Yale £18.99 (185pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897; Bodley Head £20 (376pp) £18 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Reason, Faith and Revolution, By Terry Eagleton
The Case for God, By Karen Armstrong

Saying that science has made religion redundant is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov, says Terry Eagleton in this gloriously rumbustious counter-blast to Dawkinsite atheism. Eagleton, who is perhaps Britain's most venerable cultural critic, is not a Christian, though he was in the 1960s. But he continues, unfashionably, to be a Marxist, and his critique of the New Atheists is rooted in the historical materialism of revolutionary socialism, but with a thread of poetry woven through it.

In Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, his starting point, perhaps paradoxically – and paradoxes sparkle throughout this coruscatingly brilliant polemic – is that Dawkins, along with fellow atheist Christopher Hitchens (or Ditchkins, as he mischievously conflates the pair) purport to be advocates of science and reason. And yet they are disgracefully cavalier with both.

Eagleton is not anti-science or reason. He merely points out that science has produced Hiroshima as well as penicillin. And liberal rationalism, in addition to its many undoubted triumphs, has provided the intellectual underpinning for exploitative capitalism and the wanton destruction of the environment on an unprecedented scale. Indeed Eagleton is stronger on reason than Ditchkins, for he thinks carefully about what his opponents say whereas Dawkins & Co prefer knockabout rhetoric to serious engagement with mainstream religious thought.

This is, then, a demolition job which is both logically devastating and a magnificently whirling philippic. Ditchkins, he says, makes the error of conflating reason and rationality. Yet much of what seems reasonable in real life turns out not to be true. And much that is true, like quantum physics, seems rationally impossible.

For all that, the book levels a broadside at faith too. The history of religion is "a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology." Just as communism has misunderstood Marx, he argues, so the Church has betrayed Christ by backing an establishment of warmongering politicians, corrupt bankers and exploitative capitalists for centuries. The Jesus of the gospels, he insists, was as radical a revolutionary who took the side of "the scum of the earth". The love he offered was as transformative as true socialism. It is easy to see why a lot of people will not be happy with this book. Much of what it says is too true.

Karen Armstrong is radical in a different way in The Case For God which is subtitled What Religion Really Means. What it does not mean, she agrees with Eagleton, is the fundamentalism cited as normative by Ditchkins. Armstrong surveys the intellectual history of religion in a way that is more comprehensive and measured but much less fun. What it shows is that the modern way of thinking about God, as a big bloke with superhuman powers, is a comparatively modern invention. Until 300 years ago almost no-one thought that, and nor do many religious believers today.

Religion, she argues, is traditionally not something that people believe, but something they do – using liturgy, ritual, prayer, meditation and spiritual exercises to discover an awareness of the transcendental inside themselves. It is not rooted in what the Greeks called logos (reason) but mythos (stories which may not be factual but which carry some universal truth about how humans behave). It is not something to be comprehended but something beyond the limits of language which is to be absorbed intuitively like music.

After the Enlightenment, when science and reason became the dominant lens through which we viewed the world, this truth was downgraded. God became a being who stood outside the world to create it, rather than the apotheosis of all that is good in it. This crude reduction suited both fundamentalists and dogmatic atheists alike; atheism in any period always seeks to define the God it doesn't believe in. The subtlety of theologians like Aquinas, who happily posited the possibility that the world had no origin at all, is forgotten. The intuition of the pre-modern era for spiritual imagination and meditative humility has now calcified into scientific literalism.

So we see a number of revealing shifts in meaning. "I believe" has become scientised to mean "I assert these propositions to be empirically correct." What it originally meant was "I pledge my heart and my loyalty". Jesus was asking for commitment not credulity. Similarly the word dogma now means a ruling laid down by authority. But originally it meant a teaching that cannot be expressed verbally but which is intuited through the liturgy.

Fundamentalists, of both the bible-bashing and the Dawkinsite variety, are very anxious to make clear assertions about the God they believe in or reject. By contrast this older apophatic tradition was much keener to assert what cannot be said about God than what can. Ditchkins thinks rationality can bring him to a place of absolute certainty; the old tradition, dating back to Socrates, used reason to arrive in a place where we realise we really know nothing at all. Eagleton makes the same point. Reason operates in a social and cultural context. Modern atheists have their myths and unexamined assumptions too, like the idea that humanity is riding an upward-bound escalator of progress. So wedded is Dawkins to this that he once described the Holocaust as "a temporary setback". The old Marxist is scathing. "If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route towards a finer world."

Terry Eagleton's is a more realistic and darker vision which he characterises as "tragic humanism". But it holds out the possibility of revolutionary transformation.

Ditchkins' liberal rationalism, by contrast, is defeatist and has endorsed a cruel and irrational capitalism in which the poor get poorer, the rich richer and the planet overheats. Religion might not have the answers but it asks the better questions.

Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion

The Oxford academic, Richard Dawkins, came to prominence as an ardent atheist, expounding on his gene-centred theory of evolution in his book, The Selfish Gene. His most recent work, The God Delusion, published in 2006, argues that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that faith qualifies as a delusion or false belief. The book has been a runaway success; selling more than 1.5 million copies by November 2007 and translated into 31 languages.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum