Pairing a pugnacious British intellectual with an American Jewish religious leader for a public conversation on faith must be a lot of people’s idea of fun, because it’s happened in Manhattan two years in a row. The first time around was a bit more raucous: 2,000 people turned out to see Christopher Hitchens and Conservative rabbi David Wolpe storm around the bima of Temple Emanu-El debating the existence of God last November. Last night’s event, on the other hand, was a civilized conversation at the Harvard Club between Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Arnie Eisen and his interview subject, the British Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Though the two are not necessarily aligned on questions of faith, they bonded over a disdain for Hitchens and his fellow “new atheist” Richard Dawkins, whose contempt for religion is the topic of Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Eagleton, who called Dawkins a “bitter, old-fashioned positivist” and said he’d known his other intellectual target at Oxford—“when he was a mere ‘Chris’ Hitchens, we were members of the same Trotskyist society,” he said—posited that these thinkers are motivated by a combination of the stubborn belief that reason is the only valid structure of thought, and, more perniciously, the need for a justification of Islamophobia. They elide radical Islamism and the teachings of Islam, he argued, and while they’re bashing the Muslim faith, are trying to tear the whole edifice of religious thought down with it. It’s “a new and ugly trend,” Eagleton said.
Ari M. Brostoff is Culture Editor at Jewish Currents.