Sunday, July 12, 2009

Excellent Interview with Terry Eagleton

...the most trenchant critic of the "new atheists." Laurie Taylor of the New Humanist hit this one out of the park.

Eagleton's new book has been slow going for me, as I am thoroughly in summer mode and enjoying fare like The Urban Hermit and Wikipedia entries on dead pop stars... but I love some of what Eagleton has to say and I love the way he says it. The situation's somewhat analogous to the rhetorical pickle a lot of lefties get into when they try to criticize the Right: so many liberals (and non-stupid religious people) buy so thoroughly into ideals of tolerance and compassion that they can't break the shit down and mount a decent vituperative assault. Those guys got cred --the unspoken fear goes-- they got family values, they got Einstein... and who wants to knock kids and cookouts, or The Same Empiricism That Brought You MRIs and Artificial Hearts (as Ditchkins' epigones weirdly chant)?

Nothing wrong with tolerance and compassion, but if you can't sum up why they're wrong and you're right then there's not much point taking issue with anyone, is there? Here's an example of Eagleton's style, quoted by Taylor: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The Book of British Birds and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology." Eagleton exposes many of the lacunae, invalid assumptions, contradictions, and plain old non sequiturs in self-proclaimed rationalist thought, and does so with admirable wit and style.

The interview takes a turn that, for me anyway, raises the ghost of Stephen Jay Gould. When someone like Eagleton accuses a "new atheist" of near-total ignorance of religion, the latter tends to respond, with some justification and as Richard Dawkins does here, that "I [don't] think theology is a subject at all.... it is like someone saying they don't believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven't studied fairy-ology." Fine, but-- with this desire to be both in the fray and above it, haven't we journeyed once again to the land of non-overlapping magisteria? Not where Ditchkins wants to be, as it makes it hard to preach to the savages... and if you won't stoop to grab the other dude's gauntlet then you end up, like Quixote, warring with imagined foes.

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