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Fish on Eagleton on “Ditchkins”

Stanley Fish investigates Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution. Whatever one thinks of Stanley Fish he is a great reader. Here’s a snippet of the article which describes Eagleton’s assault on Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens whom Eagleton derisively labels “Ditchkins.”

“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”

One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations.

One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”

The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.

Eagleton’s McCabesque wit will always make him a wonderful read. The real question is when he’s just gonna be straight with everybody and self-identify as a Christian.


  1. philq wrote:

    Eagleton’s book is great. The 4th chapter is available online at Commonweal:

    And I agree that Fish is a great reader.

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  2. Colin wrote:

    For some reason I was under the impression that Eagleton had moved into or returned to Catholicism. Is this not in fact true?

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I thought so as well, but Fish makes a point of noting that Eagleton does not come out about his own faith in the book.

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  4. kim fabricius wrote:

    That’s the big difference between the wit of Eagleton and his mentor McCabe – even at his most critical, McCabe never scowled. And when even the pugnacious David Bentley Hart refutes America’s Dawkins, it takes the form of satire: “On the Trail of the Snark with Daniel Dennett”. The Christian polemicist keeps the powder of outright outrage dry for the truly baleful – like apologists for torture (about which “Ditchkins” has done a volte-face).

    But, damn, whether or not he is right about Eagleton, one can sympathise with Fish about begrudging the hours and calories it takes to answer the banal or the bonkers – e.g. Jack Spong, ID, The Shack, the Purpose Driven, – or, I dare say, Halden, your bête noire Mark Driscoll!

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    Thanks for the link. This is really great stuff!

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm | Permalink
  6. bruce hamill wrote:

    I know the feeling and ask myself. If they are that banal or silly why do we bother? Personally, I have difficulty getting round to reading Dawkins et al. After all life is short. Or do we just enjoy the battle? Blessed are the fast readers…

    Monday, May 4, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

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