Memories like this constantly inform Eagleton's passionate criticism of the "New Atheists". Whereas he has spent months and even years of his life debating theology with clever believers, the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens suddenly arrive on the scene and sweep away the entire philosophical content of religion with a derisory wave of the hand. Eagleton might now be ready to talk of religion as an allegory and to question along with Dawkins and Hitchens the literal truth of the Bible. But what he can never overlook in his opponents is their failure to ever engage in intellectual debate with the likes of the Dominicans who changed the course of his own life at Cambridge. It is because they never exposed themselves to this type of theological debate that they can now be indicted for having "bought their atheism on the cheap". They are, in the equally scathing words of other Eagleton enthusiasts, nothing more than "discount store atheists" or even "schoolyard atheists".
But what precisely have these alleged cheapskates overlooked? In his LRB review, Eagleton provides a namecheck. "What one wonders are Dawkins's views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?"
This is good knockabout stuff but, as Anthony Grayling pointed out in his LRB letters page response, charging Dawkins with failing to read theology "misses the point that when one rejects the premises of a set of views it is a waste of time to address what is built on those premises". Or, as Richard Dawkins himself put it to me during my interview with him for New Humanist in early 2007, "Somebody who thinks the way I do doesn't think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don't believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven't studied fairy-ology."
There is, then, a fascinating double repression going on in the pages of The God Delusion andReligion, Faith and Revolution. Dawkins, the thoroughgoing scientist, abandons a central tenet of science - testability - in order to proclaim his belief in moral progress, while Eagleton, the thoroughgoing Marxist, is forced to relinquish a fundamental tenet of Marxism - its materialism - in order to find religious ideas of sufficient intrinsic value to counter Dawkins's alleged caricature.
Laurie Taylor interviews Terry Eagleton
For a bit of intelligent and entertaining discussion of the Dawkins assault on religion click here.