In this post, I will try to spell out what makes “mainstream atheism” so loathsome in my eyes. Then, and throughout this post, I will offer a contrasting view of “atheism” that I think is more intellectually and spiritually respectable. Finally, I will try to show how atheism is not enough. To begin, I will take Alain de Botton as a case study. Since you are probably unfamiliar with him and his ideas, I’ve embedded a video of him at TED. But if you don’t feel like watching him (I don’t blame you!), don’t worry; I go over all the main points in my discussion.
As the title of the video indicates, Botton is interested in “Atheism 2.0,” that is, a new way of being an atheist. This is an atheism for those who are attracted to the “ritualistic, moral, communal side” of religion (as if there were any other side!), but do not jive with the “doctrine.” My initial question is this: has he ever talked to anyone who goes to church regularly? In my experience, the vast majority of church-goers go to church precisely for this ritualistic, moral, communal, and contemplative (or quiet) side of religion. To disagree with the Vatican or religious fundamentalists; to refrain from screaming “Jesus is my Savior” at the street corner; to recognize the violent and “dumb” parts of ones own religion — all of these are found in “believers” too, and not just atheists. This is just one example of what I would call Botton’s spiritual immaturity: it seems beyond his comprehension that “believers” would also be skeptical about their own religion, or that they would engage with doctrines and rituals from a measured distance. Once this is admitted, the “atheism” he is discussing would just be redundant. It seems to me that many (if not most) church-goers have their own personal understanding (relationship, connection) to “God”; and it is this intimate relationship, not doctrine, which keeps them tied to their faith. In other words, being “free from religion” while “picking out its best parts” is something that religious people of all faiths already do. To not understand this means you haven’t ever really gone to church…
But let’s move on. Botton basic thesis is very simple: we have “secularized badly,” there are holes in our secular world, and we ought to go to religion in search of things we can use to plug these holes, to find things we can steal. We need “assistance” since we are “just barely holding it together.” “Of course we need help!” he screams. (The easy retort: “Speak for yourself, Alain!”) Botton wants us to get away from dry, unpersuasive university lectures and return to edifying, rousing, though atheistic, sermons. He wants us to get on our knees, to find rituals, to “synchronize encounters,” to build monuments to the universe, etc. And he wants an atheist morality that could be broadcast to all and “teach us how to live.” Now, I believe strongly that this view misses the entire point of “atheism” as a historical phenomenon, but we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s bring out some other parts of his argument.
Botton’s ignorance about church-goers is shockingly similar to his ignorance about artists. He chastises the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ and the idea that artists shouldn’t explain their work — as if the absurdities of Dada, the link to the unconscious in Surrealism, the commodity aspects of Pop Art, etc., where somehow politically or socially neutral — as if they were just for the fun of it. As if every true artist weren’t led to art out of a dissatisfaction with the world around them. As if, for example, Van Gogh didn’t start his life out as a pastor, but found the only way to channel his dark passion was through painting. Etc. But Botton wants an art that transforms the world (supposing it hasn’t transformed it already, or isn’t still transforming it). He wants artworks to “cement ideas in our mind,” ideas like love and generosity. In other words, he wants a dumbed-down art that is perfectly communicable to all, which teaches us in a transparent way what is worth loving and hating. He wants it easy. For this to happen, museums ought to explain the art works, reduce their puzzling aspects, and break their spell. He then hits us with this doozy, around minute 12:30:
The people in the modern world… who are interested in matters of the spirit… tend to be isolated individuals. They’re poets, they’re philosophers, they’re photographers, they’re filmmakers, and they tend to be on their own. They are cottage industries. They are vulnerable single people. And they get depressed, they get sad on their own. And they don’t really change much.
I think we are justified asking, “How do you know?” since it is quite curious to assert that such individuals “don’t really change much.” For an artist, every day, every engagement with their art, is for the sake of transformation, not only of themselves but of the world around them. Art proceeds from an internal and external crisis which cannot be dealt with in any other way. The happy-go-lucky idea of “collaborating” is simply not an option for most. Botton goes on to tell us how little power these lone individuals have — as if the rejection of power weren’t intimately intertwined with art’s ‘political’ vocation. He says that we ought to admire the institutional aspect of how religion “sells” and “fights for” the things of the mind — as if art weren’t direly engaged with resisting its institutionalization and sale. He says that lone books are ineffectual (again, speak for yourself!), and that we need to group together if we are ever to change the world — as if group-think were unquestionably superior to individual creativity. Suffice it to say, I hardly know where to begin with such misunderstandings…
Finally, one comment on the hypocritical intention operative in all of these suggestions. Atheists chastise religion because it homogenizes people’s thought. It makes people think the same thing. But while Botton would surely never agree to authority figures or doctrines, he advocates that we “teach people how to live,” that we return to the lessons of morality, that we use multinational institutions or modern culture to spread secular ideas, etc., and thus, in a way, doing the same thing — as if a level of sameness were required for society to be healthy. (Or again: as if it was possible for society to be health, to be improved on a mass scale.) He thinks that it’s okay to do all this, once we’ve found the correct, non-religious ideas — as if agreement were the goal of communication itself. The intention to direct minds and lives along a common horizon is still there. The desire for immersion in a common body is still there, especially in his desire for “atheist temples.” But as I see it, the emergence of philosophical atheism in the specific time we call “modern” denotes precisely this: any and all common horizons are lost. The common body is corrupt. Being itself is cracked and breaking apart. We are abandoned to ourselves. No one can give us answers — and there are none. The world rests on nothing.
We have to take leave of Botton now and advance our own “view” of atheism — or rather, since atheism denotes the effacement of all views, we have to show how atheism responds to a crisis that is only made worse by ignoring its source.
It is my view that atheists like Botton simply vulgarize religious ideas while acting, on the whole, like priests (although without the uniform, they are hard to respect…). This is evidenced most clearly when they implicitly affirm “atheism” as a mind-set shared by a group of people. But how does this shared mind-set differ in any way from a religious community of believers? That this group is constituted in opposition to religion — as a community of scientists or secularists, for example — simply indicates that the model of “belief” has been displaced on to another mode of thinking, without undergoing any fundamental change. Belief-for is really not so different from belief-opposed. What I believe is irreversibly outdated is the whole idea that having a shared mind-set is good for us in the first place.
But the failure of mainstream atheism is worse that its innocent reliance on science or culture. This view of atheism entirely misses the fact that deep within religion itself there are mechanisms that imply a fundamental mutation in the structure of belief itself. These deep mechanisms are to be found in the works of theologians, philosophers, poets, mystics, ascetics, and artists across all time and in all faiths; and these works themselves are like “machines” that can change our pattern of thinking. In all, these deep mechanisms teach this: religion teaches “atheism.” Religion teaches the exit from religion. Without understanding this, the latter will never be accomplished, no matter how loud the mainstream atheist screams.
So, what handicaps atheists most is that they have nothing intelligent to say about God. In remaining effectively ignorant about philosophical atheism as it is bestowed to us through various sources — especially through what is called “negative theology” — folks like Botton remains as clueless about “God” as most religious people do. But where religious folks recognize that cluelessness as part of their faith in God — how God’s “mystery” is co-extensive with God’s “being” — atheists jump to the conclusion that any idea that cannot be understood by science or understood rationally is ridiculous. (Let’s note in passing that “God” is not an idea, nor is “God” in any way subject to proof or disproof for reasons we will explain below…)
Botton’s difficulties come to the surface when he’s forced to mince his words — for example, when he tries to differentiate between “having spiritual experiences” and “believing in spirit,” or between “wonderment at the mystery of the universe” (which science evidently shows us) and “mystical experience” (which is evidently too religiony for him to stomach). But his basic fallacy is shared by most mainstream atheists: they toss “God” aside as though they were the first people to doubt the idea of the fairy-God. As if the deep teaching of religion actually had anything to do with this simple notion of God. They seem to think that just by discarding this idea, all mental immaturity suddenly vanishes!
Of course, the vast majority of religious people do not delve into all the complexities that are huddled around God as a word, as an idea, as a historical phenomenon, as a textual operator in theologies and poems, etc. But in religious people, it would be a bit unfair to count this as a fault, even if it frustrates those who affirm the necessity of delving deeper (as I do): for many of them, religion does serve as a regulator of time, as a way to gather with the community, etc., and in this sense, theological questions are somewhat secondary. But for atheists, the omission to delve deeper is more inexcusable. It is an act of intellectual and historical carelessness, “reactionary” in the worst sense. Furthermore, I just don’t see how atheists will ever effectively combat religion if they don’t first grapple with religion’s deep, “atheistic” teachings. (Of course it is regrettable that religions themselves don’t grapple with these deeper structures.) Without engaging the history of philosophy and/or metaphysics on some level — the concepts of presence, Being, etc. — there is really no way to understand what is at stake with “atheism” or “modernity.” Why? Because these concepts have guided us to today. Without engaging them — and I don’t say “understanding” them — it will remain very hard to know where we are headed.
The atheistic core of religion startled society long ago, and the mutation it initiated is far from over. Once upon a time, Greek logos met Jewish exile. The Word was made Flesh. Obviously, this is much more than we could ever cover in a blog post. And yet we will try to say something about God, because we must say something, even in the absence of answers and adequate words. The following assertions are not meant to be proofs, but indications toward a different way of conceiving of God:
Above all, God has to do with the “outside of the world in the world”: the outside of the world that is inside of the world as that which exceeds the world. “God” has to do with the opening of the world to the outside of the world — i.e., its creation — although without referencing any kind of nether-world or beyond-world. “God” has to do with upper limits of thought itself, and with thought thinking beyond thought itself. “God” has to do with an address that stretches me beyond myself. “God” is the address I make to your “beyond yourself.” “God” is the encounter between us, between all beings and things, between what is incomprehensible between us and everything else. And this encounter cannot be conceptualized. It cannot be proven, it cannot be turned into a propositions, it does not indoctrinate us. On the contrary, it opens us to the outside. “God” is this relation of all things to their ownmost other sides. And this relation gives access to what cannot be accessed: the infinitely other, the different, the altered. For God is not dead, but death itself: a name for the immeasureable, the impossible, the inconceivable, the distant. The name for that which absolutely surpasses “me” in me, that which absolutely surpasses “you” in you. “God” is the common name that designates the unnameable, which itself designates the relation of all things to all things. And God speaks to this strange encounter, this enigmatic connection (made possible by “words”; more on that below).
God, the unknown, the terrifying, the uncertain. God, the leap and the blessing. God, the abject, the abandoned, the alone. God, nudity, undressing. All of these expressions gloss the incomprehensible, the rapturous, the passionate. They gloss the abyss of nonmeaning into which God descends so as to be God.
“God” addresses you from elsewhere (here?). “God” is (the) elsewhere (here?). “God” is (the) nowhere — which is where we are. “God” is the opening of the here and now to this elsewhere, which is nowhere else but here. And this opening, right here, is infinite…
Clearly, all of these formulas are ridiculous in themselves, dirty, eccentric. But thinking itself quite clever, mainstream atheism tries to escape the conceptual matrix of God-ideas through mere sleight of hand. In doing so, it only tightens the secular noose around its own neck. What is most “idiotic” about mainstream atheism, in my view, is its narrow definition or conceptualization of the “self” or of “personal consciousness,” precisely to the extent that it looses sight of this dimension of “me in excess of me,” this “absolute outside of me inside of me.” This dimension is not “knowledge,” nor is it strictly “conscious,” and in relying solely on what we can know and cognize, mainstream atheism leaves unquestioned the most hideous biases of secular society. The religious matrix of God-ideas and the secular matrix of self-ideas are, in fact, intimately intertwined. Transforming the one implies a transformation of the other because they came about together. Whether we point to Augustine or Descartes, the existence of God has always underpinned the existence of the subject. Any atheism that does not recognize this not only fails to understand God, but it fails to understand its self. Thus, it comes as no surprise when it goes looking for answers in religion since, in effect, it has never even left religious territory.
I affirm along with the atheists that we must leave religious territory. But we cannot persist in thinking we can do this with a simple disavowal. Otherwise, we will be led to form secular communities whose subjugation to social reality is much worse than religion’s, whereas what we truly need, more than anything, is a resistance to the social reality and its carefully mapped, systematized coordinates. In short, we need to respect the unreality of God— the unreality of myself.
This carelessness could frustrate me, but instead I laugh — or write, which exacerbates me to the point of fainting. I inevitably contradict myself, since my words rest on nothing. I’m in a position of powerlessness, too, because the writing produces nonsense by refusing to coalesce into a doctrine or a system. But the crux of this issue has to do with language itself, which I would now briefly like to go over.
Religion as a global institution remains ignorant of this issue in language, but mystics, theologians, and atheists (among many others of course) have understood it throughout history in singular ways that, each in their turn, gave them their unique voices — that is, put them each in a unique relationship with “God,” with the outside-of-time that presented itself to them in their time. It’s hard to parse, and we can only gloss it here, but we have to differentiate between language when it is “used” as an instrument for coercion, persuasion, or sales, and language that adores existence as such.
Language-as-instrument would seek to make a unity out of language and the world, to systematize or totalize beings, to reduce things to their simply identity-with-themselves, to establish some kind of hierarchy of meaning, to “schedule,” etc. In contrast, language-as-adoration opens us to the outside of being, the outside of hierarchy, and in a sense, to the outside of language. It opens us to the outside of our selves (God?), to the outside of this time. Language-as-adoration sings, ecstatic like a sonata or the movement of Van Gogh’s brush. Rather than defining, it addresses — and it address us to the ‘outside’ of any empirical address that could be given in the world. Language-as-adoration seeks out those places that cannot be empirically proven or found. It seeks out, infinitely, another.
One example of language-as-adoration is negative theology, which always had to proceed “negatively” because, at every turn, the words of its discourse had to be turned to their outside, to what exceeded everything given in the world or the discourse, including what is supposedly “given” about God. Every predicate of God is stripped away in negative theology. In Indian thought, this is the idea of neti, neti: God is “not this, not that.” In this way, God was not defined, but addressed. God was pointed to by stressing what God was not.
Quite to the contrary, both secular and “religious” discourse seek to enclose, to encompass, to make an identity out of God (and so too of selves). And in this sense, they are one and the same: whether they affirm or denounce this Ideal Identity or Presence or Being, what matters is that they assume it. Both take this ideality to be something, rather than nothing at all. Both are stances geared toward an accurate representation of reality. But for the “true” atheist — the negative theologian — “God” is not something assured. God’s ideality (reality) is yet to be established, there is no proof. God’s ideality (reality) can be addressed, but this does not guarantee its existence. God’s ideality (reality) is suspended over the abyss of trembling words. This ideality (reality) is constituted in the play between words. So too for the self. Reality is in the reception of these words, which is the undoing of reality as such: the reception of trembling and play, revelation of the unreal. “God” is not: the not that makes a world possible, the minimal difference that lets me breath, fall down, touch, and be free. And I too am this “not”: nothing. To share in this nothing is… to share God.
In the end, “God” is just a word; what matters is the constellation of them, which indicates the space between them and their distance from us. We might be better off talking about the trauma of death, of self-effacement, of disappearance.
In this post, I’ve tried to show what I feel “atheism” is all about. But I am not an atheist — I am not anything — for reasons that must now be explained.
I have tried to show throughout that atheism — insofar as it is a common mind-set, a shared perspective, a group of people (atheists), etc. — is really no different than theism or any other “ism.” Whether nationalism, communism, fascism, all of these are ways of turning many people into a homogeneous mass that might move “together.” Like I said earlier, although Botton would explicitly reject this, he nevertheless calls for a common horizon of morals and culture, a “temple for atheists,” etc., which all seem to me to represent the model of communal immersion that ought to be rejected. Such immersion expresses the desire to neutralize my abandonment — the infinite distance between me and you which constitutes each of us as our own “person” in the first place.
I’ve said that this abandonment is irreversible and “incurable.” To avoid it is to avoid ourselves, our historical predicament, and, in general, the crisis of sense itself. This crisis indicates the need to avoid taking any hard-line positions. This doesn’t mean we ought not take a stand; quite the contrary. But we have to take a stand on nothing. We have to find and lose ourselves over the abyss that we, the world, and all existents are. We’ve got to open ourselves to the “otherwise-than-that.” While there’s no way to prove this, or even to tell you precisely what it means, I can testify for it, and I can attest to its power. It is a kind of transformation that transforms (me into) nothing. From here on out, we need testaments, testaments to nothing— not proofs. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes,
There’s not even “atheism”; “atheist” doesn’t cut it! It’s the very principle of “position” that must be avoided. It’s not enough to say that God absents himself, withdraws himself or even that he’s incommensurable. It has even less to do with placing another principle at the throne – Man, Reason, Society. It’s a matter of tackling bodily the fact that the world rests on nothing – and that its most lively sense lies therein.
We began with the idea that we are abandoned, that there are no answers, and we end there again. The world rests on nothing.
In closing: The idea that someone could tell me how to live or change my life should be the object of any real “atheist” attack. Only I can do that — make a change, live my life. The responsibility for the whole ordeal of existence falls squarely on me. But let’s be clear: this doesn’t mean we figure it all out “on our own.” On the contrary, we have to re-think this “own” starting from an original difference, starting from an initial reach outside. I will continue to read Nietzsche, Cioran, Bataille (some of the greatest atheists to have ever lived), and I will learn a great deal from them each time. But in the end, it’s all just a mirror for “myself” — stretched out.
It is impossible to call yourself an atheist if you still believe that herd-behavior or group-think is in any way still valuable. Communal immersion only leads to us-them thinking, which in turn leads only to war. We are abandoned to ourselves in “isolation” and must grapple with this fact. We have to be strong and accept the fact that a response to our testament may never or will never come. And we have to testify nonetheless.
It is impossible to call yourself atheist if you are still looking for assurances or consolations of any sort, whether in this world or in a beyond world. It’s not to be found in enjoyment or philanthropy or even ‘creativity.’ Death, the fact of our finitude, prevents this outright. Nothing assures sense. We have to risk everything, with no guarantee of reward, accomplishment or compensation. We have to give up the very idea of “end.”
And it’s impossible to call yourself atheist if you still believe in a Reason for existence. Whether you find it in science, religion, sex, or culture, it’s all the same clouded illusion. For there is no reason for existence — at any rate, there is no common one. For existence is its own reason, in and of itself, each time. In ex-isting, existence gives itself its reason. The reason for existence is found in the “not” that existence is.
Life itself is infinite stupidity, unreasonable, without purpose or end in sight. Just like the idea of “God,” just like us. Let us learn how to say that it is so.