>In April of 2008, Terry Eagleton gave a series of talks at Yale University. Since I was in the process of looking for a job, I only managed to visit the last lecture in the series. Eagleton’s brilliant lecture on religion and the subsequent reception made two things very clear to me. First, Eagleton is an amazing lecturer and listening to him is one of the greatest intellectual pleasures one can experience (especially at Yale, where intellectual pleasures – or actually, pleasures of any kind – are few and far between.) Second, Eagleton’s personal life is pretty contemptible and makes one wonder how it is possible to be so brilliant and so daft at the same time.
I was very happy to discover that a book based on Eagleton’s lecture series has not only appeared in print but has also been made cheap enough for me to buy it in Kindle version. This collection of essays is written in Eagleton’s incomparably beautiful style that is funny and incisive at the same time. The theme of the essays is fascinating: Eagleton offers an approach to religion from the Left that is neither reductive nor stupid, as similar books often tend to be. The playfulness with which Eagleton talks about religion offers a beautiful contrast to the usual deathly gravitas informing the style that academics both on the Left and on the Right employ to discuss religion.
With his incomparable sense of humor, Eagleton makes fun of the entity he calls “Ditchkins.” This is his new term for referring simultaneously to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Eagleton ridicules Ditchkins’s reductive and simplistic vision of religion that forces them to enter into an unproductive science versus religion dichotomy: “Unlike George Bush, God is not an interventionist kind of ruler. It is this autonomy of the world which makes science and Richard Dawkins possible in the first place.” Religion, says Eagleton, deserves an analysis that is at least a little bit more profound than the usual all-religion-is-bad approach taken by many Liberals. In their defense of rationalism, the critics of religion often demonstrate an irrationalism which is as strong as the one they keep denouncing: “This straw-targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals – that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance.“
Eagleton doesn’t stop at destroying the pseudo-rationalist piety of the so-called progressive scientists. He also demonstrates – in his inimitable, hilarious way – the ridiculous nature of the US fundamentalist Evangelicals and their utter failure to understand pretty much anything about the religion they claim to hold in such a high regard.
Of course, as happens with every good book, there are things in Eagleton’s essay collection that I find unconvincing. Eagleton surmises that the resurgence of the importance of religion in the late capitalist society is a postnationalist phenomenon. I am a lot more weary than Eagleton of accepting the very existence of post-racism, post-feminism, post-nationalism, and the likes. In the US, for example, virulent nationalism and fundamentalist religiousness walk hand in hand and do not exist without each other. Evangelical fundamentalism has become the national idea of the US for the lack of any other set of beliefs or concerns that can possibly bind this country together. Whenever somebody begins to talk about post-nationalism and post-racism, I know that this is either a fan of the Oprah Show or an academic hiding deep within the ivory tower.
It is impossible to read this book by one of the greatest living philosophers and literary critics without having uproarious fun on every single page. If you want to indulge yourself by reading a philosophical treatise that is exceptionally well-written and that will make you laugh until it hurts, Eagleton’s new collection of essays is perfect for you.