It wasn’t all there was

Sometimes the jaw simply drops, the incredulous oath simply forces its way out past the teeth. This is one of those times – Terry Eagleton explaining the merits of a Catholic schooling to Laurie Taylor.

“I valued the way it taught me to think analytically, to not be afraid of analytic thought, however nonsensical some of the content surely was. There was an opportunity to argue.”

But how could he square that relatively sanguine memory with the requirement at Catholic schools to memorise and recite the absurd one-line strictures contained in the standard catechism?

“I agree that the catechism was a way of short-circuiting thought. But it wasn’t all there was. I also remember a religious teacher in the sixth form, a rational enlightened man, quoting from an awful textbook called The Fundamentals of Religion that we had to learn like a garage mechanic boning up on parts. He came to a passage which dismissed Buddhism in two sentences, looked up, and said, ‘That’s shoddy scholarship’. That phrase resounded in my ears. It wasn’t typical. But it did happen. It was possible.”

Jeezis. He’s (apparently) serious. Years and years of the catechism and everything that goes with it, countered by one teacher on one occasion uttering three words that point out an obvious absurdity. It wasn’t typical, but it did happen, therefore his Catholic schooling taught him to think analytically.

Except of course it didn’t, and neither did anything else, or if it did, he forgot it all again later. Judging by his current performance he’s crap at thinking analytically. As witnessed by this artless confession to Taylor, and by the whole interview, and by his horrible book, and by his horrible LRB review of Dawkins’s book. It’s not that there’s no fault to find with Dawkins’s book, it’s that Eagleton does such a bad job of finding it or saying it.

But hadn’t he as an intelligent sixth-former sometimes wanted to kick against the awful certainty of Catholic doctrine, its sheer unreadiness to entertain the idea that there might be something in other religions or ways of thought?

“Well, there is a bad side to certainty but there’s also a good side. People with my background don’t automatically thrill to the idea that we don’t know what we think about anything. I was taught by people at Cambridge who got an almost erotic frisson from the idea that they didn’t know what they thought and could afford not to know. Whereas I came from a background where it was thought that there were certain things you really had to get sorted out. There’s a difference between reasonable certainty and dogmatism.”

Is there ‘a good side’ to the awful certainty of Catholic doctrine? Eagleton seems to be saying, in his typically evasive, deniable (so much for ‘reasonable certainty’) way, that there is. Well there isn’t. Amen.

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