Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic, has been something of a hero of mine since the publication of his Reason, Faith and Revolution, a thoroughgoing demolition of the Richard Dawkins critique of religion – on the sound basis that Prof Dawkins didn’t know what he was talking about – and his latest, Culture and the Death of God, promises to be pretty good too.
He touched on it in an interview on the Today programme where he was excitedly introduced by Evan Davis as an atheist – ‘you are an atheist, aren’t you?’ – which was an odd sort of assumption to make about a man whose career began as a youthful contributor to a Leftish Catholic journal. The prof brushed this aside, but went on to make his fundamental point, that religion has, over time, trumped all the attempted substitutes: Reason (practically deified in the Enlightenment), Nature (ditto, by the Romantics), nationalism, and above all, culture, endowed by what passes for our own intelligentsia with all the ennobling effects of religion without the tiresome necessity of belief.
According to Prof Eagleton, religion remains ‘the single most wildly successful symbolic system’ in human history. This is a shot at the cultural atheists, Ian McEwan, John Gray et al, and it may give pause, if no more, to the assumption of, say, Evan Davis and most of the commentariat, that religion isn’t really for clever people.
(Actually that assumption, that religion is not for people like us, but fine for everyone else, was shared by the grandee intellectuals of the Enlightenment, something Prof Eagleton usefully described in the Firth Lectures at Nottingham University on which his latest book is based. Both lectures are available online, and just as well, because they look as if they were sparsely attended.)
I haven’t, I should say, actually read Culture and the Death of God but the gist of the argument was also usefully summarized in an interview the prof gave to the Oxonian magazine in 2012:
‘There have been attempts to make culture stand in for religion. Modernity is littered with failed candidates, substitutes, surrogates for religion. Culture was actually more successful than many of them. But it didn’t work. In my view, no symbolic system on earth has had religion’s power, pervasiveness, depth. Whatever you think of religion I think that’s just a fact. Not always a fact to be celebrated by any means, but I think it’s a fact. Culture can’t hold a candle to religion.’
Notwithstanding that, he suggests that postmodernism, the intellectual position of our time, had pretty well seen off religion prior to 9/11 after which things changed, and religion again assumed an important aspect in public life, except that the God of believers was now perceived as the God of a particularly militant strand of Islam.
In a sense he’s right. When people now talk about the importance of religion and of understanding it (pace the Tony Blair Faith Foundation) what they really mean is that it’s awfully important to understand Islam. And so it is. But that still leaves us with the question of the condition of the non-Islamic parts of the culture. Post-Christian is one way of putting it. But that doesn’t quite do justice to the breadth of ignorance of Christianity in contemporary Britain, especially working class Britain: the sheer gulf between what the simplest souls would have known about the faith two generations ago and what even educated young people know now.
A survey by the Bible Society last week suggested that most young people do not know the stories about Jonah and the Whale, Adam and Eve and the parable of the Prodigal Son, or do not know they are from the Bible, as opposed, say, to Harry Potter. Michael Gove may like to brood on that. Parents are, by and large, well disposed towards the Bible (as indeed is the PM, who said recently that he found it a useful guide ‘but there are many others’), as a source of values, even if they’re hazy about the content. But one thing Prof Eagleton makes clear is that without the belief, you don’t get the morals and values.
Of course a post-Christian culture does still have a Christian foundation. And there are stubborn signs of life in the churches – in this week’s magazine, I suggested that even an institution as ostensibly moribund as confession is showing unexpected signs of vitality. But the trajectory of Christianity in terms of baptisms and church attendance is going inexorably in one direction. Terry Eagleton has made an excellent case for religion as stubbornly and inherently human. The narrower question of whether Christianity will survive in Britain as part of the common culture once the generation of Brits that attended Sunday School is gone is quite another matter.