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God is Dead, Long Live Religion

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett

Culture and the Death of God, by Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 264 pp, £18.99

The origin of the word religion and its variants in other European languages is – fittingly – uncertain and disputed, with at least two major schools of thought. One invokes ancient authority (Cicero) and associates it with the word “lecture”, contending that it originally meant something like “rereading”. This came to mean the practice of observing cyclically repeated rites and rereading sacred texts; it is also suggestive of a Platonic understanding of religion, where it involves making a reconnection or anamnesis (remembering or un-forgetting). The other camp relates the word to others such as ligature, ligament and league – words sharing a root in Latin, ligare, to bind. (In this interpretation the re- prefix does not signify repetition but acts as an intensifier.) And in a sense that’s what religion is all about – communion, whereby the Word is bound with the world, the soul is bound to the body, people are bound together in shared faith and practice, and the human is bound to the divine. A similar case is the word yoga, which is related to English yoke and names the set of practices which can bind or re-bind us to the divine, and tie together the soul, body and mind.

Terry Eagleton, in his latest book, Culture and the Death of God, is not tempted by the “etymological fallacy” – the claim that the “real” meaning of a word is indicated by its origin rather than its current usage. But for him religion is the ultimate binding agent, and he extolls “the capacity of religion to unite theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses”. Religion is ideology par excellence, where “ideology is the place where abstract propositions infiltrate sensory life”. According to the intellectual history which Eagleton tells, since the Enlightenment a series of ideological, philosophical and aesthetic trends have attempted to be surrogates for religion: “The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God.”

One of the factors which bring the dominance of a particular historical intellectual movement to an end will always be an encounter with some external force: a new, more powerful philosophical paradigm, or a cataclysmic historical event. When examining the various proposed “viceroys for God”, however, Eagleton – in true Hegelian/Marxist style – focuses more of his attention on the internal shortcomings or fatal flaws which hindered them from emulating religion’s success. These tend to have something to do with an inability to bridge the gap between high and low, elite and masses, rarefied ideas and common practice: “No symbolic form in history has matched religion’s ability to link the most exalted of truths to the daily existence of countless men and women.” Another thing which holds successive movements back from replacing religion is that, from the Enlightenment to modernism, they cannot bring themselves to fully dethrone Him in the first place. This reluctance to do away with the God they claim not to believe in is often in part motivated by a conservative political agenda, which further deepens the chasm between elite and populace, as well as destabilising and weakening the ideology that would cross it.

In our own time we often hear “culture”, the other term of this book’s title, described as a kind of replacement for religion. Aesthetic experience is likened to a modern, secular version of religious experience. For Eagleton, culture has long been perhaps “the most plausible candidate to inherit the sceptre of religion”. By “culture” he means “the two chief senses of culture – a body of artistic and intellectual work, and as a whole way of life.” There is something slightly tragic, for Eagleton, about the division of labour that has been forced upon this word, as though both of its meanings are diminished by sharing a signifier. What is required for it to truly rival religion is that “culture as a normative idea […] be at one with culture as descriptive category”. In other words, culture is not only a proposed replacement for religion, but the word itself is divided between the high – aesthetic – and the low – anthropological, or folk culture.

Modernism, with its infatuation with high as opposed to popular culture, is a period when “the two main senses of culture, aesthetic and anthropological, are increasingly riven apart”. It is also the period when the agonised yearning for an absent God reaches its apogee. Postmodernism, for Eagleton “a postscript to Nietzsche”, finally achieves a true atheism, satisfying Nietzsche’s high standard of not only professing unbelief but fully rooting out all traces of religiosity. This is enabled, at least in part, by marrying the two meanings of culture:

the two versions of culture in question could be finally reconciled […] From the 1980s onward, culture in the sense of art became increasingly populist, streetwise and vernacular, while culture as a form of life was aestheticized from end to end.

This comes at a high cost. Postmodernism forgets what it means to believe, and how to relate to those who do. With the rise of religious fundamentalism in the post-9/11 world, postmodern culture in the West finds itself confronted by a force which is entirely alien to itself. This is the world in which we now live. “Fundamentalism is a global creed. […] The world is accordingly divided between those who believe too much and those who believe too little.”

A few years ago I attended a talk given by an Irish medievalist. Most of the audience were members of a university English faculty. Having described the representation of what he called “sacred beasts” in certain Old English texts, the speaker went on to refer to the work of his fellow academic, beginning: “Speaking of sacred beasts – Terry Eagleton …” The point of the joke – which wasn’t delivered, or received, with malevolence – was not the incongruity between a late-middle-aged literary theorist and left-wing agitator from Salford and the holy monsters of Britain’s early Middle Ages. Eagleton is a giant in the field of literary theory. He has attained a rare status where anybody passing through an English literature degree anywhere in the world is highly likely to encounter his work. But being “sacred” hasn’t always been a good thing, as Eagleton is aware; in this book, he describes how the Romantic poet was “sacred in the ancient sense of being both blessed and cursed”. (The word is derived from Latin sacrare, to set apart. Something may be set apart because it is so holy, or so profane.) In the case of the writer who has attained “sacred beast” status, the curse might be that, when your reputation precedes you, your reputation precedes you.

Going solely on reputation then, many will be surprised to find the author of Why Marx Was Right now writing with great sympathy and respect, as well as thorough knowledge, of “orthodox theology” and religion’s enduring appeal. (One man who saw me reading the book in a cafe in Oxford informed me that it was about how declining church numbers mean England is no longer “a Christian country”. He disapproved. No such mundane analysis appears anywhere in the book.) But we should not be surprised: his first book was titled The New Left Church. Its introduction announces: “What the church, the arts and politics have in common is that they all offer basic descriptions of what it is to be human. The argument of this book is that these come, finally, to the same description.” Though the status of his own faith is not revealed in this book, Eagleton’s knowledge of religion’s workings is an insider’s, and writing about it is an old habit.

The starting point of the intellectual history told in this book is the Enlightenment; nothing before that is alluded to. Along the way we encounter a who’s who of major western thinkers. It can feel as though Eagleton is taking us through whatever version of Hades influential philosophers get sent to and pointing out the shades of once great men. This ghostly parade is made up entirely of dead white males, those much maligned beasties; Eagleton is on no mission to challenge the canon of important Western thinkers. Cramming several centuries into fewer than three hundred pages doesn’t leave much scope for the sort of extended close engagement required to show why an overlooked thinker ought to be reconsidered, or, in Eagletonian phrase, to “read against the grain” of canonical works. The author is interested only in those thinkers and schools of thought who were prominent and successful enough to have flattered themselves that they could really rival and replace religion.

Nor is declaring who are his intellectual heroes and villains the business of this book – for an avowed Marxist author, there is little mention of Marx. Yet many of the most enjoyable parts are those where Eagleton sinks his teeth into thinkers he doesn’t respect. What he is most offended by is duplicitous or disingenuous thought, what he calls “intellectual double-dealing”. Of Matthew Arnold, we are told: “The unwitting intellectual dishonesty of his writings on culture and religion, the artless way in which they give away the ideological game, is among their most intriguing features.” In our own time, Alain de Botton is “a latter-day Arnold”, and Eagleton excoriates his “unwittingly entertaining” writing on religion. Both men are shown to espouse a form of “double-truth thesis”, whereby it is held that religion is nonsense, but it is a good idea for the masses to believe in such nonsense. There is a conservative political agenda at work in such ideas: we, the elite, will not distribute the wealth of our knowledge among the people, in case it empowers them. Better that they continue to live their lives by beliefs and rules we have found to be bankrupt. Disingenuous conservative ideas are shown to fatally weaken a movement’s power to be a uniting, binding force. In a way this book is a history of powerful ideas which might have been truly revolutionary had they not been bent to the interests of conservative elites.

The opening chapter, “The Limits of Enlightenment”, explodes the popular notion that Enlightenment thinkers were generally irreligious or atheistic. Rather than militantly anti-religion, they were motivated by scepticism towards anything that smacked of superstition, and a desire to provide religion with rational foundations. Eagleton follows the lead of those historians, notably Margaret Jacobs and Jonathan Israel, who distinguish a politically radical Enlightenment from a conservative Enlightenment which argued to the benefit of powerful elites. The radical, largely Spinozist, movement believed in spreading the good news of Reason to all and enlightening the masses. This utopic vision stemmed from an optimistic assessment of both Reason and mankind: Reason was a capacity innate to all men (but only to men), and if all could be taught to cultivate it this would result in social change for the better. Society would outgrow the superstitions of religion; the masses would also be less easily manipulated by religious or secular powers. But the dominant, conservative Enlightenment wished to protect the interests of the powerful by restricting the benefit of Reason’s light and not seeking to enlighten the populace. This was justified by pessimistic evaluations of the ability of the undereducated to grasp the principles of rational thought.

Eagleton is not much interested in applauding isolated intellectual achievement – the development of calculus, say – for its own sake; there is always a political dimension or implication in philosophical or scientific propositions. So the Newtonian conception of the universe, where matter is inert until acted upon by some external force, becomes a model of a society requiring an intellectual elite to guide and manipulate it: “If matter was, in Newton’s phrase, ‘brute and stupid’, then it could be set in motion only by the divine will. […] If Spirit and Nature were distinct, then the former was free to exert its sway over the latter.” In contrast, the radical Enlightenment’s alternative materialism, in which matter is imbued with spirit, is a model of how the people are enfranchised and granted their own will by progressive politics: “Materialists such as Spinoza and Diderot, by contrast, argued that if matter was itself dynamic there was no need to posit a transcendence beyond its borders. […] Pantheism thus linked arms with political radicalism.”

Eagleton doesn’t quite tease out the apparent contradiction of believing that the masses are not capable of being reached by Reason, while holding that Reason must be kept from them lest it lead to revolt. Since the foundation of philosophy, reason has been held to be a capacity innate to all men which they ought to develop and live by. The Socratic method was not to preach down to the people (his notorious “noble lie” notwithstanding), but to engage them face to face in reasoned debate. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the famous pronouncement: “All men by nature seek to know.” Yet here Eagleton shows us an intellectual elite which doubted the ability of the masses to live by the light of Reason rather than superstition, to think for themselves rather than follow authority. This implies more than a negative estimation of their fellow men (or, indeed, an assessment that the peasant is not their fellow man); it actually works to undermine the very Reason which they claim to hold so highly. If Reason cannot be the salvation of all, but is rather something that only the most well-educated (and well-bred) can grasp; and if it is suited not to changing the world but to further buttressing the status quo; then it is not such a powerful tool after all.

The conservative luminaries contrive to dim the sun of the Enlightenment, and therein lies the fatal flaw that will be its undoing: “Reason, then, was supposedly universal, but was incapable of universalising itself […] It was an unfathomable source of wisdom, yet the credulous folk were an embarrassing reminder of its fragility.” In determining to hold onto religion, while espousing a system based only on rational thought, the Enlightenment’s ability to function as a coherent ideology was further weakened, for “the God of the philosophers and the God of the masses were dangerously distinct sorts of being”. The choice was between a coherent philosophy which might produce political unrest, and a self-undermining one which would not – in other words, between intellectual honesty and integrity on the one side and political power on the other. The latter was, perhaps inevitably, the winner.

The Enlightenment, as Eagleton presents it, at its best put faith in people’s ability to be reached directly by reasonable argument, without needing to have things presented in the form of mythology. But this radical, optimistic strain is confined to the margins, and the mainstream suffered from the lack of a symbolic or mythological dimension. This is in contrast to religion. Furthermore, in its battle for hearts and minds, the Enlightenment neglected the bodies that tend to go with them. It’s not enough to write a tune which gets stuck in people’s heads; what you want, to perform as a successful ideology, is to have them marching to your beat. The Enlightenment was just too much in the clouds, too far removed from the physical realities of people’s lives. Again, this was not a problem for religion.

Idealism is the topic of Eagleton’s next chapter. This has nothing to do with the word “idealism” as commonly used. An eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, mostly German school of philosophy (though the Irish can claim George Berkley as an Idealist), Idealism held, broadly speaking, that the objects of human perception are the products of consciousness; the world is mind-dependent. Not that you could learn as much from Eagleton’s account. He sums it up nicely, and locates it in history:

If the mind can remake reality from the ground up, a capability sensationally manifested by the French Revolution, it is because the world is secretly made up of its own stuff.

But that does not quite lay out the basic tenets of Idealist philosophy in a way that would be helpful for the unfamiliar, and this chapter will have many readers reaching for an encyclopaedia.

The chapter shows how Idealism set out to fix some of the problems which beset the Enlightenment, and did so in the interest of constructing a philosophy which would not alienate man from the world. Recall how Newtonian physics appealed to the conservative Enlightenment. To the Idealist, those mechanical laws rendered the universe barren and lifeless, drained of colour and quality. (This is the aspect of science after Newton, later exemplified by Locke, which would disturb Romantic poets called William from Blake all the way to Yeats.) Furthermore, there was a fear that if the world is so unlike us, we can just as easily be freaks or aliens as rightful masters. Idealism can be seen as trying to rescue something of the pantheism of the radical Enlightenment:

One problem for Enlightenment thinkers is how this lordship of the mind over Nature was not to leave Man […] monarch of a lifeless cosmos incapable of conversing with him and thus of confirming his centrality. […] This need not be so, however, if Nature itself is alive with vital forces […] The mind can then turn to reality without fear of being annulled by it. […] Schelling believed that Nature must be […] transformed from an object to a subject.

Here we see the kind of progression from one movement to another which Eagleton teases out, and it is convincing. Less so are attempts to show that Idealist concepts are “really” nothing more than watered-down versions of religious concepts. This is a strategy employed throughout the book but it comes into its own in the chapter on Idealism. Of the idea explained in the passage quoted above: “Like much Idealist and Romantic thought, this is a covertly theological vision.” And: “there can be no conceptual knowledge of [freedom] […] in a similar way God cannot be known for Judeo-Christian theology”. At times the comparison feels laboured: on arch-Idealist Fichte’s idea of the “absolute ego”: “self as infinite and self as finite – Father and Son, so to speak”.

Idealism too lent itself to the interests of conservativism – see Hegel’s notorious declaration that the march of the history of Reason had been towards an ideal nation state, which had lately been realised in the form of his contemporary Prussia. More seriously, it remained detached from the people. It won’t come as any surprise to anybody who has read (or tried to read) the Idealists that they failed to find a broad readership among the masses. An argument could be made for Idealism marking the point when mainstream philosophical writing left the common reader behind, and reading philosophy became a special skill. Eagleton identifies this as one of the failings which kept it from emulating religion’s success. It is also one of the shortcomings which led to Romanticism, portrayed as an attempt to get a step closer to the common culture of the people.

Idealism proved too cerebral a doctrine, as some Romantic authors were to protest. […] it found it hard to translate its truths into an everyday idiom. For all their mystifications, this was not a mistake the churches were prone to make.

While this is a failing in the eyes of the intellectual historian, demonstrating that Idealism did not make an adequate “surrogate for religion”, it is not necessarily a failing to philosophers, who might lament the inaccessibility of much philosophical writing to non-specialists, and even tear out their own hair while reading it, but who will ultimately judge the work by different criteria. Nor was it always a failing in the eyes of the Idealists themselves. Eagleton doesn’t accuse them of wilfully distancing themselves from the populace. Yet Fichte wrote of those who complained they couldn’t understand him, in the introduction to one of his works:

I would be sorry if they understood me. […] I hope even now that this exordium will so bewilder them that from now on they see nothing but letters on the page, while what passes for mind in them is torn hither and thither by the caged anger within.

However, other Idealists were concerned by the difficulty of reaching the people. Emmanuel Kant (often considered the first Idealist, though Eagleton regards him as the greatest Aufklärer [enlightener] of them all – portraying Idealism as a synthesising reaction against Kant’s neurotic categorising) regretted his inability to express himself more accessibly. Eagleton shows that Idealists felt it desirable to be able to reach the people physically, through the senses – something which religion knew how to do: “Power, to be effective, must inscribe itself on the senses. The churches, and Roman Catholicism par excellence, had little to learn about how the numinous is sensuously incarnate in gesture and performance.” Philosophy had a long history of mistrusting the senses, and the Idealists felt that a trick had been missed by not admitting this dimension. However, despite much theorising, they failed to realise this ambition (has anybody ever heard of “Idealist art”?), and it would be left to the Romantics to have more success in this area.

The influence of this movement was not entirely unfelt by the common populace: “Idealism had a hand in producing one of the most successful of all modern surrogates for religious faith: nationalism.” Backed by a powerful arsenal of symbolism and mythology, nationalism succeeds where other surrogates fail, in moving the common man and uniting his desires with those of the intelligentsia. This “potent coupling of culture and politics” was the vehicle by which “Reason, in the sense of certain universal truths, could finally cross the gap that divided it from the masses”. It also manages to bridge that other important gap: “nationalism provides a link between the two chief senses of culture – as a body of artistic and intellectual work, and as a whole way of life”. Idealism did not act alone in this, and its close cousin, Romanticism, perhaps played a bigger part. It is when considering nationalism that the author’s fascination with Ireland (he has homes on both sides of the border and has written a book called The Truth About the Irish) briefly raises its head, as he cites Pearse and Yeats as examples of “Romantic nationalism”.

Eagleton is less interested in those “surrogates” which were rather successful than those that were not, and nationalism gets just a few brief mentions. Later, he identifies cinema as the most successful cultural medium: “Only with the advent of the twentieth-century culture industry could the dreams and desires of the populace be brought mass under the aegis of power” – and says no more on the subject. Apparently, there is more to be said of interest about failure.

Eagleton does not clearly distinguish Idealism from Romanticism, claiming that “There are plenty of occasions when the distinction has little force.” Perhaps so, but given that he has given them a full chapter each, he might be expected to justify the distinction. One difference in his understanding of the terms seems to be that Romanticism succeeded in getting a step closer to the people and further from the ivory tower by making use of the power of symbolism through art – in this respect emulating religion more closely than the previous movements. There is also something more excessive, less restrained, about Romanticism, which abandons faith in the constraints of the philosophical “system” in its pursuit of unconfinable, mercurial “Spirit”: “If Romanticism turns for the most part from system to Spirit, it would seem more a question of religion than theology, more a matter of faith than knowledge.” (This distinction illustrates what Eagleton means by “religion” – beliefs and practices, not explanations and propositions, which are the stuff of theology.)

The Romantics rejected the notion of “the absolute” as something which one could grasp in its totality, in favour of a celebration (which could also be a lament) of the pursuit of an ultimately ungraspable truth. The focus is on the journey, not the destination (hence the appeal of medieval quest literature to Romantic artists), so that “What is left of God is simply the yearning to be at one with him.” This is not yet the traumatic, fearful experience of the abandoned child, as it would become for some Modernists; there is the thrill of “the adventure of poetry, not the closure of philosophy”. But Romantic art is about more than ecstatic, free-ranging outpourings of the soul. Informed by classical notions of beauty as harmony, and sensing that the voracity of the human spirit threatens to tend towards the wild and unrefined, Romantic art was not simply about channelling (without quite restraining) that spirit, but transmuting it: “Art is a refinement or sublimation of desire, raising it to universal status while defusing its disruptiveness.”

Romanticism, then, favours the sensual directness of artistic symbolism over the flavourless abstractions of philosophy on the grounds of its effectiveness in containing and conveying, as well as touching, the human spirit. If the Enlightenment inherited the ancient, Platonic distrust of the senses and human “feeling” along with its faith in Reason, the Romantics reversed this hierarchy and recovered something of the spirit of medieval “affective piety”:

Being is irreducible to thought. Philosophy must be alert to its embeddedness in the material world, rather than (as with Idealism) absorbing the world into its innards. In any case, it is feeling, not thought, that constitutes our primary relation to reality. The affections which for some Enlightenment thinkers posed an obstacle to our knowledge of things are for the Romantics a vital mode of access to them.

Romanticism further bridges the gap between ideas and life by its insistence on the vital ethical dimension of the aesthetic. Preoccupied by “imagination”, Romantics saw in this faculty what the conservative Enlightenment could not quite bring itself to see in Reason: man’s potential salvation. The imagination could be the bridger of the gaps between human subjects, and between them and the world. As in the hidden root of the word “religion”, it could bind. It thus “figures as a political force”, since it “carries us out of our purblind experience of being something or someone else”. This belief in the power of imagination could be expressed with arresting literalness – unquoted by Eagleton, one astonishing instance can be found in a letter from John Keats to a friend: “if a sparrow come before my window, I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel”.

In Eagleton’s description, Romanticism comes closest to emulating religion of the three movements considered so far, and the analogy of one to the other is more convincing than in the previous chapter:

It is through this imaginative force that individuals become most intensely alive; yet in doing so they also become conscious of sharing in some larger, more corporate form of existence […] What makes a thing uniquely itself is the way it participates in some greater whole, rather as for Christianity it is through a dependence on God’s grace that we can be most unreservedly ourselves.

If there is optimism in this, there is also something of a negative assessment of man’s present situation – he is in need of the healing power of imagination, “a secular form of grace”. In this, too, Romanticism is closer to religion than the Enlightenment or Idealism, placing a greater emphasis on the fallen state of the human subject. Ever connecting the human to the natural, Romanticism also sees the material world as fallen: “Without [imagination’s] animating force, things in their natural condition would be brute and unregenerate.”

Romanticism, for Eagleton, ultimately failed as a stand-in for religion in part because the victories of the imagination were confined to the realm of the imaginary. In Romanticism we find at best a mistrust or lowly estimation of Reason and rational thought, at worst outright contempt. Yet in ditching Reason the Romantics discard one of the most vital tools in mankind’s arsenal, without which attempts to liberate himself from darkness will be difficult, no matter how high-flown the poetry or vivid the imagination. And when it came to real change, it was the more direct inheritors of the Enlightenment who made more headway, albeit of the non-radical, piecemeal sort that a Romantic might scorn: “rationality was the stock-in-trade of the Romantics’ sworn enemy, Utilitarianism; yet as the nineteenth century wore on, that doctrine was to result in some admirable social reforms”. The Romantics may have been simply too romantic. Religion can find space for the visionary, the mystic, the prophet and the miracle worker, but it can also roll up its sleeves and feed the poor. Preaching can relate to matters of the soul, or it can restrict itself to practical injunctions and the moral law. So despite the mythology and symbolism, the appeal to the aesthetic dimension of experience and the faith in the transformative power of the common faculty of the imagination, Romanticism remains too distanced from the real world to take religion’s place with success. It shuns the humdrum and quotidian, which of course are the very stuff of life – and in this it remains elitist, even if its practitioners are often drawn from the populace. “An art which is its own raison d’être is an eloquent riposte to exchange-value, but it is not easy to see how it can redeem the world.”

Romanticism, like the Enlightenment, lent itself to both radicalism and conservativism, with the latter coming on stronger in the latter years. Eagleton’s example is Coleridge, who after associating with radicals early in life, later “shifted sharply to the right”. His return to the church was motivated by a belief that

The signal virtue of Christianity is that there is a version of it for the learned (theology) and one for the common people (devotional practice); and though the two may find themselves in occasional contention, they are bound together within the ecclesiastical institution itself.

This is not seen as amounting to a form of double-truth thesis. As it is presented, there is a seamless continuum between theology and practice, which brings together the elite and the masses. We might question whether this is the case when it comes to religion as it really exists in the world.

Though in previous chapters the undead horde thronged the page, the following pair focus to a significant degree on just two: Matthew Arnold and Friedrich Nietzsche. Two more different thinkers of the nineteenth century would be hard to find. The author’s attitude towards them is also contrasting. Nietzsche’s challenging outlook (Eagleton refers to an unpublished passage in which he expressed the view that the suffering of the masses should be increased if it meant hastening the advent of the “Superman”) is no obstacle to Eagleton’s respect for the courage and radicalness of his thought. Behind the mild, well-meaning facade of Arnold’s plan for culture to drive positive social change, he identifies both intellectual bad faith and a conservative inclination which wishes for no substantial change.

The Arnold that Eagleton gives us is opposed, first and foremost, to conflict of any kind. Culture, Arnold claims, in spreading “sweetness and light”, can act as a calmative, settling the social strife which frightens him. In this he is one of the most explicit promoters of the idea of culture as a surrogate for religion of the thinkers dealt with in Eagleton’s book. However, this gives way to the view that religion, as with the conservative Enlightenment, is to be recommended for its socially stabilising properties. This despite Arnold’s own lack of religious belief. The patronising tone in the recommendation of religion by the irreligious is something which Eagleton rails against throughout the book. He is scornful of Arnold’s misinterpretation of Christianity, rather casting Judeo-Christianity as presenting a socially disruptive, radical and anti-conservative message:

Arnold fails to consider the possibility that the relevance of religion to the masses might not lie in the need for political stability, but in the fact that the Jewish Bible presents Yaweh as a champion of the poor and powerless, a non-deity who spurns religious cult, rails against fetishism and idolatry, refuses a title and image and sets his people free from slavery. The incompatibility of the Christian message with the conservative, social status quo-preserving ends it is so often bent to is a recurring theme: “The idea of religion as a source of social cohesion receives scant support from the Christian Gospel.”

Arguably the most disruptive major modern thinker was Nietzsche. Though most famous for the doctrine of the Superman and the declaration of the death of God, his greater preoccupation was the continued life, or perhaps afterlife, of the deity. He set a high standard for true atheism, arguing that it takes more than a profession of unbelief to banish God – one must also cast off anything inherited from religious or theological thinking. That includes metaphysics and morality. “As long as God’s shoes have been filled […] the Supreme Being is not quite dead.”

That is an assumption which in fact underlies this whole book: that any movement of thought which contains traces of religion cannot be said to have done away with religion. Atheism is seen as more than mere absence of belief in a deity. This assumption goes unexamined, and it isn’t obviously the case. It might be compared to claiming that the elements of pagan practice and imagery which early Christianity subsumed mean that Christianity is basically just paganism. Another recurring theme of the work, that there is something culpably disingenuous about simultaneously professing unbelief and holding onto those parts of religion which are found to be “morally and politically convenient”, is also an idea Eagleton locates in Nietzsche: “Nietzsche sees that civilisation is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested.” His distaste for elitism and conservatism betray the author’s left-wing politics, but in some ways this book shows him to be a Nietzschean more than a Marxist.

Yet Eagleton brilliantly turns the tables on Nietzsche, showing that, by his own criteria, genuine atheism eluded him. Perhaps blinded by his hatred for Christianity, he failed to recognise his own inheritance:

That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine, a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware. […] The autonomous, self-determining Superman […] is yet another piece of counterfeit theology.

Nietzsche’s Superman would live his life artistically, fashioning himself as a work of art. This is a radically individualist idea which robs art of the ability to perform a role in promoting social cohesion: “The self as work of art is at odds with all communal existence. The two chief senses of culture are now mutually incompatible.” This means that culture cannot hope to emulate religion. Accompanying this is a new sense that culture is in fact something dark – or a facade concealing something dark. It is the beginning of the end for the “sweetness and light” vision of culture. From Nietzsche on, western thought is dominated by the recognition that human civilisations are built on blood, that a history of violence and exploitation lies behind the greatest triumphs of human culture. This will be picked up in particular by Foucault and the poststructuralists. Barbarism and civilisation are now but sides of a coin: “Culture is the opposite of exploitation, but it is also what legitimises it.”

Nonetheless, Eagleton writes, “It is remarkable how resilient the faith that art might prove our salvation turns out to be. […] It is a hope which is able to survive the collapse of the high Victorian consensus and the carnage of the First World War.” In the twentieth century this hope persists not in spite but because of the way the barbarism lurking in the dark heart of civilisation breaks out. Something like original sin has been resurrected by psychoanalysis, and it is to art that modernism turns for redemption. In this way it can be seen as a kind of continuation of Romanticism: “The imagination as a means of grace is one of Modernism’s abiding motifs.” Yet modernism is stubbornly anti-populist, dedicated to the minority pursuits of “high culture”, and insists on deepening the divide between the two forms of culture. “The contest between culture as art and culture as form of life is one between minority and popular culture […] The dream of the radical Enlightenment – of a culture which would be both learned and popular […] would seem definitively over.”

How is it that modernism could simultaneously hope for art to save man from himself, but resist art’s popularisation – does that not imply something of a feckless attitude to one’s fellows? There is certainly a fear of the masses, of what crowds are capable of and how they can be herded, in much Modernist literature. Yet this needn’t indicate a callous attitude towards the masses. Virginia Woolf could hardly be accused of that, even if TS Eliot could. James Joyce is said to have seen a working class lad through the window and remarked, with what today seems ridiculous optimism: “One day that boy will be a reader of Ulysses.” Modernists refused to condescend to make their work “accessible” to the proles, but that did not necessarily imply a pessimistic assessment of the ability of the common reader to raise themselves to the level of the work. There is something of the last of the Modernists about the poet Geoffrey Hill, who recently declared with brilliant logic that “difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings”.

Just when it seemed that the two sides of culture were irreparably sundered, along came postmodernism to knit the two together. Yet, portrayed by Eagleton as a kind of bastard child of Nietzsche and late capitalism, postmodernism united aesthetic with anthropological culture in the interest, not of an egalitarian, revolutionary ambition, but of a populist conservativism.

It seems the best way of getting rid of religion is not proposing a surrogate. “The king is dead, long live the viceroy!” doesn’t sound very convincing, and it turns out that may have been the problem all along. Simultaneously, postmodernism does away with God, religiosity, and any of theology’s leftover metaphysical baggage, but it does not put anything in His place – because it does not recognise that there is any place to be filled. Yet we are bereft, even if we don’t recognise it. The problem that faced the Enlightenment was that “Reason cannot offer us ecstatic fulfilment, a sense of community or wipe away the tears of those who mourn.” Postmodernism can offer even less in this regard, except the paltry consolations of consumerism. Culture itself has undergone changes in recent history which have weakened its ability to represent an alternative to religion:

As late capitalism drains the social world of meaning, culture in both major senses of the term is less able to invest everyday existence with a sense of purpose and value. On the contrary, some culture in the narrow sense of the term now shares in this general haemorrhaging of meaning […] Culture is no longer for the most part an attempt to supplant religion.

It’s worth noting that by postmodernism Eagleton is not just referring to a theoretical or aesthetic movement and its authors. It is used to mean, vaguely, the general zeitgeist of the western world over the past few decades. It might have been clearer to speak of postmodernity.

The book might have been expanded by dealing head-on with the philosophical strengths and weaknesses of the intellectual movements in question. Of Idealism, Eagleton notes, “many a philosophical problem starts to dissolve once one begins from the subject as an agent, rather than as a source of contemplation or […] passive receptacle of sense data.” This is the enduring appeal of the Idealist position. Modern analytic philosophy is much preoccupied by the relationship of the human mind to the physical world. How did some of that “brute and stupid” stuff spat out by the Big Bang come to achieve self-awareness? Analogies drawn from computer science (brain as hardware, mind as software) horrify those who cling to a more Romantic outlook on the human subject. Idealism reverses the terms, placing consciousness first – if it is our mind that produces the world, we do not need to account for its emergence within it. Something similar might be said of religious faith: many problems dissolve if one accepts the hypothesis of a creator-God. That is more than the dry furnishing of the ivory tower’s table; part of religion’s appeal lies in its explanatory power. How does Idealism stack up against, say, orthodox Christian theology as a coherent doctrine? What is it about theological ideas that allow them to cross over into common practice, to motivate the bend of the knee and inform the living habits of millions? Or is it simply that the structure and authority of churches forces these ideas into the common life?

Such questions are not considered in this book. A fuller account of the succession of intellectual movements would examine more closely why the proposals of one were found to be insufficient on philosophical grounds and were overtaken by another. It would also connect the rise and fall of intellectual empires with the events of social and political history. Passing references to historical events are made, but readers used to more thorough historical accounts may be unsatisfied. Certain cataclysmic events – the French Revolution, 9/11 – are invoked, but in the absence of broader context an explanatory power is attributed to them that perhaps even those grand narratives should not bear.

One aspect of historical context which is presented is that of class. The preoccupation with the aesthetic is an attempt to compensate for “the symbolic deficit of middle-class society”. A central characteristic of the human subject of Idealism is “the most vital principle of middle-class civilisation, freedom”, while its infinitely creative nature is related to nineteenth century modes of production. Arnold’s crime is summed up as the desire to bring about an end to class conflict, but not class division. Nietzsche was also reacting with fear to the upward social mobility of the lower classes. In both cases, their proposed solutions are informed by the fact that “What has altered since the Enlightenment […] is that religious doubt has now seeped into the ranks of the masses themselves, and is never very far from socialism.” The author’s grounding in Marxist historicism is also evident in the light-touch dialectics which structure the story he tells. Their destabilising fault embedded in them from the outset, opposing movements give way to new schools of thought which seek to provide what was missing from their predecessors, before postmodernism eventually achieves an “authentic atheism” – only to be confronted by its antithesis, religious fundamentalism.

The author is not, however, presenting an explicitly Marxist reading, and his attitude to religion is not what might be expected from a thoroughgoing Marxist. We are told that, while there are some features of Marx’s oeuvre which owe something to the Judeo-Christian theological tradition, “seeing Marxism as a replacement for religion involves a kind of category mistake”. In a book which defines so many of the movements of modern intellectual history as nothing but attempted God-surrogates, and much of their thought as theology in disguise, this feels a bit like Marxist exceptionalism. Apparently there isn’t “any very obvious continuity between the Holy Trinity and the labour theory of value”. True enough, and any number of similar non-comparisons could be found between theological concepts and ideas found in those movements Eagleton sees as pretenders to God’s throne.

Religion itself is barely examined. In fact, the author never defines just what he means by “religion”, and has little to say about specific religions. He uses the term in a general way, with no concession to the variety of religious approaches. Any allusion to actual theological principles or religious practices or texts are in reference to Christianity, with some nods to Judaism. Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy is shown to be influenced by Buddhist thought (“It is through aesthetic contemplation alone, in the form of a pure, self-oblivious empathy with our fellow victims, that we can see into the heart of things.”); it is also made clear that Eagleton is no fan of Schopenhauer’s vision. (Here the author risks dealing in stereotype, due to the brevity of the book. It is a bit clichéd to describe Schopenhauer as “this gloomiest of philosophers”. An end-note refers the reader to “an unusually positive assessment of this thinker” – it may not be as unusual as he thinks, and why confine it to the dungeon at the end of the book?)

The result is that questions regarding the often elitist, conservative nature of churches are not confronted. Nothing is said about clerical abuses of power over the vulnerable, which surely could not be avoided in discussion of specific religious groups. Religion is presented only as a terrific success, against which measure other movements struggle to come up to the mark. (This is not to suggest that the evils committed in the name of God are denied – the interest is in religion’s success as ideology, and the author makes plain that ideology can be put to bad uses, for example in the case of nationalism.) We might ask whether modern history has shown that religion, too, despite its great tenacity, contains an internal flaw which inevitably undermines its own capacity to remain in place as the dominant ideology – faith in a deity whose existence cannot be proven, which, once undermined by the evidence-based science of the Enlightenment, tends to unravel.

The book’s final paragraph perhaps reveals what really motivates Eagleton’s interest in the power of religion. He has noted the increasing, and unlikely, interest in theology shown by leftist thinkers, for whom “there are indeed some important affinities between religious and secular notions of faith, hope, justice, community, liberation and the like”. He then reaffirms the socially disruptive, radical message of the New Testament, which, though it has often been roped into the task of legitimising conservative politics, in fact offers nothing but “the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is a solidarity with the poor and powerless.” The message is that the Left must look seriously at religion’s achievements, not just because there are some egalitarian or revolutionary themes to be found there, but because it provides the model of successful ideology.

Inevitably in a short book covering a huge span of time and topics, there are omissions. Each reader will notice different absences, and experience his or her own “rage of Caliban not seeing his face in a glass”. Emmanuel Kant, the great sacred beast of modern philosophy who straddles Enlightenment and Idealist thought, makes few, fleeting appearances. William Blake’s writing might have been fruitfully explored at greater length. Existentialism, perhaps the philosophical movement most fixated on atheism and the consequences of the non-existence of God, is absent.

Also nowhere to be seen is a feminist critique of the history of ideas presented in this book. Enlightenment Reason, Eagleton tells us, was found “incapable of universalising itself”. Indeed, though true universalism was never the intention – many of its thinkers felt that women were not possessed of Reason. Religion too has a troubling history in regard to its view and treatment of women.

In today’s world, science increasingly comes to look like religion. The basics of Newtonian mechanics can be taught in schools with some success, but modern science more and more becomes less and less within the grasp of ordinary people. The result is that we are expected to take the truths of science on faith. Priests of science begin to throng the media, spreading the good news, translating complex truths into an everyday idiom. The University of Oxford has appointed Richard Dawkins to the bishop-like seat of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and as much as facilitating the spread of scientific knowledge he spends his energies outing infidels and heretics. Eagleton, in this book as elsewhere, gives short shrift to the “new atheism” of which Dawkins is a part – it is but “an off the peg version of Enlightenment”, and Dawkins himself “dismisses religious belief without grasping the kind of phenomenon it is meant to be”. But he doesn’t discuss whether science today is presenting a credible case for itself as a replacement for religion. For explanatory power it would seem to be unmatched, and most of us would already count ourselves among the faithful. The media is also filled with religious thinkers rushing to explain how faith and science are not mutually incompatible, which suggests it is seen as a credible threat. It would be interesting to have Eagleton’s thoughts on this.

A final objection: in any such presentation of intellectual history as a succession of “movements”, there is a risk of presenting disparate thinkers as part of a cohesive whole, and of ignoring the variety of detail which could argue against that characterisation. In the case of the movements examined in greatest detail, there is plenty of precedent for just this treatment. Many of the leading lights of the Enlightenment, Idealism and Romanticism were personally acquainted and influenced each other’s work. Eagleton notes that postmodernism declares “the death of metanarratives”, yet itself forms one. But some more evidence might have been put forth to persuade that these movements were consciously seeking to be “surrogates for religious faith”. The modern era of literary theory, to which Eagleton belongs, began with the rejection of the biographical approach and the dismissal of the relevance of “authorial intent” to criticism. Yet the claim that “Idealist thought is one of the last great attempts to confront orthodox religion with a vision of the world as spiritual and as systematic as its own” surely suggests some intention on the part of that movement, which is hard to prove.

Some familiarity with the basic terminology of theory is required to navigate these chapters, though the writing is largely free of the jargon which hobbles the output of many theorists. Terry Eagleton on form is a formidable writer and a penetrating thinker. Some of the condensed, perfectly expressed insights found in this book are marvellous. One example: “Signs which accomplish what they signify are known as poetry to aesthetics and as sacraments to theology.”

1/09/2014

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as an editor.

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