Fellow Travelers?

Four Atheists Who Don’t Hate Religion

Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood (1952), tries to found a new church, one without Christ. It will, he says, be a church “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way,” a church “the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption,” but a church nonetheless, with preaching and rites and congregations and all the usual paraphernalia. It’s there to do what the church of Christ does, but without the name of Jesus.

Half a century earlier, toward the end of his incarceration in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde wrote of his desire to found “an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine.” The members of Wilde’s confraternity would not believe in the creeds and dogmas of the church, and most emphatically not in Jesus; but they would believe that “everything to be true must become a religion.” The confraternity’s members would be bound by faith, but not faith in Jesus.

Motes and Wilde imagined or hoped, in their very different ways, that the church’s gifts might be received without cross, creeds, or sacraments—without, that is, knowing and acknowledging the name that informs those gifts. They recognized that the church does indeed offer gifts—faith, perhaps, or meaning—and they wanted to redescribe and reconfigure the church so that these gifts might be had anyway, sine nomine.

That hope has not died. It is very evidently present in some recent publications by post- and anti-Christian intellectuals; and it has post- and anti-Jewish forms, too, where it can involve hope for what bar and bat mitzvahs and high holy day observances can do without the Lord, the bearer of the nameless name—or hope for what a love of texts can do without love of Torah and Talmud. Whether Jewish or Christian, those who advocate a church without God share a common conviction, which is that some of what the church offers is needed by those who are not in it, and that there may be a way to get what’s needed without paying the price of entry.

Apologists for the Church without Christ adopt a very different tone from that of, say, Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, who want to scorch and salt the earth wherever the church has been. Nonbelievers such as Alain de Botton, Jürgen Habermas, André Comte-Sponville, and Simon Critchley, while not without some contempt for Christians, are gentler. They want to save what they think can be saved, and so they are looking for good things as well as bad. Some of what they write is nostalgic and resigned; some of it is hopeful. All of it is informed by a sense that something important is being lost, something without which a rich and meaningful life cannot be lived.

A first example. In 2007, Jürgen Habermas, one of Germany’s most eminent philosophers and public intellectuals, gave a talk at the Jesuit School of Philosophy in Munich. Its title was An Awareness of What Is Missing: On Faith and Knowledge and the Defeatism of Modern Reason (Polity, $14.95, 96 pp.). The talk begins with Habermas’s memories of a 1991 memorial service in Zürich for Max Frisch, a Swiss playwright and novelist. Though held in a church, it was a memorial service without prayer, priest, or blessing. (Frisch had been an agnostic.) Habermas says that at the time the event did not strike him as odd. But fifteen years later it did. Frisch’s desire to have his memorial service in a church, even though he did not practice Christianity, was, Habermas now thinks, a public declaration that “the enlightened modern age has failed to find a suitable replacement for a religious way of coping with the final rite de passage which brings life to a close.”

Habermas also expresses concern about the defeatism lurking within the patterns of public reason available in a modern secular-liberal state. Those patterns cannot, by definition, deploy the divine name, whether that of Jesus or YHWH or Allah. Neither can they appeal to any broadly metaphysical understanding of what it means to be human. The secular-liberal state came into being precisely with the ambition to constitute sovereignty and ground political action without appeal to metaphysics. What the secular-liberal state can appeal to is public reason, and Habermas is among its apostles; but even he thinks that public practical reason (reasoning collectively about what to do next, especially in times of trial) “no longer has sufficient strength to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.”

To put it more bluntly, the secular self-understanding of the liberal state can no longer motivate its citizens to act self-sacrificially in the service of justice. Its failure to find a way to mark death is mirrored by its failure to make passionate collective action a real possibility. Such action, to be possible, requires a shared sense that what we do next—in deciding, for example, whom to kill and whom to spare in war—is a matter of infinite importance, something performed before the face of God. The thin, adversarial legal and political systems of liberalism, combined with the reshaping of appetite by the imperative to consume characteristic of late-capitalist economies, undermine this. They replace the demand of conscience with the calculation of benefit. Capital abrades not only the nuance from culture but also much of its depth and demand. That’s why we have so much difficulty investing what we do together with passion. Habermas has come to see all this. He has come to see that Max Frisch’s response to his own death—the church memorial service without the church—is incoherent and therefore incapable of bearing the burden it’s intended to bear. Habermas has no prescription to offer; his talk is sadly diagnostic rather than prescriptive. But it is interesting to observe that one of the major defenders of secular public reason has, in his old age, come to doubt that it’s sufficient.

Habermas’s concern for what is missing is mostly political, and this is also true of Simon Critchley in his recent book The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (Verso, $24.95, 291 pp.). Critchley, an English philosopher now teaching at the New School in New York, is concerned with how best to think about the relation between politics and religion. For Critchley, who is certainly no Christian, religion and politics cannot be separated, which means they never really have been. His book’s first major engagement is with Rousseau, whose understanding of sovereignty and law was purely immanent: The people are sovereign, and the law is given by their act—by what they do and think. The sovereign state and its laws are, therefore, self-constituted and self-authorized. But is it possible for self-authorized laws to have the authority they need to have? Rousseau thinks it is, but only if the laws are given theological justification—by appeal, perhaps, to a beneficent deity and an afterlife. Critchley agrees: only some kind of theological justification can provide “a motivational set of moral intuitions that will affectively bind together a polity and ensure that its citizens will take an active interest in the process of collective legislation that constitutes a self-determining political life.”

Critchley’s worry here is at bottom the same as Habermas’s: they both think that an atheological polity cannot be for its citizens what a polity must be. It cannot form loves of a properly political kind. Attempts to remove theology from the justification of sovereignty last about as long as Augustine’s vision of the Lord at Ostia—as long as a lightning-flash.

For Critchley, then, the state needs theology, and all polities in fact have it, whether or not they acknowledge it. Furthermore, all theology is directly or indirectly political. The phrase “political theology” indicates a necessary unity: there’s no theology without politics, and no politics without theology. But Critchley thinks that the theology the state needs is a fiction—and that citizens will know it is a fiction even as they believe in it and act upon it. Such a theology will be the basis for a faith that can respond to political disappointment, and the political disappointment of our time is about the unrealizable ambitions of the atheological state. Critchley explores what he means by faith through an engagement with St. Paul and with contemporary European political theorists who have shown an interest in St. Paul—Jacob Taubes, Giorgio Agamben, and Alain Badiou. Critchley finds these thinkers excessively dualistic in their readings of Paul. He argues instead for a version of Paul that, though radical in its proclamation of the unrestricted demand of faith, understands politics to occur in the space between that infinite demand and the finite local demands of history. The point, for Critchley, is that without faith—understood as the infinite demand—political action proves impossible.

The faith Critchley has in mind is of course not the faith of the church, which he considers to be mere acceptance of what is delivered by authority. He thinks his theological interlocutors (Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Marguerite Porete) are asking the right questions—about human subjectivity, the nature of love, and the possibility of political engagement as an act of love—and he agrees that atheological rationality isn’t enough to answer these questions. But he will not bow to the name his interlocutors provide as the answer, the name of God. What he wants is a godless religion. He is perfectly clear about this. His religion is exactly what Wilde and Motes imagined and thought they wanted.

Critchley is among the church-without-Christ’s most sophisticated and intellectually interesting apologists. On that score, his work can be placed alongside Mark Johnston’s volumes, Saving God and Surviving Death (see “Eternal Life for Atheists,” October 8, 2010). Not so the work of André Comte-Sponville, who takes us from the depths to the shallows—into the realm of high-gloss self-help for intellectually lazy post-Christians and post-Jews.

Comte-Sponville is a French philosopher of some distinction, born in 1952 and professor at the Sorbonne until 2003, when he resigned his position to write and speak full-time as what we would call a public intellectual. His best-known book in English is probably A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues (published in English in 2001). The work under discussion here, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (Viking, $19.95, 212 pp.), appeared in the United States in 2007.

This book asks and answers three questions. The first is: Can we do without religion? Comte-Sponville’s answer: Not if trying to do without it leads to a loss of love, a loss of communion, or a loss of fidelity; but yes if doing without it means that those things can be maintained or deepened. For Comte-Sponville, “communion” means, at the social and political level, being prepared to die for one’s fellow citizens. He thinks this can be arranged without appeal to God, and therefore without religion. What about fidelity? This, he thinks, requires only a deep and nuanced sense of what it is to be human, located in a particular society and with a particular history—all of which is possible without religion. As for love...well, what Comte-Sponville has to say about that isn’t far from what you can find on any Hallmark card, and so it’s not surprising that religion is unnecessary for that too. It’s striking that the question of whether a social and political order can coherently answer the question of sovereignty, flourish, or even maintain itself without religion—a question deeply impressive to Habermas and Critchley—is treated so breezily by Comte-Sponville.

The second question is: Does God exist? Comte-Sponville thinks not, but the God in whose existence he doesn’t believe is William Blake’s Old Nobodaddy, not the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Jesus. Were Comte-Sponville’s God to exist, he would be just one more being in the world, not logically distinct from Zeus or Superman. What Comte-Sponville has to say about this brings him close to writers like Dawkins. In fact, he is even less thoughtful and knowledgeable about the question of God than they are.

Comte-Sponville’s third question is: Can there be an atheist spirituality? His answer: Yes—if by spirituality we mean a variety of experiences that appear to provide “a seemingly infinite happiness...a seemingly eternal sense of peace...a sense of joy with no subject nor object”—and so on, in a farrago of Zen, Nietzsche, Spinoza, and assorted poets. Comte-Sponville is certainly an apologist for the Church without Christ, but the church he offers is etiolated, airy, and aestheticized. His atheist spirituality is the ecstasy of the French middle classes with intellectual pretensions. Could a church of this sort sustain martyrs? Could it frame and order a polity whose citizens are ascetics in the service of the common good? No. It is an artifact of self-indulgence.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (Pantheon, $26.95, 320 pp.) is in every respect a better book than Comte-Sponville’s. De Botton is Swiss but was educated mostly in England and lives in London. He has written, always entertainingly, on a wide variety of topics including philosophy, architecture, work, and travel.

De Botton says Religion for Atheists was motivated by the thought that religions are much too important to be left to their adherents. That’s not because any of them could be true—he disposes of that thought at the very beginning of his book. No, it’s because some of what particular religions advocate and perform is beautiful, useful, and interesting. What de Botton advocates is a “selective reverence” for particular religious practices. The two principal needs that religions meet are our “need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses,” and “the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain.” Recall Habermas’s account of Frisch’s secular church funeral and his judgment that a religionless society cannot keep us awake enough to respond passionately to crimes against humanity. Recall Critchley’s claim that politics and theology are in fact inseparable. We are in the same territory here, though de Botton’s tone is light and ironic, whereas Habermas’s is apocalyptically serious and Critchley’s dazzlingly learned.

De Botton, a secular Jew, is not exactly an advocate of the Church without Christ. But neither is he quite seeking the people of Israel without YHWH. He thinks, rather, that there are commonalities of practice across particular religious boundaries and that we must learn what only religious practice can teach. He has fascinating things to say about what the celebration of the Mass can teach about community, and about what Jewish celebrations of the Day of Atonement can teach about apology and penitence. De Botton argues that we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water. We know—de Botton knows—that there is no God, that Abraham was not called by YHWH, and that the Catholic Church is not guided by the third person of the Most Holy Trinity. But he wants us—people like him who know the truth about the bath water—to treat what Jews and Catholics do with reverence and attentiveness. When we fail to do so, we are impoverished: we don’t know how to be citizens, we don’t know how to understand and respond to the agonies and deprivations of our lives, we don’t know how to learn and how to retain what we have learned (perhaps the best chapter in the book is on education), we don’t know how to love those we don’t like very much or, even more difficult, how to accept love from others. Nor do we know how to think about the pressing evidence of our own failures, depravities, and inadequacies. Religions are good at all these things, and we need to learn what they can teach.

Close to the end of de Botton’s book comes a half-endorsement of Auguste Comte’s religion of humanity, together with its slogan: Connais-toi pour t’améliorer (“know yourself in order to improve yourself”). De Botton is aware of some of the difficulties of Comte’s project, including Comte’s own personality and rhetoric. But de Botton endorses the essentials of this project, which is yet another version of what Hazel Motes and Oscar Wilde wanted.

What’s a Catholic to say about all this?

First, that those who reject what the church teaches and do not do what it prescribes can nonetheless learn from it. Among the books reviewed here, de Botton’s is the best guide to this, but even Comte-Sponville sees that something about hope and fidelity can be learned from Christianity.

Second, scorched-earth secularism is politically incoherent and unsatisfying. No one puts up with it for long: we always sacralize something. Critchley is clearest on this point, though Habermas puts it most plangently.

Third, those who believe what the church teaches can learn from principled and perceptive pagans about what we do. Here, again, de Botton is good: Catholics can learn from him about the purposes and effects of much that we do.

Fourth, Critchley and de Botton both overlook an important paradox: doing the things that Catholics and Jews and Buddhists do, not because of what Catholics and Jews and Buddhists believe about them but rather for self-improvement, comes close to guaranteeing the failure of such action. If you pray because you’ve read studies that suggest it’s good for your metabolism, then it won’t be good for your metabolism. If prayer does have effects on your metabolism, they depend on not praying with such effects in mind.

Fifth, the Church without Christ is a church without the name. De Botton’s nuanced religion of humanity is a church without the name; so is Critchley’s mystical quasi-anarchism. When your beloved is before you but you can’t see her face and don’t know her name because you’re seeing another face and calling her by another name, then what you see is a figment and what you call her a fiction. She won’t respond. The figment is fascinating but mute. She is to your actual beloved as a hologram is to a living human body. The Church with Christ acts upon its acolytes because he is there. The Church without Christ cannot act in that way. It can fascinate, perhaps even instruct, but it can’t give you the gift of being loved. And that, finally, is what you want.

The sense of something missing that forms all these books is accurate as far as it goes. Those who do not know Christ and the church do indeed lack something. The existence of such books is evidence of disappointment and grief among some members of our intellectual classes, and of longing for something better. The Church without Christ is better than no church at all, but it is a poor substitute for the church of Christ.

Published in the 2012-10-26 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

Also by this author
No, Thank Him

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books