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"A most extraordinary insight": The Faith of the Faithless reviewed

Huw Lemmey19 April 2012

The Faith of the Faithless, Simon Critchley's new book on political theology, continues to stir up debate across academia and the media with its critical and insightful take on the nexus of religion, anarchism and violence.

Creston Davis, writing for, sees Critchley's reading of Wilde's De Profundis as Critchley's "extraordinary insight": a profound understanding of the point in Wilde's imprisonment where "traditional, passive faith becomes activated on the ground-zero level of the subject-void who enacts faith aesthetically, creatively, and inventively". It was this moment, when Wilde had lost the most, that he could develop a "a political-subjective socialistic consciousness." As Davis writes,

The political and religious subject in Simon's book is the individual who discovers himself or herself paradoxically when they are socially lost, abandoned, and alienated from social norms and general consciousness.

Davis is clearly taken with the "brilliant splendor" of this new direction in Critchley's writing, claiming he:

enters into the theological and the political domain in ways that are offensive to how these very terms have been shaped in order to stifle action, subjectivity, and even faith itself in the very name of the political and the theological.

Reviewing The Faith of the Faithless for Review31, Benjamin Noys takes exception to much of Critchley's argument regarding a rejection of a Jacobinist "purifying violence", which is, Noys feels, unfairly linked to 20th Century forms of state violence executed by Leninists, Nazis and Maoists.

In fact, Noys feels, this contradiction between a pacifism-informed yet not pacifistic position, Critchley's "politics of love", and his anarchistic, anti-state attitude creates an unbridgable gap in Critchley's thought. In the end we are left with an acceptance by both Critchley and Zizek "that violence is needed where necessary, but not too much violence." This is splitting the difference — despite accepting that his "suggestion that we think more deeply about the locations of radical politics, and his suspicion of claims to novelty and absolute change, are vital in the present moment", Critchley's thought provide us with little more:  "it hardly provides much in the way of political or ethical guidance or assessment".

Robert Eaglestone draws quite different conclusions. In his review for the Times Higher Education Supplement, Eaglestone finds that, despite its "very accessible introduction and occasional joke" this is no pop-philosophy book on religion for atheists, but rather "an advanced engagement with a large range of complex ideas about the relationship between politics, religion and violence in contemporary philosophy". Critchley's rigour and skill at the close-reading of other philosophers work catches Eaglestone's eye, and he also commends Critchley's "bravura" final chapter, where the author "attacks Slavoj Žižek's work and political position, taking it seriously and then utterly demolishing it". Eaglestone describes the book as a "trajectory of his thought" rather than an end in itself, a "fascinating and important book".

Visit to read Davis' review in full.

Visit Review 31 to read Noys' review in full.

Visit Times Higher Education to read Eaglestone's review in full.