Culture & Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism

By Eagleton, Terry | Commonweal, March 27, 2009 | Go to article overview

Culture & Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism


Eagleton, Terry, Commonweal


Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God? Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century, almost as surprisingly as some mass revival of Zoroastrianism? Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled "Atheism," hosting anti-God manifestos by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, and might even now be contemplating another marked "Congenital Skeptic with Mild Baptist Leanings"? Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question broken out a new?

Can one simply put it down to falling towers and fanatical Islamists? I don't really think we can. Certainly the New Atheists' disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center. While some of the debate took its cue from there, 9/11 was not really about religion, any more than the thirty-year-along conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility. In fact, radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence to suggest that its actions are, for the most part, politically driven.

That does not mean these actions have no religious impact or significance. Islamic fundamentalism confronts Western civilization with the contradiction between the West's own need to believe and its chronic incapacity to do so. The West now stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a full-blooded "metaphysical" foe for whom absolute truths and foundations pose no problem at all--and this at just the point when a Western civilization in the throes of late modernity, or postmodernity if you prefer, has to skate by on believing as little as it decently can. In post-Nietzschean spirit, the West appears to be busily undermining its own erstwhile metaphysical foundations with an unholy melange of practical materialism, political pragmatism, moral and cultural relativism, and philosophical skepticism. All this, so to speak, is the price you pay for affluence.

Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic. It looks particularly flaccid when its paucity of belief runs up against an excess of the stuff--not only abroad, but domestically too, in the form of various homegrown fundamentalisms. Modern market societies tend to be secular, relativist, pragmatic, and materialistic, qualities that undermine the metaphysical values on which political authority in part depends. And yet capitalism cannot easily dispense with those metaphysical values, even though it has difficulty taking them seriously. (As President Dwight Eisenhower once announced, channeling Groucho Marx, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief--and I don't care what it is.") Religious faith in this view is both vital and vacuous. God is ritually invoked on American political platforms, but it would not do to raise him in a committee meeting of the World Bank. In the United States, ideologues of the religious Right, aware of the market's tendency to oust metaphysics, sought to put those values back in place. Thus does postmodern relativism breed a redneck fundamentalism; those who believe very little rub shoulders with those ready to believe almost anything. With the advent of Islamist terrorism, these contradictions have been dramatically sharpened. It is now more than ever necessary that the people should believe, even as the Western way of life deprives them of much incentive for doing so.

Assured since the fall of the Soviet bloc that it could proceed with impunity to pursue its own global interests, the West overreached itself. Just when ideologies in general seemed to have packed up for good, the United States put them back on the agenda in the form of a peculiarly poisonous brand of neoconservatism. Like characters in some second-rate piece of science fiction, a small cabal of fanatical dogmatists occupied the White House and proceeded to execute their well-laid plans for world sovereignty. …

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