The last Eagleton book I read was On Evil (2010), and having read it I concluded that it was not much cop. Culture and the Death of God is not as thin as On Evil, but its level of cop-ness is not much higher. It's a synthetic and rather breathless summary of several dozen philosophers from the eighteenth-century through to the present, strung along the thread of ... well, I'm not exactly sure what the main thesis is, actually. It's more or less: 'the Enlightenment believed it had replaced Religion with Reason and Science, but it was wrong', to which is added the corollary 'people like Dawkins who think Reason and Science have replaced Religion are ignorant of Religion and ignorant of History'. Which is fair enough, though hardly news. Looking for a more nuanced thesis in this 200-page whistlestop tour of 'everybody important who wrote about God and Philosophy from the 18th-century' is more of a challenge. Less of the whistling, and a little more stopping, would have resulted in a longer, slower, but surely a better, book.
It's a fun read, as Eagleton often is; although the accounts of people I happen know about in some detail invariably struck me as thin and distorting, in each case because they relied heavily on one or at most two secondary sources (almost nothing gets quoted in this book from primary sources, and nothing at all gets any in-depth analysis). That fact makes me doubt the other stuff. Coleridge, for instance, gets a three-page discussion. According to Eagleton, he started a conventional Anglican, 'gravitated to German Idealism and metaphysical obscurantism' dallied with 'merely secular' beliefs for a bit, and then 'recircled to the genuine article'.
What was the point of this excursus? ... As popular discontent erupted throughout England, and the poet himself shifted sharply to the political right, he felt the need for a religious faith more lucid and dogmatic in its zeal for political authority than anything to be found in Kant or Spinoza. The Idealism which had enthused him proved in the end too cerebral. There's a blurry sense, here, of something not entirely unrelated to Coleridge's evolution as a thinker, but Eagleton's summary is pretty distorting. Though a deep-dyed Kantian (to the end of his days) Coleridge angrily repudiated 'Idealism', always disliked Spinoza, at no point in his life stopped being a Christian, and really didn't redefine his religion later in life in order to justify social or political authoritarianism. The whole thing is a kind of crude caricature, of the kind that nobody who has read (say) Pamela Edwards's brilliant The Statesman's Science would perpetrate. But Eagleton isn't interested in precision. The broad caricature serves his purpose.
That caricature is a sort of cartoon narrative to which Eagleton's book returns again and again, and which goes something like this: post-Enlightenment, people give up 'Religion' for high-flown reasons but they inevitably find that life becomes banal and so 'Religion', in altered shapes, always comes back in. I don't think this statement is true on its face (lots of people lose their faith in an uncomplicated and even a liberating way; lots of people find in science, reason or social service both sublimity and purpose), and although there's something in Eagleton's larger case, it's not a something well-served by Eagleton's style of argument.
What I mean is that, though jolly to read, he has a bad habit of sacrificing cogency and even plain sense to the b'dum-tish of his rhetoric.
It was the fate of the Enlightenment to help usher in a civilisation which in its pragmatism, materialism and utilitarianism tended to discredit some of the very exalted ideals which presided at its birth. There can be hymns to Liberty, but hardly to proportional representation. Eagleton clearly thinks that second sentence a zinger, but it really isn't. It's fuzzily, which is to say lazily, reasoned. He means that though the Project may be grand and stirring its practicalities inevitably descend to pettifogging and pedantic procedural matters, and that this therefore disqualifies the Project itself. But he is not comparing like with like. We could just as easily rewrite the sentence: 'people can devote their lives to God but hardly to whether parish meetings in Henley-on-Thames should convene on a Wednesday or a Thursday evening'. That the latter element is a part of being a Christian does not nullify the former. (‘There can be hymns to God, but not to the raffle being organised to raise funds to repair the plaster in the church transept’)
Eagleton's argument is that 'Rationalism was able to damage the clerics but not to step into their ideological shoes'. This was because 'it was a style of thought too thin in emotional and imaginative resources, too shorn of a symbolic dimension, to provide modernity with an assured means of self-legitimation.' He thinks people turned for those 'emotional' and 'imaginative' resources to things like Culture, Nationalism and Marxism (he's emphatic on the Judeo-Christian heritage of this latter, which is kind of refreshing). Again, there's something broadly right about this, and insofar as he uses it as a stick to beat the new-atheists—and that's a stick flourished lustily in the latter sections of the book—Eagleton turns it to good use. But I'd've been happier if the specific points didn't so often dissolve into crumbs when poked with even the most cursory of 'let me think about this for a moment's.
Like culture and the aesthetic, Romantic nationalism is an anti-political kind of politics. It maintains a certain fastidious distance from the workaday world of power and administration. It is hard to imagine Pearse or Sibelius chairing a sanitation committee. But it's not hard to imagine Wordsworth collecting stamp duty in Westmorland, or Victor Hugo sitting through endless committee meetings on legislative matters as a member of the French Parliament, since both of them did just that.
Nationalism is the most poetic form of politics ... nationalist politics are especially hospitable to the creative imagination. They tend to give rise to some distinguished works of art, as neo-liberalism and social democracy do not. That must be why North Korea has produced so many masterpieces, and why Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth, Browning, Dickens, George Eliot, Whitman, Joyce, Woolf, Proust and the whole cultural tradition of modern fiction, music and cinema are all so shit. Eagleton devotes a great many pages to attacking Matthew Arnold's 'vacuities' [123-42], which he is perfectly entitled to do, though I think he is wrong in the main and demonstrably wrong in myriad specific details. By the time we get to the end of the book, where Eagleton proposes 9-11 as the disproof that History has ended, and fundamentalist terrorism as a kind of QED that God is not dead, his rhetorical imprecision rises alongside his indignation. He ends up adopting a kind of Peter Hitchens tone: 'ideologically speaking the West has disarmed at just the point when it has proved most perilous for it to do so' —Hitchens would shy away from 'ideology', but otherwise this really is the kind of statement that makes the reader go: dude! are you high? His real scorn is reserved for what he calls 'leftist fellow travellers' with religion and 'defenders of capitalism'. For the latter category he selects two indicative examples:
Religious faith, suitably cleansed of its primitive propositions, may figure as a kind of aesthetic supplement to an uncouth social order. Francis Spufford's Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense is symptomatic of this trend, as is Alan de Botton's unwittingly entertaining Religion for Atheists. What follows is a cremation of de Botton that, inadvertently, demonstrates that Eagleton hasn't so much as cracked open the front cover of Spufford's book: 'there is something unpleasantly disingenuous about this entire legacy: "I don't happen to believe myself, but it is politically expedient that you should" is the catchphrase of [these] thinkers' . But Spufford says no such thing, not least because he does happen to believe, himself; and many things he argues in his powerful book anticipate the Eagletonian insistence that the 'return of God' ought to inform 'just and compassionate communities ... a solidarity with the poor and powerless' . It's an unfortunately symptomatic note on which to end a hasty and shallow piece of writing.