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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, October 01, 2010

James Ley eviscerates Terry Eagleton

This long review by Melbourne-based critic James Ley, published in the new (October 2010) issue of Australian Book Review, elegantly skewers Terry Eagleton's book On Evil: "all its bluster," Ley concludes, "merely underscores the extent to which Eagleton’s political radicalism and his theology have deteriorated into a lot of waffling nonsense."

Before reaching that point, Ley takes some time for a gently sardonic exposition of Eagleton's high-theological account of God:

As an example of the kind of wisdom that is revealed when one is properly versed in the work of medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and John Scottus Eriugena, [On Evil] offers the view that God is, among other things, ‘pure vacuity’, ‘without point or purpose’, and ‘pure nothingness. He is not a material entity or an extraterrestrial object. He cannot be located either inside or outside the universe.’

Ley then adds - and who can controvert him? - that such a rarefied deity seems to have no practical importance:

if we accept what Eagleton calls the‘orthodox’ theological view – namely, that God is an inhuman, inexplicable, intangible, unlocatable, unthinkable, pointless, non-creating, uncommunicative nonentity – then God’s relevance to human affairs would appear to be limited. Certainly, anyone who claims to speak on God’s behalf can be safely told to rack off. By definition, such a deity has no implications for questions of morality, value or meaning. It can have no objection to gay marriage, contraception or female priests; nor could it father a son or require any form of worship.

Quite. And indeed, one might wonder in what sense belief in such a non-being is even coherent, and, if it can be made coherent, what it has to do with the more popular forms of Christianity that the much-despised New Atheist authors have focused on in their critiques. Of course, as Ley suggests, a problem arises when theologically-inspired scholars such as Eagleton try to have it both ways: they affirm such "an inhuman, inexplicable, intangible, unlocatable, unthinkable, pointless, non-creating, uncommunicative nonentity" - a God which may, indeed, be a little more user-friendly than (per Richard Dawkins) the "misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully" portrayed in the Old Testament - but then attribute to their eternally uncommunicative non-entity such characteristics as aesthetic preferences and compassion.

It doesn't work, and Ley isn't buying it. Neither am I ... and neither, my friends, should anyone.

(H/T Jenny)


Greywizard said...

It's certainly a hard-hitting review! I have no intention of reading the book. I find Eagleton's style rebarbative and his style of thought oppressively smug. Besides this, the reasons for his blind opposition to the New Atheism (TM) are simply impenetrable. Is it just a reflexive defence of his childhood faith? Some residual sense that all those unintelligible doctrines imbibed as a teen -- Joyce's Portrait of the Artist is perhaps the locus classicus for how catholic doctrine appears to a growing boy -- must have been deep, otherwise why the so so complex contortions of language?

Of Ley's remarks, this one is perhaps the most devastating:

"Even attributing indifference to such an ineffable non-being would seem to be laying on the anthropomorphism a bit thick."

Which reminds one of Joyce's description of the artist as being like the God of creation, "within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."

One thing though. Since Ley (rightly) restricts evil to the human context, he says that "it makes no sense to describe a destructive non-human phenomenon, such as a tsunami or the Ebola virus, as evil." Strictly speaking this is true, but if you posit a personal creator as the origin of things (as so many do) then, in that context, such things become personal and evil in a way and to a degree that even the most extravagant crimes of human beings cannot even hope to achieve, because seeming to come from a pure, disembodied malevolence.

Lol Mahmood said...

eagleton is a vacuous old mealy-mouthed hypocrite. It's possible to deconstruct his version of 'god' to something an atheist can accept (transcendent, not manifest, not personal, detectable, non-interventions....essentially non-existent). His 'ditchkins' flourish from a few years ago only served to highlight his aversion to actual thought.

Necandum said...

Ah, the possibilian. I read his piece in NewScientist and couldn't really understand what on earth his was getting at.

Something along the lines of: Everything is possible, ergo atheists and the religious are simpletons.

Dressed up in far nicer sounding language, of course. And rather less concise.

His "argument's" main flaw, for all his talk of possibilities, seems to be a complete ignorance of a thing known as probability.

Yes technically its strictly possible that there is a massive alien civilisation inhabiting dimensions seven to nine, but it just ain't likely, so no one seriously considers it. Also, what polydimensional aliens have to do with gods or atheism, I have no idea.

If his is going to set his standards in the if-the proposition-is-grammatically correct-it-could-be-real range, I'd love to be his banker.

I think you might have a typo at the end.
"It doesn't work, and Ley is buying it"

Russell Blackford said...

Ta, typo corrected ... and a couple of others while I was at it.

Unknown said...

Reading the R. Crumb illustrated Book of Genesis, that is, reading the Book of Genesis very slowly, left me contemplating the incident of Lot's daughters. And the conviction that the whole text is a prop for priestly power.

Anonymous said...

Necandum, the possibilian you're referring to is David Eagleman, not Terry Eagleton. Given the similar names, the confusion is pretty understandable.

James Sweet said...

I do not understand why people take Eagleton seriously.

@Necandum: You are confusing Eagleton with Eagleman. For all his flaws, Eagleman is far less batshit crazy. Eagleman is an atheist who wants to deny he is an atheist for some reason.

Eagleton is a deeply disingenuous faux-philosopher, whose theological position we cannot even characterize because he refuses to let any of his opinions be pinned down. In a way, Eagleton is like a taking-himself-way-too-seriously version of South Park: Trey Parker and Matt Stone are brilliant at skewering other people's positions, but when you hear them try and articulate their own positions, you hear a lot of vacuity or unworkable ideas or waffling evasions. Which, to be honest, is not too upsetting because they are a frackin' comedy team. Eagleton, on the other hand, is considered one of England's greatest living philosophers, for reasons I simply cannot fathom.

Brian said...

Greywizard (Eric?) you say:
"Even attributing indifference to such an ineffable non-being would seem to be laying on the anthropomorphism a bit thick."

I don't quite follow. I equate indifference with lack of passion, understood as perhaps Hume might have used the word passion. Thus, nature lacks passion or is indifferent to us. That doesn't seem to me to be anthropomorphising.

ozogg said...

If, as EAGLETON claims, his god (or any god) is utterly INEFFABLE, then by definition nothing can be humanly known, or said, about such an entity.

The great many holy books that then try to ascertain - or dogmatise - this god's wishes, are more than vanity - they are meaningless !

So to those claiming to have intimate knowledge of such a god, this must be false knowledge, because ipso facto, it is human knowledge.

Even naming this entity as 'god' is a presumption that ineffability must deny.

Even ascribing to this god the property of "INEFFABILITY" becomes a self-contradiction !!!

In more modern terms, all such religious believers should shut effing up, which could be called the "FIRST LAW OF INEFFABILITY".

What is more curious, is how religious minds cannot immediately and abundantly see the massive self-contradictions they weave around their god-concepts.

One could postulate that the very definition of "religious mind" automatically implies the abandonment of logic.

But my questions asks: "How can this NOT be observed, by all, even a religious mind ?"

Necandum said...

Mea culpa.
I read the article a few days before so I got a bit over-excited. Having a look at the review would probably have been a good idea.

Reading through it, I get the impression that Eagleton, like Greywizard mentioned, is halfway out of a rut, trying to make an argument that he himself knows is garbled. Here's a post/speech I found rather interesting and that might be relevant.