Is Philosophy Finally Without God?


El Greco, The Penitent Mary Magdalene, 1576–77 (detail)

by Daniel Tutt

Difficult Atheism: Tracing the Death of God in Contemporary Continental Thought,
by Christopher Watkin,
Edinburgh University Press, 224 pp.

Declaring oneself an “atheist” just isn’t what it used to be. Growing numbers of Generation Y prefer to remain agnostic, which is why so many of them go by the “nones“, or state no religious preference. My wife used to work at a large university, and she told me that on standardized tests, many of the students put “human” in the ethnic and racial identity box. A friend of mine once launched a social media campaign to have Jedi recognized as an official religion in the UK. It took off like wild fire and in 2006, Jedis were the fourth largest religion in all of Great Britain. Occupying these undecided identities, “none”, “Jedi” and “human”, makes a lot of sense, and in so doing, one renders no judgment upon the status quo, nor does one negate traditional religious identities for which many of us still have some allegiance to.

The truth is, declaring oneself an atheist is a difficult process, but we’ve lost touch with this difficulty. Kierkegaard notoriously said, “the biggest problem with Christians today is that no one wants to kill them anymore.” What I think he meant by this is that a healthy sense of atheism is good for religion, and lest we forget, Christianity is perhaps the most resilient religion the world has seen. This resiliency is due in part to the fact that Christianity can handle a complicated belief in God and still retain followers. Hegel saw in Christ’s utterance on the cross, “my father, why have you forsaken me?” a splitting in two of the absolute itself: a splitting in two of God. What this split represented was the death of the metaphysical God. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” mostly had to do with an epistemological death of suprasensory truths, a death that ushered in a new type of nihilism.

Most atheists today that are firm in their convictions tend to be held in trance by the so-called “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism”. Despite news that their best-selling whirlwind and larger discourse that arose from it being on the decline, to the point of them now losing their followers, much of atheist identity remains intertwined with Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris. The weapons they use against religion are as tired as they are outdated: Darwinian natural selection and evolution (Richard Dawkins), naturalizing reductions of religion via general science (Daniel Dennett), brash literary humanism (Christopher Hitchens) and quite paradoxically, racist appeals to reason (Sam Harris).

For the “nones” and the atheists, as well as for the religious, I might add, a healthy debate about God is vital to sustaining a larger dialogue about religion, morality and ethics in the public sphere, but we’ve been deprived of such a discourse. This is why it is a perfect time to ask: what is/can/should philosophy contribute to the question of God and atheism? Should it provide proofs of God’s existence/inexistence? Should it seek to create a philosophy that is completely without God? Something like the latter is taking place right now by three of France’s leading philosophers. The respective projects of these thinkers are surveyed in the recent book, Difficult Atheism: Post-theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (2011) by Christopher Watkin.

Watkin’s book makes a major contribution to three seemingly disparate philosophical careers and identifies a common goal across each of their oeuvres, which is a desire to move beyond the religious turn in continental philosophy and enter into a new, “post-theological” thinking. Watkin possesses a deep understanding of all three thinkers and he pulls from them an impressive set of rare unpublished interviews, lectures, discussions and books not yet translated into English. Readers that are intimate with these philosophers will find a rewarding and deeply penetrating read, and readers less familiar with them will walk away challenged and a whole lot smarter.

At one point in the twentieth century, French philosophy, and by extension most philosophy, didn’t have much to say about atheism. We should never forget that following the Second World War, something like a renaissance took place in France. The anti-humanism of Levi Strauss, Foucault and Lacan declared that man had died as an epistemological category, which is perhaps why the question of atheism itself wasn’t of pressing concern at least philosophically. France had historically given birth to many militant atheist movements in the form of Maoism and other socialisms, but none of them had the same sense of defeatism that much of the atheism today brings with it. Existentialism never felt the need to deconstruct religion or disprove God’s existence. Sartre told his followers that “existentialism doesn’t wear itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. It declares even if God exists, it would change nothing.”

Unlike the New Atheists, Watkin and the philosophers he surveys have a healthy respect for the residue of theological thought on our epistemology, our culture and our philosophy. He begins the text by developing two different types of atheism, parasitic and ascetic, and these responses to the death of God situate the entire text. Parasitic atheism brings down everything that God supported: truth, beauty, justice and the good along with it. In this type of atheism, the worst sort of nihilism is born, one of Nietzschean resentment, and in its frustration of being tethered to an impossible finitude, it rejects any possible transcendence. In some ways, the other type of atheism, ascetic atheism, is linked to parasitic atheism in so far as it seeks to move beyond a God-centered cosmology so much that it reinvents a God. This accounts for much of the “religious turn” in recent continental thought, and in French phenomenology, particularly that of Derrida. In this context it is important to make note of Martin Hägglund’s recent attempt to take Derrida back, as it were, from the theological readings of his work in Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (2009).

At the outset of the book, Watkin is clear that Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux all attempt to go beyond atheism but whether they succeed in doing so is an open question. This is why their atheism is difficult, precisely because it has never effectively been done in philosophy, at least without residual atheism still clouding the ideas that underpin metaphysics, morality and ethics. Furthermore, as each thinker is put under study, it is clear that while they may have overlapping philosophical orientations and questions, they should not be seen as working in concert, and Watkin is careful to identify these subtleties and overlaps in their projects.

We learn very soon into the book that atheism is only one response to the death of God, and each thinker with the exception of Badiou, claims that we should move entirely beyond atheism. In what follows, I will situate each thinker’s project in regards to atheism and consider whether their attempts to create what Watkin calls a “post-theological integration” in fact succeeds.

We should begin our journey into the difficult terrain of atheism with a reminder from another great French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, who wrote, “we are always forced to think. Thinking is like a shove in our back. Thought is neither pleasant nor desired. It is a violence done to us.”

Badiou: Hidden Theologian or Atheist of Pure Multiplicity?

Badiou is the most ambiguous of the post-theological integrationists, and perhaps the most complex. Badiou reads the death of God as an inability to think God as a prior One. The God of the metaphysical One is not possible, not merely absent, but no longer possible because a world in which God exists is a world that prevents true change from taking place. He arrives at this position of God’s impossibility through set theory and the concept of a “pure multiplicity”. Ontology, for Badiou is reduced to mathematics. It is purely predictable and being qua being can be measured according to mathematical set theory. We can understand Badiou’s project since his magnum opus, Being and Event (2005 in English) as one that involves the question of what truly constitutes a change to being qua being in a world? He names authentic change as an event, and locates it as a truth that remains inaccessible to the world prior to its emergence, and thus truth is retroactively a pure multiplicity.

Badiou’s system of philosophy is remarkable because unlike thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Lacan and Lyotard, he has developed a system of thought where nothing is made inaccessible, which is why God must be abandoned. Where these thinkers went wrong for Badiou is in their insistence on inaccessibility, which is why he lumps them into the category of “romantic” philosophers. The Lacanian idea of the “unsymbolizable real,” the Lyotardian “phrase,” and the Wittgensteins of the Tractatus, “whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must be silent” all relied on this almost mystical outside impossibility of thought to ground their philosophies. For Badiou, “philosophy must include, both in its conception and in its proposition, the conviction that true life can be experienced in immanence. Something must signal it from inside itself, not simply as an exterior imperative, like with Kant”(52). Watkin is careful to point out that Badiou’s entire axiomatic approach is historically from within the situation of being in modernity, and that his major achievement for thinking atheism is that he separates the infinite from the One, and makes the infinite primary. This privileging of infinity is meant to leave behind the tyranny of the sacred finite, which had plagued philosophy since Heidegger.

Badiou is frequently accused of being a secret theologian, and Watkin brings these accusations into sharper focus, mostly debunking them. One of the most theologically heavy of terms in Badiou’s philosophy is “grace,” which he uses to describe a subject’s attachment to an event. Two other philosophers, Jacques Ranciere and the American deconstructionist philosopher-theologian John Caputo claim that Badiou’s notion of grace is parasitic of Christianity. Caputo detects a messianism in Badiou’s idea of grace, a sort of patient waiting for the event, and it is through this waiting, as if waiting for the messiah, desire is born. But Watkin points out that Badiou’s use of grace does not render it to theological categories, because an event is a moment of grace that is incalculable and as such, a new universal subset emerges (99).

As important background, Badiou develops his entire idea of truths and universality in part from the Christian tradition and what he calls the “anti-philosophy” of St. Paul. One of Badiou’s disciples and translators, Bruno Bosteels argues that through his reading of St. Paul, Badiou develops a theory of the event that is totally ahistorical and arises as an earth shattering event. Important for the question of atheism, an event is always a procedure, a choice and an operation where subjects who name it and remain in fidelity to it nominate a truth. Watkin rightly sees in Badiou’s philosophy of the event a choice that is axiomatically situated within modernity, and one that is always immanent to the world in which it is occurring. In such a world, there is no possible relation to God, but having faith in the event might very well serve to replace faith in God:

To be prepared for an event means to be in a subjective disposition of recognizing the new possibility. Since the event is of necessity unforeseeable as it is not in the law of dominant possibilities, to prepare for the event is to be disposed to welcome it (252).

Watkin correctly shows that Badiou harbors no secret theological desire in his philosophy and that he very well may have succeeded in overcoming atheism, but whether Badiou still occupies the place of the religious believer non-parasitically, is another question entirely.

Jean Luc-Nancy’s “Singular-Plural” Atheology

Jean-Luc Nancy’s atheism is deeply tied to his larger project of thinking through an “ontological communism”. Nancy reads our contemporary world as one that is in utter moral disarray, which is caused from our inability to think values and free choice together. The world is what he calls an “ethos” that configures itself without any relation to a given principle or fixed end. It is atheism that provides the only dignity possible in such a world. Atheism, he claims, must start by performing a parasitic excavation of metaphysics, which is divided by ontology, so what remains after metaphysics is what he calls “ethics”. Thus, most of Nancy’s thinking on atheism is an innovative thinking on ethics, which is what occupies the void left by the death of metaphysics. As a perspicacious reader of Heidegger, Nancy’s philosophy attempts to rethink being away from first philosophy.

Unlike Badiou and Meillassoux, Nancy’s ethics is grounded in a demand from an Other, what he calls “l’adoration“. This demand serves as the fundamental origin of all ethics and alterity, but it is different than Lévinas’ proto-theological absolute alterity. Ethics in this vein is a behavior that is on the same place as ontology, and it starts with a free decision to receive oneself. Ethics is a moment that occurs when one holds oneself as a decision, whereby the law recedes, leaving being opened by freedom, and the subject arrives at “singular-plural being”.

In the last two chapters of the book, Watkin brings to light the decades-long and highly nuanced debates on ethics, justice and politics between Badiou and Nancy. By translating rare primary sources, Watkin provides an excellent service not only to the field of post-theology, but also to politics and ethics. In fact, by the end of the book, we have come to discover the primary motivation for all three thinkers grappling with atheism is built around rethinking the good and justice, and not with atheism or getting rid of God outright.

The debate on justice between Badiou and Nancy is fascinating and Watkin does an excellent job deconstructing it. In general, it has to do with equality and the conditions for the emergence of communism. The key difference between their ontologies is that in Badiou’s, fidelity to the event is not faithful to any ontological condition but precisely to that which inexists within a situation, whereas Nancy’s is built around a sense of recognition of our universal ontological condition. Watkin concludes that Nancy’s conception of justice, unlike Badiou’s “subtractive method” (that does not rely on ontology) is neither parasitically theo-political nor atomistically atheistic. In Nancy’s moment of adoration, which is similar to the Heideggerian call, what is demanded of the subject is an effective equality, which is the source of all fraternity and equality (26). Badiou’s ethics, on the other hand, is one of hypothesis and decision. Ethics, for Badiou still grapples with the Lacanian real and it consists of courage and persistence to the universality of a truth. Many Badiouian inspired thinkers have criticized Nancy’s communism for not being able to effectively confront the real and thus unable to promote radical political change by remaining within ontology.

Where both Badiou and Nancy do align is around the primary obstacle to justice being capitalism. For Nancy, his justice is around overcoming capitalism. He defines capitalism as “any society that takes the decision that value is in equivalence” (45). Capitalism, for Nancy, is made the only universal, but it is like a Hegelian bad infinity that merely perpetuates indifference, rather than the true infinite which inscribes affirmative difference. In this context, “atheism is powerless to resist capitalism” because it makes us dwell in the incommon which is a result of capitalism (14).

Nancy’s philosophy is one that searches for a new infinity of sense and ultimately it is in atheism and in what he calls “anarchic democracy” that can adequately pose a challenge to capital’s subsumption of sense and being. Of all three thinkers, Nancy’s philosophy goes the farthest in thinking the subject after politics, a post-justice politics. Surprisingly, Nancy gives this “sense beyond justice” the name God.

Meillassoux and the Limits of Ascetic Atheism

Quentin Meillassoux is perhaps the most constructive atheist philosopher writing today. Readers who are religious very well could find in his vision a definite optimism for theology and an unlikely ally. The question of atheism and nihilism filled Meillaisoux’s brilliant unpublished dissertation L’inexistence divine (which has not yet been translated into English), which Watkin uses as a primary source in the book. Meillassoux, unlike our other thinkers, is interested in showing why God does not exist but he claims that this is the wrong question, because to remain in this position it leads to anger and a sense of defeatism. So he does something radical: he claims that one should believe in God precisely because he does not exist.

What does this even mean? His first targets are the enlightenment philosophers (Kant, Leibniz and Pascal) who sought to grasp the existence of God based on natural laws, and he claims that they failed because they relied solely on God as the necessary being of their philosophical systems. In other words, their philosophical systems were theo-centric and if one were to remove God from them, their entire philosophy would come crashing down. To fully appreciate where he is coming from, it would be essential to read his ground-breaking text, After Finitude (2010). In it, Meillassoux develops a theory that there is an absolute contingency in things themselves, and the only necessity is contingency itself. He begins with a fairly naïve question: “how is thought able to think what there can be when there is no thought?” What he shows is that it is not the correlation we make with a fact of knowledge that makes it so, but it is the facticity of the correlation that constitutes the absolute of that thing. Thought experiences its knowledge through this “facticity,” and in knowing that we only know contingent facts, we know that it is necessary that there only be contingent facts.

In our world of radical contingency, thing themselves are guided not by reason, but by unreason, and it is precisely our ignorance of the reason of things that becomes the truth about things because. Laws, facts of the material universe, science are merely facts, and facts are contingent – they can change without reason. The same can be said of God. But in our world there is no compelling or valid proof of God’s existence that is not based on God not being a necessary being to that system of thought, whether that system be founded in reason or in un-reason.

Where Meillassoux is at his most exciting is around his thinking of post-secular conceptions of justice. Like Badiou, Meillassoux has a theory of the event that is, unlike Badiou’s axiomatic approach, based in sense and intuition. Humanity, he argues, will experience two “jolts”, with the first consisting of the human breaking into sense reality. This initial jolt is what gives rational intelligence to life and allows the person to see the eternal. The second jolt is when the individual breaks through his disgust with humanity and arrives at an active desire for immanent universality. It is here where the fourth unknown world of justice and what he calls the “Son of Man” are born. Our current religious thinking is limited because it desires a wholly Other that is “indifferent to our thirst for justice” whereas the Son of Man provides the model to go beyond this inadequacy in our theological thinking because of its immanence and relation to justice for humans, animals, and for the dead.

For Meillassoux, God is capable of being born as a pure contingency, not as any transcendence. Such a God that is possible would possesses four qualities:

1. It knows the universal and is thus able to identify the good;
2. It possesses knowledge of the singular becoming of the living and the dead – and thus it knows absolute contingency;
3. It possesses the power once and for all to abolish its own omniscience and omnipotence;
4. God divests itself of these powers once and for all, thereby submitting the power of contingency that it has received to the will to become a man among men, equal to all others (209).

Thus, we have in perhaps the most radical post-theological asceticism ever performed: a rebirth of Christianity.

Watkin is appreciative of Meillassoux’s originality, but he points out many holes in thought, particularly as it relates to universal justice. Watkin asks some very pertinent questions: in Meillassoux’s world, would everyone want to have immortality, and if so, why? If everything is contingent, then why is my desire for justice not contingent? Added to Watkin’s critiques, it is also true that Meillassoux seems overly reliant on the human animal, and he has no anthropology of the jolt as Badiou does of the event. Furthermore, nothing seems to come after the jolt like we have in Badiou’s idea of the traces of the event.

Can a Post-theological Integration Think Universal Justice?

In conclusion, Watkin raises the most important post-theological integrationist question: can universal justice come prior to the abolition of capitalism? For Nancy and Badiou the answer is no, and thus their projects commence as they do. For Meillassoux, the abolition of capitalism is not required and his vision is founded through desire and sense. Universal justice is founded when humanity is worthy of the child of man, and the child of man becomes the paradigm of all relations to others. While Meillassoux’s vision might be the most all-encompassing of the three, in that it applies to all including the dead, ultimately it is not well proven and it relies on desire to come about. For Badiou, justice must not be defined because to do so makes it a part of the regime of representation (of capital) and not a part of presentation (the event). Justice is after all, a judgment on the collective being – or the subject, and ultimately, it is what we declare as part of the event as what is. Nancy’s conception of universal justice is the least conditional in that it does not require the subject to be present, but his logic of the demand is circular, and not tied to any idea of goodness.

Watkin problematizes the moments of decision we find in each of the thinkers, and refers to these moments; “event,” “jolt” and “adoration” as unaccountable moments meant to determine goodness, but they are ungrounded in post-theological terms. Why is inconsistent multiplicity good? Why obey the demand of a singular plural being? Why is our current contingent understanding of justice good? In addition to these open questions, we are also left with the question as to whether the entire project of post-theological integration has adequately moved beyond both parasitism and asceticism to a post-theological integration that “cuts the theological root of parasitism without renouncing its fruit” (239). The good news is that Nancy, Badiou and Meillassoux are still thinking, still writing and still making philosophy’s relation to atheism a little more difficult, just as it should be.

Essay updated February 1, 2013

About the Author

Daniel Tutt is currently a third year (ABD) PhD candidate in continental philosophy, psychoanalysis and media studies at the European Graduate School.