Terry Eagleton has moved on from entertaining and pugnacious assaults on the ‘new atheists’ (principally Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) to consider the ways in which post-Enlightenment societies in the West have tried to fill the ‘God-shaped hole’ left by the supposed death of the Christian idea. In his new book Eagleton charts the attempts by European intellectuals since the 18th century to find a replacement for God. He ranges over the efforts of German Idealist philosophers to identify an Absolute they could believe in; the Romantics’ attempt to turn Art into a substitute for religion, and the suffering artist into a transcendent figure (often unintentionally a figure of metaphysical fun); the Victorian atheists’ search for a high-minded religion of humanity; the modernists’ hope that literature and art could do the trick; and the ‘postmodern’ collapse into shopping and shrugging indifference to the absence of God.
Eagleton tells a familiar story well, with humour and a gift for clear and sharp summaries of complex ideas and debates. He is especially strong on the ways in which rebels against God and Christendom since Hume and Gibbon have found it hard if not impossible to do without Christian concepts. This takes two forms. First, Eagleton provides plentiful evidence of how Enlightenment sages (such as Voltaire) and their successors over the past two centuries have been keen for the masses to hold on to religion: civility and social order are best secured by faith and obedience, and atheism is safe only for the intelligentsia in their secularised salons. Second, atheist intellectuals since the Enlightenment have been unable to do without the categories of thought and feeling developed over the Christian centuries. Time and again, Eagleton shows, secular philosophies reproduce, in ultimately unsatisfying forms, the ideas and practices of Christian belief and belonging. Even the man whom Eagleton sees as the first all-out atheist thinker, Nietzsche, cannot escape: his entire astounding career is a fight to the finish with Christianity, and after his descent into madness, he signs himself ‘the crucified’.
The long shadow of Christian legacies is especially clear in the case of the French secularist August Comte, founder of a Religion of Humanity. This inevitably had to be run by Comte as High Priest, grotesquely imitating the forms of Catholicism while celebrating human progress. Eagleton gives an entertaining and sardonic account of this and other attempts to keep all the aesthetic appeal of religion while jettisoning God and the supernatural. They keep coming: Alan de Botton’s ‘religion for atheists’ is Comteanism for the 21st century, and we can now attend atheist Sunday services thanks to the stand-up comedian Sanderson Jones and his colleagues.
Eagleton also highlights another variation on this theme, with some nice observations of the fondness of many atheists and agnostics for the Church of England. In this case there is no need to found a humanist religion - you simply indulge the desire to experience the Christian religion as culture, not as faith or communion. Hence the familiar figure of the Anglican Atheist, who doesn’t believe in God but enjoys evensong and readings from the King James Bible. Everyone in this category, from the Astronomer-Royal Martin Rees to Richard Dawkins himself, makes it plain that the C of E is valuable as a source of uplifting aesthetic experiences. Not that this is to be despised: many believers, myself included, came to faith by that path. As Revd Alan Billings argues in his book Lost Church, the C of E needs to take care of such ‘belongers’ even if they aren’t ‘believers’. Cathedral services are doing well, their congregations swelling with people who are drawn to the music, old stones and mystery but can’t identify themselves as part of the faithful.
What Eagleton does not consider in any detail is the effect of 250 years of atheistic critique on the churches of the West. He shows that none of the proposed replacements for God and Christian life has managed to attain the coherence and depth required. But they have - in tandem with many social and economic developments - succeeded in undermining the confidence, appeal and everyday presence of the churches. Many atheists and agnostics are wistful about God, who remains Missing and presumed Dead; but many Christians are in a similarly precarious state, holding on to a spectral hope that God is still ‘there’ in the face of everyday experience of a society that sees God as either dead or reduced to the level of a private pursuit, one option among a billion others in a secular economy of ‘choice’. The other response to the proclamation of the death of God is retrenchment in the gated community of a sect, with ever more aggressive policing of the boundaries between true believers and infidels. The Anglican Communion’s fragile confederation of faith communities shows the strains: it is attempting to find common ground between varieties of precarious faith verging on agnosticism on the one hand, and stridently resentful sects on the other. We might say that the casualty in the historical process Eagleton analyses is the condition of intelligent and humble conviction (as displayed for instance in the apologetics of CS Lewis, and in one of the very few convincing works in this vein to appear since his time, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford). As Eagleton says, the world is now divided between people who believe too much and people who don’t believe enough.
The book is about the post-Enlightenment West, but of course the ‘death of God’ has neither been announced nor believed in much of the rest of the world. We live in an age of Christian contraction in the West, but of Christian, Islamic and other religious expansion in the ‘global South’. And that expansion shows signs of overflow back into old Europe as migration continues in this century. Even in Europe, God’s demise is stale news and His revival is not the impossibility it seemed after World War Two. Eagleton says little about these developments, which is a pity.
In this context, Eagleton could also have said more about a phenomenon he mentions in passing - the resurgence of interest and influence of Christian ideas and history in the works of continental philosophers and cultural theorists: Slavoj Zizek and several other thinkers from the atheistic Marxist tradition have become fascinated by the revolutionary nature of Christianity and especially the figure of St Paul. Even more striking, there is the cultural anthropologist and theologian Rene Girard, unmentioned by Eagleton but highly relevant to his argument. Girard draws on Nietzsche, Freud and other theorists of Western life ‘after God’ to reinterpret the entire category of the Sacred and restate the transcendent stature of Jesus. In Girard’s thought, the atheist’s proposed replacement for God, namely human culture, is itself the source of violence and sacrificial religion and all its perversions, and needs to be overcome by the spirit of Christ. This is a rich body of work for Eagleton to explore in his next book, which surely needs to be about the persistence of faiths and the rise of new ones in the 21st century, and the monstrous ways in which they embody the endless struggle between sin and goodness, between egoistic desire and the striving to lead a generous and holy life. God has died; the gods have come again; and how will we recognise the one true God amidst the chaos of contending Christianities and other traditions?
The main contender for a God-replacement in Eagleton’s analysis is culture - art, nation, community, sport, high-minded humanism - but he might have spent more time on the role of economic growth and consumption as a secular religion-substitute. The cultural pseudo-religions have all failed to deliver the goods. But growth-propelled consumerism literally does deliver them, and has made it normal and more than bearable for hundreds of millions to live a life based on the pursuit of material well-being, family comforts and the proliferation of choices for those who can pay. Eagleton associates all this with intellectual ‘postmodernism’, the depthless celebration of difference and the ironic acceptance that there is no Meaning to life, just meanings. For postmodernists, there is no humanist Utopia to aim at, still less a Heaven and a Kingdom: the dream is of a future just like today, but with even more options. Perhaps the nearest the postmodern consumer culture gets to a sense of the sacred is devotion to ‘family’ and especially to children.
Often a crisis of meaning for people leading this unchurched and materialistic way of life comes with the approach of death, as Charles Taylor emphasises in A Secular Age; however, even death has been ironised and turned into a final exhibition of ‘choice’ for some, as we see with funerals featuring pop music, comedy coffins and insistence on brightly coloured clothes for the upbeat mourners. Growth and consumerism have made a viable lifelong framework for many people and their families since the 1950s. But what if the post-2007 downturns herald a long-term failure of economic growth and the onset of ecological disruption and scarcities? This could create conditions for the resurgence of religious belonging, for good and ill, of all kinds, from the emerging ‘atheist church services’ to fundamentalist sects. Whether the Church of England and other intelligent churches can find the nerve, resources and voice to renew themselves in such conditions is unclear. The question is urgent for the C of E. Eagleton hints at the way ahead for Christianity in his rather repetitive final chapter: to follow Christ in making the right kind of trouble once again, unsettling the status quo and making common cause with the poor and powerless.
Eagleton’s book is a valuable, intelligent and entertaining analysis, and ought to give some confidence to the churches. The message is clear, that atheistic culture finds it hard - if not impossible - to do without the legacy of Christianity, and that God is far from dead - hence the endless repetition of attempts to show He is, or ought to be. What can’t be dispelled is the need for ritual and communion, the sense of foundational mystery, and the uncanny, disruptive presence of Christ. Maybe this should tell the Churches something - to turn away from their obsessional infighting and unfairness to women and gay people, and to proclaim the beauty of its rituals, the generosity of community life in Christ, and the mysterious Love at the heart of all things.
Ian Christie, Theos advisory board and University of Surrey