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Terry Eagleton: Against pluralism

Professor Terry Eagleton ensured an entertaining and provocative start to Trinity College Loyola Institute’s conference ‘The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society – Good Influence or Good Riddance?’ which runs is the Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College, from Wednesday 22 to Friday 24 June. The author of over fifty books is widely regarded as Britain’s most influential living literary critic and theorist.

In his introduction to Eagleton’s talk entitled ‘Against Pluralism’, Dr Cornelius Casey of the Loyola Institute said that in his opinion, “the theme throughout all Eagleton’s writing was quite simply the adventure towards human flourishing”. He noted that Eagleton was well-versed in Marxist critique and had detailed the untold misery religion can bring upon people. But in the last number of years he is also profoundly conscious of the fact that theological ideas can be politically illuminating and “even indispensable in this adventure toward human flourishing”.

Terry Eagleton began by acknowledging the provocative nature of his lecture title, ‘Against Pluralism’, but throughout his talk it was clear he wanted his audience to be careful about the assumptions they (or indeed society in general) might be making around key terms in the whole area of debate that the conference seeks to address. He said the term ‘pluralism’ was not unproblematic, but he first wanted to address the term ‘plurality’ which had its own inherent issues. “To claim that plurality is a good in itself is simply absurd,” he argued. “How many fascist armies do we want?… And a diverse array of autocrats is not the most desirable thing”.

Even in the socio-political or cultural sphere plurality and diversity are not univocally, always and everywhere, goods in themselves, he said, adding, “It wasn’t difference or plurality or diversity that brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa or the overthrow of neo-Stalinist regimes in Europe. It was solidarity”.

He took some characteristically witty swipes at modern consumerist, market-driven culture with its “fetish and cult options”. We may glibly concur with the oft-used phrase ‘it takes all sorts to make a world’. But does it really, he mused? Do we really need Simon Cowell, or people with restless leg syndrome who squeeze into the seat beside us on an aeroplane? Delving deeper into this unquestioned acceptance that a multiplicity of options is indeed a good to be desired and delivered (he quoted one market enthusiast who said the future will be like the present only with more options), he went on to outline important human events that are by no means a matter of choice. “The most important things, it seems to me, are not a matter of choice. We don’t choose to be born, we don’t choose our parents, our body… we don’t even choose to believe in God.”

He concluded his unmasking of unreflective pluralism by noting that, “the liberal state is officially neutral with regard to any specific body of belief… the liberal state has no view of its own at all … other than the view that viewpoints which undermine its own neutral viewpoint should be purged.”