Post-Atheism and Deconstruction: Postsecular Atheisms, Part 2


by Donovan Schaefer

Gary Gutting: So the distinction that saves you from contradiction is this: Beliefs contain faith in the sense that, in the world, beliefs are where we find faith concretely expressed; but any given faith can be expressed by quite different beliefs in quite different historical contexts. In this sense, the faith is not contained by the beliefs. That makes sense.

Presumably, then, deconstructive theology is the effort to isolate this “common core” of faith that’s found in different historical periods — or maybe even the differing beliefs of different contemporary churches.

John Caputo: No!

Philosopher of religion John Caputo was recently interviewed for the New York Times’s “The Stone” blog, in a series dedicated to drawing out philosophical perspectives on atheism. The interview focused on Caputo’s interpretation of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and especially Derrida’s approach to religion. (This post focuses on the implications of Caputo’s interview for post-atheism; for reflections on its significance for the study of religion, see these “Religion Snapshots” posts.)

Where the interviewer, Gary Gutting, prompted Caputo to recognize deconstruction as an atheist philosophy, Caputo countered that it could not be clearly located within the categories of theist, atheist, or agnostic. For Caputo, deconstruction, by virtue of being suspicious of categorical distinctions, refuses the easy overconfidence of the theist/atheist/agnostic divide. Caputo pointed out that Derrida’s own self-description always held atheism at a distance, whether in his line “I quite rightly pass for an atheist” in Circumfession to his assertion elsewhere that it would be “ridiculous” to term him an atheist. (This is similar to the position maintained by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.) For Derrida, the term “atheism” represented too much confidence in our ability to rationally organize ourselves and our relationship with the world.

I want to draw out three features of this conversation in their implications for charting post-atheism. First, there is a focus, in Caputo’s interview, on affects and passions, rather than on propositionally organized belief. This is why Caputo returns so often to the vocabulary of faith as passion. He suggests that we reframe religion as “an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.” Post-atheism can build on this reframing of religion as passion by rethinking disbelief, too, along the same lines. But a more fully developed post-atheism will need a stronger, better-developed account of this. Are disbelief and belief the same passion in different masks, or are they also being driven by different passions?

Second, there is a suspicion toward the claim that belief is paramount in religion. Even where belief seems to be elevated, deconstruction, by veering away from language as the template for experience, suggests that there is “something deeper” to the inherited religious traditions than belief. Deconstruction looks at the confessing body, the body saying “I believe…” and maps out the forces overlapping with that moment of speech: the affects, the histories, and the frames of identity. As Michael Norton has suggested, ” it’s often more fruitful to take belief (especially in the form of creedal confession) as a special instance of practice.” (This goes along with New Materialist approaches that insist on taking cognition and language as material forces, rather than a disembodied, ethereal nonsubstance.) The vital corollary for post-atheism, influenced by deconstruction, is to ask: what contaminates the linguistic moment when a nonbeliever confesses? What other forces run behind and through assertions beginning, “I don’t believe…”?

Finally, the discrepancy between Caputo and Gutting’s starting-points on the nature of religion–is it best understood as belief, or something else?–plays into a larger debate between analytic (Anglo-American) and poststructural (postmodern or Continental) philosophy. Where analytic philosophy continues to operate under the assumptions that language can be developed into an extremely precise tool and that the primary output of philosophy is linguistic precision, deconstruction thematizes and hovers around the limitations of language. As it stands, the analytic perspective, that wants to flatten all religions to a checklist of propositional beliefs, is dominant in the American context.  Post-atheism must advance, in part, by rolling back this superficial, common sense understanding of the substance of religion.

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