May 5, 2009
Is Christian Terry Eagleton the New PZ Myers?
One response by religious people to the rise of the so-called “New Atheist” movement has been to wade into the trenches and ratchet up apologetic arguments in an effort to convince the wavering that religion is at least as well-supported as atheism. Evaluating those arguments is the bread and butter of this site.
But, as Stanley Fish reminds us in his review of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution, the religious can take a different approach as well:
When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” [Terry] Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.
Oddly, this reminds me of PZ Myers’ off-the-cuff remark — played to ominous music in the schlock propaganda film, Expelled, of course — that he would like to see religion reduced to the role of knitting in American society:
If only PZ had said “ballet” instead of “knitting” — perhaps we would have been spared that awful movie.
Seriously, though: both PZ and Eagleton are essentially advocating for the same thing, even if neither of them realize it. When religion is thought of as a personal preference, those who hold it and those who don’t occupy roughly the same social and political space; nobody thinks that you need to appreciate knitting or enjoy the ballet to hold elective office in this country, for example. Thus, the more we see theists move to Eagleton’s position, the more we atheists are accepted in the social, political and cultural mainstream. And that’s primarily what even the most vocal “New Atheists” (like PZ Myers) want.