Reason, Faith and Revolution

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Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press; £18.99

In this very welcome contribution to the current debate on religion, Terry Eagleton has two central objectives. One is to dismantle the pretensions of leading figures among the New Atheists, above all Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whom he conflates into a single entity called "Ditchkins".

Eagleton highlights two main weaknesses in their arguments. First, by treating religion as if it were simply a flawed scientific explanation, or a pseudo-science, Ditchkins merely demonstrates his ignorance of what religion actually is, "rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology".

Second, by positing a hyper-rationalist version of Enlightenment thought as an alternative, Ditchkins ignores or evades the enormous contradictions of the version of progress it involves: Hiroshima is as legitimate an offspring of the Enlightenment as penicillin.

His other objective is likely to be more controversial with readers of Socialist Review. Eagleton, rightly focusing on Christianity rather than Islam, argues that the genuine radicalism of original religion was abandoned (the relevant chapter is actually called "The Revolution Betrayed") following its institutionalisation and subsequent accommodation to power - a process that he compares to the corruption of Marxism into Stalinism.

That Christianity was initially a revolutionary doctrine can be defended. The problem is whether its subsequent transformation was necessary or merely contingent. Eagleton seems to be suggesting the latter, but it is here that the comparison with Marxism breaks down.

Marxism was not fated to become Stalinism - that was the result of a series of political events which could have had other outcomes. But Christianity, if it was to survive as a religion, had to reflect the contradictions of being and consciousness, and consequently make some compromises with what St Paul called "the powers and principalities of this world", even if not exactly the ones reached under the later Roman Empire.

The book is based on a series of lectures, which is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that it reproduces Eagleton's public speaking style, which is quite unlike that of most academic socialists.

The weakness is that it exacerbates Eagleton's impressionistic style. He always talks and writes intelligently and wittily, but sometimes with less focus than the subject demands, especially in relation to the question with which he opens the final chapter: "Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly writing about God?"

Eagleton is clear as to why there has been a religious revival. At one point he writes, "The social devastation wreaked by economic liberalism means that besieged groups can feel secure only by clinging to an exclusivist identity or unbending doctrine."

He is less clear on the reason for the upsurge in chest-beating atheism which Ditchkins represents. Eagleton is right, I think, to say that contemporary capitalism is essentially atheistic, but that does not explain the ferocity of the current attacks on religion.

In part the explanation must lie in the attempt by former radicals to posture as rebels, even though they have long since made their peace with the system. Religion is a safe target for this posturing. As Eagleton writes, "It is striking how avatars of liberal Enlightenment like Hitchens, Dawkins, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan have much less to say about the evils of global capitalism as opposed to the evils of radical Islam."

However, the main reason is one he touches on in a discussion of what he calls a "supercivilised brand of cultural suprematism": "Since branding others as inferior because of their race is no longer acceptable, relegating them to the outer darkness because of their religion may serve instead." This is the essence of the matter: for many of the people Eagleton rightly criticises here - although not Dawkins - the attack on Christianity is necessary to justify the attack on Islam and the latter would lack all credibility without it.

Some reservations apart, however, this is an urgent, engaging polemic which makes a fine companion piece to Dan Hind's The Threat to Reason, a book that Eagleton rightly cites with approval at several points in his own work.