Editor’s Note: Matt Mullins is Assistant Professor of English and History of Ideas at the College at Southeastern. He also serves as the Assistant Director of the Writing Center. Matt has a PhD in English from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and is a perceptive reader of American literature and culture. So, he makes the right person to review Terry Eagleton’s recent book, Culture and the Death of God.
In his new book Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton claims that God is not nearly as dead as many believe. Despite many attempts to kill Him off, the Almighty remains a resilient presence in contemporary culture. In fact, many thinkers on opposite sides of the God debate agree that God has made something of a comeback in recent years. Beginning with the 17th century Enlightenment, Eagleton tracks various challenges to religion over the last few centuries. He ultimately argues that culture has been unable to do away with God because it continues to rely on a view of the human that draws its significance from a sense of transcendence.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment never set out to refute religion. Enlightenment thinkers sought to civilize religion, to bring it in line with rationalist thought. Eagleton argues that it was not the personal or communal practice of religion, but religion in an “institutional sense that most of the philosophes took as their target.” Enlightenment thought ultimately failed to rationalize religion because reason was far too abstract to provide the kind of common ground societies need to motivate morality.
If the Enlightenment sought to rationalize religion, Idealism and Romanticism set out to replace it. Idealists attempted to make reason itself religious. But Idealism turns out to have been, well, too ideal. Its “dewy-eyed” view of humanity could not account for all that was wrong with the world. Given Idealism’s failed attempt to replace religion, the Romantics thought perhaps art could do the job. Imagination becomes “a secular form of grace,” and along with nature “both could serve as secular modes of transcendence.”
Idealism and Romanticism try to establish non-religious religions, preserving the need for God. The product of these failed experiments is what Eagleton calls “The Crisis of Culture.” Culture, encompassing everything from foundational values to collective identity, emerges as a vague and hazy alternative to religion. The fundamental problem at the heart of the conflict between culture and religion is the division of society into a rational elite and a religious populace: “You could opt for a politically docile populace, whose backward religious views implicitly questioned your own faith in the universality of Reason; or you could plump for a rational-minded citizenry who might confirm your own faith in the scope of Reason, but only at the cost of potential political disaffection.” In other words, each generation faces the dilemma of either embracing religion or finding a replacement that accomplishes similar social results.
Given this dilemma, it should be no surprise that nationalism turns out to be religion’s fiercest rival. Like God, the nation transcends the individual while simultaneously shaping personal identity. The intellectuals and the masses can be citizens of the same nation. The nation-state draws on the best features of Idealism and Romanticism by creating a culture with “a secular set-up (state) and…the spiritual wisdom of the common folk (nation).” Yet national cultures tend to be entangled with religion at their cores, and nationalism itself is finally another attempt to replace God rather than do away with him completely.
Each of these surrogate religions fails to muster the courage to break with God completely by acknowledging what Friedrich Nietzsche hailed as the ultimate truth: to get rid of God we must get rid of Man. “Modern secular societies,” Eagleton asserts, “have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient—even imperative—to behave as though they have not.” They have abandoned the name of God but maintain religious values because of the social dilemma. If God is to be truly killed off, we would have to totally rethink the human.
Eagleton’s analysis suggests, then, that a culture’s view of humanity can serve as a sort of canary in the coal mine for its view of God. For thousands of years philosophers and scientists have sought to explain human existence without reference to the Divine. Today, with the emergence of neuroimaging technologies, neuroscientists continue this tradition by seeking purely biological explanations for human behavior, sociality, and morality. Perhaps we will finally succeed in reasoning God into the grave. Perhaps humans are not sparks or images of the Divine but only neurons and electrical pulses. If human consciousness and action can be explained solely in immanent terms, what need do we have of transcendence?
Neuroimaging and other similar technologies may, in fact, be able to demonstrate how our brains function. They may provide evidence that reading the poetry of Rumi ignites some people’s sensory cortexes more than others, for instance. But such technologies cannot answer the question “Why?” Until we develop a technology that can address this question, or, following Eagleton’s logic, until humans stop wanting an answer, we should remain skeptical about culture’s ability to dispense with the Divine.