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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Eagleton and Dawkins

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Like a good old Roman bloodbath, there's something spectacular in seeing the seasoned intellectual warriors Terry Eagleton and Richard Dawkins, respectively the United Kingdom's best-known literary theorist and scientist, scrapping in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. Reviewing Dawkins' The God Delusion, Eagleton accuses him of being "theologically illiterate," of producing a "vulgar caricature of religious faith," of "lunging, flailing, mispunching." Anyone who thinks academia is dull, dispassionate and impersonal should think again.

Not having read The God Delusion, I can only comment from the sidelines on this debate, and on Eagleton's review in particular. Eagleton has spent the last forty years exposing the materialist ideology that underlies culture, and so it is surprising that he does not really ask why Dawkins has felt the need to publish the book in the first place. If as Eagleton says "professional atheists" are "the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don't believe there is anything there to be understood," why would Dawkins jump into the melee so unprepared?

In A.S. Byatt's (yes, her again!) Virgin in the Garden quadrilogy, a grumpy, atheist English teacher, Bill Potter, sermonises to his family about the contradictory and placatory myth-making of Christianity. He is enraged and alienated when his daughter marries a clergyman in the second book. But he is equally angry in the fourth when he discovers that his grandchildren are not taught the Bible at school. How, he blusters, can one expect to understand and appreciate Paradise Lost without first knowing Genesis. This is the curious position most atheistic or agnostic literary intellectuals find themselves in. Unable or unwilling to believe in God, we read "in the beginning was the Word" quite literally, for without the Word our culture of literary words would not have assumed the wonderfully multiple shape it has.

Eagleton, a Catholic, points this out to Dawkins. But Dawkins knows and appreciates his literary canon as well (I remember his wonderful readings from Keats at the lecture I attended last year), and he too cannot have failed to notice the centrality of Christianity to it. Even if he adopts the uncompromisingly atheistic position of Bill Potter, he should, like him, surely see the significance of faith. That he apparently does not acknowledge this in his new book suggests that he is fighting so wildly because he has been backed into such a tight corner, and is unable to give an inch of ground.

The majority of Eagleton's essay is a corrective explanation of what Christianity is actually about (in this, he slyly slips his voice, so it is hard to recognise whether he is simply retelling the story as history, or making a statement of personal faith). He concerns himself by studying how religious belief might be alien to science, but he is too brief in his consideration of the reciprocal relationship of how science might be alien to religion, from which Dawkins' argument springs. When he does glance at Dawkins' motives, Eagleton says that The God Delusion arises from "a very English brand of common sense that believes mostly in what it can touch, weigh and taste." But when Robert Hooke, perhaps the greatest of the early English empiricists, looked down his new microscrope at the eye of the common fly, he did not see himself as reducing the mystery of God's creation but elevating it, seeing in the thousand elements that constitute the eye the range of minute interventions of God in the natural world. Even after Darwin, there is surely (as Darwin writes in that glorious closing paragraph of The Origin of Species), a greater grandeur in the view of life as continuously evolving under elegantly simple laws, whether these have their origin in a volcanic vent or a being beyond the stars. No, there is no reason why common sense empiricism should lead automatically to a divide from religion.

And, as Eagleton notes, Dawkin's rigid empirical principles apparently desert him as he fails to ask why so many millions of people do hold a genuine belief in God. Even if belief has its foundations in the neurological structures of the brain, as a mechanism for survival, it is definitively in the world, as well as, so believers say, transcendent from it. Why does Dawkins deny even this? There must be another, deeper reason why Dawkins has written this book, at this moment, with such paradoxical ferocity, other than the old "two cultures" schism. From my personal experience, I see something of where Dawkins is coming from. For an agnostic like myself, in spite of my Bill Potter-like appreciation of religion as a textual artefact, I now feel under pressure to reject theology entirely. In the light of conflict in the Middle-East, knowing the brutality of Catholicism in allowing AIDs and dogma to spread in Africa in equal measure, in my fear of the grip evangelicals are exerting on objective knowledge, I cannot help but want to react, as Dawkins has done, by taking a swipe at the systematic whole, even if it means destroying the parts I appreciate for their literary import.

Although F.R. Leavis would disagree with me on this one, literary criticism has less potential than science to improve the world. It is neither literature nor religion which will develop drugs for AIDs (although neither of these things developed the weapons used in the Middle East either). Dawkins, then, must be feeling the heat of religion even more than I do. As he commented to Edge, the "tactically, politically savvy" thing to do would be to occupy the middle of the road between religion and science. His failure to do this has ensured that he has
come in for a lot of criticism from some of my scientific colleagues because...they feel that I'm rocking the boat and, as it were, giving aid and comfort to the creationists. And I think in a way they might have a point because I have heard that some creationists love to quote people like me because it lends weight to their claim that if you are an evolutionist that means that you have to be an atheist.
However, Dawkins continues
I'm concerned with what's true. For me the evolution/creation war is really just a battle. It's a skirmish in a larger war between supernaturalism and naturalism, and I don't think that I'm prepared to compromise on what I think is true in order to win a tactical battle in a skirmish in what I see as a larger war.
I do not agree with Dawkins' tactics. As with all wars, it generates martyrs rather than winning hearts and minds. Like all bad strategies (military or intellectual) it lacks a plan for exit by which one can give ground, gracefully, when the war is at last being won. But the thing that most interests me is that Dawkins knows this. The God Delusion does not spring, as Eagleton suggests it does, primarily from an ignorance of religion but from a fear of it, an anxiety that is fully self-conscious. The God Delusion may not tread lightly in the centre ground of the debate, but it certainly helps to show how extensively that debate has become polarised. The war promises to be long and brutal. At least the punches between Eagleton and Dawkins are going to be confined to the the letters pages of the LRB, and not the back alleys of Baghdad or the classrooms of our schools.

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Posted by Alistair at 12:06 pm


Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are both very nice essays – yours and Engleton’s.

I had to travel to Louisville, KY, on business the end of last week and the early part of this week. While there I saw a historical marker on bank of the Ohio River where Herman Melville, in January of 1858, landed on his visit to the city. In a bookstore across the street from the marker I purchased a book on Melville (have not had time to read it yet). In leafing through the book I noticed some theological discussion about Melville’s ideas concerning religion that fits in well with your essay.

Religion seems to be the theme of the week. I’m writing a short paper on the Gunpowder Plot at the moment.

3:06 am  
Anonymous Dick Jones said...

I'm not sure whether the BBC has podcasted it, but there's a much quieter, simpler & more elegant debate concerning faith & unbelief unfolding on Tuesdays on Radio 4. John Humphrys, anchorman & tenacious scourge of the evasive politician on Radio 4's Today programme, is talking to Christian, Jewish & Moslem nabobs, asking them to bring him back into the belief in God he once held. Worth tracking down, if it's available to you.

10:43 pm  
Blogger Ishmael said...


Sorry not replying to your previous comments. Have been, for a PhD student, quite busy with conferences and writing. Will think about some of the issues you raised in my "Should I Advertise God Dilemma?" and follow it up later.

As with your experience, it seems this religious issue won't leave me at the minute. I'd be interested to know what Melville had to say on religion. And I hope you got what my old history teacher used to call a "tingle across time" when you visited Melville's landing spot (and bought a book)!

7:37 pm  
Blogger Ishmael said...


I did hear the first 30 minutes of Humphries' discussion with Rowan Williams, and I liked the way that, rather than attempting to demolish faith (a la Dawkins) he seemed genuinely to want to find it for himself, sceptic though he is.

I have a great deal of time for our Archbishop, who provides a moderate philosophical voice that resonates even with this atheist; I feel he has what, although an outmoded and slightly mythological sounding word, I can only call "wisdom". And although he draws this from faith, I don't have any problem with this because - as came out in the interview - he is open about faith's limitations as well as its possibilities, and admits its ambiguities as well as its dogmas.

I wonder how Humphries will deal with the more radical religious figures. But, although the introduction to the programme was quite clear that he was talking and challenging from a personal perspective, I do worry that his interviews are going to be taken as evidencing an intrinsic secular bias in the BBC. I only hope this doesn't rebound on him later and compromise his ability to interrogate politicians on the hot faith v. secularism issues of the day (particularly, so far as I am concerned, with the development of faith schools and their distortion of evolutionary science).

7:46 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I did get that chilly spine feeling.

I will not get to the Melville book until December, but I'll let you know is religious views.

5:08 am  

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