Stanley Fish informs me that Terry Eagleton is pissed about atheists. In particular, he’s frosted over “Ditchens” (Eagleton’s composite– you know, like New York magazine used to do– of Dawkins and Hitchens) because D&H don’t understand religion right.

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

What religion does, I gather from Fish’s synopsis, is act as a supplier of meaning-of-life sorts of things.

Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.

Oh, man. I never know what to say to this because I never understand how the Eagleton-style claims square with actual religious practice. It sounds like religion-for-Eagleton is some kind of exhortation about the meaningfulness of life, the importance of values, and so on. Those attitudes are nice, I agree, but (it seems to me) that by the lights of various religions they’re tied to straightforward claims about what’s true or false. That is, a body of religious believers seems to endorse certain attitudes because they take particular claims to be true.

Take for example this bit of Fish’s discussion:

That kind of belief [the rationalist liberal view] will have little use for a creed that has at its center “one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.” No wonder “Ditchkins”…seems incapable of responding to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”

Wait, Socrates? Kidding. I think he means Jesus. According to lots of Christians, though I’m sure not all of them, the faithfulness in transformative love hinges on Jesus being who He said He was, His rising from the dead, promising to return, and so on. A shorthand for this: how to feel depends on what there is. And that’s where things get tricky, because the Eagleton-Fish view seems to drive a wedge between those two issues. Understandably so, since the religious tradition’s claims about what there is look problematic when we address them with our standard ways of answering those sorts of questions.

Thus Eagleton is in an awkward position, it seems to me: he wants religious forms of life to be immune from empirical (and maybe a priori) challenge, but the religious forms of life he seems to be cheering on seem to be committed, implicitly, to views that are open to these challenges.

There’s another irritation here. There seems to be a tendency for religious apologists to make purely defensive moves (“you haven’t refuted my religion!”) and then conclude that they’ve shown that their religious commitments have been suitably established. This is completely unmoving to observers outside the practice, a point made by Matt Taibbi, who goes on to describe Eagleton as

a pudgily superior type, physically resembling a giant runny nose, who seems to have been raised by indulgent aunts who gave him sweets every time he corrected the grammar of other children.

No idea how true that is, but it’s funny. I have a soft spot in my heart for Eagleton, because his Literary Theory convinced me not to take more English classes.