-in-gaps method to prove God.
    I would like some feedback from readers on this.

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