Terry Eagleton Reviews Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion
Terry Eagleton attacks Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. Eagleton points out, as have many others, that Dawkins’ contempt for religion blinds him to the meaning of the faith he attacks. Outlining what he calls “mainstream theology,” Eagleton tells the story of a despised messiah from the margins of society who brings hope to the poor, is laid back about sex and possessions, and is murdered by the lackeys and running dogs of the empire. Eagleton tells the story of a communist Jesus, and, while not committing himself to whether he believes this story is true, marvels that a professed anti-dogmatist like Dawkins would fail to find the slightest interest in the complexities of “the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in history.”
Within this critique, some of which is predictable, is a funny attack on “a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh, and taste.” For Eagleton, such common sense is pure philistinism. His complaints put him in a tradition of irritated intellectuals — going back through Nietszche to Rousseau — who find the empiricism of English scientists and factory owners tiresome beyond words. They only believe in what they can see! What about theories, sentiments, ideals, narratives, the sweep of history, the deeper and higher truths of life? But of course the English empiricists do have theories, and, as scientists, they spend most of their time among abstractions that can neither be seen nor felt. The difference between these stodgy liberal empiricists and the theoreticians who attempt to grasp the meaning of life and existence as a whole lies in their method. The empiricists put their faith in experiment, repeatability, prediction. What cannot be tested is not real.
But this empirical notion of reality is influential and widespread, perhaps even as influential and as widespread as the mainstream Christian theology Eagleton describes. In fact, popular religiosity innocently blends the empirical with the mythic, accepting healing miracles, the power of prayer, foretelling dreams. From Eagleton’s description, one would think this empirical side of Christianity is not true religion at all, and that Dawkins insults religion by assuming it is. But the actual practice, prayers, and sermons found in Christian churches offer many hints of a lingering belief that God can be influenced to get us the good things we want.