Deriding today’s idols

John Anthony West derides what he calls the Church of Progress. Me too. I am really tired of people pretending they are profound when in fact they are merely sheep following trends. The trend of the past tiresome century, and this one to date, is to regard religion as superstition, as if  blind faith in “progress” or in “science” were anything but superstition.

A friend’s comments since I posted this reminds me that I should make clear that of course I did not mean that everyone who rejects religion does so only because it is fashionable to do so – merely that it is the fashion to do so, and the sheep do go that way. As to creeds, I believe it was Jung who said that the gods never reinhabit the temples they once abandon. Similarly, the old formulaic Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam, and Buddhism, and Hinduism, I would argue) is not something we can or should go back to; however, it (whichever one we were raised in) is likely part of what we step off from.  

This piece, via my brother who called it to my attention a while ago, from The New York Times .

God Talk

 Stanley Fish

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance – science, reason, liberalism, capitalism – just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign – many terrible things have been done in religion’s name – but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask – never mind answer – such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”

Progress, liberalism and enlightenment – these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?

Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition – an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) – because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.

And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”

That kind of belief will have little use for a creed that has at its center “one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.” No wonder “Ditchkins” – Eagleton’s contemptuous amalgam of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, perhaps with a sidelong glance at Luke 6:39, “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” – seems incapable of responding to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”

You won’t be interested in any such promise, you won’t see the point of clinging to it, if you think that “apart from the odd, stubbornly lingering spot of barbarism here and there, history on the whole is still steadily on the up,” if you think that “not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.” How, Eagleton asks, can a civilization “which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient” see any point in or need of “faith or hope”?

“Self-sufficient” gets to the heart of what Eagleton sees as wrong with the “brittle triumphalism” of liberal rationalism and its ideology of science. From the perspective of a theistic religion, the cardinal error is the claim of the creature to be “self-originating”: “Self-authorship,” Eagleton proclaims, “is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence,” and he could have cited in support the words of that great bourgeois villain, Milton’s Satan, who, upon being reminded that he was created by another, retorts , “[W]ho saw/ When this creation was…?/ We know no time when we were not as now/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised” (Paradise Lost, V, 856-860).That is, we created ourselves (although how there can be agency before there is being and therefore an agent is not explained), and if we are able to do that, why can’t we just keep on going and pull progress and eventual perfection out of our own entrails?

That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws – the laws of entailment and evidence – cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.

“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”

One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations.

One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”

The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.


Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books. His new book on higher education, “Save the World On Your Own Time,” has just been published.

6 thoughts on “Deriding today’s idols

  1. If any readers find this article interesting (I did) you might be interested to read some of the 721 comments (I didn’t read them all! …yet!) responding to it on the NY Times site. Here’s a bit of one:

    “…by the way, all those questions that you are asking sound a lot like philosophy, not religion. Religion gives an answer. Reason and philosophy ask you to find one.”

  2. That’s less convincing than it first appears, when you think about it a bit. What’s the point of sincerely asking questions, but to try to find an answer? Ideally, we try to find the answer, but that’s probably an unattainable ideal. We try to find an answer that resonates; an answer that strikes us as true. Sometimes this means merely confirming our own preconceived ideas, or our biases; but other times, it means taking into account more than mere logic-chopping can do.

    Well, if you are looking for an answer, and you find it, shouldn’t you then follow where it leads? Indeed, don’t you pretty nearly have to? “Reason and philosophy” serve us well in so far as they encourage us to question more deeply; but they wouldn’t serve us at all well if they required that all questions remain open. That is itself a philosophical position, and not necessarily a helpful one.

  3. So many different religions, so many different answers, so little time. If only we could just take the answers that “resonate” from many religions, and then take along the companions Reason and Philosophy to make sure that we keep questioning deeply, and most important, allow the freedom to add more to the answer as we go along, then we would have something! Actually, doesn’t that describe Unitarian Universalism…?

  4. Dear Frank,

    I hope that I am not to be counted among those pretentious placid pastoral herbivores (though I have nothing against sheep personally, mind you–one of my fondest memories is of watching flocks of sheep graze on the fields beside Coniston Water in Northern England)!

    I say this only because I came by my own opinions through an extremely long, hard fought, and—to be quite frank—most painful process of inward development, punctuated by a de facto estrangement both from lofty academic institutions (which had no use for anything outside a singularly narrow conception of reason), as well as from one time intellectual mentors (one of whom had drifted to a rather conservative form of Catholic religious orthodoxy). My own unique journey was thus costly at many levels, including in terms of personal relationships and potential career advancement. I mention this not to elicit sympathy for a plight long past, or to bask in false martyrdom, but simply to caution against making hasty overgeneralizations about the quality or origin of other people’s opinions. I followed my own star, and I make no apologies or excuses for that. If others were, for their own reasons, driven down similar paths to find a way (escape route) between a deracinated rationalism and a retreat to orthodoxies, that would not be surprising, after all, as we are always responding (consciously or not) to the peculiar crises of our time. But that makes sense, does it not? How could it be otherwise? We are not sponges, or sheep, but sensitive souls attuned to the rhythms of the age.

    However, apart from any question of biological classification, I think the main substantive issue entirely depends upon what one means by “religion.” In his lengthy 1957 essay on “The Undiscovered Self,” Jung distinguishes between what he calls “religion” and “creed,” religion being the individual’s direct and immediate relationship to the numinous dimension (and careful accounting thereof), creed being the cookie-cutter belief systems imposed by the denominations to guarantee social conformity and stamp out the individual experience, particularly in its unauthorized versions. Like Jung, I regard the former as absolutely vital and essential, and the latter as not simply dispensable but obstructive—you could call it “superstitious” in the dictionary definition sense of “excessively credulous belief.”

    This distinction between “religion” and “creed” echoed what Jung earlier wrote in his foreword to Richard Wilhelm’s edition of the I Ching. There he notes that the original (classical or “pagan”) meaning of the word religio is a careful observation and taking account of the numinous– in other words, a reverential reading of the Great Book of Nature—whereas, says Jung, it was the Church Fathers who derived religio, not from relegere (as the pagan Cicero had), but from another, superficially similar, Latin word, religare, which means to reconnect, link back, or to be bound to—as in, to be obliged (that is, bound) to obey the authority of a supernatural law regarded as being imposed over and against (corrupt) nature, instinct, intuition, and the individual experience as a whole. And Jung makes no secret of his sympathy for the older derivation, which does not estrange the individual from their immediate experience of life in favor of pointless arguments over texts or creeds.

    So, once again, if by “religion,” one means relegere—that is, paying close attention to one’s own inward experience of the numinous—then I would regard religion as of vital importance. But if by “religion” one means religare (obedience to a law and authority conceived as external), I would say that we would be better served by severing those old bindings once and for all. I think we’ve been there, done that, and that what we need now is something that retrieves the inherent sanctity of matter, recognizes the equal importance of the female and the feminine, and admits to the ineradicable dynamic of light and dark, good and evil, rather than seeking either the destruction of, or escape from, this ever-present dynamic. I don’t see this set of concerns accommodated in any of the existing creeds–eastern or western–which is why I think they are all outdated and dangerous.

    Joe Felser

    1. I’m with you – and Dr. Jung — about the differences in definition! Of course I did not mean that everyone who rejects religion does so only because it is fashionable to do so – but you may agree that it is the fashion to do so, and the sheep do go that way.

      I didn’t realize that there are two Latin derivations of religion. The only one I knew meant “linking up again,” which I would argue we as a civilization desperately need to do.

      As to creeds, I believe it was Jung who said that the gods never reinhabit the temples they once abandon. Similarly, the old formulaic Christianity (and Judaism, and Islam, and Buddhism, and Hinduism, I would argue) is not something we can or should go back to; however, it (whichever one we were raised in) is likely part of what we step off from. But I don’t think any of us can guess what form our new experience of the larger reality will take. I suspect that it will take centuries for the new worldview to form, just as it took centuries for Christianity to become fixed in form.

  5. I see “religion” totally different I guess. I see “religion” as an organized manmade ideal with a system of rules and laws to appease any particular religion’s god. I see it as a system of measure so that the participants can say…I am more religious than you because I do this or that. I see religion as the wolf in sheeps clothing that has messed with the minds of thousands of people all over the world……such as worshiping cows or drinking poison or dancing around in some stupor……and then saying unless you can do these things the god is not happy. Those kinds of things stifle growth in all kinds of ways.

    I disagree that christianity has become fixed in form. Every 500 years it redefines itself, but preserves the gospel. New things are being understood each day and many have realized the atrocities it has caused by early believer’s lack of understanding, but taking action on what they thought. That’s why I like christianity….it is the only faith where God comes to man and says you can’t please me no matter how hard you try so I will provide another way we can be in relationship and it will all be up to Me and your choice to chose Me. There is no slavery to rules or oppression…..not in true christianity that is not “religion”.

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