In 2009 the British literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, gave a lecture series titled Faith and Fundamentalism: Is belief in Richard Dawkins necessary for salvation? As part of the Dwight H. Terry Lectureship in Yale University, America,
This series had been established in 1905 through a legacy from Mr Terry of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The annual series would last for three or four lectures delivered over two weeks. The wide remit for speakers was to address issues concerning the ways in which science and philosophy inform religion and religion is applied to human welfare, reflecting Yales puritan roots (see pod of Mar 12 and 22). It is currently one of Yale’s most distinguished lectureships and has yielded important and enduring books, such as Carl Jung’s ‘Psychology and Religion’ and Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’ .
Unusually for a historical podcast, I will be speaking in the present tense, Professor Eagleton has the title of Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University, based in the North West of England. An unusually creative mind he has had a prolific academic career that has spanned Manchester, Cambridge and Oxford. The author of many studies of literary, cultural, and political criticism and plays for both stage and television in Britain and Ireland. However, during the first lecture in Yale he admitted an ignorance of both theology and science which made well placed to offer a critique of the ‘new atheists’. Recalling his experience as a Catholic student at Cambridge, in the orbit of Dominican Theologians such as Herbert McCabe, he felt that he had enough theology “to be able to spot when someone like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens – a couplet I shall henceforth reduce for convenience to the solitary signifier Ditchkins – is talking out of the back of his neck.
American journalist Gary Wolf had coined the term New Atheism in 2006 to describe the positions promoted by some atheists of the twenty-first century who were highly visible in the media landscape. As a reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks. Sam Harris had published The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason , and it had become a bestseller in the United States. Emboldened by this success he had turned his fire on North Americas Christian Heritage. In 2006 the English author Richard Dawkins had published The God Delusion, which was on the New York Times best-seller list for 51 weeks. A year later Dawkins joined Harris at Christopher Hitchens' residence in Washington, D.C for a private two-hour unmoderated discussion with a fourth prominent atheist Daniel Dennet. The event was videoed and the men were collectively referred to as the "Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse". As it started to fizzle out it was clear that "New Atheism" was neither a movement nor ‘new’, but it was an effective marketing ploy. What was new was the publication of atheist material by big-name publishers, read by millions, and appearing on bestseller lists.
At the turn of the millennium, the internet had evolved and in particular social media was rewarding bully pulpits and seemed to be penalising nuanced debate. Dawkins was particularly provocative, describing religion as the indoctrination of children, a form of abuse and relentlessly suggested the social harms caused by perpetuating ideologies founded on belief in the supernatural. It was the beginning of what has been called ‘cancel culture’ and he campaigned for universities to close down theology departments. Ironically the rise in Islamic Terrorism has been linked to the perception of humiliation. Also this was occurring at a time when the Economist magazine was pointing out that globally, atheism was on the decrease because of the inconvenient fact that religious groups where having more children.
Eagleton who acknowledged the influence that both Marxism and Catholicism had on his life had already written a famous review of Dawkins book the God Delusion for the London Review of books questioning his methodology and understanding suggesting that Dawkins has not been attacking organised faith so much as a sort of rhetorical straw man seeing religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. "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. These Terry Lectures, developed this critique. Pointing out that the type of faith that had emerged out of the 2nd Vatican Council and its presentation of the Gospel was difficult to so easily turndown and dismiss. Using his lens of literary criticism he stated that it was a Category of Genre error when religion was seen as an alternative or challenger to science. He carried on to explore the Limits of Liberalism, the relationship between faith and reason and finally the difference between culture and Barbarism