Sep 2, 2009
In May of this year, lauded commentator and biologist by training PZ Myers of Pharyngula published a review of (or, rather, a screed against) Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. In his “little book,” as Myers pointedly calls it, Eagleton argues that contemporary secular atheists—or those who claim to speak for them, especially Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—are shockingly ignorant about the religions they have built their recent careers lacerating, often with childlike glee and the vigor of devout crusaders.
After reading Andrew O’Hehir‘s review of Eagleton’s book at Salon, Myers—who sees himself in the same camp with Dawkins and Hitchens—says that he “felt like ripping into O’Hehir, but was held up by one awkward lack”: he hadn’t read the book. As Myers the scientist knows, you must have something in your hands to rip it, so, to allow himself to tear into O’Hehir’s review with something resembling intellectual integrity, Myers elected, against his better wishes, to read Eagleton’s “futile game” of a book.
From Myers’s second paragraph, it is abundantly clear that he’s far more interested in meanspirited mockery than in an open, honest, respectful discussion about science and belief. “I was in New York the other day,” he says,
and was offered a copy of Eagleton’s book, and took the first step in my imminent doom by accepting it. Then I tried to fly home on Saturday, one of those flights that was plagued with mechanical errors that caused delays and long stretches locked in a tin can, and also flights that were packed tightly with travelers…so crammed with people that they actually took my computer and book bag away from me to pack in the cargo hold, and I had to quickly snatch something to read before the baggage handlers took it away. I grabbed the Eagleton book. Thus was my fate sealed.
I was trapped in a plane for 8 hours with nothing to read but Eagleton and the Sky Mall catalog.
This is an account of my day of misery.
Pity our scientist-protagonist as he steels himself against the forces of theoretical and theological ignorance! Lavish him with good tidings and pack him bountifully enlightened care packages for his gruesome path through the Dark Wood of Pretentious Irrationalism! This sort of self-pitying, self-satisfied boo-hooing is typical of Myers here. He doesn’t make points; he takes shots.
Only a single one of his shots has anything resembling a foundation. We’ll get it out of the way now. Myers:
There was a part of O’Hehir’s review that I could scarcely believe, and was even more astounded that O’Hehir thought it was clever: Eagleton invents an antagonist. He is specifically writing this book as a rebuttal to Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett and all those other rowdy atheists, and while he does address some of their arguments directly (and poorly), he has also created this composite character he calls “Ditchkins”. Ditchkins is a straw man, a dummy he can flog without fear of reply, and without worry that someone might actually find that his description of Ditchkins views is a caricature, because Ditchkins doesn’t exist.
It’s a bit disconcerting. There is a fine literary tradition in having a Simplicio foil to bounce ideas off of in a rhetorical exercise, but this one goes off the rails quickly. We’ll have a section of the essay in which Eagleton is discussing some idea by Dawkins, for instance, and then suddenly he’s telling us that “Ditchkins thinks…” or “Ditchkins believes…” or “Ditchkins says…”—it’s rather creepy and more than a little cowardly. After all, Dawkins might be able to speak up and say that no, he doesn’t think that…but Ditchkins never will. Ditchkins exists only to absorb abuse.
There is no question: this Ditchkins is a dumb idea. It opens Eagleton to all sorts of silly critques that could be easily have been avoided had an editor put her foot down. By insisting on the absurd conceit of “Ditchkins”—by insisting on theorizing his opponents as inherently simplistic enough to be reduced in this way—Eagleton commits precisely the offense he accuses atheists who mock believers of: he doesn’t give the other side the basic respect it deserves as an interlocutor. In a book that is largely about the importance of fostering and building on that respect, this is a damning mistake.
Eagleton makes that mistake egregiously, but he only makes it once. Myers—in this piece; I have, by happenstance, minimal acquaintance with this thought outside it—makes it over and over and over, to the point that it’s unclear how anyone with whom he disagrees could ever approach him to discuss anything on which he feels strongly without being forcefully ejected from the argument, or from the room, by Myers’s feeble but toxic invective. He vomits self-aggrandizing aggression onto his opponents as though he hopes that like the vomit of The Fly‘s Brundlefly his words will dissolve their arguments with their potent acidity into nothingness. The problem for Myers is that his vomit dissolves nothing; it’s eminently and sometimes interestingly annoying but ultimately wash-out-able vomit.
Myers chooses to indict Eagleton’s argument about the fundamental misunderstanding of many public, self-proclaimed leaders of the atheist “movement” (“Ditchkins”) not by addressing the substance of Eagleton’s point, but by calling foul on the “straw man” Eagleton creates in order to make his point. This “Ditchkins” is sloppy and amateurish on Eagleton’s part. But that has nothing to do with the correctness or incorrectness of Eagleton’s arguments about “atheism’s” misapprehension of—or, better, “atheism’s” unproductive, reactionary, iconoclastic apprehension of and approach to—”religion.” Myers might have made a skillful editor for Eagleton, whose stylistic tail-wagging is genuinely grotesque—even if it is relatively clear that the most objectionable stylistic elements of the book are in line with how a publisher would market a book by a critical theorist that’s intended for a popular audience. Myers clearly understands this, as he spends the entirety of his lengthy review making stylistic criticisms that quibble with form, pointing to all the silliness he sees, wherever he sees it, while leaving the substance of Eagleton’s points untouched.
Most of Myers’s stylistic criticisms have serious merit, but none of them bear on the argument Eagleton makes, an that argument Myers, instead of confronting, studiously ignores and disingenuously presents by opportunistic turns. He goes on at length about Eagleton’s formal silliness, employing an argumentative approach that often itself demonstrates that he prefers nitpicking at a bad turn of phrase to paying attention to the point the phrase is meant to help demonstrate. Take his objection to Eagleton’s peculiar analogies, such as, “When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinions of it.” Myers gives many more examples.”It did get tiresome,” Myers said, and he’s right. It looks like Eagleton, normally fairly fastidious about this stuff, has allowed himself some intellectual slumming. These analogies can come off as clever, but they can also severely multiply the chances that Eagleton will be misinterpreted, whatever the reason, from whatever perspective.
But what, exactly, do Eagleton’s ambiguous analogies have to do with the points they’re meant to help illustrate? What, we must ask Myers, is the validity of those points outside Eagleton’s sloppy contextualization of them, for he offers them as though they somehow refute the argument about belief Eagleton makes in employing them. But it’s not clear what, in Myers’s view, Eagleton’s analogies have to do with Eagleton’s ideas about belief. We need to know these things, or have a way to know them sketched out for us by Myers, to have any sort of basis for judging the validity of Eagleton’s argument. But Myers is not interested in reading and refuting Eagleton honestly, as a colleague in intellectual endeavor; only in shrilly pointing to Eagleton’s patent formal flaws. He seems to think that doing so somehow not just addresses but dissolves Eagleton’s points. But neither Myers nor anyone else can credibly indict a line of thought by looking to its form and saying, with maximum vitriol, that he doesn’t like it. That says nothing. Eagleton’s form is bad—but how does that connect to the points Eagleton’s making? Myers leaves us clueless.
Instead we get snarky flights of fancy:
Ditchkins will not convert to Christianity. Well, unless Eagleton writes a sequel, and makes Ditchkins dance to whatever tune he wants to play. Heck, maybe someone will write some internet slash fiction with Ditchkins and Harry Potter, and Ditchkins will do all kinds of interesting things. Except, of course, that most of us will recognize that Ditchkins is not real.
Myers is quite correct here: Ditchkins isn’t real. What that has to do with Eagleton’s argument, though, is mysterious. Furthermore, at no point does Eagleton’s book argue that anyone, least of an atheist, should adopt Christianity. Eagleton is concerned with remedying the pernicious misrepresentations of Christianity by Myers’s idols, not with promoting Christianity as such, and certainly not with trying to get Ditchkins to convert. It’s not even clear from Eagleton’s text he is himself a Christian. (He is.) Yet Myers, deliberately or otherwise, presents him to us as a fanatic Christian evangelical theist.
This is only the beginning of Myers’s rank disingenuousness. Most pleased with himself having demonstrated that Ditchkins (a literary conceit), isn’t real, Myers next maintains that Eagleton’s conception of Christianity is as shoddy and fake as the asinine Ditchkins himself. Why? Because it’s simply too complex and too contradiction-ridden to fit into Myers’s limited idea of what counts as worthwhile knowledge. Myers presents the situation to us with a clear and condescending view of Eagleton’s claim that someone could have a complicated personal Christianity:
His claim is that the atheists are criticizing a version of religion he finds disagreeable and not at all like his version of religion…Ditchkins has made the ghastly error of failing to write The Eagleton Delusion or Eagleton Is Not Great or Letter to an Eagleton Nation. His irritation at this omission is essentially the driving force behind this entire book. So what, exactly, is Eagleton theology, that we may critique it as representative of religion as a whole?
For someone who so aptly illustrated Eagleton’s creation of a straw man, Myers is quite good at making them himself. Does Eagleton talk about “Eagleton theology”? Is there any expectation in Eagleton that someone with faith must have an uncomplicated lexicon guiding that faith? No, not at all. That is Myers’s expectation of believers, whom he sees as fundamentally wrong-thinking—and it leads him to take Eagleton’s offering the notion that a person can have a private Christianity that incorporates rationality and intellectualism as just a cover for the fact that contradictions exist. You can be a person of faith and believe contradictory things without doing so as an “excuse” for those contradictions. Myers simply dismisses this claim out of hand rather than attempting to understand it, much less attempting to legitimately refute it.
At this point I find myself earnestly wondering whether Myers bothered to read Eagleton’s book other than to cherry-pick quotations for dishonest contextualization within his hissy fit of an essay. Looking closely at what Eagleton actually says about Christianity, it quickly becomes clear that Myers has elected to dismiss thousands years of theological thought as though it were a peculiar specter emanating solely from Eagleton’s own individual brain—as though Eagleton had fabricated wholesale the history of Christian thought. A cute idea, but obviously wrong, at least to anyone familiar with Christian thought as anything other than an object of patently prejudiced argumentative attack. But, then, for Myers, “Christian thought” is probably an oxymoron to begin with.
So what does Eagleton actually say? We’ll look at what he says, including his preemptive refutations that easily undo most of Myers’s points that may seem to hold water at first—again piquing suspicions that Myers didn’t actually or adequately read Eagleton’s book.
God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Creation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of being of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not the be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects. God and the universe do not make two. In an act of Judaic iconoclasm, we are forbidden to make craven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings. There is a document that records God’s endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it.
Or, as one might say in more theological language, for the hell of it. He made it as a gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. In fact, for Christian theology there is no necessity to the world at all, and God may have long ago bitterly regretted succumbing to the sentimental impulse to throw it off in the first place. He created it out of love, not need. There was nothing in it for him. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. The doctrine that the world was made out of nothing is meant to alert us to the mind-blowing contingency of the cosmos—the fact that like a modernist work of art it might just as well never have happened, and like most thoughtful men and women is perpetually overshadowed by the possibility of its own nonexistence. Creation “out of nothing” is not testimony to how devilishly clever God is, dispensing as he can with even the most rudimentary raw materials, but to the fact that the world is not the inevitable culmination of some prior process, the upshot of some inexorable chain of cause and effect. Any such preceding chain of causality would have to be part of the world, and so could not count as the origin of it. Because there is no necessity about the cosmos, we cannot deduce the laws which govern it from a priori principles, but need instead to look at how it actually works. This is the task of science.1
This is an eminently creditable, if unabashedly progressive, account of Christian theology, and a relatively simply-put and clear one. Eagleton on that question:
The account of Christian faith I have just outlined is one which I take to be thoroughly orthodox, scriptural, and traditional. There is nothing fashionable or newfangled about it; indeed, much of it goes back to Aquinas and beyond. In my view, it is a lot more realistic about humanity than the likes of Dawkins. It takes full measure of human depravity and perversity, in contrast to what we shall see later to be the extraordinarily Pollyannaish view of human progress of The God Delusion. At the same time, it is a good deal bolder than the liberal humanists and rationalists about the chances of this dire condition being repaired. It is more gloomy in its view of the human species than the bien-pensant liberal intelligentsia (only Freudianism or the philosophy or Arthur Schopenhauer can match it here), and certainly a good deal more skeptical than the naïve upbeatness of American ideology, which tends to mistake a hubristic cult of can-do-ery for the virtue of hope. […] Yet it also believes that the very frailty of the human can become a redemptive power. […]
Christianity believes that a great deal of human wickedness is historically caused, and can be tackled by political action. But it also thinks it wildly implausible, given the scale and persistence of human viciousness, to think that this is all there is to the matter—that there are not flaws and contradictions built into the structure of the human species itself, which cannot simply be historicized away. […] There has been no human culture to date in which virtue has been predominant. Some of the reasons for this are alterable, while others are probably not. […] Yet at the same time Christian faith is absurdly, outrageously more hopeful than liberal rationalism, with its apparently unhinged belief that not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that, contrary to what we all read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.2
Once again, Eagleton here is both relatively clear and difficult to impeach as an account of Christian thought.
What does self-styled skeptic-sage Myers have to say?
We have a little problem here. Throughout this rambling, incoherent collection of pages, we get no clarity, no clean explanation of what exactly religion is; he can chastise Dennett for offering a definition of religion with which he vehemently disagrees, but you will not then find Eagleton carrying through with his definition.
It’s difficult to understand how Myers could have come to the conclusion that Eagleton believes there needs to be a single, coherent vision of Christian thought—much less that Eagleton proposed to somehow impose his own definition on…well, what exactly? The “real” Christianity of Pat Robertson and James Dobson that Hitchens and company so despise? Why, Myers again must tell us if he wants to be other than a substanceless provocateur, must there be a single definition of Christianity? Whose unrealistic requirement is that, other than his own? Myers, as we’ve seen, roots this requirement in Eagleton’s text, but those who read it will find nothing of the sort. Myers accuses Eagleton of failing at something that for Eagleton, as for reality, is in premise impossible to begin with; and, moreover, which Eagleton never even vaguely proposed to do. There’s a name for that: intellectual dishonesty. If Myers wants to refute Eagleton’s points, he should refute Eagleton’s points, not find new way after new way to dismiss them as unworthy of engagement because Eagleton declines to espouse Myers’s scientistic myopia.
When Myers tires of rhetorically dry-heaving in the general direction of Eagleton’s argument, he comes to a peculiar conclusion: Eagleton is a disingenuous intellectual shyster; Eagleton’s not only wrong, but a showy, pompus jackass, too: “Eagleton has no need for clarity—his own contradictions are worn with pride as emblems of ineffable profundity instead of addlepated murkiness.”
If by “contradictions are worn with pride” Myers means that Eagelton refuses to substitute the simple solutions of received secular wisdom for a thoroughgoing inquiry into questions that don’t have clear answers, then, yes, Eagleton contradicts himself, constantly. (If Myers has read Whitman, it didn’t take.) But anyone with any passing acquaintance with Eagleton’s work cannot say that the point of the complexity of his thought is any sort of affected profundity. That is a joke. (Judith Butler would give poor Myers a coronary.) Eagleton’s work—like all thinking that earnestly attempts to give serious scrutiny to the supposedly inscrutable—is riddled with contradictions, quite precisely, because the world it renders is contradictory, too. (I’ll refrain from detailing and dismantling a pathetic line in which Myers misunderstands, willfully or ignorantly, Eagleton’s reference to himself as a “radical” [Marxist theorist] as a reference to his views on theology.) Simply citing Eagleton’s contradictions as such (without specific and meaningful elaboration that goes beyond redundant restatings of an abstract opposition) as a detriment to his argument shows Myers to be comically out of his league. If, like Myers, you expect simple and clear answers to everything, you should refrain from wading into conversations about the murky and fascinating morass of contradictions that is the human subject and stick to debates ultimately resolvable by calculator.
We have no room, and should have no intellectual tolerance, for such simplistic thinking about human behavior. Our question in evaluating Eagleton’s work is not whether it is internally coherent, but whether it accurately describes experience. This is the question, too, when evaluating Hitchens’s and Dawkins’s and Myers’s work: does it describe what’s actually going on? Eagleton’s answer is no. Anyone who is both intellectual and a believer or knows well people who are would be hard-pressed to disagree. Whether Myers wants to acknowledge it or not, there are non-deluded believers. If he and others want to see that as a contradiction in terms, then they can harp on that formal point until their cracked throats go dry. Meanwhile, serious people will continue on with their serious thinking about the infinitely diverse thing we call experience.
Eagleton’s book, sloppily to be sure, takes down self-styled iconoclasts whose adherence to a reductionist view of contemporary religion is usually as dogmatic as the beliefs of those they impugn. Myers comes in and, in a botched attempt to undo Eagleton, demonstrates precisely what is wrong with the way “atheists” approach “believers” and belief—which seems to be at least one of the points of Eagleton’s book. People believe complexly, and until Myers and others like him can face that and account for it in a way that both engages with it substantively and doesn’t resort to scientistic condescension, they’ll be as abjectly dogmatic as the simpleminded dupes they seem to think constitute the believing population. The notion of a “dupe” is far too simple to do any work in talking about religious belief, period; and until those speaking for “atheists” abandon it entirely and face complex belief, they will not be taken seriously. Just because science is on your side doesn’t mean ignorance isn’t, too.
We’ll leave Myers at perhaps his most adolescent, meanspirited, and crass. Back on his plane, our brave embattled militant for truth is reading his book:
As I was marking up his little book with these questions, something routine happened: the plane hit some turbulence, bounced about for a bit, and I looked out the window and had the fleeting, morbid thought, “What if we crashed?” We’ve all had that thought, and I usually dismiss it with little concern, but this time I had a new worry: I was sitting there holding Reason, Faith, and Revolution. You know that grandmotherly admonition to always wear clean underwear because, what if you had an accident, and they’d know? I had a vision of my broken corpse on a slab, and the sneering pathologist pulling the book out of my dead clenched hand, and making some mocking comment in his notes. Eagleton would be the skidmark at my autopsy. I resolved that if the plane did go down, the first thing I was going to do was fling the book as far forward as I could […] removing it from association with my body.
How sad that a man’s final act in the world would be disassociating himself from a book with which he disagrees by chucking it across an airplane cabin. One shouldn’t expect him to be preparing to meet his maker, of course; but one hopes there would be weightier matters on Myers’s mind than physically separating himself from a “futile game” of a book that will probably, like all of Myers save maybe his teeth, be destroyed beyond recognition on impact.
But whose recognition or judgment does Myers fear will impeach him for his noxious affiliation with Eagleton the believerist scoundrel? That of the public? His fellow militant atheists? The writers of history? The military personnel or Coast Guard patrols or local law enforcement or even EMTs who recover his aircraft’s scattered schrapnel? None of them can discern the title of a book by scrutinizing its molecularized remains. Myers’s promised juvenile book-flinging is something like the opposite of a deathbed conversion—to the last, he does his damnedest to reject all associations with the vile intellectual pandemic that we dupes and defenders of dupes call “religion.” Nothing of Myers, not even his body, can so much as approach it without being sullied by the filth of belief. How fascinating that Eagleton’s book forces Myers into a fantastic imagining—forces him to conjure a tidy parable of predictive personal mythology in which demise is so very certain that the “little book” he was reading has been flattened and smeared into a skidmark on his corpse! Nothing else of consequence remains, for Myers, who is certain that death is death, and absolutely nothing more. At impact, with his immanent annihilation, Myers’s faith in the stupidity of his fellows and the void that awaits us will be finally and irrevocably vindicated. It will be the moment of his salvation.
Despite all I’ve documented above, I have only a single comment for Myers. Thoroughly familiarize yourself with the complete works of Emily Post before you speak another word.3
With thanks to Elliott Callahan and John Collins.
1. Eagleton, Terry. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. 7-9.
2. Ibid. 47-49.
3. What fortuity: just last Thursday, Myers posted yet another ineptly clodding takedown of someone whose beliefs are more nuanced than his own, James Wood, who reviews Eagleton’s book this week for The New Yorker. Again, we find Myers’s myopia and paranoia dominating his thought and leading him to accusatory, projective, ad hominem attacks:
[W]hile he begins by taking trite swipes at atheists, he’s actually trying to criticize Terry Eagleton’s views on religion; Eagleton also detests atheists, but is one of those religious apologists to whom god is an ideal, but not necessarily one that has to have any kind of empirical reality. […] But Eagleton is a loud critic of the New Atheists, and that’s a central point of his book, and Wood despises them, too! How to make sure no one confuses him for a supporter of those awful god-haters? Easy enough: begin with a long rant condemning atheists. And so he does.
The tiny problem with the notion that James Wood decided to “condemn atheists” so as to buddy up to Terry Eagleton is that James Wood is himself an atheist. Wood’s condemning intolerant, dogmatic, scientistic atheists like Myers, not atheists as a category. He makes such distinctions. (He also offers some valuable and persuasive critiques of Eagleton.) It’s PZ Myers’s peculiar arrogance to think not only that vast systems that are labeled by single words—”Christianity,” “atheism”—can be discretely defined, but that he has the authority to define them, and to declare those who refuse his simplistic interpretations idiots. As with Christianity, atheism has species, some fitter to exist than others.