Culture & Barbarism

Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism

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 anew?

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-long 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 mélange 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. It was almost as bizarre as Scientologists taking over 10 Downing Street, or Da Vinci Code buffs patrolling the corridors of the Elysée Palace. The much-trumpeted Death of History, meaning that capitalism was now the only game in town, reflected the arrogance of the West’s project of global domination; and that aggressive project triggered a backlash in the form of radical Islam.

And so the very act of attempting to close history down has sprung it open again. Both at home and globally, economic liberalism rides roughshod over peoples and communities, and in the process triggers just the kind of violent social and cultural backlash that liberalism is least capable of handling. In this sense, too, terrorism highlights certain contradictions endemic to liberal capitalism. We have seen already that pluralistic liberal societies do not so much hold beliefs as believe that people should be allowed freely to hold beliefs. The summum bonum is to leave believers to get on with it unmolested. Such a purely formal or procedural approach to belief necessitates keeping entrenched faiths or identities at a certain ironic arm’s length.

Yet this value—liberal society’s long, unruly, eternally inconclusive argument—also brings vulnerability. A tight national consensus, desirable in the face of external attack, is hard to pull off in liberal democracies, and not least when they turn multicultural. Lukewarmness about belief is likely to prove a handicap when one is confronted with a full-bloodedly metaphysical enemy. The very pluralism you view as an index of your spiritual strength may have a debilitating effect on your political authority, especially against zealots who regard pluralism as a form of intellectual cowardice. The idea, touted in particular by some Americans, that Islamic radicals are envious of Western freedoms is about as convincing as the suggestion that they are secretly hankering to sit in cafés smoking dope and reading Gilles Deleuze.

In the face of the social devastation wreaked by economic liberalism, some besieged groups can feel secure only by clinging to an exclusivist identity or unbending doctrine. And in fact, advanced capitalism has little alternative to offer them. The kind of automated, built-in consent it seeks from its citizens does not depend all that much on what they believe. As long as they get out of bed, roll into work, consume, pay their taxes, and refrain from beating up police officers, what goes on in their heads and hearts is mostly secondary. Advanced capitalism is not the kind of regime that exacts much spiritual commitment from its subjects. Indeed, zeal is more to be feared than encouraged. That is an advantage in “normal” times, since demanding too much belief from men and women can easily backfire. But it is much less a benefit in times of political tumult.

Economic liberalism has generated great tides of global migration, which within the West has given birth to so-called multiculturalism. At its least impressive, multiculturalism blandly embraces difference as such, without looking too closely into what one is differing over. It imagines that there is something inherently positive about having a host of different views on the same subject. Such facile pluralism tends to numb the habit of vigorously contesting other people’s beliefs—of calling them arrant nonsense or unmitigated garbage, for example. This is not the best training ground for taking on people whose beliefs can cave in skulls. One of the more agreeable aspects of Christopher Hitchens’s polemic against religion, God Is Not Great, is its author’s ready willingness to declare that he thinks religion poisonous and disgusting. Perhaps he finds it mildly embarrassing in his new, post-Marxist persona that “Religion is poison” was the slogan under which Mao launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet. But he is right to stick to his guns even so. Beliefs are not to be respected just because they are beliefs. Societies in which any kind of abrasive criticism constitutes “abuse” clearly have a problem.

That problem encompasses a contradictory fact: the more capitalism flourishes on a global scale, the more multiculturalism threatens to loosen the hold of the nation-state over its subjects. Culture, after all, is what helps power grow roots, interweaving it with our lived experience and thus tightening its grip on us. A power which has to sink roots in many diverse cultures simultaneously is at a signal disadvantage. A British defense think tank recently published a report arguing that a “misplaced deference to multiculturalism” that fails “to lay down the line to immigrant communities” was weakening the fight against political extremists. The problem, the report warned, was one of social fragmentation in a multicultural nation increasingly divided over its history, identity, aims, and values. When it came to the fight against terrorism, the nation’s liberal values, in short, were undermining themselves.

Multiculturalism threatens the existing order not only because it can create a breeding ground for terrorists, but because the political state depends on a reasonably tight cultural consensus. British prime ministers believe in a common culture—but what they mean is that everyone should share their own beliefs so that they won’t end up bombing London Underground stations. The truth, however, is that no cultural belief is ever extended to sizable groups of newcomers without being transformed in the process. This is what a simpleminded philosophy of “integration” fails to recognize. There is no assumption in the White House, Downing Street, or the Elysée Palace that one’s own beliefs might be challenged or changed in the act of being extended to others. A common culture in this view incorporates outsiders into an already established, unquestionable framework of values, leaving them free to practice whichever of their quaint customs pose no threat. Such a policy appropriates newcomers in one sense, while ignoring them in another. It is at once too possessive and too hands-off. A common culture in a more radical sense of the term is not one in which everyone believes the same thing, but one in which everyone has equal status in cooperatively determining a way of life in common.

If this is to include those from cultural traditions that are currently marginal, then the culture we are likely to end up with will be very different from the one we have now. For one thing, it will be more diverse. A culture that results from the active participation of all its members is likely to be more mixed and uneven than a uniform culture that admits new members only on its own terms. In this sense, equality generates difference. It is not a question of mustering a diversity of cultures under the common umbrella of Britishness, but of putting that whole received identity into the melting pot and seeing what might emerge. If the British or American way of life really were to take on board the critique of materialism, hedonism, and individualism made by many devout Muslims, Western civilization would most certainly be altered for the good. This is a rather different vision from the kind of multiculturalism that leaves Muslims and others alone to do their own charmingly esoteric stuff, commending them from a safe distance.

Part of what has happened in our time is that God has shifted over from the side of civilization to the side of barbarism. He is no longer the short-haired, blue-blazered God of the West—well, perhaps he is in the United States, but not in Porto or Cardiff or Bologna. Instead, he is a wrathful, dark-skinned God who, if he did create John Locke and John Stuart Mill, has long since forgotten the fact. One can still speak of the clash between civilization and barbarism; but a more subtle form of the same dispute is to speak of a conflict between civilization and culture. Civilization in this dichotomy means the universal, autonomous, prosperous, individual, rationally speculative, self-doubting, and ironic; culture means the customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective, unironic, and a-rational. Culture signifies all those unreflective loyalties and allegiances for which men and women in extreme circumstances are prepared to kill. For the most part, the former colonizing nations are civilizations, while the former colonies are cultures.

Civilization is precious but fragile; culture is raw but potent. Civilizations kill to protect their material interests, whereas cultures kill to defend their identity. These are seeming opposites; yet the pressing reality of our age is that civilization can neither dispense with culture nor easily coexist with it. The more pragmatic and materialistic civilization becomes, the more culture is summoned to fulfill the emotional and psychological needs that it cannot handle—and the more, therefore, the two fall into mutual antagonism. What is meant to mediate universal values to particular times and places ends up turning aggressively against them. Culture is the repressed that returns with a vengeance. Because it is supposed to be more localized, immediate, spontaneous, and a-rational than civilization, it is the more aesthetic concept of the two. The kind of nationalism that seeks to affirm a native culture is always the most poetic kind of politics—the “invention of literary men,” as someone once remarked. You would not have put the great Irish nationalist Padraic Pearse on the sanitation committee.

Religion falls on both sides of this fence simultaneously, which is part of its formidable power. As civilization, religion is doctrine, institution, authority, metaphysical speculation, transcendent truth, choirs, and cathedrals. As culture, it is myth, ritual, savage irrationalism, spontaneous feeling, and the dark gods. Religion in the United States is by and large a civilizational matter, whereas in England it is largely a traditional way of life—more akin to high tea or clog dancing than to socialism or Darwinism—which it would be bad form to take too seriously (the highly English Dawkins is in this respect egregiously un-English). One couldn’t imagine the Queen’s chaplain asking you if you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. As the Englishman remarked, it’s when religion starts to interfere with your everyday life that it’s time to give it up. Polls reveal that most of the English believe that religion has done more harm than good, an eminently reasonable opinion unlikely to be endorsed in Dallas.

What the champions of civilization rightly hold against culture is its tendency to substitute for rational debate. Just as in some traditionalist societies you can justify what you do on the grounds that your ancestors did it, so for some culturalists you can justify what you do because your culture does it. This seems benign if one is thinking of Iceland, the Azande, or the maritime community, but less so for Hell’s Angels, neofascists, or Scientologists. In his article, “Islam, Islamisms, and the West,” Aijaz Ahmad points out that culture has come in some quarters to mean that one is how one is because of who one is—a doctrine shared by racism. An appeal to culture becomes a way of absolving us to some extent from moral responsibility as well as from rational argument. Just as it is part of their way of life to dig traps for tigers, so it is part of our way of life to manufacture cruise missiles. Postmodern thought is hostile to the idea of foundations; yet in postmodernism, culture becomes the new absolute, conceptual end-stop, the transcendental signifier. Culture is the point at which one’s spade hits rock bottom, the skin out of which one cannot leap, the horizon over which one is unable to peer. This is a strange case to launch at a point in history when Nature, a somewhat passé idea until our attention was recently drawn to its looming devastation, may be on the point of trumping human culture as a whole.

Yet there is a certain sacred resonance to the idea of culture. For several centuries now, after all, it has been proposed as the secular alternative to a failing religious faith. This is not a wholly ridiculous notion. Like religion, culture is a matter of ultimate values, intuitive certainties, hallowed traditions, assured identities, shared beliefs, symbolic action, and a sense of transcendence. It is culture, not religion, that for many men and women today forms the heart of a heartless world. This is true whether one has in mind the idea of culture as literature and the arts, or as a cherished way of life. Most aesthetic concepts are pieces of displaced theology, and the work of art, seen as mysterious, self-dependent, and self-moving, is an image of God for an agnostic age. Yet culture fails as an ersatz religion. Works of art cannot save us. They can simply render us more sensitive to what needs to be repaired. And celebrating culture as a way of life is too parochial a version of redemption.

Some seek to reconcile culture and civilization (or as some might translate these terms, the Germans and the French) by claiming that the values of civilization, though universal, need a local habitation and a name—some sector of the globe that acts as the postal address of human civility itself. And this, of course, has been the West. In this view the West is a civilization, to be sure; but it also the very essence of the thing itself, rather as France is one nation among many, yet also the very essence of the intellect. For those to whom this argument seems supremacist, there exists what seems at first glance a rather less chauvinistic version of it. It is associated with the philosopher Richard Rorty (and, to a lesser extent, with the literary critic Stanley Fish).

Rorty’s kind of argument allows you to acknowledge that Western civilization is indeed a “culture” in the sense of being local and contingent—even as you claim its values are the ones to promote. This means behaving as though your values have all the force of universal ones, while at the same time insulating them from any thoroughgoing critique. They are immune to such critique because you do not claim any rational foundation for them; yours, after all, is just one culture among others. In a bold move, you can abandon a rational defense of your way of life for a culturalist one, even though the price of doing so is leaving it perilously ungrounded. “Culture” and “civilization” here felicitously coincide. The West is most certainly civilized; but since its civility descends to it from its contingent cultural history, there is no need to provide rational grounds for it. One thus wins for oneself the best of both worlds.

Reason alone can face down a barbarous irrationalism, but to do so it must draw upon forces and sources of faith which run deeper than itself, and which can therefore bear an unsettling resemblance to the very irrationalism it is seeking to repel. Such a situation confronted Europe during the Second World War. Would liberal humanism really prove adequate to defeat fascism, a movement which drew from powerfully irrational sources—or could fascism be vanquished only by an antagonist that cut as deep as it did, as socialism claimed to do? The question of reason and its opposite was a major theme of Thomas Mann’s great novel The Magic Mountain. In this work, life and death, affirmation and negation, Eros and Thanatos, the sacred and the obscene, are all interwoven in the conflict between Settembrini, the liberal humanist, and the sinister Naphta, Jesuit, communist, and rebel. Naphta is a full-blooded modernist in satanic revolt against Settembrini’s spirit of liberal bourgeois modernity. An exponent of sacrifice, spiritual absolutism, religious zeal, and the cult of death, he draws his life from the archaic and bloodstained springs of culture, whereas the civilized Settembrini is a sunny-minded champion of reason, progress, liberal values, and the European mind.

There can be no doubt which character in The Magic Mountain our civilized New Atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins would find congenial, and which they would vilify. The novel itself, however, is a trifle more subtle in its judgments. The Settembrini who celebrates life is actually at death’s door, and the First World War during which the novel is set spells the ruin of his high nineteenth-century hopes. Naphta may be pathologically in love with death, but Settembrini’s buoyant humanism thrives on the repression of it. He cannot stomach the truth that to be human is, among other things, to be sick. Perversity and aberration are constitutive of the human condition, not just irrational deviations from it. It is significant in this respect that nobody in the clinic in which the novel’s action takes place ever seems to be cured.

What the novel’s protagonist, Hans Castorp, comes to recognize is a form of death-in-life which is the way of neither Naphta nor Settembrini. It involves affirming the human humbly, nonhubristically, in the knowledge of its frailty and mortality. This tragic humanism embraces the disruptiveness of death, as Settembrini does not; but, unlike Naphta, it refuses to turn death into a fetish. At the heart of Castorp’s moving utopian vision of love and comradeship in the novel’s great snow scene lurks the horrifying image of a child torn limb from limb, a token of the blood sacrifice that underpins civilization itself. Having been granted this epiphany, Hans will henceforth refuse to let death have mastery over his thoughts. It is love, not reason, he muses, which is stronger than death, and from that alone can flow the sweetness of civilization. Reason in itself is too abstract and impersonal a force to face down death. But such love, to be authentic, must live “always in silent recognition of the blood sacrifice.” One must honor beauty, idealism, and the hunger for progress, while confessing in Marxist or Nietzschean style how much blood and wretchedness lie at their root. Only by bowing to our mortality can we live fulfilled.

If culture can prove no adequate stand-in for religion, neither can it serve as a substitute for politics. The shift from modernity to postmodernity represents in part the belief that culture, not politics, holds center stage. Postmodernism is more perceptive about lifestyles than it is about material interests—better on identity than oil. As such it has an ironic affinity with radical Islam, which also holds that what is ultimately at stake are beliefs and values. I have argued elsewhere that Western postmodernism has some of its roots in the failure of revolutionary politics. In a similar way, Islamic fundamentalism is among other things a virulent response to the defeat of the Muslim Left—a defeat in which the West has actively conspired. In some quarters, the language of religion is replacing the discourse of politics.

If politics has failed to unite the wretched of the earth to transform their condition, we can be sure that culture will not accomplish the task in its stead. Culture, for one thing, is too much a matter of affirming what you are or have been, rather than what you might become. What, then, of religion? To be sure, Christendom once saw itself as a unity of culture and civilization; and if religion has proved far and away the most powerful, tenacious, universal symbolic form humanity has yet to come up with, it is partly on this account. What other symbolic form has managed to forge such direct links between the most absolute and universal of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women? What other way of life has brought the most rarefied of ideas and the most palpable of human realities into such intimate relationship? Religious faith has established a hotline from personal interiority to transcendent authority—an achievement upon which the advocates of culture can only gaze with envy. Yet religion is as powerless as culture to emancipate the dispossessed. For the most part, it has not the slightest interest in doing so.

With the advent of modernity, culture and civilization were progressively riven, and faith driven increasingly into the private domain, or into the realm of everyday culture, as political sovereignty passed into the hands of the secular state. Along with the other two symbolic domains of art and sexuality, religion was unhooked to some extent from secular power; and the upshot of this privatization for all three symbolic forms was notably double-edged. On the one hand, they could act as precious sources of alternative value, and thus of political critique; on the other hand, their isolation from the public world caused them to become increasingly pathologized.

The prevailing global system, then, today faces an unwelcome choice. Either it trusts its native pragmatism in the face of its enemy’s absolutism, or it falls back on metaphysical values of its own—values that are looking increasingly tarnished and implausible. Does the West need to go full-bloodedly metaphysical to save itself? And if it does, can it do so without inflicting too much damage on its liberal, secular values, thus ensuring there is still something worth protecting from its illiberal opponents?

If Marxism once held out a promise of reconciling culture and civilization, it is partly because its founder was both a Romantic humanist and an heir of Enlightenment rationalism. Marxism is about culture and civilization together—sensuous particularity and universality, worker and citizen of the world, local allegiances and international solidarity, the free self-realization of flesh-and-blood individuals and a global cooperative commonwealth of them. But Marxism has suffered in our time a staggering political rebuff; and one of the places to which those radical impulses have migrated is—of all things—theology. In theology nowadays, one can find some of the most informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger. That is not entirely surprising, since theology, however implausible many of its truth claims, is one of the most ambitious theoretical arenas left in an increasingly specialized world—one whose subject is nothing less than the nature and transcendental destiny of humanity itself. These are not issues easily raised in analytic philosophy or political science. Theology’s remoteness from pragmatic questions is an advantage in this respect.

We find ourselves, then, in a most curious situation. In a world in which theology is increasingly part of the problem, it is also fostering the kind of critical reflection which might contribute to some of the answers. There are lessons that the secular Left can learn from religion, for all its atrocities and absurdities; and the Left is not so flush with ideas that it can afford to look such a gift horse in the mouth. But will either side listen to the other at present? Will Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins read this and experience an epiphany that puts the road to Damascus in the shade? To use two theological terms by way of response: not a hope in hell. Positions are too entrenched to permit such a dialogue. Mutual understanding cannot happen just anywhere, as some liberals tend to suppose. It requires its material conditions. And it seems unlikely these will emerge as long as the so-called war on terror continues to run its course.

The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. Tragic humanism shares liberal humanism’s vision of the free flourishing of humanity, but holds that attaining it is possible only by confronting the very worst. The only affirmation of humanity ultimately worth having is one that, like the disillusioned post-Restoration Milton, seriously wonders whether humanity is worth saving in the first place, and understands Swift’s king of Brobdingnag with his vision of the human species as an odious race of vermin. Tragic humanism, whether in its socialist, Christian, or psychoanalytic varieties, holds that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own. There are no guarantees that such a transfigured future will ever be born. But it might arrive a little earlier if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals got out of its way.


This essay is excerpted from Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate by Terry Eagleton, to be published April 21, 2009, by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2009 by Terry Eagleton. Reprinted with permission. Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2009-03-27 issue: 

Terry Eagleton is distinguished visiting professor of English literature, University of Lancaster, and the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, postmodernism, politics, ideology, and religion. He lives in Northern Ireland.

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