I need pleasure reading to keep me sane. So I decided to read some basic, popular treatments of the God debate. Choosing New Atheist ones were easy because there are four books concerning the topic which have been generally popular and well-reviewed. Figuring out which responses to read is harder because I didn't know of any mass rallying behind any particular apologists. So I did my best and I'm reading some of the more popular responses.
The easiest one to figure out was Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revelation. It was positively reviewed in all the right places. Just a few of many, many examples: Stanley Fish of the New York Times' Opinionator blog? Loved it. Andrew O'Hehir, senior writer for Salon? Ate it up. Rabbi Gil Student? Less enthusiastic, but still pretty positive. And the guy at the Harvard COOP -- where I bought it -- thought it was the best response to the New Atheists there is. Incidentally, there's also going to be an American Academy of Religion panel this year about how awesome Eagleton's book is and how attacks on New Atheism should follow the author's lead. So with all this high praise, I bought the book and read through it. Of course, I knew that reviewers -- even the most thoughtful and cogent among them -- can on occasion be overwhelmed by the power of good writing, especially when the writer is defending a cause they sympathize with. Still, reviewers can often help us rethink our own readings; so I read the book. I then experienced an extremely important epiphany, one which I will always owe to Eagleton and his reviewers:
Many reviewers -- even the most seemingly thoughtful and cogent among them -- are overwhelmed by the most power of good writing, especially when the writer is defending a cause they sympathize with.
In other words, Eagleton's awful book and its positive reviews have convinced me to be more cynical when I approach book reviews. I can't convince myself that this is an exception; the book is too excruciatingly bad to warrant any other conclusions. Anybody who thinks that Eagleton is right on the mark, by the way, has to be anti-capitalism and anti-Zionist; his book is very clear on those points. You can read my own mini review of the book here. My respect has been slightly diminished for anybody who likes this book (except Rabbi Student because I find it too difficult to have any contempt at all for the guy who in the heat of things published Slifkin.). To end on a more positive note: those who gave this book unqualified negative reviews (not "I don't get what all the fuss is about") even when the consensus of reviewers loved it are to be praised! Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers, and especially Matt Taibbi (the most on-the-mark review I've seen so far and, unlike the other two, not on a blog which focuses on the merits of atheism)...here's to you! Kol hakavod!