Building a Mystery

I recently referred to myself as a “postsecular atheist,” which I think might be fairly accurate if I knew what it meant. I’ve been wondering about that. Insisting that I’m technically a theological non-realist (or a metaphysical non-realist more generally) seems pointless since nobody knows what that is, either. But the problem with identifying as an atheist is that I’m not the sort of atheist for whom being an atheist is the goal as opposed to an artifact of not believing in God. There is no “right way” to be an atheist, but some atheists seem to act like it, and I’m not sure I pass the test. It’s mutual, though: atheism, as a discourse community, is not that attractive to me — no offense to my atheist friends.

I don’t share the (stereo)typical atheist disdain for religion. I don’t think we’d all be better off if we just got rid of religion, as if that were even possible. I’m an atheist less by virtue of being certain that God does not exist than by not being able to say what it would mean if God did, or why we should assume there is only one God, or how I should comport myself in the face of the existence of said God.

I don’t know how we would know those things, which I suppose is more agnostic than atheist. But being allergic to metaphysics, I don’t have a framework in which “I believe in God” is intelligible. Redefining God as whatever might happen to be “out there” doesn’t really do much work, and neither does redefining God as something I might be a little less reticent about, like the Tao or something (if that worked, wouldn’t it make more sense to just be a Taoist?). So, to recap: I don’t believe in God, which I think is the definition of atheism. I just don’t fit the usual profile.

This is where the “postsecular” bit comes in. Postsecularity describes the sense in which we’re realizing — at least in some areas of thought — that what we think of as “the secular” is not something that was revealed when we finally pulled back the veil of religion, but rather a way of thinking that was constructed in response to and on the heels of developments in Christian theology. There are various ways of narrating this, from Charles Taylor to John Milbank to Marcel Gauchet, but the basic idea is that there is no neutral sphere in which we can negotiate the common good without influence from religion or ideology. Moreover, the idea that there is such a sphere is itself a claim about the “way things are” that is already at odds with religious formulations.

It would be silly, for instance, to say that liberal democracy is a religion, per se (though perhaps not that silly) but it does make defacto (meta-)religious claims and cannot avoid doing so. A claim that religion and state should remain separate is still a claim about religion, and suggests that the state, and only the state, should be able to do things that might otherwise fall under the purview of religion. Questions about the common good or how we might best live to together, questions that we assume to be political, are not questions about which religion has been silent. Even the idea that there is a genus “religion” of which a given person’s way of constructing the world can be seen a species is problematic — especially for those ways of seeing the world we tend to call religions. What lies at the core of many people’s construction of identity is precisely the thing that liberal democracy says they should bracket.

[Postsecularity is the condition in which we recognize that “the secular” is just some shit we made up. This opens us up to the realization that postsecularity is just some shit we made up in the wake of realizing that secularity was some shit we made up. Basically it’s shit all the way down.]

So what does it mean to be an atheist self-consciously in this milieu? I can identify three candidates for what postsecular atheism might look like — three versions of it — and I find them all unsatisfying. First and foremost, of course, is Slavoj Žižek. I love Žižek; I don’t love how that makes me a lot like a bunch of nerdy post-evangelicals who also love Žižek. And I’m not sure how much I agree with Žižek, especially since most of the stuff he’s on about — psychoanalysis and Lacan and all that — I really don’t have much use for. Still, there’s an attraction. Žižek’s like the crazy drunk uncle whom you secretly love just because he makes things more interesting. You don’t want to emulate him, or take any of his advice, but he’s a hell of a lot of fun.

For Žižek, God is the Lacanian “Big Other” we need to do without. The psychoanalysis is over when you recognize that there is no Big Other — that you are, basically, on your own. To the extent that this speaks to the experience of postfoundationalism, I’m on board. But Žižek doesn’t stop there. The twist is that it is Christianity that tells us this. Jesus’ cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is this realization, Jesus beating the crazy old man in Thus Spake Zarathustra to the punch by almost 2,000 years.

Žižek and Jesus are like Tyler Durden telling his minions, “You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you, never wanted you, in all probability he hates you. This is not the worst thing that could happen,” except that God can’t be bothered to actually hate you because he’s not there. God the father empties himself into Jesus the son and gets whacked and can now only be found “resurrected” in the Spirit in the form of community. And we all have to enter into this realization. There is no God, no Big Other; there’s just us, muddling through, doing whatever we can. We, collectively, are the only God we’re going to get.

Two things bother me about this. One, it seems to prescribe a normative (and normatively Christian!) path. If we’d just get over our fixation with the Big Other (God being merely one candidate for this), we could be free and move on to…whatever. And this, to me, introduces a kind of back-door humanism — that’s the second thing — an emancipatory project presuming a human subject to be liberated.

Another possibility is Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0.” I’ll be honest — I haven’t read the book, Religion for Atheists; I’ve only seen his TED talk. And I hadn’t heard of him at all before I read this scathing review by Terry Eagleton. So my introduction wasn’t great and my knowledge is not robust. I may be getting him wrong. Still, Botton is interesting in that he thinks atheists too quickly dismiss aspects of religion that might be helpful. From the aforementioned talk:

Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about — people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can’t bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It’s almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you’re living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.

Botton’s solution? Raid the various religious traditions for ideas, concepts, rituals, etc. (the “nice stuff”) that might give us the purported benefits of religion without committing ourselves intellectually or otherwise. On one hand, this seems hopelessly consumeristic; on the other hand, Botton seems to be enriching his particular tradition — atheism — with things learned from outside that tradition, much as postmodern Christians might enrich their tradition with the findings of science or the musings of philosophy. Traditions are not hermetically sealed, and most if not all have a history of syncretism and cross-pollination. Nevertheless, I don’t much see the point. I really don’t see atheists banding together in a parody of religion to feel better about themselves. Or they already do and we call them Unitarian Universalists.

Finally, there’s Robert Jensen. Jensen shares a leftist politics with Žižek (I’m not sure of Botton’s politics; Eagleton calls him a libertarian), but unlike Žižek and Botton is actually a member of a church. He tells his story in All My Bones Shake: he met the pastor of a Presbyterian church in the course of his political activism and became attracted to the church’s collective life and the way it intersected with progressive politics. Eventually he got sucked into that life even though he’s not really come around to believing in God as such. The story is a good one, and while Jensen is not the riveting memoirist that Anne Lamott is, it’s the best part of the book.

The rest of the book outlines what we might call his political theology, which he sums up in the paradoxical “There is no God, and now more than ever we all need to serve the One True Gods.” The construction is deliberate. By “there is no God” he means basically what Žižek means by there not being a Big Other but without that language. What we think of as God, he says, is just a name for mystery itself, which is not something we worship or commit ourselves to. The “One True Gods” are community (as a concept) and communities (as concrete expressions of that concept), things we must attend to if we’re going to survive as a species.

This is, perhaps, compatible with  Žižek’s emphasis on the death of God and the birth of community in the Spirit. Jensen comes off as a communalist (and something of a localist) with a bit of anarcho-primitivist ecological apocalypticism thrown in the mix, but without landing on anything recognizable as anarchist theory. He’s a progressive, which is better than a lot of the alternatives, and his theology seems like a bit of a mainline liberal rehash that at least has the stones to admit to being atheist.

There are also out-and-out Christian Atheists, and Žižek and I have both been branded with that designation. I’m sometimes loath to call myself either one, let alone both. My atheist friends wonder, given my interest in Christianity (and my not-infrequent defense of Christianity as a coherent body of thought) if I’m really an atheist at all. Some of my Christian friends who know of my “status” are holding out a none-too-subtle hope that this is just a phase for me, and that I will come around. It’s been over a decade, but there are days I can almost imagine what it would be like to believe again. I don’t think they’re right, but I can’t predict the future.

On the other hand, I’m reluctant to call myself a Christian because it seems like, well, God is kind of a big deal. At any rate, I’m coming to realize that my own admixture of intellectual atheism and social participation in Christianity is largely artifactual, a result of what I call “social inertia”: I’ve been part of the Christian tradition for most of my life. In some ways I’ve been in and out; in others, I’ve just been in, with the idea that I could ever be out being largely illusory. These are my people. Many of my friends and most of my family are Christians. I also don’t believe in God — but being an atheist isn’t enough of an identity marker for me to disrupt all of those relationship and become “the atheist” in that social grouping. Or become somebody’s project, which is what tends to happen.

I’m not, however, trying to combine those things into a cohesive philosophical framework. I happen to be a theologically literate but otherwise nominal Christian, mostly by heritage. I also happen to not believe in God.

This is not the worst that could happen.

18 thoughts on “Building a Mystery

  1. Interesting and worthwhile post. Thank you Would like to know your take on Whitehead and process theology, which is a third way between classical Xty and atheism. Am just beginning Kearney’s Anatheism; am curious to see where it will fit in the taxonomy.

  2.  As a non-theist (the best handle I’ve come up with) who is nonetheless deeply interested in the religious impulse, I respect and recognize your thoughtful uncertainty.  Thank you.

  3. As an atheist who left my Christian community about five years ago, I have to envy the fact that you’ve avoided becoming “the atheist”, and a project. Among my former circles, I’ve become both. Or rather, I became both- only my family really cares at this point. What is your denominational background? Having deep social roots in fundamentalist Baptist circles, I don’t see how I could have been both honest about my beliefs and accepted as an equal member of that religious community, even if I’d wanted to be.

  4. Any particular reason you don’t take Nietzsche and the antihumanists against Žižek–that with the death of the Big Other, Humanity dies too?  Or do we need to wait for a post outlining your thoughts on the shitpile called anthropology?

  5. I would one day love you to analyze my belief structure and come up with a compound adjective to describe, though I think part of it might include, psuedo-intellectual-bullshit-Anglican. 

  6. Thanks, Mark. I know of Whitehead, but I’ve not taken much of a plunge into process theology. Inasmuch as it’s a metaphysics, I’d probably greet it with skepticism. I’ve run across Kearny in conjunction with Caputo and he seemed interesting.

  7. I need to bone up on my Nietzsche. That’s my first post-dissertation reading project. But in explaining my own antihumanism to someone on Facebook I did say that any project that suggests if we just get rid of X we can be free fails to take into account that the human subject we think we’re liberating is probably constructed, at least in part, by X.

  8. In reading your bio I was reminded of “The City on the Edge of Forever” a classic Star Trek episode about the political ramifications of pacifist ethics in the 1930’s.

  9. Star Trek is the way into Ted’s heart. (Mentioning that episode reminds me of how persistently anti-pacifist the Star Treks are.)

  10. You sound a bit like my brother, Andrei Buckareff, he is a philosophy professor at Marist. I do not agree with either one of you, but I suspect you would like him-calls himself an agnosic Christian. Anyway, here is a link to some interview

  11. Hey Ted, I’m curious as to how you would respond to my idea of what Christianity “is”.

    Essentially, I think the Christian perspective is that on the cross Jesus somehow “won”. I wonder if you would see things the same way, see them different, or just find it all irrelevant.I’m just asking out of curiosity, and to get a handle on how Christianity interacts with your current perspective.

  12. Micah,

    I think Paul (or whoever wrote Colossians) would agree with you. I once wrote a piece suggesting that the “regal” elements of the passion narratives — the crown of thorns, the robe, the cross as a throne with thieves on Jesus’s right and left hands — were not just cruel irony on the part of the Romans, not just mockery, but actually the Evangelists’ way of narrating the crucifixion as Jesus’s coronation. This is it. Jesus is Lord, he is king, and this — the bloody mess of crucifixion — is how. A dead guy is king (how’s that for anarchy?). More than that — a dead guy is God. Whoa.

    I think if I ever get into theology proper again, I’ll start there. :)

  13. Ted, I can relate to your position.   I don’t accept superstitions and paranormal (supernatural) explanations of the
    universe.  However, there is much more to faith and spirituality.   When the words “faith” and “belief” become synonymous with superstition, and when “spirituality” becomes synonymous with paranormal activity, then it is inevitable that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water.   I one obstacle is the imprecise language used in the normal atheistic criticism of religion. I suspect that they mostly mean to criticize superstitions and paranormal beliefs, but they use generic words like “faith”, “belief”, and “religion”.   I’d love to see an experiment in which we replay the typical criticism of religion by the new atheists, but we replace the words “faith” and “spirituality” with “superstition” and “paranormal activity”.  I suspect most fundamentalist Christians would be in agreement with the result.

  14. Thanks, Mike. I suspect you’re right, largely because fundies and the new atheists share an epistemological framework (which I reject). I’m not categorically opposed to things like faith or spirituality — or, for that matter, religion. Besides, I don’t know which of the things I believe today will be tomorrow’s superstitions.

  15. I find the stereotypical atheist disdain for religion for religion is just that: A Stereotype. Most atheists aren’t as vocal as, say, Hitchens or Dawkins, they just get a lot of publicity. 

  16. There’s no such thing as a profile for atheists, anymore than a profile for theists. Many atheists are very interested in religion as a literary, psychological, cultural phenomenon. Everybody tries to qualify or run away from the atheist label but we’re past the era of the entirely negative stereotype. 

  17. It’s not difficult to think of atheists who haven’t gotten that particular memo, Andrew, but I take your point: it wasn’t my intention to read “atheist discourse” as characterized by its least interesting participants.

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