Monday, May 4, 2009


Liberal critic Stanley Fish approvingly reviews a new book by Terry Eagleton, a Brit who "is angry, [Fish thinks], at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins." In Fish's telling, Eagleton ties the utilitarian approach of the current breed of atheists to the nauseating materialist listlessness that sharp minds like Hitchens' surely despise:
Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?

Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.
Smallness of mind and spirit has been tied to religion at least since Nietzche. Now Eagleton joins Lewis, Chesterton and others in tying it to the superstitions of science.

Truly: any system of belief, reduced to a patina of self-justification, enables men and women to lead small lives. Thus Eagleton and Lewis and Nietzche agree in positing "the last man" as a small, self-serving cretin who uses the cheap sorcery of materialism to abolish the discomfort of the grand uncertainties.

Hitchens may not know it but he teaches the last man.

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