Culture and the Death of God, by Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, RRP£18.99/$26, 264 pages
The Soul of the World, by Roger Scruton, Princeton University Press, RRP£19.95/$27.95, 216 pages
“The gods offer no rewards for intellect,” wrote Mark Twain in his notebook. “There was never one yet that showed any interest in it.” Some intellectuals return the gods’ indifference, whereas others go to great trouble to understand them, ascertain whether they are dead or merely resting, and account for humanity’s attachment to them despite so much evidence pointing elsewhere. Many of those who contribute to the field have a religious faith of their own, which they seek to reconcile with the rest of what they know about the world. I can’t share their beliefs, but I admire their intellectual integrity in trying to find a coherent solution that accounts for everything they experience.
Such projects make for strange bedfellows, with writers of different world views often aiming for similar conclusions. This is the case with two new contributions, one by Marxist cultural historian and critic Terry Eagleton, the other by conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. Both are bold thinkers, and both want to provide a foundation for religious values in a secular world. But their approaches are entirely different, and not simply because they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
In Culture and the Death of God, Eagleton unfolds a historical narrative from the Enlightenment onwards, attempting to show how secular thinkers have repeatedly tried to break out of religious tradition while falling back into pseudo-religious thought despite themselves. The Enlightenment philosophers made a god of reason, the romantics deified nature and the imagination, nationalists deified the nation, modernists deified art, humanists deified humanity, and so on. It turns out, Eagleton says, that “not believing in God is a far more arduous affair than is generally imagined”, and that the history of secularism can largely be seen as a history of setting up “surrogates” for God: transcendent entities that bestow meaning on our lives.
Eagleton concurrently argues that secular thinkers have done great damage by putting reason at the centre of human life. This move has pushed the religious urge out into fringe territory, where it sits muttering and festering until it mutates into a pathological form such as violent fundamentalism. He would prefer to see us return to an orderly religion more integrated into society, installed somewhere where we can keep an eye on it, presumably.
Unfortunately, these arguments work rather at cross purposes to one another. If secular rationalism is unable to stand up by itself, how can it be responsible for so much damage? Both arguments also creak under the weight Eagleton places on them. His notion of a religious “surrogate” is so broad that it could apply to almost any ethical or cultural principle. His case studies suggest only that humans have a weakness for monolithic ideas, not that we crave the divine as such.
As for blaming religious fundamentalism on the expansion of secular rationalism, even if right, this would be perverse in its emphasis, as when people blame anti-gay violence on the visibility of gay people rather than on homophobes. And when Eagleton speaks of the world as divided between “those who believe too much and those who believe too little”, the phrase’s neat balance obscures its tendentiousness. Should non-believers try to believe a little more? Would that bring fundamentalists back into the fold? More likely it would convince them that they were right all along.
The question of practical consequences is relevant because, by the end, Eagleton’s argument becomes primarily one of usefulness. If secular rationalism is to blame for social ills, and we have deep-rooted religious needs that we frustrate at our peril, then it seems beneficial to return to the religious fray post-haste. The book even ends with a vision of religion as a potential catalyst for liberation: not the opium of the people but the means to their awakening. Eagleton rightly deplores cynics, such as Machiavelli or Matthew Arnold, who advocated propping up popular credulity for political ends but his own conclusion differs only in not being made cynically.
In The Soul of the World, Roger Scruton starts from a different point: religion as experience rather than expedient. He also proceeds through philosophical example and analysis, rather than the history of ideas.
The main engine of his argument is the theory of phenomenology, which posits that all consciousness is consciousness of something, and that this “something” need not have reality in the usual sense of the word. A phenomenologist can investigate the structure of a subjective experience together with the object it “points” to, while setting aside the question of whether this object is more like Westminster Abbey or a daffodil or police sirens outside my window, or more like Bertrand Russell’s giant teapot orbiting the Sun. The objects of my experience are objects for me; they constitute my “lived world”, which need not overlap with the material or scientific one. Phenomenology gives us a way of talking about human experience and its rich range of reference, without having to prejudge the reality question. This makes it, among other things, God’s gift to religious philosophers.
If one accepts this starting point, one can sit back and relish Scruton’s stately and often beautiful journey through various areas of human experience: architecture, music, love, the subtle ways we respond to each other’s faces. His discussion of music is particularly absorbing (apart from a gratuitous attack on Technohead’s novelty song “I Wanna Be a Hippy”). He writes about the feeling of “movement” in melody, the “gravitational forces” that pull a piece towards its resolution, and the emotional “authority” that some works exert – none of which would be comprehensible if we could only talk about soundwaves and vibrating strings. To speak of a Beethoven sonata or a lover’s smile requires a language of lived experience, of meanings rather than causes.
Scruton tries ultimately to lead us towards a “space at the edge of reason” where faith can grow. We may follow him in this but we may also loop back into the secular realm without any contradiction. One can enjoy the philosophical journey without taking the theological one; phenomenology works for both.
Both of these books are wide-ranging and intellectually impassioned; it is not really a criticism to say that they both gave me an urge to stay up all night protesting, questioning, and arguing with their authors.
Sarah Bakewell is author of ‘How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer’ (Vintage)