Terry Eagleton on atheism

As people reading this blog would know, I’m no fan of Richard Dawkins writings on God.

However, having seen this video, I have to admit to preferring Dawkins to this guy, whose attack on the four horsemen of militant atheism I broadly agree with. On top of his superior manner, it turns out Terry Eagleton tells lots of jokes that aren’t funny and then ends up bitterly disappointed with his audience for not laughing. Terry – don’t shoot the messenger. Still I found the content of his lecture of interest. Some Troppodillians may, though not those holding fast to what Eagleton calls “the Yeti theory of God”

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16 Responses to Terry Eagleton on atheism

  1. desipis says:

    Interesting lecture. I actually appreciated some of his amusing points (I’m not quite sure I’d call them jokes). However, he did seem to exude a disconcerting amount of haughtiness.

    As for the content, I’m not quite sure how Eagleton differentiates philosophy from theology. Nor do I see how the existence or importance of morals, ethics or philosophy in general undermines the main thrust of Dawkins’ point of view.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Well the main thrust of Dawkins’ point of view is that the Yeti theory of God is wrong or at least seriously short on good scientific evidence. That’s pretty obvious. Time to move on. Time to get back to popularising biology – at which Dawkins is marvellous.

    • desipis says:

      That’s pretty obvious. Time to move on.

      I think the pervasivity of the people who don’t find it obvious is reason enough for not moving on.

      Can you articulate an alternative theory of god that justifies the adherence to scripture, ritual and authoritarian religious institutions?

  3. john r walker says:

    The funny thing about ‘dawkins’ on ‘god’ is that his view of ‘god’ is so closely aligned to the view of fundamentalists on ‘god’ .
    And this is the rub: The one thing that unifies almost all fundamentalists is that they know very little (if anything) of mainstream religious thinking, at all.

  4. john r walker says:

    one last thing, this will do for me:

    My own preferred image of God comes from Dante. At the end of the “Paradiso,” Dante the pilgrim has at last ascended to the Empyrean and is vouchsafed a vision of God, who is not the white-bearded figure of iconography. As often throughout the last canticle of his Comedy, Dante stresses that what he witnessed “was greater than speech can show.” Everything he can say of his vision is but an approximation, a translation of the ineffable into human terms. With this qualification in place, Dante describes God as an infinitely transparent point of light, conflating “substances and accidents and their modes … in such a way that what I describe is a simple light,” where goodness is gathered. “And what is perfect there falls short elsewhere.”

    Michael Robbins

  5. David Walker says:

    Nick, I’d be interested to know: if one thinks that an all-powerful creator being is unlikely to exist, and that if he exists he is unlikely to be the source of all moral truth, and that if he exists and is the source of moral truth then he is probably not any of the currently popular worldly gods … if you believe all that, what should you say about it and in what circumstances?

    As far as I can make out, Eagleton’s alternative to the Yeti Theory Of God is a stew of socio-political and literary observations that avoid engaging with the issue front-on, while not resembling in any way the religious views that most people actually hold. You see him here and elsewhere deriding this theory and then suddenly sliding away into side-points about Hollywood aliens and Whiggism and Californian new-ageism – and just occasionally demanding that non-believers engage with his nuanced and sophisticated version of Christianity rather than the “naive” popular version which most people actually believe in and which in its more vigorous versions is actually impacting on non-believers.

    I’d also note that “militant atheism” can be readily distinguished from “militant Christianity” or “militant Islam” or for that matter “militant communism” by its lack of willingness to actually take up arms. Given that fact, the phrase “militant atheism” seems just an attempt to distort and slur.

    (Eagleton can be much funnier in print, as readers of the first chapter of his “The Illusions of Postmodernism” will know.)

    • john r walker says:

      I asked our priest what did she thing of god as a bearded yeti, her response was:
      “The iconoclast in me wants to draw rude graffiti over all white-bearded God iconography!”

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks David,

      I’m afraid I’m sufficiently flat out that I can’t give my response the time it deserved. However I would say that you’re basically looking for a Yeti, and you’re right – they don’t’ exist.

      So what (on earth) am I going on about? Well I tried to say it as well as I could in this post on Hegel. In short, I’d rather fertile fiction than the self-satisfied fiction of the obvious (but necessarily wrong if one thinks about it with care).

      [C]ategories like ‘matter’ or (though this is a bit out of fashion) ‘mind’ lurk either explicitly acknowledged or as implicitly fundamental categories on which thought gets built. But no-one has got the foggiest clue what ‘matter’ or ‘mind’ really is. . . . My own personal conclusion from this is, as I’ve suggested on this blog before, is that if we go looking for foundations for our thought (Does God exist, doesn’t he? What’s the fundamental constituent of the universe?), we end up in fictions. It’s best we acknowledge that and since they’re fictive, we get the opportunity to make up fertile fictions – fictions which will help us think in a fruitful way rather than just lead us to rehearse what seems obvious to our senses (but which is in fact the quite arbitrary artefact of our intuitions as beings which inhabit a largely ‘Newtoninan’ world between galactic and atomic scales.)

      . . .

      Religion is built on fictive foundations which are a human construct (fictive foundations on which many modern, and some less modern believers understand to be a human construct). And yet, as with Hegel’s system, as with a more mundane ‘materialist’ understanding of the universe, the effort must continually be made to inhabit this framework, to make it fit and do work for us in interpreting the world and our experience of it.

      • David Walker says:

        Nick, if I have this right, you think that religion is chiefly significant as a repository of ideas and literature, and that God is in some sense an artefact of that repository. This seems fine to me in a conceptual sense, but poses the communication problem that it is a long way from what most people think of religion as being.

        By the way, I’d be genuinely interested to know whether you can think of anything for which, in your terms, it is true that we have the foggiest clue what it really is.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          The second question first – we can be sure of lots of things – that Collingwood won the 2010 premiership I have no doubt. That I’m sitting on a chair as I type this on a computer. That last night I had steak (unusual for me, but I digress) and vegetables.

          Why there is a universe, what it’s made of, where it came from, if there’s a purpose to it – not the slightest idea. I say that not to be clever, not as some academic conclusion from reading lots of philosophy. I say it as a strongly felt (painful) reality.

          I’ll try to respond to your first question shortly, but I’ve got to go. But one thing I’d just emphasise, simply by repeating it, is that I think a lot of people think the kind of thing I’m saying comes from fancy intellectual footwork. And they think people who might be Anglican or whatever are then being ‘slippery’ about what they mean when they use the term “God”. All I can say is that while I’m sure there are such people, that’s not really what’s driving me. What’s driving me is comparative dissatisfaction with different ways of seeing and thinking about the world. And science and the scientific method (as the term is understood in the English speaking world) seems essentially an absurd method of deciding those questions. It’s whole mode of operation is to by-pass those questions – and good on it. Science is a magnificent thing, perhaps the greatest human achievement. But it’s got nothing to say about what R.G. Collingwood calls absolute presuppositions. .

        • john r walker says:

          ‘it’ first came to me when I was seven, it is a visceral reality, lived experience , not some theoretical explanation.
          For a long time I thought I was a bit odd, then I discovered it is a lived experience that underlies the faithful of many faiths .
          This is from a very ancient song that can be sung by just about anybody of faith

          Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
          Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
          Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
          Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

          To all, life Thou givest, to both great and small;
          In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
          We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
          And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks John,

    That was my favourite hymn at school, but sad to say it didn’t convert me to Christianity or anything else. Great tune though And the words? Well they are hallucinogenic.

    A lot of fun.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:


    Now to try on your first question. A tricky one. I don’t think of religion or God as a store of literary effects. I don’t really think of God, because I’m a non-believer. But trying to make sense of religion from the outside I think of it as a fictive metaphysical construct which is much more interesting and engaging than all the ‘commonsense’ fictive constructs, like that the world is made of ‘matter’. And as I look on at things like worship, I think that that’s an interesting and productive relationship to the universe, however strange it might seem to us given the power of the metaphor of science and practicality.

    Then there’s the question of reason. If you worship something and then hope that that brings your rain, well we know quite a lot to suggest that that it won’t help you get rain. There is a role for reason in religion in the sense that it has, or should have, room for our growing reasoned and experiential knowledge of the world. One might still have a worshipful relation to the universe or to God if you want to think in that way. One might have a somewhat more grudging and argumentative relation to it as the Jews have (I think).

    I don’t think of these things as literary effects or things somehow divorced from a harder edged reality. They are about one’s orientation to the inevitable mystery of the ultimate things whether they relate to the purposes we give our own lives or to ultimate metaphysical questions. They should not be inimical to reason, but an adjunct, an architecture into which reason fits.

  8. Mike Pepperday says:

    I think the essence of religion is prayer. (If there are religions without prayer, they are outside my purview.) On that basis, it seems to me religion is unavoidable.

    If we don’t have some feeling of being in control, we cannot live. Voodoo death and the death of prisoners of war who “lose heart” are evidence. Animals that are convinced by an experimenter that they have no control over outcomes actually lose real control over outcomes. If we do have a feeling of control we cope better; this is the concept of morale.

    Humans are aware of important influences that other creatures are not: the weather, the volcano, the harvest, sickness, death, and more. How not to go round the bend? Spells and prayer are the only possibilities. If you have a sick child and you pray to a god and the child gets better you will believe. And a god with that power is worthy of worship. If your child was healed by a shaman’s spell, you will honour the shaman.

    So religion, as a means of controlling the uncontrollable, is inevitable.

    Where other means of controlling one’s environment are available—science—religion and spells must lose force.

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