Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Reason, Faith and Liberals

About two weeks ago, I went to an author lecture sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. I knew nothing about the author or the book (Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate) -- just a high recommendation from the respected individual who invited me. I, therefore, expected, based on the book's title, to be treated to a thoughtful, professorial, slightly boring lecture on the arguments for and against God's existence, with an emphasis on the "for" side of the debate.

Instead, I was greeted by a snide, condescending, ultra-liberal, anti-American socialist who -- despite having all the credentials and character traits of an atheist -- gave a profound critique of the "New Atheists" and a defense of religion. Despite his offputting nature, or perhaps because of it, I was sufficiently intrigued to read his book. Eagleton had given lectures in Yale's Terry Lecture Series on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, which were then adapted into this book.

Click here for moreThe first chapter of the book consists of Eagleton's unorthodox version of Christian theology -- anti-establishment, very liberal, and nothing that interests me for a variety of reasons. Aside from the witty and clever insults he throws at the New Atheists, whom he bizarrely combines into a single figure he calls Ditchkins. For example, and one that interests me for more than one reason: "From the viewpoint of Jewish tradition, a murdered Messiah is as much an outrageous anomaly or contradiction in terms as the sentence 'Ditchkins them humbly allowed that there was something to be said for the other side'" (p. 19). Clever but not very mature.

The second chapter is all about politics, where Eagleton tries to show that his idiosyncratic version of Christianity is more liberal than the Atheism of the New Atheists. Again, not a theme that interests me. However, he also makes the strong point that the New Atheist critique of religion is extremely shallow. Collecting the most extreme examples from a variety of different religions and sects, and stringing them together to portray this hodgepodge of oddities as representative of religion in general, is neither honest nor convincing. As Eagleton puts it, they "buy their atheism or agnosticism on the cheap" (p. 91) by not putting together a solid critique of organized religion. Eagleton also points out the historical flaws in "Enlightenment" views, such as Marxist and Nazi atrocities. He does this while acknowledging that religion is also guilty of such atrocities and that the Enlightenment brought us many invaluable ideas.

The third chapter, titled "Faith and Reason," is what I consider to be the heart of the book. This is where Eagleton makes his important points. In short, he says that reason does not "go all the way down" (p. 109). We use reason as much as possible but ultimately we have to take many things on faith. The Enlightment, the "Age of Reason," is long over because reason is itself unprovable. How do we know that reason even exists or that it is the right path to take? Science is built on unproven assumptions such as the existence of consistent laws of nature. "We need, for example, a commitment to reason itself, which is not itself reducible to reason. We can always ask ourselves why discovering the truth should be considered so desirable in the first place. Certainly Nietzsche did not think so, while Henrik Ibsen and Joseph Conrad both had their doubts about it" (p. 128). And there are so many unproven assumptions underlying the rationalist project that it is not just circular but impossible to build a worldview purely on empirically proven facts.

More importantly, life is full of faith. Everyone, even the most ardent of rationalists, takes many things on faith. You can hardly function in a social setting without inferring and assuming. Eagleton writes sarcastically about the worldview of the New Atheists: "It involves, for example, no trust in men and women's rationality or desire for freedom, no conviction of the evils of tyranny and oppression, no passionate faith that men and women are at their best when not laboring under myth and superstition" (p. 124).

Faith, conviction, passionate opinions are natural. "A hunger for absolute justification is a neurosis, not a tenacity to be admired. It is like checking every five minutes that there is no nest of hissing cobras under your bed, or like the man in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations who buys a second copy of the daily newspaper to assure himself that what the first copy said was true. Justifications must come to an end somewhere; and where they generally come to an end is in some kind of faith" (p. 124).

This is not to say that Eagleton is a Post-Modernist. Post-Modernism is philosophical nihilism: nothing can be proven and nothing is true. Eagleton goes in the other direction. Nothing can be proven and we therefore have to rely on faith to perceive truth. It is not that we choose what we believe (like Harry Potter) but that we reach conclusions without full rational justification. "Faith -- any kind of faith -- is not in the first place a matter of choice. It is more common to find oneself believing something than to make a conscious decision to do so -- or at least to make such a conscious decision because you find yourself leaning that way already" (p. 137). We do not jettison reason but we instead take it as far as it goes and then use our best judgment, with our full range of cognitive faculties, to continue the journey.

A particularly well-spoken and antagonistic attendee at the author lecture asked Eagleton how he distinguishes between belief in God and superstition. Are all beliefs equally valid? Eagleton responded that there isn't a clear line between belief and superstition. There is a continuum and, presumably, you have to decide on your own where to draw that line.

The final chapter sums up many of the ideas of the book and continues to emphasize the point that the New Atheists are very outdated. They subscribe to an idealistic notion of Progress, that Reason can save humanity. Not only is this an unproven claim that must be taken on faith, it is contradicted by history. Eagleton calls the New Atheists liberal humanists while he is a tragic humanist. The New Atheists believe "that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free" (p. 168). Eagleton, however, has no such optimism and sees only tragedy in the human condition. Regardless of this Christian theology of his, the Marxist and Nazi atrocities show that Progress does not go in a straight line and the ejection of religious belief does not lead to freedom and peace.

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