Blog post

"An order for those who cannot believe" — Simon Critchley on Ditchkins and books

Decca Muldowney 2 April 2012

Simon Critchley, in a wide-ranging interview in the New Statesman, discusses "theologically engaged atheism", Dawkins, Hitchens, John Gray, Obama, and what the future holds for Occupy.

Picking up on an argument he makes in his new book The Faith of the Faithless, Critchley rejects that dichotomy between secularism and "theistic quietism", and argues that,

We cannot decide a priori that we're not going to engage with religious questions, nor can we decide a priori that religious questions are going to be the answers to philosophical or political issues.

Commenting on what he calls the "secularist dogmatism" of figures like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Critchley discusses the relationship between science and belief that characterizes the present moment,

I accept not a scientific conception of the world - that is far too grand - but I think that scientists in their various fields are doing fairly well. Yet I don't think you can explain practices like mathematics on a naturalistic view of the world. Naturalism, underpinned by a progressivist notion of history, underwritten by evolution, is a dogma that our age suffers from.

But I understand why people embrace it, because it seems to offer an answer to superstitious theodicy.

Drawing connections between religion and politics, Critchley points out that while the  "prophetic language" of political theodicy infiltrated Barack Obama's presidential campaign, it has been notably absent while he has been in office. He identifies an interesting connection between Obama's use of "prophectic language" and the relationship of this language to various forms of historical US radicalism that, "have always played on the connection between race and politics, in so far as that is mediated through a certain prophetic Christian tradition," and, "have been focused around forms of directly democratic organisation, often linked to religious communities."

Noting that some of this energy has reappeared in the Occupy movement, Critchley wonders about the new movement's stance on representative politics - and whether it can provide the base for a long-term sustainable politics that stands in opposition to the mainstream political parties.  As Critchley puts it,

People could go off into the woods and do their own thing - there's a long tradition of that in the US. Or they could make their compromises with the Democratic Party, which is extremely difficult to imagine. Or, which is more likely, they could form a third party.

Visit the New Statesman to read the interview in full.

Elsewhere, Critchley, for Ready Steady Book, has revealed some of the influences behind  The Faith of the Faithless, which is, as he puts is,

A series of experiments in political theology that tries to think through the dangerous intrication between politics, religion and violence that defines our so-called secular age and — without embracing any theism — find a meaning to the idea of faith, a belief for unbelievers.

Critchley intentionally chose not to provide a bibliography for The Faith of the Faithless, but in this article he provides some 'clues' for those interested in pursuing the book's 'byways'; including work by writers Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Oscar Wilde. Beginning with Wilde's De Profundis, Critchley quotes from a passage which provided the initial idea for the The Faith of the Faithless,

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 empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.

Visit Ready Steady Book to read the bibliography in full.