Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Atheist recommends reading the New Testament!

Terry Eagleton is a distinguished scholar and an atheist. To me, he gets more interesting all the time. Apparently, many undergraduates encounter him as the author of a widely used introductory text on English literature. My first exposure to him was the scathing review, Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching he wrote in the London Review of Books, of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. My wife, Robin, loved the beginning of the review:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, ......, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be.
It seems Eagleton is haunted by the "new atheists". He recently gave the D.H. Terry lectures at Yale University (they can be viewed here), which have been published as a book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Extracts of Eagleton's own synopsis of the book are:

Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own....

It is with this ignorance and prejudice that I take issue in this book. If the agnostic left cannot afford such intellectual indolence when it comes to the Jewish and Christian scriptures, it is not only because it belongs to justice and honesty to confront your opponent at his or her most convincing. It is also that radicals might discover there some valuable insights into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas. I do not invite such readers to believe in these ideas, any more than I myself in the archangel Gabriel, the infallibility of the pope, the idea that Jesus walked on water, or the claim that he rose up into heaven before the eyes of his disciples.

If I try in this book to “ventriloquise” what I take to be a version of the Christian gospel relevant to radicals and humanists, I do not wish to be mistaken for a dummy. But the Jewish and Christian scriptures have much to say about some vital questions—death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like—on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end.

So read the New Testament and be challenged!

The book has generated considerable interest, indicated by the response to Stanley Fish's column on May 3 in the New York Times. I will try and write more about that soon.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ross,

    I've been reading for a while. Keep up the good work.

    I would just like to query your view that Eagleton is an atheist - he seems to me to be more a radical liberal catholic - who discounts some bits of religion, but not all - but no an atheist in the definitional sense.