What if the Great God Debate isn't about the existence of God at all?

What if the great atheist writers of our age have missed the point? What if, as God debater Terry Eagleton says, "they reject the Christian gospel not because it's garbage, but because it's too radical for them"?

The oldest questions of all - Does God exist? Can science prove or disprove it? Is religion good or bad? - have become the highest-profile intellectual debate of the decade. It's a war of books, stoked to white heat by the war on terror, when some have thought the West was in a toe-to-toe cultural Armageddon with Islam.

Eagleton is a recent entrant in the God Debate. With a glittering resume ranging from literary criticism to history, he is a writer with serious Marxist and socialist credentials. In his new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, he comes out squarely - against the atheists.

He's diving into a brainiac mosh pit. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have weighed in on the nay side, and Francis Collins, Chris Hedges, Rick Warren, and Tim Keller on the yea.

Eagleton, one of the best-known public intellectuals in the world, holds professorships at Lancaster University and the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has written more than 40 books and all but haunts talk shows, book reviews, and op-ed pages.

But against the atheists? Wittily, merrily, trenchantly so. Eagleton mischievously lumps Dawkins and Hitchens together as "Ditchkins" throughout his book. It's unfair. He's glad. Partly, it's to mock what he sees them doing to religion - tarring all belief as fundamentalism.

The book grew out of a furious 2006 Eagleton review of Dawkins' The God Delusion, in which the former slammed what he called the latter's ignorance about religion. That led to an invitation from Yale University to give the Dwight H. Terry lectures (which address how science and philosophy inform religion) in April 2008. Eagleton's title: "Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation?" His four lectures formed the basis for the book.

This attack has come, to put it lightly, as a surprise to many. Speaking by phone from his home in Dublin, Eagleton chuckles and says: "It wasn't such a hard thing to go from Marxism to this debate. It just so happens I have a bit of theological background, enough to know when people are talking out the back of their necks."

"A bit of theological background" puts it modestly. Eagleton was brought up in a working-class Catholic family in Manchester, England. As a graduate student at Cambridge, he became involved in radical-left Catholic circles such as the December Group. In the 1960s, he published frequently in Slant, a journal that sought to bridge the Christian tradition and the New Left. After 9/11, when anti-Islamic - and with it anti-Christian-fundamentalist - rhetoric heated up, he responded with Jesus Christ: The Gospels, which depicted Christ as a pro-poor, anticapitalist radical revolutionary.

The God Debate has been so ferocious on all sides that one asks with trembling: So what's wrong with Ditchkins?

Ignorance, to start, says Eagleton. "Rage against fundamentalism is completely understandable," he says, "but Ditchkins really thinks that all religious people are fundamentalists. So it's no longer about religion - they've created a straw man to hit at. It's religious criticism on the cheap. They need that straw man just as fundamentalists need hatred."

Ignorance grows into intolerance, a belief in the innate supremacy of Western culture and the inferiority of non-Western. "Worst of all is Ditchkins' apparent inability to distinguish between a good Muslim and a terrorist," Eagleton says, "as if there were no difference between the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Texas redneck fundamentalist." More than just a mental mistake, it has, he says, terrible implications. He's not alone in this position; many recoiled at Sam Harris' argument that the West would be justified in a nuclear first strike against Islamist targets. Eagleton says: "Such intellectual crudity is a symptom of panic, of intelligent writers who feel under threat."

Throughout the book, Eagleton argues, most surprisingly, that "Ditchkins" has missed the big point. The big point is not the provableness of God. Eagleton says, rather breathtakingly: "Ditchkins thinks he's rejecting it because of science. But I don't think that is the focus. . . . You can say what you like about faith, but let's get it right. It's not about subscribing to some supernatural entity. It's about the image of Jesus in the gospels, a far more radical, subversive image than anybody is willing to accept. The idea is that of transformative love: having the courage to abandon oneself for others, a cause, for justice, in the radical way the New Testament presents Christ as doing. That question doesn't even occur to Ditchkins as the key question. You can say the demand is impossible, utopian, stupid. But you have to get the question right, and I don't even think they get near it."

This move has spurred everything from head-scratching to uproarious dismissal, especially from those who think, or who'd like to think, that the existence-of-God question is the point. Compounding the perplexity, nowhere in the book (or the phone call!) does Eagleton volunteer his own beliefs - except to endorse transformative love, and "what it could mean for a culture deeply in need of it."

Eagleton has just returned from giving a lecture on Shakespeare at the recently rebuilt library at Alexandria, Egypt, a monument to the ancient library destroyed in the first century after Christ. That Alexandria was not a radical, sealed-off Islamic archive but a crossroads of the world, a meeting place for North, South, East, and West.

"What struck me," says Eagleton, "is how the curators of the library have tried to re-create that spirit of multicultural antiquity, when Alexandria was the very capital of the soul. And I think Ditchkins should be forcibly transported there, strapped to a chair, and made to listen to this cultural richness and diversity, this splendid attempt to reinvent it in the modern world."

Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.