Seo Hee Im reports from 1501 SIPA, where Terry Eagleton spoke last night, at an event co-sponsored by the Institute of Religion, Culture and Public Life, and the Heyman Center for the Humanities.

Terry Eagleton, world-famous literary theorist, was introduced as “so sparkling, so Irish.” This seemed apt, as Eagleton, deftly wielding self-congratulatory British charm and searing academic banter, began his lecture by thanking Columbia for rescuing him from Notre Dame, where he currently teaches, for a few days of “precious” secularism. He went on to discuss why atheism was suddenly brought back to centerstage in debates over fundamentalism following 9/11. “Atheists are obsessed with religion as puritans are with sex,” he proclaimed.

Eagleton made great use of his knack for aphoristic wit, (“Jesus would not have been invited to write for The Wall Street Journal“), to both charm his audience and to shower wrath on “Ditchkins,” his nickname for the composite of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The problem with new atheists like Ditchkins, Eagleton argued, is that instead of engaging in proper debate, they create feeble strawmen that they can easily demolish. Expecting religion to offer an explanation for the universe is ridiculous, he said, adding that such thinking is analogous to considering Hamlet an explanation for mental illness, or Moby Dick a report on the whaling industry. Similarly pithy comparisons peppered the talk, such as relating Lady Gaga and Brad Pitt to Karl Marx.

Eagleton, who is a serial graduate of Cambridge, accused Ditchkins of elitism, or rather “breathtaking smugness and oozing moral complacence.” From their comfortable seats in North Oxford and Washington, Ditchkins cannot see that faith holds the power of transformation for those in pain. Some criticisms were painfully personal. At one point Eagleton compared Hitchens, who is suffering from esophagus cancer, to Michael Jackson, pointing out that Jackson was eventually unsuccessful in his mission to live forever.

After considerable Ditchkins bashing, Eagleton moved on to explain that with 9/11, the West found itself eye to eye with radical Islamists with rock-solid beliefs. The West, unfortunately, was completely unprepared for this challenge. By allowing itself to lapse into a mélange of moral relativism and skepticism, it had ideologically disarmed itself. Having marinated in postmodern thought, Americans and Europeans now consider all certainties to be authoritarian and are therefore bewildered by fundamentalist thought. Eagleton also analyzed what he calls “performative contradiction,” the gap between what one says and what one does. While capitalist market societies inevitably evolve towards secular, materialistic, and relativistic instabilities, they also need solid moral values in equal measure in order to legitimize themselves. The United States, for Eagleton, is a perfect specimen of a society caught between its behavior and professed beliefs; while the US is the “most rabidly materialist nation on the planet,” many Americans also hold extremely metaphysical beliefs, such as ideas of “God’s special respect for a certain Southeast corner of Texas.”

Without explicitly giving his thoughts on how to solve this problem, Eagleton quoted Nietzsche, who suggested that when reality and philosophical superstructure fall out of sync, people should throw away the superstructure (i.e., professed religious beliefs) because it is no longer really necessary and would only serve to undermine the underlying materialistic structure. He concluded the lecture by expressing disappointment at English literary elites such as Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, who hastily created simplistic, grand narratives in response to terrorism.

After hearing Eagleton’s rather bleak vision of post-9/11 America, an eager audience member asked during the Q&A session if Eagleton could propose a cure for our problems. Eagleton enigmatically replied that the belief that a cure exists is in itself a problem. Well then!

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