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← 'You just don't understand my religion' is not good enough

NMcC's Avatar Jump to comment 22 by NMcC

A friend of mine wrote, in my opinion, the perfect riposte to Eagleton’s nonsense at the time his ludicrous review appeared. It’s overlong for a post, I think, so if the mods want to truncate it, please feel free to do so. However, as far as I know it’s never been published elsewhere, and, again in my opinion, would be a great addition to’s ‘originals’. The writer is a guy called Richard Montague, now in his 86th year, he’s a lifelong materialist, and, consequently, atheist.

Terry Eagleton, who still claims to be some sort of Marxist, now Professor of English Literature at Manchester University, has done a hatchet job in the current issue of the London Review of Books on Richard Dawkins’s latest book The God Delusion. But he only exposes himself as a victim of that delusion.

Eagleton begins his review with "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", thus revealing that he equates the study of myths and superstitions with the science of biology and, since he is not a theologian, disqualifying himself from comment.

The rest of the first paragraph might make you feel that Dawkins had inherited from Bertrand Russell a debt of malice due to Professor Eagleton. With Jesuitical vitriol he goes for Dawkins’ philosophical jugular with accusations of "vulgar caricatures" of religious faith from those whose detestation of religion is surpassed by ignorance of it. Yes, indeed, it appears that atheists are ill-informed and grossly acerbic.

Actually, Dawkins deals with this type of overbearingly indulgent unbeliever early in his work, only Eagleton, unlike a critic of naked belief, writes like an eager Christian demanding respect not for their right to hold religious opinions but for the opinions themselves.

Essentially, mainstream religious belief is in a Thing, Being or Force called God that either created itself or always existed outside time. God is omnipotent, by definition, therefore, conditionless; He - to use the capitalised pronoun of the scriptures - is omnipresent, even to the falling of a sparrow; He is all-merciful and compassionate yet jealous and vengeful; His strictures are absolute, promising His presence (the Beatific Vision) as eternal reward to those that discern them and who hold to them and terrible, eternal punishment to those who contravene them. Thus the Divine Architect Who according to the various contradictory holy books created the universe and breathed life into matter.

Not only is it an unlikely story but as an explanation for First Cause it is a simple repetition of the question; it is unsupported by any form of factual evidence and is in conflict with all the human experiences and observations encapsulated in science. As for its moral strictures it presents a divine Role Model that is evil beyond the cumulative crimes of the human race.

Outside the bitterness, division and hatreds historically generated by self-interested forces through the medium of religion, civilised society in its limping democracy has learned to tolerate the most outrageous opinions. In a free society the right of someone to hold to an opinion should be sacrosanct but it is an entirely different matter to confuse respect for the right to opinion with respect for opinion and, unlike religion which historically promulgates its right to banns, bars and embargoes Dawkins, while exposing the obvious improbability of Godism, would no more challenge the right of the religious to their beliefs than he would challenge the right of Darryl M Gill to believe in fairies or Old Mother Hubbard to have her fortune foretold from the leavings in a teapot.

Eagleton nowhere in his harangue shows the fallacy of any of the evidence presented by Dawkins against the God notion. Instead, in pukka religious fashion he slates the messenger and not the message, indeed as a proxy godist he is offended that Dawkins should offer challenge to the innocuous, even benign, influences of belief in a Divine Dictator.

The great bulk of Eagleton’s review is taken up with sanitising the absurdity and vulgarity of religion. What he presents as religion, especially Christianity, is the middle-class, drawing room refined version, the modern last bulwark model behind which science has forced the educated and un-vulgar to retreat; the vintage that is embarrassed by Limbo, virgin birth, resurrection and the ancient Faith of Our Fathers; the type for whom, to quote Eagleton, "…it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist".

Unfortunately the overwhelming majority of religious people throughout the world do not share this polite view of God and religion. Bishops might wax philosophical over their brandy but down below in the real world the same dangerous nonsense can remain maliciously active. Popes may have been forced to learn that statements advising the faithful that the wages of the working man "…ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal well-conducted wage earner" (Pope Leo X111, Rerum Novarum - On the condition of the working classes) but the Papal stricture against contraception (Pope Pius X1, Casti Connubial - on Christain Marriage) is a currently dangerous and evil edict that in places like Gambia helps to frustrate the fight against the terrible scourge of Aids.

As a socialist, my criticism of Dawkins’ approach to the question of religion is that for him it is an academic issue; a mere question of scientific truth as opposed to myths and superstitions. If it was as innocent as that we could be tolerant of it; but it is not. All the main churches are premised on values arising out of property-orientated societies. They act as social suppressants and while Rome - in its silence on the subject - may be less strident in cautioning against democracy than it was heretofore, together with its competitor-colleagues in the God business it offers a bromide against the indignation of the exploited and underscores perverted codes of moral concepts that justifies the exploitation of the many by the few; the right of a privileged economic oligarchy to own and control the means of life of society as a whole and the right of a minority to impose conditions of servitude on the mass.

Eagleton rightly makes the point about Northern Ireland that religion is not the basic cause of conflict; no, indeed, nor is it elsewhere. But it is a viable instrument in the hands of the self-interested in marshalling the battalions of the ignorant to their banner.

Most of the moral strictures of religion are against ‘sins’ like stealing, deceiving, coveting, desiring, killing; effectively activities that in the main arise out of the material conditions rampant in class society and especially in capitalist society. Again they promote the notion that the current form of social servitude is eternal and desirous. Religions throughout the ages have lent themselves either actively or passively to the naked savagery of war, and economic murder apart from the run-of the-mill every-day miseries of capitalism. Sometimes they may rant against the effects of the present system of social organisation but they are both morally and economically embroiled in that system. Canon Law might be proclaimed as superior to civil law but when the capitalist state says ‘kill’ there is no echo from the churches reminding the faithful that they ‘shalt not’.

But the debate between Dawkins and Eagleton is about an abstraction elevated into the genteel and improbable deism of the drawing room or debating chamber. It is far removed from the God of the masses, the God who works for the warlords, the God who strikes fear into the heart of the ignorant, the God who confuses and makes work for psychiatrists. Even Eagleton and the College of Cardinals could not make this tyrant a subject for rational debate.

Then to the rolling Heav’n itself I cried. Asking, "What lamp had Destiny to guide Her little Children stumbling in the Dark?" And, "A blind understanding!" Heav’n replied. (Omar Khayyam)

Mon, 07 Nov 2011 19:12:21 UTC | #888310