For millennia, religion has satisfied that search for meaning that comes from being human, and in its ability to provide meaning it also gave authority to those who were in a position to control it. Religion has done the state some service. However, over the past 200-or-more years in the West, it has increasingly failed to satisfy a more rational age, and its retreat has posed a problem not only for those who wish to rule, but perhaps, more surprisingly, also for those who have ceased to believe. What other cultural form can now serve to cohere society around a convincing set of values? What other set of insights and intuitions, what other truth and beauty, can now speak to those who are still asking ‘Why’?
It is to these great questions of culture and religion that Terry Eagleton returns in his latest collection of lectures, as he has done so often in his work for nearly half a century. Surveying the decline of religious faith, and the diverse attempts to forge ‘surrogate forms of transcendence, plugging the gap where God had once been’, he observes that ‘the Almighty has proved remarkably difficult to dispose of’.
Though as an economic system capitalism is ‘intrinsically faithless’, relying on the dull compulsion of the market, it is a ‘true believer’ in the value of traditional religion in the sphere of morality and social conduct. The problem here is not only that the advance of market forces, science, technology and education have had a corrosive effect on popular faith. It is also the case that the distinctive ideologies of capitalism – pragmatism, materialism and utilitarianism – lack an affirmative, affective quality that might inspire the masses. Eagleton quotes the judgement of the (recently beatified) Victorian Anglo-Catholic John Henry Newman, that liberalism was ‘too cold a principle to prevail with the multitude’.
The quest for a ‘viceroy for God’ has been long and arduous. Eagleton, who likes a list, provides a long one: ‘Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to time as forms of displaced divinity.’ The very survival of religion confirms the difficulty of replacing the complex role it plays in the life of human societies. Eagleton pays particular attention to the attempts by Enlightenment, idealist and Romantic philosophers to produce a convincing secular alternative to orthodox Christianity, but finds them all too esoteric, too rationalistic, too implausible. (He pays a tongue-in-cheek tribute to sport as the most successful contemporary version of religion, listing the ‘sacred icons, revered traditions, symbolic solidarities, liturgical assemblies and pantheon of heroes’ that qualify it as today’s ‘opium of the people’.)
Eagleton traces the enduring drive to use culture to fill the gap between the elite and the masses resulting from the demise of common religious convictions back to Edmund Burke and the conservative response to the French Revolution: ‘it is in reaction to that cataclysm that the notion of culture gathers a certain urgency’. For Burke, culture speaks in ‘moderate, even-tempered tones, whereas the voice of politics is rough and raucous’. Later in the nineteenth century, in response to the sharpening class struggle in Victorian England, Matthew Arnold sought ‘to deploy culture as a bulwark against social unrest’. Though himself agnostic, Arnold attempted to recast religion in a ‘degutted, demythologised’ form, in the hope that a ‘gentrified Christianity’ would restore ideological authority over the ‘lapsed masses’. Eagleton condemns the ‘unwitting intellectual dishonesty’ and ‘bad faith’ of Arnold’s instrumental and cynical approach towards religion – one which was upheld by Weber and Durkheim and is still influential today.