Eagleton on Dawkins’ militant rationalism

Like Amitava Kumar, I cut my lit-critical teeth on Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory. Unlike Kumar, though, I haven’t done a very good job in of keeping up with theory in the last several years — or with the position Eagleton has now staked out against it.

But I do admire Eagleton’s essays. In the current London Review of Books, he has a go at Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (the title alone sounds like a parody of Dawkins on religion, but don’t look for humor here; Dawkins is deadly, prescriptively serious).

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith…. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

As the essay progresses, Eagleton applauds Dawkins’ hatred of fundamentalism, but notes that, “Apart from the occasional perfunctory gesture to ‘sophisticated’ religious believers, Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass.”

Later: Maximus writes in to say:

Richard Dawkins was a friend of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams. Adams was also an atheist, but I sometimes wonder if he wasn’t poking fun at Dawkins and his aggressive brand of “evangelical atheism” with a minor Hitchhiker’s character named Oolon Colluphid. Colluphid was an author noted for his “trilogy of philosophical blockbusters, Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes and Who is this God Person Anyway?” Elsewhere he is also credited as the author of Well, That About Wraps It Up For God. Dawkins’ latest title sounds like another volume in the same series.

Later still: There’s an interesting (and highly acrimonious) debate over Dawkins and Eagleton at The Valve.

And finally: Davis Sweet writes:

Sorry to geek out on Adams and Dawkins here, but Adams couldn’t have based Oolon Colluphid on “his friend Richard Dawkins,” because the two hadn’t met when Oolon was created.

Dawkins wrote Adams a fan letter after reading Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987), and they became friends (the account is in Dawkins’s not-an-obituary for Adams, reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt. Oolon Colluphid was mentioned in the first minute of the original Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show nine years earlier in 1978 and the intro to the book in 1979.

Adams may have been aware of Dawkins (The Selfish Gene was 1976) when he wrote the script, but he told American Atheists that he first read Dawkins in his early thirties. He turned 30 in 1982, years after Oolon. The Selfish Gene marked Adams’s move from agnosticism to “radical atheism,” so when he wrote HHGG he still saw himself as agnostic.

Based on Dawkins? Possibly. Based on “his friend” Dawkins? Not at the time — unless one of them had a time machine.

Now I need to go hide under my bed, clutching a towel.


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