One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.
Eagleton wants to be the knowing superior (sipping tea in the parlor—“I arrived an hour ago; where’ve you been?”), but he stumbles badly there. Free speech and civil rights are all bunkum, if you pretend they have some independent reality beyond their usefulness. We know and admit that we created those things. On the battlefield between privileged monarchs and their resistant subjects, we carved out a place of truce and called it “rights.”
Whether the monarchs did more of the granting or the subjects did more of the taking will always be debatable. But no one seriously disputes that those modern values arose from history; they did not descend on the wings of revelation. People certainly argued that rights were bestowed by a divine Creator, but other people claimed heavenly origins for the sovereignty poised against those rights. And even if you believe that God laid all the pieces on the board in the beginning, you cannot deny that we have been moving them around ever since. Civil rights and free speech were a long time coming because they had no meaning until people configured themselves in just the right way.
Eagleton wants to believe that free speech and civil rights are no different than any religious doctrines, but he fails to see that what makes doctrines religious, to our sense of the word, is precisely that we cannot admit their historical contingency and human creation. Doctrines become religious not just when they are entrenched, but when they are divorced from historical processes, endowed with eternal permanence, and immunized against critique. If you are allowed to critique a doctrine, and notice its historical provenance, it loses eternal permanence. And, as plenty of theologians throughout history have intuitively understood, the only way to keep your religion in the face of those challenges is to grasp something that cannot be disentrenched, historicized, temporized, or critiqued, so you retreat to the only thing that can possibly satisfy those criteria: incomprehensible concepts like the Ground of Being or Existence Itself. (But good luck trying to build a satisfactory religion on such a distant foundation.)
Being surprised to find that religions might have some useful qualities, aside from their carefully enshrined but intellectually offensive doctrines, is a good piece different from learning, as anyone does who bothers to study the variety of human societies, that free speech and civil rights, despite their positions of high importance for our purposes in the modern West, are not exactly universal or eternal. And if we continue to believe that civil rights and free speech are essential to our way of life, despite knowing that others have gotten by with a different configuration of social values, it is not because we have catapulted them into transcendence. We hold them at the center of our society as a point of perpetual dispute, not as the undoubtable fulcrum of our universe.