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Scholar connects atheism to cultural shifts

| Thursday, March 27, 2014

Noted British literary theorist Terry Eagleton explored the relationship between the postmodern movement, religion, atheism and fundamentalism in his lecture “The Death of God and the War on Terror” on Wednesday at the Eck Visitors Center auditorium. The English department sponsored the event.

“Religion has played, traditionally, such a vital role in legitimating political regimes that our rulers could hardly look upon the disappearance of God with any degree of equanimity,” Eagleton said. “Religion is an exceedingly hard act to follow. Indeed it has been proved to be by far the most universal symbolic system humanity has ever known.” 

20140326, Eck Visitor Center, The Death of God and the War on Terror, Emmet FarnanEmmet Farnan | The Observer

According to Eagleton, the “death of God” and the shift towards atheism was due largely to evolving ideas of market and capitalist mentality, as well as the influence of postmodernism in Western culture. Eagleton said capitalism and utilitarian market systems, as ideas that do not necessarily involve metaphysical or moral concepts, create a tension with morally-based systems such as democracy.

“It was the inherently rationalist, utilitarian, pragmatic, mental logic of the marketplace which has rendered such high-sounding and edifying metaphysical notions as implausible,” Eagleton said.

Eagleton said notions of cultural relativism and the importance humans put on the anthropological aspect of culture influence our beliefs.

“Culture is as precious as it is because it was seen to offer in a hopelessly divided society a ground of fundamental reconciliation,” he said. “Only religion has been able, I think, on a widespread scale, to link up these two aspects of culture.”

According to Eagleton, religion connects the two definitions of culture, an anthropological version and a high art concept, that are key to the human experience. Eagleton said the shift away from God as a central focus of culture has created a new relationship between government and culture and changed the role that relationship plays in understanding humanity.

“There is a kind of complicity between cultural customs that becomes deeply involved in political questions,” Eagleton said. “What that means is that culture has become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution”.

Eagleton said religious fundamentalism arose as a response to the rapid social movement away from religion as Western civilization developed. He cited events such as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and other instances of religious fundamentalism as responses to western capitalism.

“Religious fundamentalism is a momentous, historic shift in western civilization,” Eagleton said. “Fundamentalism has its source not so much in hatred as in anxiety. It’s the pathological mind set of those who feel ‘washed up’ by the brave new world of capitalism.”

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