Žižek, Atheism in Christianity

Another area in which we find a great deal of overlap between Žižek and Bloch is, of course, in their relationship to religion. We find in this new book on Hegel a compelling readiness to deal with the non-existence of God, in fact his less-than-nothing-ness. His nonexistence is a precondition for taking him seriously. In Žižek this exists as a disavowal of religion as such but an acceptance of the power of religion as a motivating force. Bloch too takes this power seriously and there are many places in chapter 2 of the Hegel book where almost the same language is used to describe questions of faith, belief, and religion. For example, in chapter 2 Žižek states that:

Žižek: ‘It is thus only in post-religious “atheist” radical-emancipatory collectives that we find the proper actualization of the Idea of the Christian collective—the necessary consequence of the “atheistic” nature of Christianity itself.’

Bloch: ‘the concept of the withering away of the state is an expressly Christian idea in which loving thy neighbour is only possible once social antagonism has been removed.’

Žižek: ‘My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers.’

Bloch: “only a Christian can be a good atheist and only an atheist can be a good Christian” Atheism in Christianity http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Christianity-Religion-Exodus-Kingdom/dp/1844673944 (In fact Žižek gave one of his lectures in New York precisely this title and theme – and yet nowhere in this book, nor in a lecture, is Bloch mentioned at all, which seems at least a strange oversight.)

What leads both of them to this position, however, is not a simple adoption of Pascal’s Wager; that it is best to at least keep the possibility that God exists open as a sort of cosmic insurance policy, but an understanding of the dialectic between contingency and necessity once again. As Žižek points out, Pascal’s Wager is not about belief at all but about action is therefore a highly pragmatic way of approaching the question of the existence of God. As he puts it: “one cannot decide to believe, one can only decide to act as if one believes, in the hope that belief will arise by itself; perhaps this trust that if you act as if you believe, belief will arise, is itself the wager.”

The reason both Žižek and Bloch produce for the need of atheists to have a belief in the face is that the insight into the awful truth of existence, both cosmic and individual, is of course that it is without purpose and point. Both it’s contingent nature as well as the nature of contingency forces us to create a universal message about our existence in a universe which has no message. This Nietzschean recognition of what Ray Brassier calls Nihil Unbound is, consciously or unconsciously, at the root of all questioning about the nature of existence. This is again what I have termed the Metaphysics of Contingency.

And so Žižek asks: “Is it true, then, that what I offer is a form of belief deprived of its structure, which effectively amounts to a disavowed belief? My counter-argument here is double. First, I conceive my position not as being somewhere in between atheism and religious belief, but as the only true radical atheism, that is, an atheism which draws all the consequences from the inexistence of the big Other. Therein resides the lesson of Christianity: as we have seen, it is not only that we do not believe in God, but that God himself does not believe in himself, so that he also cannot survive as the non-substantial symbolic order, the virtual big Other who continues to believe in our stead, on our behalf. Second, only a belief which survives such a disappearance of the big Other is belief at its most radical, a wager more crazy than Pascal’s: Pascal’s wager remains epistemological, concerning only our attitude towards God, that is, we have to assume that God exists, the wager does not concern God himself; for radical atheism, by contrast, the wager is ontological—the atheist subject engages itself in a (political, artistic, etc.) project, “believes” in it, without any guarantee. My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers.”

Atheists are true believers in the sense that they have to believe in the ability of human beings to make sense of existence, to imbue it with some kind of purpose within the purposelessness. Žižek,  as one might expect here, quotes Badiou on the need for “fidelity to the event” against a post-modernist “Democratic Materialism” which, paradoxically also informed by Nietzsche, disavows any belief in a universal pattern or a grand narrative. Zizek’s, Badiou’s and Bloch’s commitment to the grand narrative remains however not a predetermined and teleological one, but, as I have pointed out before here, one which is emergent out of its own processes. It has within it what Bloch calls a latency and a tendency but these need to be realised by labouring creative human beings. This is, in the end, why all three of them turn to Hegel as he represents that bridging point between faith in an absolute spirit external to contingent reality and faith that an absolute spirit can be constructed out of contingent reality.

Where Žižek and Bloch tend to part company, however, is over the question of what exactly the burning bush said to Moses on Mount Sinai. Zizek refers in this context to Lacan, saying:

“I am what I am,” [is] the answer the burning bush on Mount Sinai gives when Moses asks it what it is; he reads it as the designation of a point at which a signifier is lacking, at which there is a hole in the symbolic order—and this should be taken in a strong reflexive sense, not only as an indication that God is a deep reality beyond the reach of our language, but that God is nothing but this lack in the symbolic order (big Other). As such, the divine “I am what I am” effectively prefigures the Cartesian cogito, the barred subject ($), this pure evanescent point of enunciation betrayed by any enunciated. This nothing—whose stand-in (or place-holder) is objet a—is the focus of love, or, as Simone Weil put it: “Where there is nothing, read that I love you.”  (Žižek Chapter 2)

Bloch, however, maintains that this is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew Ejher Asche Ejher which actually means “I will become what I will become.” In his reading, the unfolding of the holy spirit is something which is yet to come, the expression of an unfinished process, and it could be argued that this is a far more Hegelian approach to the question of religious mythology than that which Žižek takes up, located as the latter is in the static abyss of the Lacanian Big Other.

As Bloch puts it: In orthodox Christianity, “[T]he new life which bursts in on man so radically has been in many ways back-dated. To man it can now only come as rebirth; to the world only as ‘transfigured’ nature, that is, nature restored to its old state in Paradise.”[i] What Bloch wants to use religious myths for, however, is to search for a historical world which can be liberated from its own limitations, using its own stories and myths, and which will allow us to pass out of passive and anamnetic circularity into active potentiality.[ii]

While disavowing the church it is quite possible to hold on to the impetus for liberation and Exodus which the Church has co-opted. As Bloch puts it: “There is only this point: that Church and Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.”[iii] It is also “language as speaking-to” in which the universalist message of Exodus speaks to rather than of ordinary people. “‘Let my people go!’ Rang out to all the oppressed, ‘without difference or distinction of race or faith’––as Thomas Münzer said.”[iv] Being an atheist, therefore, only means that one has to be against the Creator-God and the assumption of authority by the church and the state, who act as keepers of his word. What is important in religion is thus not the Holy Grail (which in any case doesn’t exist) but the self-constituting search for the Holy Grail. And this is a constant human drive, a quest for the something missing, which finds itself expressed in all forms of culture and religion. And as for the current discussion about God as delusion, this is what Bloch says, in terms which would not be out of place in a debate with Richard Dawkins:

“The point, however, to be made against all pseudo-enlightenment which sees religion as a spent force caught between Moses and Darwin (and also to be made against all misty ambivalence) is this: the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why it has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on.[v]

Thus the political question of what religion is and what its role can be get tied up in the question of what the individual’s relationship to God must be in a world in which God cannot exist. As Žižek puts in in chapter 2:
‘Authentic belief is to be opposed to the reliance on (or reference to) a(nother) subject supposed to believe: in an authentic act of belief, I myself fully assume my belief, and thus have no need for any figure of the Other to guarantee that belief; to paraphrase Lacan, an authentic belief ne s’authorise que de lui-même. In this precise sense, authentic belief not only does not presuppose any big Other (is not a belief in a big Other), but, on the contrary, presupposes the destitution of the big Other, the full acceptance of its inexistence.
            This is also why a true atheist is at the opposite end from those who want to save religion’s spiritual truth from its “external” dogmatic-institutional context. A profoundly religious friend once commented on the subtitle of a book of mine, “the perverse core of Christianity”: “I fully agree with you there! I believe in God, but I find repulsive and deeply disturbing all the twists celebrating sacrifice and humiliation, redemption through suffering, God organizing his own son’s killing by men. Can’t we have Christianity without this perverse core?” I could not bring myself to answer him: “But that is precisely the point of my book: what I want is all those perverse twists of redemption through suffering, the death of God, etc., but without God!”’

[i] AC, 23.

[ii] The word “religion” comes from the Latin re-ligio––re-bind. We might therefore call Bloch’s atheism a quest for De-ligion.

[iii] AC, 9.

[iv] AC, 12.

[v] AC, 13.


6 Responses to Žižek, Atheism in Christianity

  1. If authentic belief in a project (art, love, politics, science) without any transcendental guarantees or subject-supposed-to-believe is both the ‘reign’ of spirit among the community of true believers and the properly atheistic experience, would this mean that the humanist and secular society ‘new atheists’ (who to my eye appear to depend absolutely on a subject-supposed-to-believe) are not properly atheists but something like ‘Christians-by-proxy’? Christian here in precisely the sense Zizek doesn’t mean it, i.e. awaiting transcendental confirmation or judgements. It’s a question I’ve toyed with for a while now.

  2. Peter Thompson says:

    No, I think that would be a step too far David. Certainly I know from Slavoj that there is an absolute disbelief in transcendental judgements/confirmations. I was also talking to Philip Pullmann about this recently and again, even though he describes himself as ‘culturally CofE’ there is no space for a belief in a pre-existing transcendent. The key term is I think ‘as if’. Of course those of us who have a political belief in the potential of human society, that can also function as a form of transcendence, but it is one with its feet planted firmly on the earth.

  3. Discussing beliefs can be tricky business, I know, but I am encouraged here by your news of Philip Pullmannn’s acknowledgement of a cultural dimension that remains even when a pre-existing transcendence is ditched. I suppose this can account for differing cultural ‘styles’ of atheism… culturally-Protestant atheism, culturally-Catholic atheism, etc.

    My concern really was for the ‘Did the Greeks believe Their Myths?’ — Paul Veyne — argument which Zizek sometimes brings up apropos our post-enlightenment suppositions about what cultural or subcultural others believe. In this sense I supposed that we could legitimately ask to what degree those who nominally claim to be Christians today really believe, and how much distanciation is involved. Do secularists and humanists (and I’m thinking here of the more vocal, sabre-rattling type of ‘protest atheist’ we sometimes encounter, online especially, as opposed to the more thoughtful, book-writing kind) not sometimes attribute to religious people a depth of belief which they might not really have? And then, to what degree would this attribution involve a subject-supposed-to-believe?

    Thank you for your response, though, as it has helped refocus somewhat — on the basic requirement of atheism, of having trained the eye of faith, away from transcendentally-prior spaces and onto some human endeavour without the need to then reference that space, or be witnessed, confirmed or judged from that space. This rings especially true with regards to faith in the capability of the human to provide a meaningful ‘message’ for itself while a contingent universe otherwise cannot speak or make sense or be anything for-itself, if we can speak of it like that.

    • Tom Eyers says:

      Many thanks for these posts, Peter, it’s quite a service for those of us awaiting the new book in its finally published form. But as someone who has probably read one too many Zizek books that simply reframes arguments already repeatedly made in past publications, how ‘new’ is this new one? I ask this not to discount the importance of Zizek’s post-materialist, non-teleological reading of Hegel – it’s a genuinely novel reading with real consequences for critical thought – but to wonder whether the theses from the book you’ve discussed thus far haven’t already been made in previous Zizek tomes? Slavoj has been touting this new one as a sustained, systematic reading of Hegel for some time now, but the Contents page looks rather like a ‘Zizek’s greatest hits’…

  4. Peter Thompson says:

    It’s difficult to say with any certainty yet, as there is a hell of a lot to get through but I would say that although the chapters are obviously based on work that is done before if – and who doesn’t build on what they’ve already done? – there seems to be a more systematic approach which is going through the various positions on Hegel and putting them into some sort of organised form. I I’m only a couple of hundred pages in at the moment, only another 1,000 to go but I’ll let you know as soon as I can!

  5. Andre says:

    Zizek writes in “Monstrosity of Christ”:
    “Sin is the very exception which sustains the Law. Love, on the contrary, is not simply beyond Law, but articulates itself as the stance of total immersion in the Law: … “Sin” is the very intimate resistant core on account of which the subject experiences its relationship to the Law as one of subjection, it is that on account of which the Law has to appear to the subject as a foreign power crushing the subject. This, then, is how we are to grasp the idea that Christianity “accomplished” the Jewish Law: not by supplementing it with the dimension of love, but by fully realizing the Law itself – from this perspective, the problem with Judaism is not that it is “too legal”, but that it is not “legal” enough. … The problem with the Law is not that it does not contain enough love, but rather, the opposite: there is too much love in it, i.e., social life appears to me as dominated by an externally imposed Law in which I am unable to recognize myself, prescisely insofar as I continue to cling to the immediacy of love which feels threatened by the rule of Law. Consequently, Law loses its “alienated” character of a foreign force brutally imposing itself on the subject the moment the subject renounces its attachment to the pathological agalma deep within itself, the notion that there is deep inside it some precious treasure which can only be loved and cannot be submitted to the rule of Law. In other words, the problem (today, even) is not how we are to supplement Law with true love (authentic social link), but, on the contrary, how we are to accomplish the Law by getting rid of the pathological stain of love.”

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