The “New Atheists” who have waged such a relentless attack against religion in recent years generally cast the issue in very stark terms: Religion represents superstition driven by blind faith and irrational thinking; science, in contrast, represents facts based on hard evidence, logical reason, and rational thought. The choice for all reasonable people, therefore, is quite obvious: all religion must be rejected as a relic of an ignorant past, and science must be embraced as the path to human fulfillment.
Terry Eagleton is a Marxist literary critic and, at best, an agnostic. Which is to say, he is no right-wing, fundamentalist defender of the faith. Nevertheless, he takes strong exception to this depiction of science and religion. In 2008, he gave a series of lectures at Yale University addressing the flaws in the New Atheists’ attack. In these lectures, later published in book form as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, Eagleton excoriated this exalted view of science. He writes:
Science, like any other human affair, is indeed shot through with prejudice and partisanship, not to speak of ungrounded assumptions, unconscious biases, taken-for-granted truths, and beliefs too close to the eyeball to be objectified. . . . Science has its high priests, sacred cows, revered scriptures, ideological exclusions, and rituals for suppressing dissent. To this extent, it is ridiculous to see it as the polar opposite of religion.
Religion has its share of problems, no doubt. But to hold up secular science as a guileless alternate is simply to replace one form of human superstition with another. Whether we’re dealing with religion or science, the fundamental issue is integrity in the human heart — or the absence thereof. That’s a struggle that all of us, believer or nonbeliever, must wage with all the humility we can muster.