An old Marxist scolds the New Atheists…


The quality of Western atheism has gone steadily downhill over the past century, according to one theologian.  A number of scientists, philosophers, and university professors—all prominent atheists themselves—are in agreement.  They also agree that this downward slide is well demonstrated by a loose group called the New Atheists, most prominent of which are Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.


The most notable and most able critic of the New Atheists is the brilliant British literary critic Terry Eagleton, also an unabashed Marxist.  For several years, Eagleton has devoted considerable time and energy to correcting the mistaken attacks on religion made by “Ditchkins,” his depreciatory blending of the names Dawkins and Hitchens. 


Eagleton’s assessment of their work is captured nicely in the title of a review he wrote for the London Review of Books, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.”  A couple quotes from this review of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, illustrate the aptness of the title for Eagleton’s critique.


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. …


Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. … Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain.


Terry Eagleton’s assessment goes beyond “Ditchkins” to include their fellow travelers.  He takes them all to task for their poor handling of Judaism and Christianity by pressing two telling points.


 [T]he agnostic left cannot afford such intellectual indolence when it comes to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, it is not only because it belongs to justice and honesty to confront your opponent at his or her most convincing.


It is also that radicals might discover there some valuable insight into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas. . . . But the Jewish and Christian scriptures have much to say about some vital questions—death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the life—on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end.


These last two quotes come from the Preface to Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Eagleton’s book length treatment of the arguments about whether “religion poisons everything.”  This volume is widely considered one of the best critiques of the New Atheists and is required reading by anyone interested in properly understanding the challenge these folks present to the Christian faith. 


But a proper introduction to the brilliant Terry Eagleton requires seeing him in action.  Fortunately, his wit, humor, and scathing commentary are on display online.  His comments and pop culture references are often hilarious, but in many cases, only if you’re properly attuned to British humor.  Video of the Terry Lectures at Yale University, which form the basis of Reason, Faith, and Revolution, are linked below.  Here is the video of “The God Debate,” part of the prestigious Gifford Lectures which Eagleton delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 2010.  Of course, all of this—books and video—requires the ability to get beyond Eagleton’s own attempt to reframe Christianity in light of his Marxist commitments.  But his comments are remarkably fair and often quite insightful on various aspects of Christian theology.


The University of Edinburgh, March 5, 2010



Resources, some of which are referred to above, some are not.


An excellent resource for understanding these ongoing and often bitter debates among the atheists was published in 2012 in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Tom Bartlett’s “Dusting Off GOD: A new science of religion says God has gotten a bad rap” is available here.


Philosopher Thomas Hibbs has an excellent review of Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate here.  One of his assessments:  “Eagleton’s devastating critique focuses on Hitchens and Dawkins’ theological illiteracy, ignorance of how science works, and naive faith in rational progress.”


Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series) by Terry Eagleton is available online here.


Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate began as the Terry Lectures at Yale University in 2008.  Videos of those talks are available here.




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