When facts are missing, just surmise

I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. It’s a very slight book which one could read in an hour, but I’m reading it slowly because I’m taking a lot of notes, and also because it makes me sick, so I don’t like to read it for long at a stretch. I gave myself a break from it for a few days, and when I picked it up again after this break, I was struck all over again by its truly objectionable combination of rudeness and glibness and shallowness and pretension. I really hate that combination, and Terry Eagleton wears it as if it were a mink coat and he were a heedless aristocrat.

I’ll explain what I mean. The rudeness is in the insistent, wild, evidence-free denunciation of largely imaginary people he labels ‘Dawkins’ and ‘Hitchens’ and, mostly, as a pair, ‘Ditchkins.’ The glibness is in his habit of assertion, his absurd comparisons and analogies (‘it’s as if,’ he’s always saying, and it never is), his air of authority which is not backed up by any strength of argument or breadth of learning. The shallowness is in his failure to notice any of this. The pretension in his assumption that literary critics are some kind of universal authorities.

I can illustrate all this by extensive quotation, and I will; this is by way of throat-clearing. I’ll give you just one tiny example to warm your hands over in the meantime.

[T]he scientific rationalist passes too quickly over the thorny issue of what is to count as certainty, as well as of the diverse species of certainty by which we live. [p 115]

No she doesn’t. That’s just an absurd generalization, with not a shred of example or evidence, not to mention argument – and it is, as such, entirely typical. It is his style, his schtick, his thing.

The next paragraph pretends to expand on the point, but doesn’t.

Nobody has ever clapped eyes on the unconscious. Yet many people believe in its existence, on the grounds that it makes excellent sense of their experience of the world. (One doubts that this includes Ditchkins, since the English tend to have common sense rather than an unconscious.)[p 115]

That, too, is absolutely typical – he slams Dawkins and Hitchens with a guess about what they may or may not think – completely without embarrassment or diffidence. He does that repeatedly throughout the book. It’s rude, it’s glib, it’s unfair, it’s stupid, and it’s crap ‘scholarship.’

You can see why the book is hard to stomach.

47 Responses to “When facts are missing, just surmise”