Diagnosing Ditchkins Syndrome


THEOLOGY: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God DebateBy Terry Eagleton Yale University Press. 185pp. £18.99

DURING THE LAST decade of its existence, I must have reviewed more than 30 books for the Irish Pressand for David Marcus, its much-loved literary editor. In the aftermath of his recent and deeply regretted death, I found myself revisiting some of those reviews – to remember and be grateful once again for so much that I owed to this gentle and generous master. The books I was reviewing, in what now seems almost like a previous existence, were mostly about religion and at least some of them were controversial.

Into this bitter-sweet reverie, with delightful serendipity, there fell Terry Eagleton’s witty, erudite, and perhaps especially energeticbook: a collection of lectures ha gave at Yale University. As I read it, I became convinced that many of the books that I had reviewed over the years had suffered grievously from a notable affliction which Eagleton now at last identified for me: the Ditchkins Syndrome.

Ditchkins, I should explain, is a fabulous two-headed monster resulting from an unholy conflation of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, performed at the stroke of a pen by the intrepid Eagleton. This will probably irritate those two authors, who are both reputed to take themselves somewhat seriously. I myself would not have dared, nor would I have had the wit – in either sense of that word – to invent this fearsome creature. That is totally Eagleton’s responsibility. Throughout this book, he routinely refers to Ditchkins, meaning the two authors, merged into an unwilling (I presume) embrace, as birds of a feather, one as bad as the other. My only personal contribution to this inverse canonisation was to elevate Ditchkins to the dignity of a syndrome.

The symptoms of Ditchkins Syndrome – again, according to Eagleton – are arrogance, ignorance and prejudice. This is blunt stuff, but the author argues his case cogently and he certainly takes no prisoners. There is indeed something dismally tunnel-visioned about a perspective in which there is no room for any knowledge, still less for any wisdom, which is not rooted in a scientific, mathematical and experimental methodology of the most positivistic kind. Sooner or later, such a procedure becomes absurd, as Eagleton very ably shows, and ends up by cutting off the branch on which Ditchkins sits.

Most of the Ditchkins baddies, from Eagleton’s perspective anyhow, make a meal of the iniquities, injustices and outrages perpetrated by religions and churches down the ages. Occasionally, Eagleton protests that protest too much. Whatever about the hideous Brother Columba, who was his Catholic headmaster in Manchester, and whatever about the Irish church – about which he has surprisingly disobliging things to say – he does have some religious favourites. These include the Oxford Dominicans, which proves the man has taste, and Thomas Aquinas, about whom he writes some of his most illuminating pages. But, by and large, Eagleton tends to “out-Herod Herod”, repeatedly telling the Ditchkins brigade that, as far as organised religion is concerned, they are pushing an open door.

The poet Kathleen Norris writes that “the educated person is religious, but against religions”. Presumably this is because, if you have a religion, you saddle yourself with a past and a criminal record, being inevitably guilty, at least by association. I do not know where Prof Eagleton stands on a scale of adherence to a church. But, for what it is worth, I think he is simply wrong when he writes, “Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless”. That must be nudging close to Manichaeism. I also think he is unfair when he writes of the American church, “Christianity has become the nauseating cant of lying politicians, corrupt bankers, and fanatical neocons”. For several years, I have worked in parishes in the US for a summer month. This does not make me an expert on anything, but I simply do not recognise this grotesque caricature. Perhaps Prof Eagleton has cheered up a bit since the election of President Obama.

Albert Camus used to say he found more things to admire than to condemn in human kind. I don’t think he excluded religious people, warts and all, from that endorsement. Neither, I am sure, did David Marcus, when you think of some of the people he befriended and helped. But Terry Eagleton is an à la carteMarxist, which entitles him to say disagreeable things about all capitalist societies – and anyhow, many of his criticisms are justified. On the other hand, he never says anything bad about Communist regimes. There are two references to Stalinism, two mentions of Mao – all fairly harmless – and one admission that North Korea is dodgy on freedom of the individual (what else is new?).

To his credit, Eagleton does sincerely hunger and thirst for justice. He recognises that this preoccupation goes to the heart of the Gospel message. He was brave to say some of the things that he did say at Yale University. It is somehow reassuring to hear that his audience received this distinguished enfant terriblevery cheerfully.

Soul Murder