Reason, Faith, and Revolution

I just read Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith, and Revolution. It is largely an attack on the atheism books by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great). In his typically sardonic manner, Eagleton refers to the two authors as a single entity he calls Ditchkins. The book is, like all of his “popular” writing, funny and insightful; but one would expect this regardless of his past work because almost no one would think Eagleton’s views about religion have anything to do with religion. Indeed, the book is mostly about politics. He seems to be fascinated with the Gospels because of the implicit and explicit political messages of Christ’s teachings. I must admit it is nearly enough to turn me into a Christian—albeit one that few would recognize.

Eagleton largely agrees with Ditchkins about religion. His complaint is that they do not argue against the best case that can be made for faith. In other words, they are committing the straw-man fallacy. However, it is hard to think too badly about Ditchkins when the vast majority of believers are nothing but fideists.

Reason, Faith, and Revolution comes down to an attack on liberal humanism, and as such, was helpful to me in seeing some of my own blind spots. I do tend to believe in the march of human progress without seeing that it is largely a matter of faith. (In my defense, there is a good rational argument in favor of it.) But I think Eagleton overstates how strictly rational liberal humanists are. I, for one, am well aware of the great amount of faith there is in my life; I have never wished for—or thought possible—a culture that was strictly rational. I’m afraid that he is at least as guilty of overstating the rationality of non-believers as Ditchkins is of overstating the irrationality of believers.

In the end, Reason, Faith, and Revolution leaves me where The Meaning of Life did: more committed to living a good life and working toward a culture that is just, forgiving, and above all, humane. Although I may quibble with Eagleton about some details, his book is a welcome reminder that my belief in the existence of this more perfect self and society is a matter of rational faith. This might be something that Eagleton, Ditchkins, and I could all agree upon.

3 thoughts on “Reason, Faith, and Revolution

  1. I enjoyed this very much. Though I believe most fundamentalist Christians are fideists, the more vocal ones commit the straw-man fallacy (makes sense). And your comments in the last two paragraphs are ideas about which I have been thinking for quite awhile. If there are such things, we are kindred spirits as it relates to this subject.

  2. I should make clear that Eagleton is a tragic humanist. He writes: "Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. […] Tragic humanism […] holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own."

    I find that this describes my position very well, but I have a hard time throwing off the moniker of "liberal humanist" even though it is clear that this is in conflict with the fact that I am a postmodern Marxist. It may be more accurate to call myself (as Eagleton would put it): tragic humanist of the socialist variety.

    I understand that what I’ve written above equivocates quite a lot, but I am mostly in agreement with Eagleton. Despite the evidence that as a species we are slowly getting less cruel, I am very pessimistic about us and our future; if I were a betting man, I would lay my money on "Don’t Pass." However, I nurture faith that we will continue to get better incrementally. But if we are ever to reach the "promised land" we _will_ require a revolution in thought and the cultural changes that it necessitates. I nurture faith in this occurring too–but it is much harder. As a result, I have a more intense faith in the slow, incremental improvements than I do for the promised land. Why? Because I have a rational faith and the evidence for the former is better than the evidence for the latter. Just the same, the pay-off for the latter is so much greater, it is worth the effort to believe in and work for.

    I think there are a lot of kindred spirits out in the world–they just don’t know it. (Okay: I have faith there are a lot of kindred spirits.) As a culture, we avoid talking about such things more than the Plague. I know that I spend far too much time thinking about what is wrong in the world and not enough about what kind of world would be Right. But talking with people about such positive things can make me as giddy as a teenager reading Nietzsche for the first time.

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