The Return of Religion, Kettle Logic, and the Secular Dilemma

lambert-return-statementsAt this year’s Australasian Society of Continental Philosophy conference I had the pleasure of responding to Gregg Lambert’s new book Return Statements: The Return of Religion in Contemporary PhilosophyI chose to focus on the very idea of the “return of religion”, its multiple senses, and their potential conflicts. The paper is downloadable from and

Here is the abstract:

There are at least three distinct senses of the “return of religion” in recent Continental thought. Taken together, they obey a sort of kettle logic, and they leave the secularist with a dilemma about how to avoid returning to religion in the very attempt to escape it. The paper discusses Gregg Lambert’s Return Statements, and engages mainly with Alain Badiou and Jean-Luc Nancy, touching briefly on Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Quentin Meillassoux.

Difficult Atheism reviewed in Derrida Today

derrida-todayThe latest issue of Derrida Today includes a review of my Difficult Atheism by Christina Smerick. You can read the whole review online for free here.

Watkin’s thesis is bold and unapologetic, and shapes the path of his reading and thinking with intense focus. His main concern, bordering on a battle cry, is that the ground gained by atheism is being lost once more to a new ‘colonisation’ by theism.

Watkin proceeds systematically and with an admirable thoroughness.

Reading Meillassoux produces ‘aha!’ moments, where he turns a philosophical concept on its head (as when he advocates for radical possibility, which must be if everything is necessarily contigent); Watkin does an admirable job of waking us up from our thrall and pointing out the deep problems with such seemingly magical moves.

Watkin accomplishes a daunting task in this book, managing to summarize and explain some of the most complicated, complicating works we have from these thinkers while at the same time issuing forth his own provocative thesis, thus finding points of commonality in unlikely places.

Talk at UD Melbourne on Aug 5 – Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux

On August 5 at 11am Difficult AtheismI will have the pleasure of speaking at the Melbourne University of Divinity philosophy seminar on the subject “Varieties of Contemporary Atheism: Badiou, Nancy, Meillassoux”. The talk seeks to synthesise and develop some of the main lines of thinking from Difficult Atheism and to open the argument of the book to a wider audience.

Here is the abstract:

This paper summarises and extends the argument of my 2011 book Difficult Atheism to argue that contemporary “atheism” is an umbrella term used to describe three distinct positions. I briefly explore these three positions in the work of French philosophers Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Nancy and Quentin Meillassoux, showing that they seek to position themselves in relation to the theological in three mutually exclusive ways. As well as being of interest to scholars working in contemporary French thought, the talk aims to offer to a broader audience a framework for understanding and evaluating modern atheisms.

Third Derrida Podcast: Derrida, Atheism and Theology

The third of the podcasts on Derrida and Reformed theology has now been released. The first considered questions of metaphysics and the second focused on Derrida’s ethics; this final podcast discusses Derrida’s engagement with theological themes.

I begin by discussing Derrida’s cautious affirmation that “I rightly pass for an atheist”, and try to dismantle the myth that, for Derrida, God can be whatever you want him/her/it to be. I trace Derrida’s rejection of the god of onto-theology and then explain why he returns to the trope of “x without x” (religion without religion, God without God…), using the example of “messianicity without messianism” and his affirmation of a democracy to come.

I note that, while Reformed theology shares with Derrida a rejection of the God of onto-theology, absolute personality theism is nevertheless very different from both the God of metaphysics and Derrida’s own position, and that introducing absolute personality Trinitarianism into the conversation shows that ontotheology and Derrida have a number of key commitments in common. After a brief discussion of divine accommodation in Calvin I contrast messianicity without messinaism with the account of predestination in Ephesians 1, offering a note of caution with respect to Derridean openness to the other-to-come. I finish by summing up some of the principles that I have found helpful in staging an engagement between Derrida and Reformed theology.

Derrida's theology

New review of Difficult Atheism at Marx and Philosophy

Over at Marx&Philosophy, Bryan Cooke (whom I had the pleasure of meeting at last year’s Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference) has posted a review of Difficult Atheism.

The opening paragraph gives a flavour of the review’s tone and also of Bryan’s style, which, for all the right reasons, is best left undescribed:

Christopher Watkin’s thoughtful, learned and above all deeply nuanced book about three major contemporary French philosophers brings a welcome depth, conceptual deftness and almost unprecedented sobriety to a topic (namely the relationship between philosophy, religion and politics) which more often than not is completely swallowed in a kind of bathetic tennis match between the ideological nostrums du jour.

It is clear that Bryan found the chapters on Meillassoux most engaging, and after gently questioning the way I bring in Jean-Luc Nancy to sit alongside (and against) Badiou and Meillassoux, he concludes thus:

Difficult Atheism is a first-rate, profoundly illuminating book. Scholarly without being portentous, rigorous without being dry, it is the kind of book which retroactively renders whole shelves redundant. And while it is in no way a manifesto, nor a political tract in a conventional sense, I think that its reflections on justice and religion will be of interest to Marxists, for whom, after all – following Marx, and against 19th century positivism – atheism has always been difficult, precisely because it is tied to the project of a world where religious opiates will not be necessary.

It is a very gracious and elegant review, and I am grateful to Bryan for the time and care he clearly spent considering the book’s arguments.


Review of Difficult Atheism in The Heythrop Journal

Difficult AtheismA new review of my Difficult Atheism has just been published in The Heythrop Journal 55:4 (2014): 755-756.

Here is the final paragraph, in which the reviewer (Dane Neufeld of Wycliffe College, Toronto) sums up both his commendation of, and reservation about, the book:

Difficult Atheism is a challenging read but the difficulty of the book is necessitated by the content which it engages. Watkin’s prose exhibits powerfully the struggle of contemporary French philosophy to think without God. Among other things, this book is a testament to the manner in which traditional western theology and philosophy, despite all of the recent disruptions and transformations, continues to sustain its reach into the western imagination. To this end, one feels that Watkin’s conclusion could have been longer. He leaves a question mark over the possibility of an atheism or post theological philosophy that is not parasitic in one manner or another. Perhaps he could have pursued the question: what would such a philosophy have to look like? What criteria would be required? And furthermore, what are the consequences for atheism, or philosophy after the death of God, if this goal proves unattainable? Nevertheless, Difficult Atheism is an important book that engages the topic of atheism with a level of insight and depth that is uncommon in many current discussions.

The question “what would such a philosophy have to look like?” is an interesting one, and Dane is right to ask it. It is, however, a lot harder to answer. The position I arrive at through the course of Difficult Atheism is that any philosophy that successfully avoids imitative or parasitic atheism seems inevitably to fall into ascetic atheism, and vice versa. I am questioning the premise of the project of “such a philosophy”, rather than opening an easy way to a new solution. In the new book I’m writing, The Human Remains, I do however adopt a more “constructive” tone, seeking to show how the human being, traditionally so intricated in the West with the notion of God on which it is parasitic, can be rethought without losing the benefits of the theological account. To the extent that this is what, in Difficult Atheism, I call a “theological integration”, my response to Dane’s question is “wait and see”.

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Of ornitheology

flightless birdsHow do we decide if a particular philosophy is covertly theological? One all-too-common response to this question boils down to little more than a theological bird-watching expedition in which we don our binoculars, pick up our guide books and descend upon an unsuspecting article or book in the hope of catching sight of a Lesser Spotted Miracle or a Great Crested Messiah in the long grass. If we are lucky—or inventive—enough to clap eyes on a theological ornithoid, we tick it off our list, conclude that the terrain definitely smells of incense, and return home contended but, ultimately, none the wiser.

Let’s call this curious practice ‘ornitheology’. Like the quarry they stalk, ornitheologians have their own distinctive calls that can be heard echoing through the philosophical canopy: such and such a concept ‘bears a striking resemblance to’, ‘has all the markings of’, is an atheistic ‘version’ of, ‘is quintessentially’, ‘repeats’, ‘imitates’ or ‘follows’ a theological ‘pattern’ or ‘paradigm’.

One of the problems with ornitheology (there are many, I fear) is that it smuggles a hidden premise under its moss-green waxed jacket, a premise that concerns the nature of imitation: If something looks like a miracle then it must be a miracle, and if it is a miracle then it must be theological. This hides a further assumption: that theology owns the intellectual copyright on everything it touches. Any motif or way of thinking deployed by theology will remain always and forever theological. But we need to be wary of this jump; perhaps it will remain forever theological, and perhaps it won’t, but it’s at least worth asking the question.

We need more sophisticated ways of thinking about God and theology in relation to philosophical writing, ways that can account a little more satisfactorily for what some contemporary philosophers are trying to achieve. Part of the problem is the tired ideology of conflict between philosophy and theology. In a piece I have coming out on Kevin Hart soon I call this the topographical model. In topographical thinking, philosophy and theology are each exhaustive in their own domain, able to say everything that is to be said, but impotent outside the confines of what are assumed to be their respective frontiers. When one discipline seeks to exert what it sees as its own sovereign right over all or part of a foreign territory, all sorts of hackles are raised by the critical border police. It is a land-grabbing paradigm that serves neither philosophy nor theology well.

3 ornithologists

One way to ask the question of the relation between philosophy and theology in a way that moves us beyond the tram-line logic of the ornitheologian (the more it looks like a miracle, the more theological it must be) is to focus not on which theological trope is imitated in a particular philosophy (here a god, there a god, everywhere a faith in god) but to think also about the complex nature of imitation itself. Might there not be ways of understanding what it means to imitate theology other than saying that imitating theology is always theological? Doesn’t that depend as much on what imitation is as on what theology is? If, for example, Western universalism or the idea of revolution or equality or deconstruction or whatever else owe much to Christianity (and there are of course arguments on both sides) it doesn’t necessarily mean that all revolutions are Christian revolutions or that all universalism is Christian universalism. Or at the very least it doesn’t mean that we should assume to know from the outset what ‘Christian’ means if we do say that all revolutions are Christian.

For one sketch of what rethinking imitation and challenging ornitheology might look like, see my post on Meillassoux as Oedipus. I hope that the line I take in that piece can begin to make sense of why Meillassoux would say, in ‘The Divine Inexistence’, that the only way to banish the religious is for the universal to be incarnated, or why in The Number and the Siren he insists that the only way that Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés… can be unique is by being Christic and imitating Christ’s glorious body and the Catholic mass. If imitation always equals complicity, as it does for the ornitheologian, then these images and moves in Meillassoux just can’t make much sense, or else they need to be done away with in an ungainly critical pirouette which sees reader trying to explain away in an puff of Orwellian pseudo-logic what nevertheless stands clear on the page: it may look like a miracle, quack like a miracle and swim like a miracle, but don’t let that fool you…

In the meantime, listen out for the distinctive calls of the ornitheologians; they are a common species in our parts.

Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism

‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’: Meillassoux’s Oedipal atheism

In Difficult Atheism I left the discussion of Meillassoux’s divine inexistence after having sketched a series of arguments detailing why I think he does not succeed in demonstrating the principle of factiality in the way I think he intends. In this post I want to take these arguments a stage further and ask ‘so what?’ If, as I think is the case, Meillassoux does not pull off the grand challenge he sets himself, what then? Is it all over? Do we leave him move on? Is there nothing more to say?


I don’t think so. So far we have tended to take Meillassoux au pied de la lettre and work on the principle that his ‘divinology’ must either succeed or fail in its own terms, with no third option, but here I want to suggest a different reading of Meillassoux, one that starts where Difficult Atheism finishes.

This reading begins with two premises. The first I have already stated: in my opinion Meillassoux fails in his explicit aim of demonstrating divine inexistence, for reasons I won’t rehearse again here. The second premise is that any reading of Meillassoux’s ‘The Divine Inexistence’ must come to terms with, and provide some sort of accounting for, why his thought imitates theological terms and theological structures as much as it does. Meillassoux’s divinology is so close to theology, not only in its motifs (think of Meillassoux’s Child of Man, the rebirth of the dead and the bringing of justice, conversion, the ex nihilo) but also in its overall structure (with its arc of a secularised creation—redemption—consummation/judgment) that any comprehensive reading of ‘The Divine Inexistence’ has to have an answer to the question of ‘why so much imitation?’ I am not saying there is only one answer to that question, but it seems to me that every reading of Meillassoux has to have something to offer in that department.

Discussion to date has centred mostly around whether one or another Meillassouxian motif still has the whiff of incense about it (Peter Hallward on the ex nihilo in his Radical Philosophy review of After Finitude is the first example that springs to mind). The reading I am proposing here does not pick through these motifs again, one by one, but seeks to understand them as a whole, not as a series of propositions but as a coherent gesture that traces itself in such a series. I want to explore not whether this or that motif is still trading on its theological capital, but what we can say about Meillassoux’s imitation of theological motifs per se, regardless of whether we end up concluding they remain theological or not.

Starting from these two premises—Meillassoux imitates a remarkably comprehensive theological structure, and he fails in his explicit aim—I offer the following reading of ‘DI’ with the intention of making sense of the imitation and not writing him off because of the failure. In other words I aim to make sense of his imitation of theological motifs and structures as a coherent gesture and not just as a set of atomisable propositions, and I also aim to make constructive sense of his failure to come good on his promise to demonstrate divine inexistence, rather than merely dismissing it, or him.

More broadly, the possibility I want to open here is that, even if ‘The Divine Inexistence’ is not successful in its own terms, that very failure can itself help us to understand what different forms post-theological thinking might take. To be clear, I am not saying we should all from now on read Meillassoux in this new way, but I am offering it as a way of broadening the debate beyond the simple (sometimes simplistic) question of whether his divinology works in its own terms or not. There is more to Meillassoux’s engagement with theology than a yes/no answer to that question.

The reading has two moments: 1) What I have elsewhere identified in the ‘split rationality critique’ can be read as a moment of Meillassouxian tragic hubris, and 2) his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence can be read not as a proof his divinology in its success, but as a catharsis of the divine in its failure.

This reading is elaborated in conversation with themes of imitation, failure and catharsis in Hölderlin’s ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, as glossed by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in Typographies 2: l’imitation des modernes, partially translated into English as Typography: Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics. Lacoue-Labarthe’s thoughts on Hölderlin are set alongside other treatments of the theme of imitation in Western thought and literature, and they help us to approach Meillassoux with an eye not simply to whether this or that motif imitates of theological thinking, but through a consideration of the significance of imitation itself.

Lacoue-Labarthe on Hölderlin’s Oedipus

Oedipus, it is well known, describes himself in Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus after his fall as atheos, without god or abandoned by the gods: ‘No gods anywhere now, not for me, now’.[1] It is usually assumed that Oedipus’ nefas, his infringement of divine law, is the murder of his father and an incestuous relationship with his mother, but Hölderlin discerns a different cause of his downfall: an unwarranted trust in his own power to interpret. Oedipus arrogates to himself the divine role of prophecy in his interpretation of  the following oracular words:

King Phoebus in plain words commanded us,

drive out the pollution of the land, nourished on this ground,

do not nourish the unholy.[2]

This oracle need not have had anything to do with King Laius’ death, Hölderlin insists, but could simply mean that Oedipus should ‘generally create a strong and pure court and keep order among the citizens’. Oedipus’ nefas is to interpret it ‘in a priestly fashion’, in other words taking upon himself a divine role, bringing together the saying of the oracle and the story of Laius’ death. Hölderlin summarizes:

in the immediately following scene the spirit of Oedipus, knowing all, expresses, in angry premonition, the nefas itself by interpreting the general command as pertaining to the particular and then applying it to the murderer of Laius, and then casting the sin as infinite.[3]

Oedipus’ nefas, then, is to assume the prerogative of the divine and ‘interpret the statement of the oracle towards infinity’ as Hölderlin says elsewhere. He is guilty of hermeneutic hubris, according a divine certainty to his own powers of interpretation or, in Lacoue-Labarthe’s terms, ‘The tragic fault is the imitation of God’.[4] I have shown in my ‘split rationality critique’ of Meillassoux how he similarly interprets the notions of contingency and hyperchaos towards infinity, like Oedipus elevating his own reasoning above the mortal sphere of change and contingency. It is in Meillassoux’s trust in his own logic to survive any hyperchaotic change that he imitates the divine.

Oedipus at ColonusYet it is this failed imitation of the divine, Lacoue-Labarthe argues, that leads Oedipus be atheos. It is through striving, and in a measure succeeding, to imitate the gods that Oedipus is estranged from the gods. This logic, according to which Oedipus’ imitation of the divine both brings him close to the divine and estranges him from the gods, is for Lacoue-Labarthe an instance of hyperbology, the paradoxical logic of imitation he identifies in a number of Western thinkers of mimesis from Aristotle through Diderot to Nietzsche, and of course including Hölderlin himself. Oedipus’ atheistic condition is hyperbological because it is through his mimetic proximity to the infinity of the gods that he finds them most absent. The logic of hyperbology is ‘the more x, the less x’: the closer Oedipus is to the divine, the more he will find himself abandoned by the gods.

However, Oedipus atheos provokes, for Lacoue-Labarthe, a catharsis of the divine. His imitation ‘towards infinity’ of the divine oracle is not merely offset by his subsequent abandonment by the gods; the essence of the tragic is the monstrous coupling of god and man in an unlimited becoming-one that is purified (katharei) by a limitless separation.[5] Tragedy presents the necessary cathartic purification of all hubristic imitation of of the divine; it is a catharsis of desiring to imitate the divine, achieved through a hyperbolic mimesis resulting in hyperbolic abandonment.

This condition of Oedipal abandonment is, Lacoue-Labarthe insists, a turning of humankind to the earth and an opening of an a-theistic space that is unrelated in any way whatsoever to the ‘death of God’, in either its speculative-Lutheran or Nietzschean guises,[6] and therefore free of the problems of theological imitation that haunt the death of God in Western thought. The catharsis of the divine does not consist in the death of God but in a ‘categorical turning away [détournement]’ form God.[7] Détournement, it is worth pointing out, not only means ‘turning away’ but also ‘(mis)appropriation’; it is what the SItuationists did with the images of Gaullist France in May 68, and what unnamed photoshoppers did with Nicolas Sarkozy’s ‘La France Forte’ poster in the 2012 French Presidential elections. The term captures the double sense of a turning-away-as-imitation and, in a way I don’t have time to elaborate more here, it opens a way to think the post-theological in the West that does not rely on the problematic notion of the death of God.

This catharsis is crucially, for Lacoue-Labarthe, not a dialectic but a paradox; it issues not in a sublation of the theological into the a-theological but in a tension maintained between infinite imitation and infinite separation. Catharsis is a paradoxical logic that maintains the contradiction of ‘the more… the less…’: ‘the more unlimited the becoming-one, the more unlimited the separation itself ’.[8] The desire to imitate the divine leads to an utter separation from the divine, with imitation and separation frozen in a non-dialectised relationship.

This atheism is not a proof of divine non-existence (understood in the terms of traditional atheism, not Meillassoux’s divine inexistence), for this would once again be a bid for the infinite. Rather Lacoue-Labarthe describes this mimetic logic in terms of a homeopathic medicine or an animal sacrifice that expels violence from the polis by the simulacrum of a spectacular transfer of the murderous desire to an animal.[9]

If Meillassoux’s nefas is his imitation ‘towards the infinite’ of his own rationality, then as in the case of Oedipus it is this imitation of the divine that leaves him without god. If Meillassoux’s claims are correct then he can legitimately expect the coming of the Child of Man and the future existence of the divine in the fourth world, as ‘The Divine Inexistence’ describes. But if he cannot then he is bereft of any such future hope, bereft of hope in the rebirth of the dead, in justice for past wrongs. Like the Oedipus of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus he suffers a state of unremitting abandonment. It is because of Meillassoux’s failed imitation of the divine that he is atheos. If Meillassoux’s system in ‘The Divine Inexistence’ paints a picture of a universe in which God is currently absent but can be hoped for and expected  in the future, then the Meillassouxian nefas brings about a double absence, taking away not only the presence of the divine but also any sanctioned hope in future divine existence.

The question that remains, however, is over the extent to which Meillassoux’s failed imitation may, like that of Oedipus of Typographies 2, issue in a catharsis of the divine. In answering this question we may first note that the logic of the catharsis of the divine is that it is necessary to over-reach and fail. If we read ‘The Divine Inexistence’ in terms of such a catharsis, then, it is not in the least an embarrassment that Meillassoux draws on so much theological material and such a comprehensive theological structure. It could not be any other way; it is his felix culpa. Oedipus would not be atheos had he not failed in his attempt to become like the gods by interpreting ‘to infinity’. In the same way, Meillassoux would not be without god if he had not failed in his attempt to demonstrate divine inexistence. Both Oedipus and Meillassoux are ‘without God’ as a result of their own failure.

And what about the catharsis of the divine for Meillassoux? We might say that it is because his imitation of theology is so wholesale that, when it fails, he is left nowhere to go, no hope for redemption in some as yet unexploited theological motif or structure of thought to keep alive the divine hope.  If post-theological thought merely imitates this or that theological motif then there is always more theology waiting around the corner, more hope for a theological redemption in the ideas not yet exploited, but only an attempt to incorporate and imitate the whole arc and structure of (Christian) theology as such, when it has failed, is left with nothing. Oedipus is only atheos because his imitation of the divine was so grand, so infinite. So also Meillassoux, in seeking to imitate not this or that element of theological thinking but its overall structure finds himself, when he fails, an abandoned Oedipus without hope but, also, without god.

[1] Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro (eds.), The Complete Sophocles, Volume I: The Theban Plays

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 278.

[2] Friedrich Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’, in J. M. Bernstein (ed.), Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 196.

[3] Hölderlin, ‘Remarks on Oedipus’ 196.

[4] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Typographies 2 : L’Imitation des modernes (Paris : Galilée, 1986) 128. CW’s translation.

[5] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.

[6] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.

[7] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 198.

[8] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 128.

[9] Lacoue-Labarthe, L’Imitation des modernes 208.

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