My conferences last week were fantastic.  I was equally pleased by the way some academic acquaintances might be turning into friends and by the fact that no one said anything, for five days, about Michael Jackson – not even when I got a bit tipsy and starting barking about an existential connection between karaoke and Dostoyevsky was he mentioned.  I remain convinced that I am the only person on the face of the earth who thinks his life is the only interesting thing about him, far more interesting than his music which bores me unspeakably.   But for this contention I gleaned no support from the Levinasians, among whom his name did not arise.

I did, however, work out how to put my thoughts about the Dawkins/Eagleton debate into a nutshell.  It’s like this.  Eagleton, who knows the history of theology well, believes religion is more philosophically subtle and true than Dawkins knows.  And I have a large stake in this argument, as it’s religion of this complex, nuanced, insightful kind that is the basis of my thinking life and academic career.  But the problem comes when I find that I have to explain this marvelous concept of religion not only to atheists like Dawkins, but also to regular Christian believers.  And when I find myself in this position, I start to think there’s a lot to what Dawkins is saying.

A correlative argument occurs in some thinkers as a distinction between Christianity and Judaism.  Christianity is, by this way of thinking, the childish, old-man-in-the-sky religion that Dawkins reasonably attacks, while Judaism is a “religion for adults” – it is the best realisation of the subtleties that Christians (like Eagleton) have been picking up from the Jews and using to make their religion more philosophically worthy.  Once again the whole paradigm falls to bits when one speaks to actual, synagogue-attending Jews.  The theory we do is great, but it doesn’t pan out in the institutions.

In the end I’m tempted to say that those of us who have staked our lives on this higher, more philosophical theology should be prepared to cut bait.  Religion isn’t what we say it is, and we’d be better off reading straight philosophy.


7 thoughts on “Eagleton/Dawkins

  1. It seems to me religion “is” as it is practiced.

    This means that yes, for some people religion is a kind of childish game or cult or mindless series of rituals.

    But for others, it’s something else entirely; this can include a more philosophically sophisticated worldview or a series of powerful, transformative practices.

    There are no “regular” Christian believers anymore than there are “regular” atheists. I know actual, church attending Christians who think more or less along the lines of Eagleton. I also know actual, church attending Christians who think along the lines of the people Dawkins takes to task. I also know actual, church attending Christians who don’t fit into either category.

    The problem is that “religion” as social phenomena is as diverse as the people practicing it, and therefore we should be wary of generalizing it either as worthless superstition or as something that is, well, holy.

    The difference between Eagleton and Dawkins is that Eagleton admits that there are fundamentalists with extremely crude beliefs, and probably he agrees with some of Dawkins’ criticisms of them. Dawkins, for his part, is an absolutist—-ironic, given that he’s an atheist (and a scientist!) and thus supposedly above such “irrational” positions.

  2. Isn’t that the magic of Ritual? No matter how ignorant of or resolutely you refute the more complex philosophical cosmological import of religion, by simply performing the rituals you are internalizing and participating in it. A Dawkins’ nightmare Christian is still a complex religious being even if the brain is no longer active, as a ritualized body that Christian is complex!

    So I propose a middle ground: the Catholic! Loves the yummy sugar filled Christ-God, obsessively compelled by a tortuous Judaic ritual system.

  3. The way I see it, the Dawkins/Hitchens gripe centers on the issue of interpreting foundational religious texts. There are the moderates, who sort of conveniently ignore the eschatological passages and strictures against condom use, and the fundies, who, well, don’t. Both groups, however, laud the text as sacred; it’s not going away. To continue the religious practice, even in moderate tones, would mean to drag along the fundies who attach themselves to Revelation like white on rice.

    Eagleton, from what I remember from his review of the God Delusion, doesn’t really address that critique.

    And, if Christian philosophy has been cribbing from Judaism, that’s just weak. Like Hanukkah weak.

  4. Coincidentally, at the family summer camp we attend every June, I dined with a woman who had converted from Catholicism to Judaism. She said that it was the questioning approach to theology that attracted her.

    Ann of Gorgeous Things wrote:
    “I’ve said before that the closest I ever get to a religious experience is when I sing. This was it. Allow me a little navel gazing for a moment. When I sing, I really try to interpret and internalize the text. The music is beautiful, but it’s the words that make it communicate.”

    My mother said that she attended a Methodist church, even though she is Buddhist, because she liked to sing with her friends. Another friend sang in a Baptist choir for the same reason.

    How many venues do we have to sing with other people? Making music with others is an ancient form of communion. What can be simpler than singing? It requires no special equipment and can be done anywhere.

  5. That Christian philosophy has been cribbing from Judaism is indeed pretty weak (yeah, like Hannukah weak), but may save lives.

    As to the rest: I want to say “it’s all good, my darling friends” but I am more and more convinced that even to say these words is to speak from a philosophical, secular perspective.

    Would that Eagleton were right as rain! Would that Christianity were Judaism! Would that Judaism were what Levinas thinks it is! But I’m not holding my breath.

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