Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Problem with Terry Eagleton

One of the newest entries into the debate over the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins is Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Eagleton is on the “God” side of this debate and his book is an attack on Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, dubbed by Eagleton as Ditchkins, in particular. Considering the highly polemical nature of this debate Eagleton has certainly received many supportive and hostile reviews. Two very useful examples of this are Stanley Fish in support and PZ Myers in opposition. Fish's glowing review of Eagleton is particularly interesting as Eagleton takes a swipe at him twice in this very book. I find the book to be well written and at times, when defending the beauty of faith, Eagleton comes almost to the level of C. S. Lewis. I must, in the end though, side with Myers in opposing this book, even if it is for very different reasons.

While most of the attention regarding Eagleton has been about the reason and faith parts of the book, Eagleton’s real focus is on revolution. For Eagleton, as unapologetic Marxist, revolution here means the defeat of global Capitalism. Dawkins and the New Atheist movement like the religious fundamentalists, they love to mock, are products of late Capitalism and its failure of values. The solution for Eagleton lies in abandoning the simple economic calculus of Capitalism and embracing Marxism. It is Marxism that offers the necessary grounding in values to stand against economic inequality and imperialism.

Despite my opposition to Communism, I actually enjoyed this part of the book as well. I see no problem in reconciling religion in general and Christianity in particular with Marxism. Any person of faith who can reconcile his faith with evolution should have little difficulty making his peace with Marxism. I can even admire Eagleton for his subversiveness in wrapping a Marxist polemic between the cover of a theist book. Ordinary passive believers looking for confirmation in their faith are going to be in for a rude surprise. I find his case for Marxism remarkably eloquent and persuasive after a fashion. One of the beauties of being a free-marketer is that I am able absorb the strong points of every other economic ideology. For example, yes I have a problem with CEOs making millions while ordinary workers struggle to get by. I think companies would, in general, be far better off being run by their workers and for their workers. The free-market offers the opportunity for such a proletarian takeover without a drop of blood being shed. (The fact that our government has stepped in to bail out corporate America from a financial mess of their own creation offends me as much as the most ardent Marxist.)

My problem with Eagleton is that his hostility toward Capitalism leads him into an anti-West rant where he blames the United States in particular for pretty much all of the problems in the Third World. Eagleton dances around the issue but in the end, for all intents and purposes, he blames September 11 on the United States since, from his perspective, the United States created the problem of Islamic terrorism. Eagleton may be a bit more subtle than Ward Churchill but that just makes him all the more dangerous. Eagleton is smart enough to know that his case cannot stand critical scrutiny yet continues to try implying it on the sly.

As with many on the radical left, Eagleton’s anti-West sentiments quickly lead him to attacking Israel as the fist of the West’s oppression. Eagleton waxes nostalgically about President Nasser of Egypt. According to Eagleton:

Nasserism, once the dominant secular-nationalist, authoritarian-socialist current in the Arab world, was effectively destroyed by the Western-backed 1967 Israeli victory over Egypt. The Islamism that arouse in the wake of that defeat arraigned Nasser for his failure to lead the Arab forces to victory over Israel. The political balance within the Arab would shifted accordingly, away from a discredited Nasserism to the monarchical, pro-Western Wahhabi fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia. What a secular politics could apparently not accomplish, a fanatically religious one could achieve instead (pg. 106).

So great tragic turning point in history was when the Mein Kampf loving dictator of Egypt failed to destroy its democratic neighbor and massacre its Jewish population.

Considering that Eagleton has no problem with apologizing for Nasser’s atrocities, one might hope he would show Israel the same courtesy. Israel is blamed for perpetuating a massacre on the Jordanians in 1971. Eagleton point blank argues that “without the vast concentration camp known as the Gaza Strip, it is not at all out of the question that the Twin Towers would still be standing" (pg. 107). While the first concentration camps were created by the British during the Boar War, in modern parlance a concentration camp means something very specific. So by using this word, Eagleton can mean only one of three things. He could be a Holocaust denier, who believes that the camps were about as bad as the Palestinian situation. He could be an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist, who believes, without evidence, that Israel has murdered millions of Palestinians. Or he could just be a plain liar, seeking to malign Israel and Jews for his own ideological gain.

Eagleton is a textbook example of Dennis Prager’s observation that hatred of the United States and anti-Semitism seem to follow similar lines of reasoning and have common origins. In the end one must view Faith, Reason and Revolution as an attempt to pass off anti-Israel propaganda and plain anti-Semitism under the guise of a bestselling book on religion. The fact that this is only a passing issue in the book makes it all the more dangerous. If Eagleton had been forthright about his agenda this book would never have sold. He is not really interesting in defending Christianity or any form of theism. His real interest is to push for Marxism, an ideology grounded in hatred of the West and of Israel.

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