May 5, 2009

Is Christian Terry Eagleton the New PZ Myers?

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, Personal Experiences, Worldview tagged , , , , , , at 10:23 am by Andrew

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.


  1. Mathew Wilder said,

    I think Eagleton is just wrong, though – at least, when it comes to the way Christianity is practiced. Most Christians, or at least many Christians, do take their religious beliefs as an explanation of the world. Which is precisely what Dawkins and Myers are criticizing. But do you see Eagleton chiding other Christians? Probably not. I’m open to being proved wrong on this point, though! It would indeed be great if religion became simply a hobby like enjoying ballet.

  2. John Huey said,

    It would be interesting to see a good study to find out just how many believers profess this ‘religion as art form’ style. I’ve read a few intellectuals that make this type of statement (Freeman Dyson comes to mind) but it is my impression that it is a distinctly minority position. But then again, there are a large number of people that go to church just because they have always gone to church and don’t really think all that much about what it is they really believe. Perhaps for them church IS just a piece of performance art.

  3. Mathew Wilder said,

    In my experience, as a former believer, most people DON’T think about their religion, and indeed it doesn’t often affect their life. For example, most of the students I went to college with, were Catholics (it was a Catholic university). Supposedly Catholics/Christians in general, are against pre-marital sex, but of course, you won’t find many people who act in accordance with this. But as soon as you challenge their beliefs, such practical atheists circle the wagons, and become defensive of their “faith.” Some times it seems the only teachings most Christians will admit to are the odious anti-gay and anti-abortion ones.

  4. Eagleton’s point is not analogous to Meyers’. For one thing, Eagleton believes religion is doing something far beyond knitting. He thinks, as does Alister McGrath, that religious faith answers different sets of questions and via different methods. It also takes place through different media. If anything, Eagleton will say the life of religion is vastly more important than many other human phenomena.

    In fact, as Fish’s piece points out very clearly, Eagleton thinks “faith” is just as present for the non-religious objector as it is for the faithful.

    So I think it is either a misrepresentation or a misunderstanding to say that “both PZ and Eagleton are essentially advocating for the same thing.”

    • Andrew said,


      Perhaps you missed the somewhat tongue-in-cheek nature of my comparing Eagleton to PZ. My point is that those who claim that religion “answers different sets of questions” are unwittingly walking down the same path as us atheists; once you concede that your epistemology is not rational, you’re granting our argument and the logical corollary is that those who don’t share in your ‘other ways’ deserve as much respect as those who do.

      Consider how Fish answers his own rhetorical question: “Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else. After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms.”

  5. John Huey said,

    Here is PZ’s take on Eagleton’s book. Ouch.

  6. Aaron said,

    I know this is very old, but I recently read Eagleton’s book and came upon this post, and I wanted to respond. This gets to the heart of the debate, which is more about abstract vs. linear thought than it is about belief vs. non-belief. I think ALL Americans, and probably all people (not just those who hold elective office), should have a sophisticated understanding of art, literature, music, cinema, and maybe even ballet. The whole point of those endeavors is to hold up a mirror to our society and help us understand where we come from and where we are going. Like religion, they help us answer (provisionally, of course) questions about why we are here and what we should do now that we are here. Science is a tool that helps us advance the goals and values we already have. But the goals and values have to come from somewhere.

    None of the ideas or institutions that govern us are fully rational. Liberalism, democracy, capitalism, public education, and even the family unit are all, in part, value-based. You can’t argue for or against those institutions using mathematical proofs or science experiments. The type of reasoning that’s required is abstract, just as with religion. You are basically saying that the abstract, artistic pursuits are inherently less important than the linear, scientific pursuits. This sort of positivism is becoming more and more prevalent, but I find it sad and sort of dangerous. The problem with Dawkins, Harris, et al. is not that they are atheists, but that they are reductionists who use atheism to mask a destructive political ideology.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: