Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Earlier this year I was quoting here at second hand from a review of Terry Eagleton's new book, Culture and the Death of God. July finds me reading the book itself (in its American incarnation, published by Yale University Press). Eagleton's argument follows a straight trail from the French Revolution to the present, asserting that contemporary (western) postmodern thought represents the first full-fledged and consistent repudiation of religion in human history. There have been (he admits) many earlier attempts at atheism, but (he contends) no earlier attempt was radical enough to do the job. Eagleton hopes his new book will convince readers like me that the loss of transcendent religious meaning necessarily involves the loss of all "inherent" meanings. Postmodernists consequently can boast that they have arrived at a place where humans are finally able to perceive and even measure this colossal negative perception –
"Nietzsche speaks scornfully of French freethinkers from Voltaire to Comte as trying to 'out-Christian' Christianity with a craven cult of altruism and philanthropy, virtues which are as distasteful to him as pity, compassion, benevolence and suchlike humanitarian claptrap. He can find nothing in such values but weakness cunningly tricked out as power. These, too, are ways of disavowing God's disappearance. God is indeed dead, and it is we who are his assassins, yet our true crime is less deicide than hypocrisy. Having murdered the Creator in the most spectacular of all Oedipal revolts, we have hidden the body, repressed all memory of the traumatic event, tidied up the scene of the crime and, like Norman Bates in Psycho, behave as though we are innocent of the act. We have also dissembled our deicide with various shamefaced forms of pseudo-religion, as though in expiation of our unconscious guilt. Modern secular societies, in other words, have effectively disposed of God but find it morally and politically convenient – even imperative – to behave as though they have not. They do not actually believe in him, but it is still necessary for them to imagine that they do. God is too vital a piece of ideology to be written off, even if it is one that their own profane activities render less and less plausible. There is a performative contradiction between what such civilizations do and what they proclaim that they do. To look at the beliefs embodied in their behavior, rather than at what they piously profess, is to recognize that they have no faith in God at all, but it is as though the fact has not yet been brought to their attention."