The Secularist's Dogma: Simon Critchley's "The Faith of the Faithless"
By David WintersMay 25, 2012
The Faith of the Faithless by Simon Critchley
SIMON CRITCHLEY, A BRITISH PHILOSOPHER based at The New School in New York, is best known for books like Very Little... Almost Nothing (1997), Infinitely Demanding (2007) and The Book of Dead Philosophers (2009), a bestseller that has helped to cement his status as a prominent public intellectual. (Recently this status was further solidified by a noteworthy spat between Critchley and the Slovenian philosophical superstar Slavoj Žižek, about which more below.) Over the years he's developed a reputation as a rigorous philosopher in the "continental" tradition, playing a major role in the Anglophone reception of tricky French thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. Yet he's also proved to be passionate about making philosophy an accessible part of contemporary culture — for instance, through "The Stone," an opinion series he organizes for the New York Times.
Throughout his career, Critchley has recast philosophy as a response to two types of "disappointment": the religious (how are we to deal with life after the death of God?) and the political (what's left for the Left to rally around, in light of the apparent triumph of neoliberalism?) His latest book, The Faith of the Faithless, systematically connects these two threads. We live, Critchley claims, in an age defined by a "dangerous interdependence of politics and religion," where warfare is underwritten by overt religious rhetoric. "Somehow we seem to have passed," he observes,
from a secular age, which we were ceaselessly told was post-metaphysical, to a new situation in which political action seems to flow directly from metaphysical conflict ... in which religiously justified violence is the means to a political end.
But if today's violent conflicts — in the Middle East, for instance — are connected to a "clash of fundamentalisms," this, for Critchley, is only a symptom of something more deep-rooted. Indeed, our religious and political disappointments could turn out to be inextricable, for Critchley contends that politics per se is religious; and The Faith of the Faithless makes a compelling case for this claim.
Critchley begins the book by unpicking a typically knotty epigram from Oscar Wilde: "Everything to be true must become a religion." The author's first philosophical feat is to show us why we should take this bon mot seriously. If we're to appreciate religion's political power, we must understand how belief imbues ideas with truth, how faith lends weight to an argument. For Critchley, Wilde's riddle has something to tell us about why beliefs, even the secular sort, are so often wrapped up in a "framework of ritual." Even our most rational beliefs are brought about partly through faith; they're religious in structure. So, secular creeds must mimic religious ones if they're to be taken as true.
Putting Wilde's words to work on world politics, Critchley turns to the tradition known as "political theology," a subject best summed up by Carl Schmitt in his book of the same name. In that work, Schmitt declares that "all significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts." For Critchley, these words resonate with Wilde's aphorism, shedding light on how "political forms" — from fascism to liberalism — are fashioned out of the raw materials of faith. Put simply, there's a covert religious core to all kinds of political life. And if there's something of the "church" inside every "state," then states can only hope to survive if they're sanctified in some way. Critchley uncovers a classic example of this in The Social Contract, where Jean-Jacques Rousseau's blueprint for secular states runs into trouble when it attempts to cement the state's legal legitimacy. In the end, it can only do so by granting the state the same "sacred" status as a deity. In Rousseau's words (which, again, parallel Wilde's): "it would require gods to give men laws."
With these literary and philosophical authorities behind him, Critchley goes on to claim that politics consists of reconfigurations of religion. In this respect, the political realm is partly fictional in nature; it works with what Critchley calls "fictional force." But if politics only becomes possible by founding itself on fictions, then those fictions are nonetheless necessary, and needn't always be read negatively (i.e., as lies). Beneath every deceptive dogma, there's always a suppressed potential for other, more "fructuous collisions... between poetry and politics." Crucially, Critchley doesn't think we can disentangle religious fictions from political facts; to attempt to separate one from the other would only mislead us. What we can do, though, is acknowledge and enrich their relationship, recovering the productive power of belief:
Politics is a kind of magic show, where we know that the rabbit has not miraculously appeared in the empty hat and the magician's charming assistant has not been sawn in half, but where we are willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the illusion — believe!
The optimistic note at the end of this passage is characteristic of Critchley's style of argument. Although an atheist and, in his previous books, a diagnostician of "disappointment," he's by no means a pessimist. Nor is he content to criticize established beliefs without offering, or at least earnestly searching for, constructive alternatives. Perhaps Critchley's philosophy, like René Descartes', pursues a path through doubt towards an affirmation of faith. This movement can even be mapped onto the course of his career. His major early work, the neo-nihilist treatise Very Little... Almost Nothing, asserted the essential "finitude," or limitedness, of the human condition. But later books, like Infinitely Demanding, argued that this finitude could form a foundation for complex ethical commitments. In its way, The Faith of the Faithless fulfils the arc of those earlier arguments, fleshing out a positive political philosophy from a "disappointed" premise: nurturing belief from non-belief.
Critchley's optimism is nowhere more moving than in his refutations of authoritarianism, and of the promises of revolutionary violence. The former he reveals to be reliant upon a "redescription of original sin." At the heart of all authoritarian credos, Critchley argues, is a theological fiction: the age-old belief that "human nature is essentially wicked" and that we're thus intrinsically in need of rule and regulation. "The idea of original sin is not some outdated relic from the religious past," he argues,
which is why authoritarians think that human beings require the yoke of the state, God, law, and the police. Politics becomes the means for protecting human beings from themselves, that is, from their worst inclinations towards lust, cruelty, and violence.
Against this assumption, Critchley insists that we must maintain our faith in human nature; only then can society be reconceived as a "sinless union with others." This insistence makes him, as he puts it, "a utopian and an optimist about what human beings are capable of." Ever since the 1960s, continental philosophers have tended to embrace "the death of man," as both a historical reality and, more problematically, a desideratum. The exciting rhetoric of texts like Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author" and Michel Foucault's The Order of Things (with its final image of man "erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea") has ossified into a default, unexamined anti-humanism. Making a clean break with this tradition, The Faith of the Faithless sees Critchley come out as an unabashed humanist.
But humanism in Critchley's hands is all about humility: there's no room for naive heroics in his utopia. These concerns are at the core of his book's most polemical section, in which he adds further fuel to his ongoing feud with Slavoj Žižek. The backstory here has to do with an article Žižek wrote for the London Review of Books a few years ago, criticizing Critchley's support for anti-war and anti-capitalist protests and his advocacy of a "politics of resistance to the state." Žižek's piece, entitled "Resistance is Surrender," asserted that
today's liberal-democratic state and (Critchley's) dream of an "infinitely demanding" politics exist in a relationship of mutual parasitism. The demonstrations against the US attack on Iraq offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Both sides were satisfied ... the protesters saved their beautiful souls ...those in power calmly accepted it.
Peaceful protests only stabilize the status quo, claimed Žižek; what was needed wasn't a show of resistance to the state but an aggressive seizure of it. Yet Critchley's close reading of Žižek in The Faith of the Faithless skilfully shows how the latter's line of argument lapses into "armchair romantic glorifications of revolutionary violence." Žižek emerges in Critchley's account as a politically paralyzed fantasist, in love with a "dream" of brutal revolutionary rupture. That such "absolute, cataclysmic" events can't come about without bloodshed isn't a problem for him, but it clearly remains one for Critchley, as it has been for a long line of British philosophers, at least since Edmund Burke. In theological terms, Žižek's dream is a little like a miracle. And of course, Critchley is keenly aware of what happens when politics is misdirected by miracles.
So, how would a "faith of the faithless" actually play out in practice? If Critchley convincingly fends off his critics and pinpoints the logical flaws in a whole lineage of political thinkers, what does he propose in place of the arguments he attacks and demolishes? As his new book's subtitle suggests, he doesn't idealistically dream of achieving an outright escape from "political theology." Instead, he hopes, more modestly, to develop new ways of "experimenting" within it. In so doing he finds a faith that is, he says, "not theistic," which doesn't depend on a deity. Rather, it's rooted in humble human experience, in "imperfection and failure" — indeed, in the essential "finitude" which his earlier work addressed so well. What's more, and unlike Žižek's revolutionary bluster, this formulation of faith is founded upon a strong ethical imperative. It is, Critchley concludes, guided by "the infinite demand of love": its only dogma is not to do violence to, or to dominate, others. The simplest way of saying this is that Critchley's faith has a strong sense of conscience, which he calls "the most enigmatic aspect of what it means to be human." Conscientiously committed, active but pacifistic: The Faith of the Faithless provides a powerful vision of what our politics ought to look like.
David Winters is a literary and cultural critic. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Bookforum, The Millions, The New Inquiry, Radical Philosophy and others. He blogs at Why Not Burn Books? and is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine.
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.