Eagleton: Scientific Pieties Miss the Gospel’s Ruthless Demands

What’s the difference between this…

smug bourgeois self-certainty

smug bourgeois self-certainty

…and this?

scum of the earth

the scapegoat, a.k.a.reviled scum of the earth

And what do both of them have to do with this?

fact vs. fiction

things might be even more complicated than this

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has inspired much conversation about science and religion. I’ve had a fun time demonstrating how and why most of it is shallow.

The latest episode begins with a vignette about how scientific knowledge is a panacea for our existential fears. But in reality science (see: last image above) has contributed to our fears with its picture of human worth(-lessness).

Not that I have a problem with that, since I think a little pessimism is not a bad thing at all.

I’ve been reading Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution as I wait for the release, actually a review copy, of his Culture and the Death of God. The latter promises to be a riveting read from what I saw in an excerpt in Commonweal entitled, “An Unbelieving Age.”

On the other hand, the older book provides me with a bridge from my discussions of science to my discussions of the Catholic imagination.

new and noteworthy

Eagelton takes on God’s death.:I hope the jokes are as good as always.

In Reason, Faith, and Revolution Eagleton demonstrates why the Christian imagination radically goes beyond loving the lovable by putting what he calls “the scum of the earth” at the center of its cult:

“For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law.”

Because of time constraints I conveniently copy and pasted the above passage from a Douthat Lenten post from a few years back instead of dutifully typing it out of the book I’m reading. The curious thing is how author of Bad Religion tellingly omitted the following passage in his post:

“…Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you [Eagleton borrows this phrase from his teacher, Herbert McCabe, OP]…”

Douthat then continues excerpting Eagleton’s book with this passage from the same paragraph:

“Here, then, is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety. Here is the fantasy and escapism that the hard-headed secularist pragmatist finds so distasteful. Freud saw religion as the mitigation of the harshness of the human condition; but it would surely be at least as plausible to claim that what we call reality is a mitigation of the Gospel’s ruthless demands, which include such agreeable acts of escapism as being ready to lay down your life for a total stranger. Imitating Jesus means imitating his death as well as his life, since the two are not finally distinguishable. The death is the consummation of the life, the place where the ultimate meaning of Jesus’s self-giving is revealed.”

I suspect Douthat’s omission has something to do with his arguments in Bad Religion. What he advocates there is a form of religion that’s culturally visible and relevant (like the mainline and Catholicism in the 1950′s). And because of this it is a religion that’s afraid of exposing itself to martyrdom for scum of the earth. My guess is that, unlike what Douthat would have you believe, the 1950′s were not a Golden Age, but only the prelude to the partial collapse of the 60′s and 70′s.

Strangely enough, Eagleton, as a Catholic agnostic, does a better job of accounting for what might keep Christianity relevant and dangerous. That thing is the ruthless demand for martyrdom in the name of the scum of the earth.

Now that’s something neither philosophy nor science can do. And when science and philosophy advocate for the scum, they’re only doing it, as Nietzsche would argue, because the Christian imagination still operates within them.

So perhaps the dichotomies between science and religion in the last illustration at the top aren’t as strong as one might initially believe?

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18 comments on “Eagleton: Scientific Pieties Miss the Gospel’s Ruthless Demands
  1. Perhaps I should be grateful to the Cosmos reboot crew for sparking discussion, as distressing as it is to have to argue with smug atheists (they are almost as bad as smug Fundamentalists.)

    One thing which has arisen of a more productive nature is a question I had not preciously considered, to wit, “For what would you be willing to die?” In a review of Humanism, it occurred to me that today the term refers almost exclusively to Atheist Secular Humanism (ASH in my made-up acronym), with theistic Humanists, whether Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist being chased from the arena by the militant atheists.

    A search on the Internet turned up no answer, and in other places, the question was not recognized as having any relevance. Actually, many could not even comprehend the question.

    Now, I was raised to believe that if you would not be willing to die for your beliefs, you did not have any “beliefs”, only convenient self-serving opinions. Nowhere on AHA (American Humanist Association), or BHA (British Humanist Association) websites have I found any mention of this issue. For the ASH, it does not seem to exist. It does not exist in any of the three versions of the Humanist Manifesto.

    Further, most of the remarks vilifying theism seem to be directed exclusively at Christians, and especially Catholics. Not one word — not one — did I find directed against Islam (may be that sense of self-preservation operating there.)

    My conclusion is that for the ASH, there are many things they would be willing to fight, so long as there was no chance of their blood being spilled. Rather, their beliefs are not truly “beliefs” in the sense I was taught. If there is anything out there, diligent search failed to produce it.

    Truly, only one place on the whole Internet came close to asking the same question I did, and the ASH responses there were much as I had experienced. A total avoidance of the question, and ranting on other issues. Which leads me to the conviction that the modern ASH can thrive only in a protected bubble, and not in the real world.

    Here is a link to the only place I found.

    http://wellspentjourney.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/the-drowning-stranger-a-problem-for-secular-humanists/

    • Is there not a risk of ascribing to atheism in general what is perhaps true only of some types of atheism – such as materialism ?

      My impression, as an onlooker, is that atheism is simply living without God in the belief – not necessarily adhered to dogmatically – that there is no God. IOW, that atheism is “no-godism” in much the same sense as those who live without any interest in sport, are “no-sportists”. From a Christian POV, there is a massive difference in value between God & sport – from an atheist POV, there is AFAICS no difference at all.

      I also wonder whether there is not a danger of conflating Christianity, Catholicism, religion & (perhaps) theism. Scorn for Catholicism need not be scorn for Evangelicalism or Sikhism.

      • Thanks for the useful corrective.
        There are indeed several different
        “types” of atheists. An article, now lost in the bowels of the internet, once gave a very nice explanation of the “types”. (Although, it is difficult to conceive of a non-materialist atheist, and the very term “a-theist” precludes any other mode of thought.) The main differences
        noted in the article were of mood and action, not necessarily of degree of belief.
        Which brings us to the particular argument for the 21st Century. It is with the “New Atheists”, those belligerent, arrogant, vilifying, and
        incredibly ignorant, hence smug attackers of religion in general, and
        Christianity (all branches) in particular. (Although the vehemence, bordering on madness, negates whatever claim to rationality they presume.)
        These boyos (haven’t seen any feminist atheists of this type, although that may merely be my ignorance) presume that science, particularly the methodology of physics, answers all questions. At least, that is the impression I get from what they have said. If they meant differently, they should try and communicate clearly.
        But, even at that, their blatant hostility is not really directed against
        theists in general, but against Christian theists. Never have I read a word against Muslims or Hindus. This may be because they perceive Christianity as the greatest threat to their world-view, and the Hindu not worth debating, but Islam? One might suspect caution and self-preservation as motivational there, given recent history.
        Or, it simply may be that the New Atheism is a symptom of a fat and lazy West, and of an affluence and security which the rest of the world has seldom experienced.
        One thing which bothers me most is, why do they bother? If there is no God, why do they spend time and energy arguing with those they have declared to be ignorant fools? Have they nothing better to do? Do they really believe they will convince anyone with their supercilious sneers? And what real difference will it make? If all die and get erased, how does it benefit them to operate this way? Do they make enough off book sales and lecture fees to make it profitable? Is it an ego thing? Or, like all Fundamentalists, do they need Certainty so much that they must proselytize in order to confirm their own beliefs? Never having felt the need to go door-to-door propagating what I think (or going on TV, same impulse), their motivation escapes me.
        But, they are very annoying when people are having a conversation and they keep screeching in your ears.

        .

        • “One thing which bothers me most is, why do they bother? If there is no God, why do they spend time and energy arguing with those they have declared to be ignorant fools? Have they nothing better to do? Do they really believe they will convince anyone with their supercilious sneers? And what real difference will it make? If all die and get erased, how does it benefit them to operate this way? Do they make enough off book sales and lecture fees to make it profitable? Is it an ego thing? Or, like all Fundamentalists, do they need Certainty so much that they must proselytize in order to confirm their own beliefs? Never having felt the need to go door-to-door propagating what I think (or going on TV, same impulse), their motivation escapes me.”

          ## AFAICS, their objection is that we Christians, with our belief in a horrible sky-fairy, and our pig-headed insistence in treating said sky-fairy as supremely real & supremely important; and our refusal to accept that scientific knowledge is the only kind, what with metaphysics being tosh; and our horrible behaviour while we had it good and were in a position to hinder the sciences – their objection seems to be that all this makes us a social menace. And like other menaces, we deserve no tolerance, and no respect.

          If one regards this life as nothing but a brief flickering of light between two unfathomable and meaningless infinities of nothingness, having a good life presumably seems very important – and if God the non-existent sky-fairy puts a damper on things by being believed in by people whose belief ruins the world, then the less said of this SF the better. And from their POV – as I understand it – this life on earth is all there is.

          I would guess that, from the POV of a New Atheist who is also a scientist, our talk of a supra-natural order that is not accessible to empirical verification by scientific means is especially grating. From a Catholic POV, it is simply absurd to confuse a Tolkien hobbit or Ent or a Lewisian talking unicorn with a Saint; that is no more possible than to confuse the Mother with a angel – or with a proton. But from the POV of an NA, protons are real – but Ents, Saints, angels hobbits & unicorns are equally fictions. And – it seems – they are the same *type* of fictions; there is no basis for distinguishing between them. So that (if this guess is accurate), there is no difference from an NA POV between the sentences “The Virgin Mary appeared at Fatima” & “Father Christmas appeared at Fatima”.

          The NA POV, perhaps because it is anti-metaphysical, has no equipment for seeing that there is a difference between what Catholics mean when they affirm that God exists, that protons exist, and that the fictions of men, AKA their sub-creations, exist. For that POV, the better-than-real God is just a fiction, just as the talking unicorns of Narnia are admitted even by Christians to be fictions. Christians are right if – and only if – they admit that protons exist. Protons can be tracked – unlike Narnian unicorns or the Christian God. And when one says that God is not a phenomenon that can be tracked by science, I thinking saying that simply confirms this type of atheism. Tirian of Narnia in “The Last Battle” makes that mistake – his true assertion about Aslan, that He is “not a tame lion” , is thrown back in his face by some Dwarves. Since God is Holy, he is “Wholly Other” – He must encounter us out of sheer, gracious Love, if we are to encounter Him. NAs – AFAICS – regard that approach as deeply unscientific, forbidden to them on methodological grounds, and as dishonest.

          That, AFAICS, is what bothers them. I’m not suggesting that all these notions are all held by any one atheists, far less that they are an orthodoxy. But these seem to be the objections.

          The advantage Christians have, is that we are able to see that hatred is a form of love – this allows us to see the New Atheist hatred of Christianity as a love of – something. But what ? Their own good ? Quite possibly. The good of others ? Again, quite possibly.

  2. The problem with your poorly type-faced, drop shadowed diagram of “Reality” is that the “According to Religion” part is based on completely false ideals. God doesn’t exist- neither you, nor anyone- has shown any different. So the things that give you comfort are entirely fabricated.

    >Your life doesn’t end at the grave: God has promised you an eternal life with him.

    Wow, that must be so comforting to the 15,000 children dying in Africa every day. We don’t have eternal life. That sound depressing. But you know it because god killed your parents of cancer, old age, small pox- who cares. If he existed, and actually loved you- he wouldn’t have invented cancer in the first place.

    Pretending that you are better because you put your hands over your ears, and close your eyes to drown out the millions of suffering cries- is just pathetic. At least atheists give a shit about humans in this life- we don’t segregate homosexuals, or try to tell women what they can wear, or what they should do with their bodies.

    If there was a god- He’s a complete asshole and I would never call him a god, or loving father. But there isn’t- pray your hardest to smite me down- it won’t matter- I’ll still be here, and you’ll just look stupid. Til next time- Dearly, Go Fuck yourself.

  3. I have a computer. But it doesn’t givenmy life meaning or tell me how to live. All it does is do math and make simple decisions based on ones and zeros. You should use religion instead of computers because the bible is the best way for pulling information out of vast lists of numbers. Also, you can hold the bible like a gameboy and it’s the same thing.

    Critisizing science for just being a sorting engine for reality is the same as comparing it to computers. Science is a method of testing reality (unless you think reality is forged) which you believe god made. You have a book of dubious origin. Either you bible god created reality, or he’s a trickster god. Imagine the implications of the second one. And apparently you think suppositioning is science so…that last sentence is religious science.

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  5. Ironically a god could have created human life without meaning, purpose, moral standards, ultimate justice or an afterlife. Traditional theists just want a god to give them these things for selfish reasons, when a god has no obligation to arrange its creation for humans’ convenience.

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