Dispatches: Eagleton versus Dawkins

As comments continue to roll in on Abbas’s excellent “Taking Sides in the Recent Religion Debates” of last week, I thought I’d zero in on a particular conflict between two of the figures he discusses:  Richard Dawkins and Terry Eagleton.  As he noted while framing the debates over religion, there is something puzzling about the degree of subjective animosity that attended Eagleton’s excorciating review of The God Delusion.  We can add to that the fact that the review has been one of the most popular things Eagleton has written recently – it is the second thing that comes up if you Google Eagleton’s name.  Anecdotally, I can confirm this: when the review was published, several friends wrote to me approvingly about it, with the implication that finally Dawkins had gotten his comeuppance.  At the time, this confused me, as it seemed to me the two figures should be fellow travelers, or at least denizens of the same region of sympathies.  So it now seems worth unpacking their differences, as a gauge of our current intellectual atmosphere.

I should also note something at the start: I don’t intend, at all, to revisit this debate for what it all-too-often threatens to turn into: a proxy for an argument between believers and non-believers.  That particular aspect of this issue is probably its least interesting feature.  (If you must know, I am an atheist, though one who regularly speaks to people I knew who are now dead.)  My personal eccentricities aside, what is much more telling about the Eagleton-Dawkins relation is the fact that Eagleton so clearly regards much of Dawkins’ project in The God Delusion with contempt (though, to be fair, he is equally, uh, vigorous in his LRB reviews of his disciplinary colleagues Stanley Fish and Gayatri Spivak).  Eagleton’s contempt conceals another conflict which is periodically renewed in academia, that between the humanities and the sciences.   We can begin by observing that one of Dawkins’ foundational moves in his book belongs to just this conflict: he argues that the existence of God “is a scientific hypothesis about the universe, which should be analyzed as skeptically as any other.” 

This move, more than any other, licenses Dawkins’ method in the book, which is to set about debunking various claims of religion as though they were microcosmically representative of the whole: did Jesus have a human father, etc.  (Note the lack of specificity attaching to the term.)  It comes as no surprise that here Eagleton makes a stand on this issue, defending theological debates as a realm of the humanities, and not necessarily subject to the positivist scrutiny of a Dawkins.  In Eagleton’s view, Dawkins flattens or elides what is complex about religion.  This is not a new argument for Eagleton.  For instance, here he is in his 2003 book After Theory:

Much atheism today is just inverted religion.  Atheists tend to advance a version of religion which nobody in their right mind would subscribe to, and then righteously reject it.  They accept the sort of crude stereotypes of it that would no doubt horrify them in any other field.  They are rather like those for whom feminism means penis-envy, or socialism labor camps.

In this case, Eagleton was prescient: there’s no doubt that at times Dawkins  treats causation in the social world in a facile way, laying much evil and no good at religion’s doorstep.  For instance, Dawkins opens the book by expressing his satisfaction with a billboard advertising a TV show he presented, which shows a picture of the New York skyline with the World Trade Center intact and the caption: “Imagine a world without religion.”  I don’t think you need to flock with the faithful to find this sentiment a little absurd.  Imagining a world without religion is a little more difficult than that – as though the removal of this irrational abstraction, religion, would correspondingly and magically remove only massacres, honor killings, and telesales. 

Of course, on the other hand, none of Eagleton’s criticisms of Dawkins score direct hits on the central matter of disputation, except insofar as he tries to change the relevant genre of conversation from a scientific to a historico-theoretical one.  But that’s neither here nor there, and the debate between the two of them should not be construed as an argument conducted on one playing field.  Each, of course, picks the ground that is most conducive to the discipline they profess: Eagleton avoids specificity when discussing the core of monotheistic faith, preferring to reiterate his quasi-Marxist version.  In his account, Jesus and Muhammad project a God whose omnipotence is an inverted version of the powerlessness of the destitute – the Christian and Muslim God, for Eagleton, might even be said to be the emanation of the spirit of the powerless, a proto-Marxist reminder of the limits of capitalism.

For his part, Dawkins makes religion into what suits him; he avoids discussion of figures who would complicate his somewhat simplistic faith in the power of the scientific method to verify phenomenological events such as beliefs.  Bruno Latour comes to mind as someone whose version of the history of science would cause serious problems for Dawkins in his Whiggier moments.  Same with Paul Feyerabend, on the blindness of early adherence to Copernican theory.  Dawkins also ignores the entire subfield known as the rhetoric of science, and its challenges to the scientific ideals of transparency and objectivity.  Plus, Dawkins seems to reify, or make overly tangible, the concept of religion while giving the institutional nature of the apparatus short shrift.  Religion is not so easily isolated – if it were, the Islams of Akbar, Ghalib, and Qutb wouldn’t seem quite so incommensurable.  It is both social and personal, not a “natural phenomenon” in any simple way.

But my interest here is in the rift that so obviously lies between these two ostensible members of the academic left, even though each probably regards the other as a benighted secret rightist.  United in their opposition to hate-mongering, torture, poverty, and human suffering, why should they be antagonists at all?  The word “respect,” repeated several times in Eagleton’s essay, has something to tell us: the claims of each, for the primacy of empiricism and cultural theory, respectively, starkly divide them.  It offends Eagleton that complexly articulated histories of debate should be swept aside so churlishly by Dawkins.  Whose epistemology goes all the way down? 

Slavoj Zizek, responding recently to an attack by Ernesto Laclau, remarks:

“In academia, a polite way to say that we found our colleague’s intervention or talk stupid and boring is to say, “It was interesting.” So if, instead, we tell a colleague, “It was boring and stupid,” he would be fully justified to be surprised and ask, “But if you found it boring and stupid, why did you not simply say that it was interesting?” “

To answer this question with regard to the Dawkins/Eagleton conflict, I’d suggest that the rhetorical excess does not belong to the debate about God itself, but to their competing disciplines, which struggle for social capital and resources.  In perhaps their most typically contemporary shared orientation, Dawkins and Eagleton each imagines himself the victim of powerful forces.  In Dawkins’ case, the forces of ignorance and religious hucksterism suppress the put-upon atheist.  For Eagleton, those non-materialists who recognize anything other than inequity and the global world-system as the source of their troubles misrecognize reality.  Funnily, for neither does the real problem appear to be the private beliefs of individuals.  Why not, then, direct their vitriol at other targets? 

The rest of my Dispatches.