I have the local library to thank for my having read this invigorating little book. They took it out of circulation (or rather, no doubt, non-circulation) and put it on the giveaway shelf, and I, having heard a few things about Eagleton that sounded interesting, took possession of it. And I'm glad I did. The library will not be getting it back from me, as sometimes happens to books I've picked up as discards. It's now riddled with book darts marking passages I particularly liked.
(The apparently torn place is printed on the cover.)
What I had heard about Eagleton had given me the impression that he's an interesting atheist, which is unusual. Most atheists have such a shallow, and often just plain wrong, understanding of theistic concepts, and the place and function of religion in the human psyche and civilization, that reading them is just an exercise in frustration. No one over the age of fifteen should ever think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a clever and telling argument against belief in the Creator God. (See Wikipedia if you haven't heard of it. I will admit that "Pastafarian" is funny.)
But there are those whom I call deep atheists who do understand the questions and their significance, and are willing and able to work out the import of their atheism. Some of these have a great deal of insight and are not only worthy of respect, not only interesting to read, but actually illuminating about the beliefs they reject. Terry Eagleton is one of these.
On the basis of this book I'm not sure that he is technically an atheist, but he is an ex-Catholic who no longer believes, at least not in that specific faith, but does understand it. He's also a Marxist. From both points of view he challenges the thin secular technocracy which thinks it is pushing us along on the way to history's final destination. Which I suppose could be true, but not as they imagine it.
Here is Eagleton against the shallow atheists Dawkins and Hitchens:
Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science. Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell, he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can't see the point of it at all. Why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber?....
Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that "thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important." But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.
And here he describes the profundity they don't see, and for that matter that many nominal Christians don't see:
For Christian teaching, God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law.... Here, then is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety...
The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal....
The prosperity gospel people are not the only ones who need to hear that; I can't say it strikes me as good news. It's not the whole story, obviously, but it is an important part, and one that most of us prefer not to face.
The latter part of the book focuses on the conflict between militant Islam and the secular West, and on the essential failure of the latter to grasp the powers of religion and culture, to think that exporting capitalism and democracy to the Islamic world would be both an easy and an effective way to resolve the conflict. To some extent it's a criticism of the various wars we've waged in the Middle East, and is less interesting to me, as the immediate importance of those arguments has receded in the political nervous breakdown that the United States, along with much of the rest of what we call "the West," is undergoing,
Eagleton is primarily a literary critic. I don't go in much for contemporary criticism, having gotten off the literary bus just before it arrived at post-modernism, and not liking what I can see of that. But he's hostile to post-modernism, so perhaps I'd find his criticism worthwhile, too.