The God Question

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

Terry Eagleton

WHY IS EVERYONE talking about God? From the English scientist Richard Dawkins to the American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, from the leading French thinker Alain Badiou to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, the Almighty is suddenly back on the agenda, summoned back on to the public stage at just the moment when he must have been looking forward to a well-deserved retirement from such a demanding career.

Why has my local bookshop suddenly sprouted a section labeled “Atheism”? Why, just as we were apparently moving into a post-metaphysical, post-ideological, even post-historical era, is theology breaking out all over the place? Can we put it all down to fanatical Islamists and falling towers?

I don’t really think we can. For one thing, 9/11 wasn’t really about religion, any more than the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland was over the infallibility of the pope. For another thing, radical Islam understands depressingly little of its own religion; there is strong evidence to suggest that the motives for 9/11 were more political than religious.

But it may also be that Islamic fundamentalism confronts the West not only with blood and fire, but with the contradiction between its own will to believe and its chronic incapacity to do so. The West now stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a full-bloodedly metaphysical enemy for whom absolute truths and firm foundations pose no problem at all (would that they did!) — and this at just the moment when Western culture itself is in danger of lapsing into an unholy melange of moral relativism, political pragmatism and philosophical skepticism.

No sooner had it been announced in the West that so-called “grand narratives” (Marxism, Progress, Enlightenment and so on) were now definitively over than the West’s own political actions in the Muslim world helped to produce a new grand narrative known as Islamic radicalism.

In fact, capitalist civilizations cannot help producing such values. Market societies are inherently secular, materialistic and relativistic. To legitimate themselves, however, they need a set of values rather deeper, more timeless and more imposing than this, which is one reason why they cling on to religion. The United States is perhaps the most materialist nation on the planet, but it is also one of the most metaphysical, full of pious, high-minded public rhetoric about God and Freedom, Nation and Family, the Chosen People versus the Powers of Evil.

But the deeply Puritanical USA is something of an exception here. In general, market societies tend to undermine their own metaphysical foundations. It is simply not very plausible to appeal to the Virgin Mary or the Platonic ideal of the Good in the midst of an EU committee meeting.

Too Much/Too Little Belief

With the advent of a stridently metaphysical enemy, this becomes a real problem for Western nations. The world is suddenly divided between those who believe far too much, and those who believe far too little. Late capitalist cultures are not given to an excess of belief. For one thing, liberal democracies do not so much hold beliefs, as believe that people should be allowed to hold beliefs. They display a certain creative indifference to what their citizens actually believe, as long as they are allowed to get on with believing it, and as long as their beliefs do not undermine these very principles of freedom and toleration.

Because these beliefs are bound to clash with one another, liberal society can never look forward to an end to internal conflict. It must accept instead that it is unable to reach agreement on the most fundamental of questions. Everyone agrees that it is wrong to roast people over fires, but we cannot agree on why we agree on this.

Liberal society is one long, unruly, eternally inconclusive argument. And while this is a source of value, it is also a source of vulnerability.

For another thing, capitalism is not the kind of life-form which demands too much spiritual commitment from its citizens. As long as they consume, get out of bed, pay their taxes and refrain from beating up policemen, what they believe is for the most part of secondary importance. It is not what keeps the system ticking over, as it is what keeps the Lutheran church ticking over. This system is bound to look peculiarly weak and vulnerable when it encounters fundamentalists who believe far too much.

Yet there is more to the matter than that. The deepest irony is that liberal secularism actually breeds fundamentalism. These sworn antagonists are secretly sides of the same coin. Fundamentalism, however ugly and violent, has its roots in fear and anxiety rather than hatred. It is the visceral response of those (whether Texan or Taliban) who have been driven into spiritual fanaticism by a shallow, purely technological rationality which leaves all the deeper emotional and metaphysical questions scornfully to one side, and thus leaves them open to being monopolized by bigots.

The other side of a two-dimensional rationality is a faith-based politics. These individuals have also been driven to murderous violence by a form of civilization whose identity includes trampling over other people’s identities.

Those who are in power can afford not to ask who they are, since they assume that they know the answer. It is those they dispossess — the inhabitants of the vast concentration camp which is Gaza, for example — who have to carry the problem of their identity with them as a daily burden. Too little selfhood — the famous ‘decentered’ self of Western postmodernism — is the other side of a dangerous rigidity of identity.

Part of what has happened in our time is that God has shifted over from the side of civilization to the side of barbarism. He is no longer the short-haired, respectable God of suburban America, but a wrathful, dark-skinned God who lays siege to everything that civilization holds dear.

Culture as Barbarism?

One might go further, however, and claim that the new form of barbarism is nothing less than culture itself. The conflict is now between civilization (in the sense of universality, autonomy, individuality, rational speculation and so on) and culture, which can be taken to mean all those unreflective loyalties and spontaneous beliefs which are as apparently as built- in to us as our liver or pancreas, and in the name of which men and women are most certainly prepared to die, or to kill.

There are, however, at least two problems with this antithesis. For one thing, the division between civilization and culture, which in the 19th century was also one between the sophisticated French and the spiritually-minded Germans, can by no means be mapped onto a West/East axis, as the cultural supremacists among us would wish to do. On the contrary, it runs right through both West and East, dividing liberal democrats from abortionist-killers in the USA, and Bin Ladenites from erudite Islamic scholars in the East.

For another thing, culture in the sense of local, self-defensive ways of life may be increasingly at odds with civilization, but civilization cannot dispense with it. Culture in the sense of lived local experience is the very medium in which the otherwise too-abstract universals of civilization are fleshed out.

Men and women will not easily obey imperatives which do not engage with their practical situations. This means among other things (to put the point rather more cynically) that transnational corporations, which are themselves entirely ‘cultureless’ and unlocalised, must pay sedulous attention to how business is traditionally transacted in Columbo or Chittagong.

The idea of culture came to the fore in the 19th century for many reasons, but one of them was as an attempt to stand in for a failing religion. On the surface, this looked plausible enough. Both religion and culture were concerned with absolute values, fundamental principles, ritual practices, organic unity, symbolic action and a unity of the spiritual and sensual. Even so, culture was never able to step into religion’s shoes. It could not match up to the most universal, deep-seated, historically persistent symbolic form that humanity has ever witnessed.

Today, having largely failed in this effort, culture is increasingly seeking to stand in for politics. In the West, the so-called ‘identity politics’ of postmodernism is more of a cultural than a material affair, while in the East, Islamic radicalism seeks to pit religion, identity and cultural tradition against its political enemies. The idea is that if politics has failed to the wretched of the earth, then perhaps culture will do the job instead.

But this is an illusion. For though culture is important enough to kill for, it does not go all the way down. This is where both the postmodern ‘culturalists’ and the Muslim bigots are mistaken.

What is at stake in Iraq is not in the first place cultural identities, vital as they are, but material interests. In this respect, capitalism has more of the truth than postmodernism: it is aware that forms of cultural life come and go, but material interests go on forever.

How can this best be ensured, however? Today, the prevailing global system is faced with an unhappy choice. Either it trusts in the power of pragmatism in the face of its enemy’s absolutism, which is a risky venture; or it falls back on metaphysical values of its own, as the Western fundamentalists would insist. Yet these values are looking increasingly tarnished and implausible.

They might see God as the great Chief Executive Officer in the sky in Dallas, but this view is unlikely to be endorsed in Munster or Manchester. Does the West need to go metaphysical to save itself? And if it does, does it not thereby do damage to its liberal beliefs, thus ensuring that there is not much to be saved from its illiberal enemies in the first place?

ATC 136, September-October 2008