Blog post

The Faith of the Faithless—“everything to be true must become a religion.”

Huw Lemmey28 February 2012

"Everything to be true must become a religion" said Oscar Wilde, and The Faith of the Faithless, Simon Critchley's examination of the importance of religion to the irreligious, builds upon this maxim to produce a political theology that "calls not for our "passive resignation from the world", but for "the urgency of active commitment"", according to Tom Cutterham in the Oxonian Review.

Recognising the contemporary shift of political philosophers towards the "return to religion", Critchley provides a nuanced account, offering no easy answers to the question of an ethical engagement with the political imperative.

Still, says Cutterham, the nuance complements a precise ethical position: a stand against violence and terror as political activity, as expoused by Slavoj Zizek:

again and again in [The] Faith of the Faithless, he points out and rejects the desire for a messianic rupture, an "event", an "exception" that will answer this infinite demand with a divine violence or an absolute newness.

It is this dialogue, between nuance and imperative, that, according to Cutterham, provides the base of Critchley's call for a political "faith of the faithless":

The scientistic drive for firm, rational answers to the questions of meaning and value only throw into sharper relief where things really stand: we have no objective foundations for our ethics or politics. We cannot persuade people to act by logically demonstrating the truth of our claims. The rub is, we cannot even persuade ourselves. "When it comes to the political question of what might motivate a subject to act in concert with others, rationality alone is insufficient."

Interviewing Critchley for Stir to Action, Jonny Gordon-Farleigh asks whether this "return to religion" is the result of a post-socialist malaise caused by "the catastrophic failure of the communist projects of the previous century". For Critchley, the reinvigoration of the political-theological position after the fall of the Soviet Union was the re-emergence of something with much deeper roots: a political project against liberalism that can be found on both the Left and the Right; in Bakunin and Schmitt. That project is based upon the idea that the political form is a constant reconfiguration of the sacral:

Politics for me, to put it in a crude formula, is "association without representation". I adapted this from Rousseau. The notion of association for me is not just, but nonetheless still, a religious idea. Religion is linked to the idea of Renegare who asks what is it that binds fast? What is it that binds fast an association? For me, that is a question that the left has been grappling with for the last couple of centuries.

This notion of "binding" underpins the power of faith for the author, rather than belief in a supernatural force:

Faith, for me, is not theistic. It does not require a belief in some metaphysical entity like God. Faith is a subjective proclamation. It is a proclamation in a relationship, in my jargon, with a demand. It places a demand on you so that you can bind yourself as an ethical or political subject. That is the way it works.

That conception of faith, an active ethical demand, is a far cry from contemporary forms of spirituality popularised both by new age belief as well as liberal "new atheists" such as Alain De Botton.

I think all interesting forms of spirituality are forms of passive, nihilistic withdrawal from a world that seems to be out of control.  So, I am opposed to that but also think that we need to understand it because when you are dealing with different forms of spirituality, the most general form is the one that has no belief at all.  This is why Buddhism seems so amenable — you don’t have to believe in anything.  You can cultivate practices of perfection or vacationing and it allows you to deal with the world that is out of control.  I don’t just dismiss that.  I think passive nihilism makes sense as a response to world, but I think it is the wrong response and that there is a lot of it about.

Giles Fraser could perhaps be seen as someone attempting to span the divide between spirituality and faith. In his review of The Faith of the Faithless for the New Statesman Fraser reads Critchley's anarchism, as opposed what he percieves as pessimism on the part of John Gray, as being the fundamental "theological" core of his argument: that Critchley is proposing political activity over passivity because

it is the question of human nature that ultimately sets political projects on different tracks. If human beings are basically good, the purpose of politics is to set them free to be good.

Fraser obviously feels like he meets Critchley over this point, as well as over their qualified support of the Occupy movement, whose ad-hoc, horizonalist approach to political organisation refuses to adhere to the "alarming and disgusting" mythology of political heroism that Critchley sees in the philosophy of Zizek. For the author a more positive model for political organisation comes from an explicitly religious source:

The first thing to say is there is an anarchist tradition. Many people think that a certain Marxist or Leninist communism is all that the left can manage. There is anarchist tradition that goes back to Godwin, to Bakunin, to Kropotkin and also Malatesta, amongst other figures, and then through a whole English tradition of people like Colin Ward that these figures that really interest me. And it's much lower level; it's much less heroic and dramatic. It begins arguably with the diggers in the early years of the English revolution planting carrots. Taking back land, taking back the commons and growing vegetables is not as romantic as the storming of the winter palace of St Petersburg. I think there's a kind of nostalgia for a kind of phallic, heroic politics, which I for one want nothing to do with particularly.

Visit the New Statesman to read Giles Fraser's review in full.

Visit the Oxonian Review to read Tom Cutterham's review in full.

Visit Stir To Action to read Johnny Gordon-Farleigh's interview with Simon Critchley in full.

Filed under: articles, interviews, reviews