A new kind of atheist (cont.)

In continuation of a previous (and popular) post that praised Žižek for his his superb handling of theism and philosophy I would like to reproduce a lengthy passage in The Parallax View that describes, accurately in my estimation, the challenge of being an atheist in light of contemporary critical thought. The first is a quote of a quote:

Someone asked Herr Keuner if there is a God. Herr Keuner said: I advise you to think about how your behavior would change with regard to the answer to this question. If it would not change, then we can drop the question. If it would change, then I can help you at least insofar as I can tell you: You already decided: You need a God (Bertolt Brecht, Prosa 3, p. 18, quoted in Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, p. 97)

I think Brecht’s point is fairly straightforward: belief has no otherworldly dimension (even if it includes belief in the afterlife) but only has practical implications in this world. Žižek seems to think the same.

Brecht is right here: we are never in a position to choose directly between theism and atheism, since the choice as such is located within the field of belief. “Atheism” (in the sense of deciding not to believe in God) is a miserable pathetic stance of those who long for God but cannot find him (or who “rebel against God”…). A true atheist does not choose atheism: for him, the question itself is irrelevant….So what if the forthcoming ideological battle will be not religion versus science (or hedonism, or any other form of atheist materialism) but, cutting diagonally across this divide, the struggle against a new form of “evil” Gnostic spirituality whose forms are already discernible today in the “proto-Fascist” tendencies of Jungian psychology, some versions of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, and so on? (p. 97)

What Žižek means by saying atheism and theism are “located within the field of belief” is that transcendence is internal to immanence. Radical Orthodoxy makes some interesting headways by saying something like this in their panentheism, but Žižek is saying something else here. He means to say that the otherworldly and the supernatual are ultimately irrelevant even for believers because there only implications are this worldly and natural. For example, believing in God is not actually going to get you into heaven but it very likely might make you unproductive and ignorant in your daily life. Furthermore, pseudo-atheism is merely reactionary to theism and an indefensible position for being so. From an experiential perspective I would say that most crackpot-atheists become vituperative and defensive whenever God is brought up, whereas for the true atheist who is confident in the irrelevance of God this sort of extra-natural content is existentially benign to him- or herself.

So where does theology go from here? I think Ricouer’s insight, speaking on a separate but similar subject, can be applied to this situation in a healthy manner.

I must rather leave it where it is, in a place where it remains alone and perhaps out of reach, inaccessible to any form of repetition. It maintains itself in this place as my most formidable adversary, as the measure of radicality against which I must measure myself. Whatever I think and whatever I believe must be worthy of it (Conflict of Interpretations, p. 453)

I think that if theism is to survive it must pass through Žižek’s atheism. When it comes to atheism, Žižek is a respectable voice and any belief worthy of its name is going to need to go beyond his unavoidable postreligious critique. But surprisingly, what Žižek really hammers is not conservative theists or even the luke-warm-pseudo-atheists but the “proto-fascist” spiritualities that hijack the thoughtful consciousness of others. Maybe when I figure out why this is his target of choice I will add more.


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