Thank God I’m an Atheist: A Conversation with Gianni Vattimo
By Michal MatlakSeptember 26, 2023
I wanted to talk to him because I was fascinated by his position as a theorist of postmodernism, which, although already a thing of the past by then, nevertheless shaped the thinking of several generations. Although today postmodernism is blamed for preparing the ground for “post-truth” (and thus Trump and other populists), the core of Vattimo’s philosophical program was exactly the opposite: he believed that modernity has a pernicious tendency to look to illusionary foundations, whether rooted in Marxism, phenomenology, or philosophical idealism. His philosophical vision (but also his way of life) was different: he believed that “strong” thought is an ally of the powerful, who treat it as a means to entrench their positions, and he saw himself instead as an ally of the weak. Hence Vattimo’s communism—which he combined, in his paradoxical way, with a presence in the liberal group in the European Parliament—and his attachment to Christianity, although in the interview that follows, he claims to be an atheist.
Our conversation took place on February 28, 2012, as part of my work on my PhD.
MICHAL MATLAK: Your concept of “weak thought” is seen as one of the main faces of postmodernism. Could you briefly explain it?
GIANNI VATTIMO: I’ve studied Heidegger and Nietzsche for years. What I took very seriously from Heidegger was that metaphysics (the idea that there is an objective order of reality, that philosophy can figure out what is true and what is not true) is false. Heidegger began to fight against this view at the beginning of the 20th century, when philosophy had become basically positivist (objective, scientistic), strictly linked to the rational organization of society. Heidegger’s revolt against metaphysics was a revolt against an objectivism that excluded human existence and freedom, a revolt of man against the idea that no change is possible, that there are only objective facts that we have to accept. One of Heidegger’s most important works was Being and Time (1927), in which he says that existence is a project. If everything can be described in terms of objective structures, then there is no place for individual projects. You can only accept objective reality.
And what’s the role of interpretation in your theory?
I’m trying to work on the theory of interpretation, because that’s the answer to the idea that there’s only objective reality and there’s no need for interpretation. If I’m just an objective eye, I just have to respect objective rules. For me, every encounter with the world is an interpretation. Interpretation means that I cannot take things as they are, but rather I see them in relation to my existence. This is the sense of many philosophical works of the 19th and 20th centuries, not only Heidegger’s. Heidegger insists on the fact that if every act of knowledge is an interpretation, then one must also account for the attitude of the subjects. There are no acts, only interpretations, says Nietzsche in an exaggerated form. Who do you think is against this sentence?
According to the weak thought theory, people with power.
People with power. Popes, governments, the upper class. That’s why I say the weak thought is a thought of the weak. Certainly there is a traditional alliance between official truth and power, as Michel Foucault argued. Objective truth is the truth of power. This is a conception of being in terms of diminution. If you have a perfect model of the perfect state, you’re likely to become Stalin, Franco, or Hitler. They had strong theories where it was clear what was right and what was not. I don’t know if Heidegger would accept the way I see it. But he was on the side of those who ask: Who says it? Not just accepting that the truth is what it is. You always have presuppositions, which could be your ideology, your social situation. This is what I call weak thinking. What I can do for human emancipation is not to accept an ideal truth, but to fight against violence. To reduce the claims of absolute truth, absolute reality, the idea of natural behavior.
What’s the connection to Christianity in your theory?
One of the suppositions of the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is that God is a life, a project, a movement, a transformation. So, I dare to say that weak thought is the only Christian philosophy. Heidegger never said that: he had the idea to go back to pre-metaphysical Greece, the Pre-Socratics, etc. This is an old idea of German culture. This prevented Heidegger from understanding the possible Christian meaning of his own philosophy. The Christian being seems to be a progression in the reduction of violence—to reduce objectivity, to reduce authority, to reduce power.
In the humanities, this or a similar way of thinking has been very popular for many years. But we’re in the European Parliament, which is a rather weak body, although this has nothing to do with your theory, but with its role in the political structure of the EU. Do you see a relevant translation of your thought into politics?
Weak thought doesn’t mean weak thinking. It is rather a strong theory of weakness as a possible emancipation. It is also not a general solution for everything. But it is possible to be a politician driven by the idea of reducing violence. We live in a society based on a lot of violence.
Is this a project for the Left?
Yes. Sometimes I say that if I weren’t a Christian, I wouldn’t be a communist. The Right sees things differently. They want to use natural differences to solve problems. So, you’re poor, you have to work hard; you’re rich—then you’re lucky. The Right is more naturalistic, neo-Darwinistic. The Left wants to correct nature; it is culturalist. It wants to reduce the violence in nature. You are born poor, but you should have the opportunity to educate yourself and live with dignity.
What are you doing in a liberal group in the European Parliament with your leftist world view?
In Italy, the only way to get into the European Parliament was to stay with Antonio Di Pietro. There is no opposition in Italy except Italy of Values, because the ex-communist party is no longer leftist. Now they call themselves democrats, which means they are like everyone else. I am the only Italian Communist in the European Parliament. And to make that possible, I have to be with the liberals. This is a problem of the Left in Europe. Politically, I try to support most of the struggles of the Left. I’m 76 years old, which means that I probably won’t run for the next term, which means that I can do absolutely whatever I want.
Do you see the demand for absolute truth also on the left? Poles, for historical reasons, see communism as a doctrine with no room for different interpretations.
I understand that. That’s why I say that if Stalin had read some weak thought, he wouldn’t be so cruel. But I am absolutely sure that the only possible positive idea for society is communism. When I say this word in Eastern Europe, there is a very strong opposition, but what kind of society do you want to live in if not a society of equality? Of course, one problem is whether it will work economically. But in a world dominated by capitalism, it is difficult to create a socialist economy. Sometimes I say I’m a liberal and therefore I’m a communist.
You know Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez personally, and you say that the Latin American model could be a model for the West. In what sense?
Castro was the only point of resistance in Latin America against the United States, that’s why he was important. I remember talking to him as one of the most moving moments of my life. Chavez is also doing a lot to reduce poverty in his country through the oil industry.
The only resistance to global capital is in Latin America. Something new has happened in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela. They can play in the world the role that the communists played in Italy in the 1950s and ’60s. They were never in government, but their presence forced the Christian Democratic governments to take many social democratic decisions. I absolutely don’t want a war between the United States and Latin America. I want Latin America to be stronger in order to limit the power of the United States.
What do you think about Lula?
He was more accepted by the West, probably because Brazil is a bigger country. He reduced the poverty in Brazil very much. Poor Castro is doing what he can, but the country is really small and it’s difficult.
One of your intellectual friends was Jürgen Habermas. Do you still consider him a friend?
Habermas has been betrayed by his rationalism. He still believes in the United Nations. That is a mistake. He believes in a world order based on common rules, on dialogue, on a common moral background. He thinks that, if this background comes from faith, then it’s good. But I don’t share this attitude; it seems to me like self-deception. According to this view, we should have the intervention of the United Nations in Syria, and then peace will come and everyone will be happy. We have seen the reality in Libya—bombings, thousands of deaths, horror. I don’t know why Habermas still believes in that.
Habermas is now very tolerant when it comes to the presence of religion in the public sphere. What’s your opinion on that?
One thing is to give the church the right to preach, but I cannot agree with the impositions of the church through its organizational strength to make laws against the nonbelievers.
What would be the solution?
Italy can only be liberated by the revolution of the Catholics against the church. We need an internal reform of religion. The Vatican is a scandal, like in the time of Luther. Maybe we need new protests.
Why didn’t you decide to become a Protestant?
Because I don’t believe in churches. I probably believe in Jesus Christ. Sometimes I say, thank God I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in idols. But part of my taxes I give to the Protestant churches, not to the Catholic Church. What the church taught me was to organize my life, my duties. I use this knowledge today. But I certainly want to limit the power of the church in society.
What was your position in the discussion on the preamble of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe regarding the role of Christianity in European history?
I was against the reference to the Christian tradition because it was a way of affirming the power against the people who don’t believe. To understand this, you should know the Italian experience. We have a concordat that gives too many opportunities to the churches to get money from the government.
How do you feel as a philosopher among politicians?
I am an ornament here. In this kind of organization, the philosopher is not a central figure, but my role is not marginal either. It is also interesting for a philosopher to be here. You know what is going on in the world. In the Committee for Culture, where I work, I use my experience as an academic teacher. In the Italian Parliament, most of the politicians are lawyers. It’s not good because they get a lot of advantages for their own group. We need other professions in politics.
What’s your opinion about the EU of today? Do you want more integration in Europe?
Economically, we need more integration to be a subject and not just a part of the world banking system. Now I feel that Europe is a kind of political arm of the banks. And I’m not very enthusiastic about that. I want a more political and social Europe. Italian president Giorgio Napolitano always says that we need more Europe. But what does that mean? It’s like Habermas and the United Nations. These organizational bodies will never free us from concrete political answers. Come on!
Michal Matlak is policy advisor at the European Parliament and managing editor of the Review of Democracy.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.