Liberal or Literal? James Wood, Terry Eagleton, and the New Atheism

Readers of The New Yorker may be forgiven if they had a hard time following the eminent critic James Wood’s recent, provocative essay/review of Terry Eagleton’s new book, itself a broadside against the New Atheists, in particular Richard Dawkins. Readers who are scholars of religion were puzzled, too. What exactly are Wood’s own views, and what do they tell us about the way “religion” is regarded by certain public intellectuals?

Since we are already riding piggyback here, I will ignore Eagleton’s and Dawkins’ books in order to expose three blind spots in Wood’s review. First, it describes the New Atheism as “marked by its own kind of biblical literalism, hostility to faith in a personal God, a deep belief in scientific rationality and progress, and, typically, a committed liberal politics.” What’s not to like in this list? Biblical literalism, of course. This is a common reproach against Dawkins and Dennett, two writers more deserving of serious reading than Hitchens or Harris.

The problem with Wood’s defensive style of argument is that it fails to consider the difference between “biblical literalism” and the semantics of “literal meaning.” This is the difference between reading something and saying “that is a realistic depiction,” and, on the other hand, saying, “I can make sense of those sentences.” The first is a matter of belief-affirmation and commitment to How Things Are, and the second is a matter of semantics.

The modern academic study of religion, by and large, has nothing to say about How Things Are, biblically or otherwise, but is vitally interested in the study of linguistics and semantics. The New Atheists, at least Dawkins and Dennett, are certainly aware of this development, and they employ literal meaning, rather than biblical literalism, to understand the assertions made by religious people. When liberal theologians and, now, literary critics admonish them not to be so literal-minded, the New Atheists would be right to reply by asking “What other kind of meaning can propositions have than literal meaning?” No matter how you use sentences (metaphorically, symbolically, allegorically), they can only mean what the sentences mean literally. It is because literal meaning remains relatively autonomous that any communication through language is possible. Imagine if ‘aardvark’ could mean ‘artichoke’ any time you uttered it.

Second, Wood endorses the late Stephen Jay Gould’s concession that “science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs.” He neglects to mention, however, that Gould reconciled science and religion as two distinct “non-overlapping magisteria” by, in effect, redefining and qualifying religion. The New Atheists refuse to do this. They think it departs too far from what religious actors themselves recognize as religious. Anthropologists call this error “flouting the actor’s point of view.” For Gould, religion is redefined to be about meaning, values, and morals, not the conventional beliefs that bring it into conflict with science. This is a long galactic mile from the miracle-performing, sin-punishing, prayer-answering, activist God who has a personal agenda and numbers every hair on our heads. But, as Dawkins observes repeatedly, this is precisely the form of religion embraced by millions and millions of ordinary people worldwide. By ignoring that fact, Gould was changing the subject, and so is Wood.

Third, Wood scolds the New Atheists for failing to appreciate the fact that there are “millions of people whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism, and who aren’t inclined to submit to the mad mullahs and the fanatical ministers.” We learn little about the content of this “form of religion,” however, because Wood is in a hurry to chide Eagleton, next, for skipping over the inconvenient dogma of Christ’s divinity and landing in “dialectical chicanery.”

In other words, a plague on both your houses. Atheists don’t do justice to liberal elements within the religious traditions, but liberals don’t do justice to difficult truth-claims, like the divinity of Jesus. Between those whose version of religion is not refined enough, and those whose refinements shade off into chicanery, what is left? For sheer ambiguity, if not incoherence, it is hard to beat the final paragraph in which Wood puts his own cards on the table:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity. It could give a brother’s account of belief, rather than treat it as some unwanted impoverished relative. It would be unafraid to credit the immense allure of religious tradition, but at the same time it would be ready to argue that the abstract God of the philosophers and the theologians is no more probable than the idolatrous God of the fundamentalists, makes no better sense of the fallen world, and is certainly no more likable or worthy of our worshipful respect—alas.

Ironically, Wood’s conclusion is only a semitone from Richard Dawkins’ position. The major difference between Dawkins and Wood is one of mood and tone. Dawkins is a jaunty, witty, cheerful, and surprisingly optimistic atheist. Wood’s atheism, at least to judge from this article, is redolent of the Evelyn Waugh era, nostalgic for belief, ever so slightly wistful that a third position—something more refined and intellectually befitting a gentleman (or, as he says, a “brother”)—is not, after all, available to us.

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