Interview: Terry Eagleton

If Richard Dawkins is knocked from his bicycle and murdered on the Banbury Road, Terry Eagleton insists he will not have been responsible. That is, roughly, the full extent of his kind words for “New Atheism”. We are all familiar by now with its circus-troupe of acolytes, who somehow marry intense pomposity with grave obsequiousness in the face of “Ditchkins”, the twin-headed atheist hydra Eagleton sees embodied in Richard Dawkins’s sneer and in Christopher Hitchens’s warmongering. Against this enemy, Eagleton enters the field of battle in the name of theology and revolution in equal measure.

Eagleton’s Marxism is welcome relief from Ditchkins’s nominally radical brand of politics, which combines impassioned disdain for the ignorant multitude with a striking lack of anger about the crimes of our own ruling powers. That, Eagleton thinks, is not very left-wing at all. Nor is it cutting-edge and provocative; instead, these “New” atheists are only an archaic remnant of the nineteenth-century. They exemplify the long, establishment tradition of “bourgeois rationalism”. That phrase reveals a great deal about Eagleton’s position. Like Dawkins, he is concerned with truth and irritated by stupidity – the biologist “could hardly formulate a theological belief accurately enough to reject it”, he suggests in that spirit – but like Hitchens his primary complaint is political, not abstractly philosophical.

Echoing the nineteenth-century Young Hegelians satirised and skewered by Marx, New Atheists visualise religion as chains of hogwash imprisoning the human spirit. Marx the materialist insisted the real chains were provided by capitalist society, and religion, the “heart of a heartless world”, only made life bearable. We might thus recommend a modicum of sensitivity, that norm scorned as hopelessly conservative by Ditchkins. Eagleton is surely right that for those working gruelling 15-hour days in factories or down mines anything advertised as the “opium of the people” can seem a perfectly sensible purchase.

On this view, depicting religion as the root of the problem is either astoundingly unsympathetic or it is evidence of the poor thinking of historical idealism, which dislocates ideas from the social and political conditions that give rise to them. People who blame religion for sins from patriarchy to paedophilia and tragedies from Ireland to Palestine let the true culprits off the hook. A young Marx once observed that to be radical is, etymologically, to address problems “at their root”. The historical idealism of contemporary atheism is far from that. Eagleton is keen to point out Richard Dawkins’s opposition to Jeremy Corbyn; most atheism, he thinks, fits impeccably into establishment thinking.   

This does not quite get Eagleton to where he needs to be, if he is to rescue theology for the Left. To say that religion is the symptom and not the cause of the problem is a very different thing from lauding it. Indeed, Marx begins his classic critique of the Young Hegelians by implying they have successfully “completed” the criticism of religion, and their offence is only overreach; rightly incensed by religion, they wish unfairly to lay all ills at its door.

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We have a century and a half of extra history now, and Eagleton warns against drawing too many general insights from Marx’s suspicions about faith in 1840s Prussia, which sided very firmly with a retrograde state apparatus. He offers an anecdote instead – seeing his wife head to a secular, rationalist church service of the kind popular among nineteenth-century atheists (and recently revived by the pseudo-philosopher Alain de Botton; each of these New Atheists really does have a Hegelian precursor), Marx allegedly grumbled: “you’d be better off reading the Hebrew prophets”.

What are we to garner from that episode? Eagleton wants Marxists and other radical left-wingers to be much less embarrassed about our connections to religion. “Secularised faith!” shout atheist savants at all who seek a starkly better world. Terry Eagleton would have us nod vigorously in response. The metaphysical, he says, disrupts the blandness of everyday secular, rational existence in much the same way that political transformation does. Both ought to be cherished.

For that reason, the secular desire to rid politics of faith should be regarded as highly suspect by all of the discontented. Needless to say, the project invariably fails; it is precisely because human beings are dynamic creatures not inclined to settle for injustice that we cling to belief in something more than this world, and where religion dissipates other, equally transcendent ideas move into the vacuum.

The politically important issue, then, is not whether we should hold anything sacred – we always do – but what we should hold sacred. Over recent years and especially in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution, Eagleton has launched a spirited defence of Christianity as an answer to this question. If divine characteristics serve as exemplars for earthly norms, he suggests that making a god of Jesus is a move with profoundly radical political implications. God, in the Christian view, is a carpenter born in a stable and not a robed monarch or a “big bastard with a stick”. That sets potent precedents, or at least it should do. He contends too that the Gospels encourage a kind of radical self-dispossession reflected in revolutionary praxis, in which faith involves the potential of being killed for the sake of a project that demands loyalty on grounds other than immediate, particularistic self-interest. I make a dissenting claim for Judaism, and we reach something like a compromise. Eagleton admits that Christianity is necessarily Judaic (which doesn’t satisfy me at all), that referring to the Hebrew Bible as the “Old Testament” wrongly implies it has passed its sell-by date (moving in the right direction, definitely), and then that “Marx is very Jewish” (a victory, I think). Marx’s opposition to utopianism is thus rendered as a product of the Jewish theological prohibition on prophesying the future.

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None of these are new concerns for Eagleton. At Cambridge in the 1960s he edited the left-wing Catholic journal Slant,and was once a comrade of Christopher Hitchens in the International Socialists, forerunners to the Socialist Workers Party. Later, Hitchens remarked that the Trotskyist tradition in Europe, though never numerically particularly significant, has long been intellectually precocious. Its influence on Eagleton is still clear, not least in his biting condemnation of Stalinism in his 2011 book Why Marx Was Right. He brings to his current arguments the accumulated memory of rich political traditions.

What does such a wizened observer make of student politics today? The ascent of identity politics, he says, is “paradoxical”. Above all, he sees a rich deepening of left-wing politics at the hands of feminism, anti-racist struggles and the politics of sexual liberation. Against the tendency to dismiss these matters as the concerns of the middle-class, he insists that questions of the body, difference and marginality are often central to the challenges faced by the most wretched of the earth. He worries, though, about a “displacement” – not simply of class as an analytical register, it seems, but of social transformation as the constitutive goal of radical politics. It is an anxiety worth considering.               

He refuses the label optimistic, but this ’68-er is refreshing for avoiding the hackneyed clichés of middle-aged disillusion. He proclaims both his realism and capitalism’s dynamism; history, then, did not end with the passing of the Cold War. The welcome election of “our friend” Jeremy Corbyn only adds further evidence to that contention, and he thinks it “excellent” that Oxford students have built a campaign against the legacy of Cecil Rhodes – “let’s not mince our words”, he declares, savouring the unminced vernacular: “Rhodes is a nasty crook”. None of this is intended to obscure the scale of the challenges for the Left today. The international picture is bleak, though Eagleton, like Walter Benjamin before him, believes firmly in miracles.

Closer to home, my question about #RhodesMustFall prompts a sudden assertion of empathy for students at Oxford who feel utterly marginalised by its insertion into rituals of class power that exclude them. He recalls days spent as an undergraduate at Cambridge, mumbling into a beer glass while aristocrats bellowed in clipped tones as if they owned all the world’s decibels. Tittering at the memory of University authorities reacting with horror to the classes on Marxism he ran at Oxford, he counsels in favour of hope. Things have changed, he says. Some students will wonder how much really has.