What is a theological concept? Part 2: A schema for distinguishing between different atheisms

In Difficult Atheism I offered a schema for understanding varieties of contemporary French philosophical atheism. In this post I want briefly to summarise that schema (adding some diagrams not included in Difficult Atheism), before going on to develop it further in the future. If you want to explore these ideas in greater length, please refer to the longer descriptions in Difficult Atheism itself.

It is a tripartite schema of imitative (or parasitic) atheism, ascetic (or residual) atheism, and theological integration.


“Imitative” or “parasitic” atheism

In DA I summarised this first variety of atheism in the following way:

‘imitative atheism’, merely replaces ‘God’ with a supposedly atheistic placeholder such as ‘Man’ or ‘Reason’, explicitly rejecting but implicitly imitating theology’s categories of thinking, changing merely the terms in which those categories are articulated. The placeholder might furnish the reason and the end – the Alpha and the Omega – of the world, provide the source of Truth or Value, or stand, god-like, outside the flux of intramundane becoming. [1]


Care, however, should be taken to distinguish imitative atheism from the casual use of religious or theological terms within an atheistic context. If a philosopher uses terms such as ‘miracle’, ‘faith’ or even ‘God’, it does not necessarily follow that her thought is imitative. An atheism is parasitic upon theology only when it deploys concepts that cannot be accounted for in exclusively atheistic terms but require assumptions proper to theology, whether or not those concepts happen to carry theological labels. This, of course, raises the question of what assumptions are proper to theology. This is a question that receives different, often contradictory answers; it will be one focus of this series of posts.

You can read all the posts in this series on one page here.

Camus as a bridge

The existentialism of the mid twentieth century marks a significant moment in the rejection of imitative atheism. Albert Camus struggles in the tension between the old imitation and a new refusal of parasitic thinking:

I continue to believe that the world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning, and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man and our task is to provide its justification against faith itself. [2]

Camus’s absurd holds itself in the impossible breach of imitative atheism, claiming concepts to which it knows it has no right. It is, he writes, ‘sin without God’ [3] (‘le péché sans Dieu’). His thought adumbrates the second tendency within post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that arises in part as a critique of imitative atheism.


“Residual” or “ascetic” atheism

Maurice Blanchot takes Camus’s absurd to task, chiding the existentialist for clinging to concepts to which he has no intellectual right and calling on him to renounce them in the name of intellectual honesty. In DA I summarise the Blanchotian position in the following terms:

This call to systematic renunciation exemplifies the second tendency in post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that we shall call ‘residual atheism’, an atheism that seeks, with a heroic or despairing asceticism, to make do with the meagre residue left over after the departure of God, Truth, Justice, Beauty and so on. Residual atheism traces its genealogy back through Heidegger’s Dasein to Nietzsche’s pronouncements of the death of God. Nietzsche’s madman in the marketplace is speaking to unbelievers, the imitative atheists who do not yet realise their continued parasitism on the God they reject. [4]

In The Gay Science Nietzsche warns of the extent to which modern thought still relies on the God it has replaced:

It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests – that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato, that God is the truth, that truth is divine. – But what if . . . God should prove to be our most enduring lie? [5]

It is imitative atheism’s ‘faith in Plato’ that must be challenged, the faith in the ‘heavenly place’ (topos ouranios) of Truth, Justice, and Meaning. In resisting imitative atheism, Nietzsche’s own position is deprived of the certainties and horizons of the Platonic or Judaeo-Christian suprasensory by the death of God. In addition to morality, the Christian eschatological and redemptive view of history must be jettisoned, along with the Platonic idea of truth and hypostatised Reason and Meaning, which cannot survive the washing away of the horizon that comes with the death of God: ‘“Reason” in language – oh, what an old deceptive female she is! I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.’ [6]

Even so, this asceticism does not succeed in disengaging residual atheism from the parasitism it denounces. In limiting itself to the sensory world as opposed to the suprasensory, the immanent as opposed to the transcendent, residual atheism finds itself – just like imitative atheism – defined in terms of that which it seeks to escape. This is the thrust of Heidegger’s critique of Nietzsche in ‘Nietzsche’s word: God is dead’. [7] For Heidegger, the very way in which Nietzsche understands the death of God inscribes it ineluctably in terms of reference dictated by the theology of the God whose death is declared.

Glossing Nietzsche’s parable of the madman, Heidegger warns us not to forget ‘what is said at the beginning of the passage that has been elucidated: that the madman “cried incessantly: I seek God! I seek God!”’ [8] The madman’s exclamation ‘God is dead’ is not a simple cry of triumph but a lament, issuing in his requiem aeternam deo. The problem for Nietzsche, as far as Heidegger is concerned, is that ‘the terms “God” and “Christian god” in Nietzsche’s thinking are used to designate the suprasensory world in general’, [9] and Nietzsche himself parasitises that Platonic-Christian dichotomy of, on one hand, the ‘suprasensory’ or ‘true and genuinely real’ world of Ideas and Ideals, and on the other hand the sensory world which is by contrast ‘changeable, and therefore the merely apparent, unreal world’.

In seeking to wipe away the theological suprasensory, residual atheism struggles to articulate itself in terms other than as the negative residue of theology’s plenitude or a renunciation, along with theology, of truth and goodness.


Post-Theological Integration

If thinking without God is to move beyond the impasse of parasitism and asceticism it cannot simply produce – to adopt a Lyotardian idiom – a new move in atheism’s old game of the sensory and the suprasensory. It cannot simply take religion’s categories for its own, but neither can it afford to leave religion alone, merely expelling it beyond atheism’s own sensory or rational bounds. It must learn from the post-secular colonisation of atheism itself in order not to resist but to occupy theism’s territory, re-deploying theism’s notions for its own purposes, just as the post-secular co-opts atheism to do its own work of denouncing idols. Only this will allow atheism to shake its status as theology’s parasitic or ascetic poor relation. It is this project of escaping theism’s shadow, I will argue, that makes sense of French philosophy’s attempt, in the opening decades of the third millennium, to follow the death of God more rigorously than before.

As I describe it in Difficult Atheism:

The common impulse of the three post-theological philosophies we shall consider [Badiou, Nancy and Meillassoux] is that they seek 1 ) to move beyond imitative and residual atheism in order fundamentally to re-think philosophy without God or the gods and without parasitising any assumptions dependent on them (hence post-theological, not merely post-theistic), while nevertheless 2 ) refusing ascetically to renounce the notions associated with such gods – namely, truth and justice – relinquished by residual atheism. A thinking radically without God is integrated with a retention of the notions otherwise associated with God. These two ideas taken together account for our characterisation of thinking after atheism as a ‘post-theological integration’. It is this integration that makes the new post-theological thought truly new: it is a turn to religion in order to turn the page on religion. [10]

Imitative atheism, residual atheism, and theological integration. These are the options for philosophies that would position themselves as a-theological. What is at stake in such a positioning is how to avoid theological parasitism without falling into atheistic asceticism. With these ideas in place we are now in a position, in future posts, to begin considering specific concepts and moves in the thought of Alain Badiou, jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux.


[1] Christopher Watkin, Difficult Atheism: Post-Theological Thinking in Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011) 2-3.

[2] Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death: Essays, ed. and trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 22.

[3] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955) 38.

[4] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 4-5.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974) 344.

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, ed. Aaron Ridley and Judith Norman, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 170.

[7] Martin Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, ed. and trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977) 53-114.

[8] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 111.

[9] Heidegger, ‘Nietzsche’s Word: God is Dead’ 61.

[10] Watkin, Difficult Atheism 13.

cc image courtesy of Thomas Hawk on Flickr

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