Simon Critchley, Atheist Religious Thinker on Utopia & the Fiction of Faith

What can an atheist do with theology? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The philosopher Simon Critchley is clear about the fact that, while he doesn’t believe in any gods, neither does he find it necessary to give up on theology. His new book, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology opens with an invocation of Oscar Wilde—a rather doleful lamentation from a letter, published in 1905, that Wilde wrote (perhaps during his last months of imprisonment) to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas: 

When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like 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 of empty wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.

Wilde points to a kind of phantasm; a collective, a confraternity, that doesn’t actually exist. Where Wilde saw nothing, however, Critchley sees something: political association. He sees, in other words, the ritual life of the faithless playing out on its own territories, in its own registers.

The confraternity of the faithless has a complex, underground life of its own, as Critchley presents it; which seems to be both a problem and an opportunity. The Faith of the Faithless wades uneasily into topics like Rousseau’s theory of civil religion, mystical anarchism in 13th and 14th century movements of the Free Spirit, debates about religious violence.

The Faith of the Faithless points to the ways in which religious ideas—theology—are still deeply (if crookedly) embedded in our politics, a convoluted situation for which Critchley has no simple solution. But he does suggest that old theological standbys (faith, hope, love) might still offer the freshest breath of air in our contemporary political situation. Critchley recently spoke with RD about atheism, Christianity, Occupy Wall Street, love, and other fictions of our so-called secular age. 


I’m wondering about the choice to use the term “faithless” in the title. Is the “faithless” tag mostly there for poetic effect? Because, I mean, this book is about faith: about developing a certain kind of faith, or a certain way of looking at faith, or understanding faith. It’s not even a book about atheism, really. 

It’s true. I mean, it’s about faith. But a non-theistic faith, right? So, a faith that’s not underpinned by any metaphysical entity, like God. It’s a faith that exists through its declaration. My previous book, Infinitely Demanding, turns on the question: how can we address the motivational deficit that we have in our ethical and political lives? To put it crudely. And that takes one back, when looking at classical authors, to the question of faith. That there has to be some commitment or faith underpinning an ethical orientation.

One of the things I criticize in the book is what I call “evangelical atheism” (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, all of that). I just find it infinitely dull. And rather pointless. But it has extraordinary traction. One of the things I’ve found, working for the New York Times over the past few years, is how much traction especially Dawkins really has. And for me, his work is just another progressivist, quasi-theological narrative. It’s not the unfolding of God’s plan but the unfolding of an evolutionary form of design. So I’m not a triumphant atheist, and never have been. To disavow religion, or to think of it as nonsense is just a non-starter, from my position. Many of the people I like reading most are religious authors: Pascal, Augustine, Paul. I’m occasionally mystified by the moves they make. But philosophy without religion is a non-starter for me. The debate over whether you believe in a god, or don’t believe in a god, is massively irrelevant to me. There is an experience of faith, which we can try and describe. If that needs to be capped off by some belief in God, okay. But that’s not really what’s important about it, it seems to me.

Would you say something about your theory of religion?

What is religion? Difficult question. But one thing that could be said is to link religion to the Latin religare, a binding together. Religion, as a binding together, can be a binding together in association. It seems to me that religion, in its strongest articulation, makes possible forms of collectivity, commonality. Religion can tell us a lot about association. And there’s something about the religious power of association that fascinates me. I was down in Zuccotti Park a lot last autumn. Not as much as I should have been, but a fair amount. And what you saw there was association. People associating on the basis of kindness, and decency, and those kinds of “low-level” virtues.

Obviously there were religious people involved in the movement, to varying degrees. But in what sense are you understanding the OWS movement as religious? 

The way I see it is that… How would I line this up? Occupy Wall Street was an assemblage of people with very different interests. You had religious people. You had libertarians. You had ultra-leftists. You had people who just did their thing. It was a kind of confraternity of the faithless [laughs]. Or a confraternity of people who felt marginalized by mainstream society and had found one another, in this space. Is it religious? Well, for me, what’s religious about it (which might sound an odd thing to say) is that the tactics employed were overwhelmingly anarchist. And anarchism, as a vision of how human beings can cooperate, is religious in the sense that there’s a faith that human beings—without the intervention of the state, law, police, and bureaucracy—can cooperate consensually in a way that is not based on self-interest. That’s a kind of horizontal congregation. So it doesn’t mean that people in OWS had to have religious views. But the event itself, being gathered there in a certain place, is a kind of congregation. It sounds a bit whimsical doesn’t it?

Well, it sounds like a theory of religion. [Laughs]

It’s a theory of religion. Yeah. And a theory of religion is a theory of community. In the book Saint Paul plays a role because I see Paul as the quintessential reformation figure who is always destroying the idols of whatever authorized religion is at any particular time.

Of course there are several philosophers who’ve been writing about Paul in recent years—Alain Badiou, for instance. To the extent that the shape of a faith, even a faithless faith, would be modeled on the work and ideas of a Christian figure like Saint Paul… would this be asserting a kind of priority for Christianity? Or the Christian tradition?

It’s a good question. I don’t really know the answer. I don’t know enough about, say, Islam to be able answer competently. I know enough about Judaism to say that, well, there are very similar elements, or ways of interpreting Judaism, which would make it very close to how I understand Christianity. But I will say that the ludicrousness of Christianity has always attracted me. The idea of incarnation, and the idea of the most powerful (namely, God) taking on the mantle of the flesh in order to redeem a humanity that’s sinned; as the premise for a religion it always struck me as so improbable, and therefore attractive because it’s so improbable. The folly of the cross that you get in Paul. I do find that compelling. It’s about the powerlessness of God, in a way. That’s what interests me.

So would this be to privilege it? I think the first thing would be to think about the context. And in a context like this—whatever “the West” means, or let’s just say the United States—which sees itself as overwhelmingly Christian, and where that Christianity is so often disfigured, I really think that one imperative is just to remind people of the peculiarity of Christianity. And also the fact that, if it’s about the powerlessness of God, it’s about God putting on the mantle of poverty. So it’s simply inconsistent with Christianity, to believe in rampant capital accumulation.

Cornel West has described you as a “secular philosopher.” Do you agree with him?

Not really. I don’t have a particular confession. And I don’t believe in God. But I have a very strong conception of faith. So, to an extent, this would make me a religious thinker, or someone who’s learned from religious thinkers. But the secular/non-secular issue, I think, just misses the point. There’s a dogmatic secularism that just refuses to understand the persistence and the subtlety of what’s going on with religion. And it gets very angry when it’s challenged. And then you can tell that you’re dealing with a faith. When you challenge a secularist about what is fundamental, they will often get red in the face and will start banging a table. Then you’ve hit some kind of quasi-religious nerve.

So the minimal thing to say is that religion, in all its astonishing diversity, constitutes an archive of possibilities that shouldn’t be jettisoned, but needs to be historically investigated in order to shape different forms of action in the future. There was never some radical break between the sacred and the secular, or the period of belief and disbelief, which is one way of thinking about how the modern world arose. But it’s much more the case that theological concepts found novel forms, new forms of expression in modern politics. The Constitution of the United States is underwritten by an appeal to the divine.

So the Constitution of these United States is one that presupposes theological address. It’s not that modern forms of politics cease to be theological, but there is a kind of transformation of these concepts. We’re not free of the theological trappings that we think are confined to the past—when the king was the representative of God. We’ve sort of transferred that. God the king has become God the people. Theology lives on in politics. The intellectual task, I think, is a history lesson. The discipline of the scholar, if you like, is to recall the history that discussions about politics try to forget.

So there’s that. But I want to make an even stronger claim and say that religion is not just an archive but something that, if we don’t think about it, or if we think that we’re beyond it, we end up falling back into. I think we try fanatically hard to believe that we’re not dogmatists, like those bad dogmatists in the past. But I think we are dogmatists, and we can be dogmatists about the secular. And that’s something that needs to be philosophically unraveled, and picked apart. So I guess I think that the different worldviews are different varieties of religious worldviews. There are varieties of religious experience, and one of those varieties is a secular liberalism that believes itself to be non-religious. But if you push at certain things you can find out where its dogmatism lies.

I wanted to ask you about utopia, and fiction. You talk a lot about each of these in your book: the concept of utopia, and then the concept of a supreme fiction that serves the function of political motivation. What’s the relation between them?

Basically, the claim I make in the first part of Faith of the Faithless is that the political world is a world of fictions, which I see as a completely uncontroversial claim. The realm of politics is a realm of fictions. And we need to see these fictions for the fictions that they are, by examining their history and doing a kind of anthropology of those fictions.

That’s one claim. The question I then ask is: might there be a fiction in which we could still nonetheless believe? That’s what I call a “supreme fiction,” borrowing from Wallace Stevens. His idea is that a supreme work of art would be a supreme fiction: a fiction that we know to be a fiction (because all works of art are fictions) but in which we nonetheless believe. But can we think about that politically? So at the end of my chapter on Rousseau, I float this idea of the supreme fiction, to try and think about politics in poetic terms, if you like. And a supreme fiction would be a kind of utopia, the proposition that we might see what is from the standpoint of something that does not exist and which has not been hitherto acknowledged.

That sounds obscure, I know. But the example of the supreme fiction that I give is that Marx introduced the idea of the proletariat. Now, a proletariat, or an industrial working class existed. But what Marx does in that early work is to claim a political subjectivity for the proletariat. The proletariat would become a vehicle for revolutionary change. But it only existed as a bundle of constituencies, on the ground, in this newly emerging thing called Capitalism.

The proletariat had to emerge as a political force, and that’s what Marx calls communism. He argues that the proletariat will be communist. That’s the argument of The Communist Manifesto. And that’s a supreme fiction. It’s taking something that does not quite exist and, as it were, forcing it into existence through a certain declaration, through a certain act of faith.

So to that extent, politics can be about the deployment of supreme fictions. Utopia, then, would be… Well, there’s another quote from Wilde in the book: “any map of the world that does not include utopia is useless because it fails to include that country at which humanity keeps arriving,” or something like that. So utopia is that thing which is inexistent in the world we inhabit, but which we can imagine as a possibility that can be politically mobilized and articulated. So, to that extent, any politics that’s not simply going to be realpolitik, or cynicism, or pragmatism, has to have some appeal to a utopian dimension. 

Freud, of course, in his book on religion argues that religion is an illusion. He sees a future of doom for this illusion in a scientific world. For him this was a kind of condemnation of religion. It seems that you also see religion as illusory. What’s the relation between religion and fiction?

Well, religions are fictions, right? Beautiful fictions. Supreme fictions. Fictions of the end of the world, the last judgment, the final vocabulary, that whole thing. And so, for me, fiction is not something that needs to be escaped in order to seize hold of objective fact. Fiction is something that needs to be accepted. The question is, then, how might we manipulate the fictionality of political experience, in order to do something else? So there’s a blurring of supreme fiction and utopias. You’re right to point that out.

Utopianism is the faith in looking at the situation of the world from the standpoint of something that does not yet exist. And that which does not yet exist is something that could radically reorganize our experience of the world. So it seems to me that, if we lose that utopian dimension, we just end up with the situation as it is, in front of us. And we speculate on whether it’s going to be Romney, or Obama, or whatever. And that’s depressing. [Laughs]. Does it mean that you actually believe in the concrete existence of the utopia? No. It’s a kind of thought experiment. Some art is utopian in the sense that it’s trying to produce a frame, or a sign, or a scenario that brings something into existence that does not yet exist. So utopia is like that for me. 

Is love a fiction?

Yeah, love’s a fiction. It’s the most extraordinary fiction. What is it to love someone? It’s to base one’s existence on a complete fiction, an illusion that can be shattered in the easiest way, and for which there’s no empirical evidence beyond works and deeds, or whatever. Which is, I think, what makes it so hard for people to love. Because it’s so improbable.

And you have to continue to write the fiction. 

It’s a commitment. A faith, a fidelity to continue with the fiction that you’ve decided is your supreme fiction. I think we’re confused about love, and we don’t even know what the concept means anymore. Love isn’t a contract. Love isn’t an exchange of favors. Love isn’t, you know, “you do this and I’ll do that.” The two formulations that I use in the book are sort of muddled together: to love is to give what one does not have, and receive that over which one has no power.

So in a sense, what you are giving when you are trying to love is something that you can’t give, by definition. And if you receive something back, it’s something that is not in your power. So it’s not a contractual relationship, like a marriage contract. Or the way a marriage contract might appear. To love is to orientate oneself toward something much more radical. But is also implies a giving up of one’s power.

There’s a lovely phrase from George Santayana that Cornel West reminded me of: religion is the love of life, in the consciousness of impotence. And the consciousness of impotence is hugely important. To love is to devote yourself to something that makes you powerless. And the power that you then have, in some sense, comes from an acquiescence of that power. It’s a strange thought. And that’s another reason that theology is interesting. In particular in Christianity, but not only in Christianity, you have a long tradition of people who’ve been wrestling with these questions about love.

It’s completely illusory. But what is real in comparison to that? Illusory as opposed to what? Concrete? Pavement? So love, in this sense, is a fiction, sure, but love would be a supreme fiction. I think it would be precisely that: love would be a supreme fiction that we know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. But in which we still believe. I think it’s a good formula for love.'

Beatrice is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Drew University in Madison, NJ. She also works as a writer, editor, and communications consultant, specializing in ideas at the crowded intersection of theology, philosophy, faith and public/political life in North America.