The Circle of Stupid..

Apologies for recent radio silence…

I’m currently working on a new book. Hopefully out later this year, The Circle of Stupid will be an attempt to place the discussion of ethics beyond the awfulness of the current ‘God Debate’.

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In the first sections, I argue that the entire atheists vs Theists ‘debate’ is both ill-conceived and entirely futile. The positions taken, arguments deployed, and claims of victory seem to amount to so little, and to effect such little change both in the world and people within it. From the painfully unsubtle atheist mockery of ‘sky fairies’ on Social Media, to ill-conceived and poorly executed (if rapturously received) books of Christian apologetics on “why atheist X is wrong”, I want us to think seriously about setting the entire genre aside. I want us to consider what might actually matter – which is surely not about who gets to be most smug, but may be about how we treat each other, other animals, and the planet. In short, let’s leave our comfortable self-righteousness and think about more important matters.

I hope the second half of the book will move on to show that what really matters is not winning debates, but thinking hard about ethics. In doing so, I suggest that while religious traditions are rich sources of ethical narrative and reflection, the idea of a metaphysical back-stop to ethics, deriving from the existence of a divine being, makes no sense at all. Furthermore, if ethics are going to be of any use to us in the secular, multi-cultural world, then they’ll need to be founded on something beyond un-shared metaphysical assertions.

That is, even though I will be heavily critiquing the new-atheist position, I will ultimately claim that ethics can only exist as a non-religious, non-spiritual undertaking.

When the manuscript goes off to the publishers, I’ll try and put some more thoughts on here – and see whether I’ve entirely abandoned my position, and changed my mind on everything I’ve said here. Which is quite likely…

“Can atheists be spiritual? Sam Harris reignites long-running debate”

Over at the Religion News Service, Chris Stedman has been exploring whether atheists can be spiritual..

The article is at:  – and I am delighted to be quoted. Of course, atheists can enjoy sunsets, marvel at our place in the cosmos, reflect deeply on ethics and our interconnectedness – but I argue that we can do this as part of what it is to be human, without the loaded, ambiguous and problematic label of ‘spirituality’. Sure, we can be ‘deep’ – but are we so anxious to show it that we need to resort to so muddled a term?

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Militant Atheists and associated nonsense..

I see TED has stepped away from the Rupert Sheldrake talk at one if its TedX events.. Then Deepak Chopra and various folk object, etc – atheistsand we finally have a response HERE, that defends TED. I am not a great Fan of TED talks really, but they seem on the ball here. Whatever you think of Sheldrake’s interventions in Philosophy of Science (and I don’t think much of them, but that’s another matter), the claims he does make for actual phenomena don’t seem at all well supported..

However, as the comments at show, this is a bunfight where everyone seems to argue from set positions, and little on no progress is made. So I think I’ll stay out of it..

However, I just wanted to note another thing that seems widespread, but which is also very annoying. The term ‘Militant Atheist‘. The term is everywhere and seems misleading. I suspect it is often intentionally so.

Sure – many new atheists may be assertive and combative. Some are idiots. Richard Dawkins seemed to have been guilty of misogyny and there seems to be worrying Islamophobic tendencies in some New Atheist circles. I talk about some of my concerns with how contemporary atheism characterises religion in the book:

Since Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, it seems like the talk in the virtual and fleshy public spheres has been

dominated by an interaction by two ever more shouty choruses. Gathered on one side, we have the serried ranks of atheists and their long-standing sub-corp of the collectively minded known as humanists. Across a chasm of mutual, wilful misapprehension from them are gathered the (largely Christian) hosts of Theism’s defenders. I want to suggest here that this debate has become ever more futile, distracting and shrill. Given the largely nihilistic tone of my existential world view, one might expect me to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dawkins, Dennett, et al – and I have felt that draw. However the polarising, simplifying nature of the arguments rehearsed leaves, I believe, a substantive middle ground untouched. Further, both sides are ever-more prone to treating religious faith merely as a matter of correspondence-theory metaphysics. Colleagues will know, and readers can surmise in safety, that I am not the world’s greatest fan of Theology – but it’s as if the discipline has never existed. You’d never know that reflective, intelligent, humane and critical people had actually given the nature and content of religion some sustained and rigorous inspection already.


Many theists and atheists seem to have got rather caught up on a propositional account of religion – which I’ve spoken about elsewhere at

length, so much so that some aren’t even sure about the term atheist, and others think it needs a ‘+’. Fine – we can argue about how well or badly various atheist accounts fully engage with various religious traditions, thinkers ideas…

Ok – but I wanted to pause here and think of the use of this term ‘Militant Atheist’. Of course , there have been past instances of Atheists standing violently against religion – though in some cases it’s arguable how much their atheism, rather than their being totalitarian despots, or statist communists, or whatever it is, drove their violence and crimes. And yes – we need to recall that in the cases of religious violence too: people may have complex and mixed motives. But….  Despite all this, it is dishonest to style the current wave of blog-writing, argumentative, book-publishing, seminar-holding, bus-sign displaying atheists as ‘miltant’.

When we talk of miltant Christians or Muslims, or Buddhists, whether we are wholly correct in our details, we are referring to people who carry out acts of violence in the name of their alleged-faith-commitments. Do atheists call for the closure of churches, by force? Do they call for religions to be outlawed? For violence against places of worship? While we may find an example on the web (isn’t that true of everything?) – generally they just don’t.

Many ‘new’ atheists may be misogynistic, or Islamophobic, or muddle-headed, or overly sarcastic, or bombastic. Some are respectful and subtle, and wise. But, taken in the round, they are not militant. To talk about Militant Atheists as if we mean, in this context, by ‘militant’ the same thing as we mean by ‘militant’ when we say ‘Militant Christian’ (for example) is just misleading…

Death, Statistics, Happiness – what else?

[Apologies for the pics – having a bit of a meme-fest at the moment..]

This post begin by considering some new stats, but ends up far away, considering some issues around death and happiness..

As many have noted, the Pew Forum report has given us some interesting stats about religion. I reblogged Per Smith writing about it recently.  The actual report is HERE.  The report summary notes:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

Lots has been said about it. I don’t intend to add to the ‘is the end of organised religion in the US’ hysteria. It isn’t – the figures seem quite unambiguous on that score.

What is more interesting is just how many identify as being members of a religious group – but then go on to identify as ‘not religious’ (SBNR of course). As Smith notes:

 The largest group in the “spiritual, not religious category” are Protestants. In fact only a third of the people in this category claim no religious affiliation at all. So what does “not religious” mean to those who are linking their own identities to religious institutions and communities? I’m tempted to interpret those who are both Christian and “spiritual, not religious” through the sentiments expressed by the creator of the

(in)famous “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.

I think not only of the ‘Hate Religion, Love Jesus‘  meme, but the claim I read recently: “Jesus was spiritual not religious”. What both these share is that they actually seem to indicate being religious, but not like that..  A look at the Bible seems to indicate just how much Jesus was religious / interested in religion (Matthew 5:18 anyone? Or his vision of a different sort of religion in James I? Or read lots
Leaving aside the theological coherency of these claims, what makes people note their membership of a broader group – but reject the acceptance that membership brings some notion of behaviour or authority with it? Is this what is happening here? I am a Catholic , or Protestant, but I am also my own person: I get the collective identity, but without the collective way of living? We can only speculate – but let’s do that..more here – from people who I might disagree with a lot on, but they know their scripture..)

A cynical view might be that the  the ‘rise of the nones‘ is actually the rise of the ‘me’s’? Although we might still want group identity, we won’t be told what to do. ‘We are members of religions, but we aren’t religious‘ – means religious, but not like that.. Where that stands for authority and tradition.

But what is new is not this attitude  – but the way of talking about it. Religion has always had scope for personal views too- but that was part of being religious, not of standing outside in a spirituality-only hinterland. The spiritual but not religious (SBNR) seems to believe that they are standing apart from religion, when the critique they bring forward has been part of religious traditions for millenia.

So what?

Hopeful atheists  might consider the anti-religious religiosity (which styles itself as SBNR) as transitional- as the death throes of all faith. That religion is fading, and this is part of that  – those not ready for SBNR, then atheist , over generations. There is no evidence for this. We may even see a  strengthening of some types of belief among  the SBNR, as others weaken. Only time will tell..

what we do we make of the NR of SBNR when at least some of the same people also ARE R! Goes against the most basic principles of Aristotelian logic that says something can not be both a and not-a..

Mind you, we might argue that a certain portion of the SNBR group would eject all logic as oppressive and is quite happy to accept contradictions..

We should note the SBNR has been culturally persistent. Those who moved to MBS, or new-age thought i the 60s or 70s have’t moved en masse to atheism.It isn’t acting like a transitional phase. More to the point, while those who identify this way may claim to reject religion, their beliefs and attitudes don’t place them outside religion, but very much in a long tradition of religious non-conformism. Be they Deists, Protestants or a whole variety of shades of mystic, these people have disputed what religion should be like: how personal, or authority-based, or based on subjective experiential claims. These are very much the SBNR approach – taking from different traditions, selecting some aspects and jettisoning others. Building a new, personal form of religion, drawing on some aspects of some religious traditions, seems to be the basis of SBNR.

So, the claim that this is waymarker en route to atheism is highly questionable. One might speculate as to why when people reject religion, they feel an attraction to ‘non-religious religion’ in this way.

One could point to the way atheism is presented in our culture. You might argue that atheists are presented as arrogant and smug (no comment there..), but more interesting is the widespread styling of atheism as scary, shallow and amoral. Despite evidence of morality being often independent of one’s metaphysical beliefs, we still find those who think you can’t be “good without God”.

This might be a partial explanation, but I think we also perhaps need to consider another. This is one I rehearsed last night with a really engaged group at Dartington: that a fuller acceptance of atheism requires a fuller reckoning with the inevitability of our death. I was also trying to link this to ideas of happiness, and where it might actually be found.

I spoke at Dartington after a weekend of Happiness events. That already, and perhaps I’m not alone in this, made me uncomfortable. A group of relatively privileged people, with leisure time, enough food, clean water on tap, luxuries, and probably the greatest life-expectancy the species has ever known: they need to be told by strangers what happiness consists of? In a world where – albeit far from many here – children die from a lack of clean water, where women live under the thumb of a harsh and unrelenting patriarchal regimes, where being publicly gay puts you in mortal danger, where people die of preventable diseases and there is starvation and malnutrition. And people gather at well-catered luxurious events here to bleat about their lives? About a lacunae of joy in their middle years perhaps?

This may be too harsh – even when our needs are met, we seem riven by existential questions. Rich men in luxury cars still listen to the blues on their fancy stereos. In the singer’s suffering they seem to find something in common – something shared – despite their radically different lives. This might give us a clue here about how the blues (and much human cultural production) seeks to articulate something more than just a response to particular time of hardship, but how it uncovers a level of what we might call fundamental human unhappiness – an existential angst.[1] So perhaps we should not be so judgemental of those who seek happiness amidst their privilege. Of those who have it all, know their good fortune, and yet still seek a ‘life-coach’ as there is “something missing”. I remember how a student connected Sikhism with French existentialism after my claim that this is what religions fundamentally are: differing responses to the existential realities that we all have to face at some point.

This doesn’t wholly get rid of my discomfort with what we might call ‘the happiness movement’, but we’ll come to that. What I want to look at is how those of us who refuse religion view death – the thing that religions rush to deny, but that is also persistently obstructed by the SBNR movements – the absolute, total annihilation and obliteration of the person at death. I am not here to dispute the issue of human mortality. I have looked at the evidence of millennia. Despite the claims of those who support it, I find it persistently poor. It cherry-picks, invokes anecdote, and varies its claims post hoc to try and match evidence.[2] I am not so arrogant as to claim we know, beyond question, that there is not something beyond the grave – but given just how long people have been dying and how little impact said post-death fate has on us – it seems a functionally safe claim. The world acts just as world would if there where nothing beyond death, we may be wrong but given the absence of information on this – we have to live as if there is nothing more: this seems the only reasonable option.

Jean-Paul Sartre takes atheism not as the end of his philosophy, but the starting point. I am not interested in arguing about life after death, about spiritual forces, cosmic energy and the like. What is, surely, more interesting is : what happens, where can we go, when we take the complete inevitability of our finitude, of our total, irrevocable mortality as our starting point? What happens then?

Some might presume that we can only travel further from joy via this path: that is leads only to despondence and misery.

What Dispirited is, in its more positive moments, is the idea that facing up to the bleak, nihilistic, brain-numbing pointlessness of life is the actually best way to work towards a well-lived life. Might we actually locate joy in our blasted landscape of post-spiritual finitude? As I argue in the book:

This is a time for true – thinking – flow, for dusting ourselves down after our rejection of spirituality and religion and deciding what actually matters, and disputing it amongst us without the danger of spiritual or religious trump cards being played. If Camus can imagine Sisyphus happy, we too can turn our shoulders to the boulder and get stuck into living.

This business is far from completed in the book. Indeed, its barely started, but what I hope is that it’s identified as the job for those who want to leave the R,  the R and not-R, and even the SBNR behind – and work out what life and death looks like for the genuinely non-R.

[1] I have written about this in the blues elsewhere..

[2] For all my life, it has been ‘on-the-cusp’ of bringing better evidence forward. Soon. Even if it does, it appears to prove only a continuation of energy, of some sort : what difference to how we live can it make?

Atheism Plus. Or Not. Or Something Else..

UPDATE: See – although I don’t (see below!) wholly agree with Atheism Plus, the harrassment Jen McCreight  has had to put up with is totally uncalled for. It goes way beyond reasonable disagreement, and has often featured real, nasty misognyny. It reminds me of Laurie Penny’s piece about the huge abuse that women get online. I am very sorry to see her go, but understand why..

Well, while I’ve been mostly offline (at least in terms of serious blogging, due to factors some know about) this summer, there have been some very odd developments. At least they seem odd to me. Atheists, particularly in the

Atheism Plus logoUSA have been falling out. Nothing new in that, you might think, as they always have; sharing only a disbelief hardly inclines towards unity. However, the falling out here has had odd consequences, such as the proposal of ‘Atheism+’ as a possible solution. Here I want to take a look at this development and what, if anything, it might mean.

The whole A+ (for short.. it is annoying, but I’m using it – my ability to type is seriously impeded!) thing requires an appreciation of the context, which some of us here in Europe might lack. The atheism/scepticism/free-thought people in the US seem more organised to start with. It may be that they need to be- faced with a deeply religious culture, the Bible-Belt, religious TV and radio, and the like. It may also be a cultural thing about joining, organising and meeting. Maybe. There are events, blogs and ‘movements’ on a greater scale, and some trace the current issues to one of these events. This have become known as ‘elevatorgate’ (in Dublin, not the US, but the community and response seems centred there) – I won’t say more but see  – and you’ll see that Dawkins seemed to act like an idiot, and add to the perception that atheist, etc groups were dominated by male, middle-aged white guys (like society?).

The debates on (various) blogs became more divisive. More bitter and futile. A bit like in religions that forget about converting unbelievers and obsess about orthodoxy in those who do believe. Not that some weren’t in the right here, and others in the wrong, it just seems to have got beyond being about that. The whole ‘FreeThought Bullies’ meme/hashtag got started. Different sides complained of being bullied, silenced, marginalised and excluded. You can read about the whole unedifying business here:

That is (some) of the background.. There’s a summary at (it being in the New Statesman helped it gather a lot more UK notoriety)…

So – this is where it comes out of – but what is it? Much of it is to be found on the Free Though blog pages, such as where Jen McCreight calls for a new wave of atheism. An atheism that won’t put up with rape jokes, social inequity, anti-feminism, anti-diversity monoculturalism and the like. Sounds good.

Click here for cartoon source, and more discussion..Now – quite a few have pointed out that a form of atheism that goes beyond mere disbelief towards political secularism and social justice already exists. It’s called humanism. Now – readers of the book are aware that I don’t much like humanism, for various reasons, and although Greta Christina has nicer things to say about Humanism – she is keen to distinguish it from Atheism+ see:  Atheism+ is less polite/genteel/apologetic, less about replicating religious structures, and not as apolitical (about broader issues outside secularism) as humanism. Furthermore, many young people recognise atheism as describing them where they don’t for humanism. See the blog post for more differences, though I’m slightly of the view that they are over-done for much of the piece.

So – how so: what, you’d be entitled to ask is it? It’s own blog defines it at – but is vague so far.. However, a handy sidebar gives the key tenets:

Atheists plus we care about social justice.

Atheists plus we support women’s rights.

Atheists plus we protest racism.

Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia.

Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

A place where people can discuss atheism, social justice, and other topics without the risk of threats or harassment. Take part in the conversation!

Well – who apart from homophobic, bigoted, racist atheists wouldn’t agree?

There does seem a need to (mostly in the US it seems) to stand up to idiots in the atheism ‘community’ – particularly on certain blog platforms. So far – these seem in favour of A+ as a notion. But..

There seem two possible responses here, neither seeing a need for A+ as a movement, (though as a blogging platform away from those who driven people away from others it seems fine). I tend towards the latter position, but I’ll outline the former.

This initial position is that atheism doesn’t entail any social justice conclusions. It means a lack of belief in God- nothing more. From this you can’t deduce that feminism is preferable to patriarchy, or that justice even makes sense. In this context, atheism is just a denial – it needs something different and positive in order to make to claims outlined above. Something extra- but that ‘plus’ just adds to the atheism – it doesn’t say what it is that people believe in. They actually seem to believe in people, and their equality and dignity. In humans. Maybe atheism should stand for the disbelief and another term for the positive beliefs in the equality and worth of all human. Perhaps something like ‘humanism’?

[A more cynical writer might claim that all A+ want is in Humanism, except for the credit for starting a movement, and the sense of a new-beginning. I wouldn’t dream of it..]

Actually, although I am tempted by this position, and see a role for older uses of humanism perhaps, I favour a different position.

I don’t agree that atheism has no intellectual or political consequences. Even if many atheists don’t think through what atheism implies, and refuse to take those consequences on board, it still implies them. I don’t see a need for atheism plus, as I take the view that atheism already, actually, implies all the things that A+ is seeking.

Atheism implies a lack of ‘essences’ that make men, or women, or people of this or that sexual orientation, or with this disability, or lack thereof, better than each other. All privilege is socially constructed, in an atheist context there is no intrinsic basis for any of it.

I agree with Sartre when he writes 

Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position‘ – He sees that  atheism sees us as equally thrown, alone and in need of value. What, though, of social justice? Well, the personal demand for equal recognition, for being valued irrespective of race,  gender, orientation, disability and ethnicity isn’t divorced from having a social dimension. Just as atheism itself implies equality of worth amongst persons, this equality of worth has socio-political implications of equality and mutual respect. While we, quite rightly, need to argue about what they look like, some might take the view that the feminist, social justice, human worth consequences of atheism already have a name: surely that’s called Marxism?

We might balk at that term, call it atheistic existentialism or socialism, but ‘atheism plus’ seems to be better captured by these terms. While I really think the term itself will falter (and I don’t much like it, as I hint here), and go the way of ‘brights’, and that it actually represents a return to (legitimate) concerns that have been sidelined rather than a ‘new wave of thinking’, I do hope that it does give us pause to consider where being a atheist actually leads, and what it implies for questions of equality and diversity.


Other engagements:

Sartre, Human Nature and ‘kusala’…

I was re-reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 piece Existentialism Is a Humanism recently, as I headed off to explore existentialism with some 6th Formers locally. It was an interesting session, and not too doom-laden – I hope…

What struck me though, on my -re-read, was the following passage:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

This seems to hit the nail on the head. It lays out clearly the consequence of atheism: that we are a starting point, as humans. Without a human nature, we lay aside ideas of having an immutable spirit, or soul – or prior, spiritual form, and look to see what we can do as finite, temporally limited beings.

Photo of Sartre

This account, that tells us we have no recourse to anything but ourselves, is the opening up of freedom. Of course, Sartre and other existentialists (including the religious ones) are very aware that such freedom is far from unproblematic. Freedom in the absence of authority is, in part, where we derive absurdity from. We must choose. But how? With no spirit guide, no Holy book, no metaphysics which can guide morals, we are bereft of guidance.

Yet we must still choose.

This bracing circumstance may seem like a burden, but I want – in future posts – to see if we can employ some Buddhist ideas to help see where it might lead. The primary one of these will be the idea of ‘good’ action as being kusala. In The Philosophy of Desire book I begin to address the meaning of this term – and am largely in favour of the translation as ‘skilful’. This leads me, in that book, to argue for the idea of a ‘well-crafted life’ in a Buddhist context.

What would a ‘well-crafted life’, in an atheistic, existentialist world that Sartre claims we inhabit, look like? That’s what I hope to move on to in future posts..

Žižek and the challenge for 21st Century Atheism

Turns out May (on this blog at least) is Žižek month…

That man again...

I was reading an article (Slavoj Žižek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009) 27-28) where Žižek seems to touch on another of the concerns here. In a previous post I looked at the universalist discourses of mysticism – and the book expands on the problems they, rather surreptitiously, bring with them. Žižek notes a feature of this – the insistence of new-age thought on separating spirituality from religion, and the claim that all spiritual paths share in the same, transcendent, ineffable experience. As he notes below – this is often now presented as the core of religion: and everything else becomes seen as contingent, second-order and therefore negotiable and less urgent. I see this as persuausive and troubling. Troubling because various aspects of religion now fall away: ethics, concerns with social justice, poverty, communal values: all these are now not the heart of religion: but follow later, and in ways open to negotiation and ongoing revision.

 However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (the perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organizationed religion), they (often no so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.

To place the pure meditation as the heart of religion is to absolutely comply with Žižek’s final claim here. Such a ‘spirituality’ is not a challenge to capitalism, it is not even an institution that could match or threaten it. It is (as he also says of Western Buddhism elsewhere, such as in On Belief) an ideological supplement to capitalism. It is a balm that lets us continue to tolerate a world of injustice, poverty and inequality – by removing ourselves to an ‘inner self’, and by se-substantialising the world through mystical versions of notions of Māya, and the world as less-real than it seems.

So while we reject religion, we must note that when we do so, we need to pay attention not to finding something to replace its function as metaphysical account of reality, but to how structures to support social equity, fairer distribution of resources and personal and group ethics can be established. This, rather than endless futile bickering about ‘proofs’ for God’s existence with Theists, seems like a proper challenge for the atheists of the 21st Century.

Marmite Thinkers and Spiritual Rejections

As previous posts attest, I am an atheist. One who also rejects Spirituality. However, in some of my talks I have received flak for seeming to defend organised religion (while attacking disorganised religions). I am not sure I do so that much – but I do feel that some of the more positive fallouts of organised religion are absent in the new-age and mind-body-spirit worlds. That is true. I think I may have found someone who almost agrees with me..

By this – I don’t mean Alain de Botton. I am resisting saying anything on the blog about Alain de Botton and his Religion for Atheists.. Partly because I was always taught “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.” So I won’t. For now.

WSlavoj Žižekhat I want to look at is someone who seems to divide opinion even more starkly than de Botton: Slavoj Žižek. There seems to be a backlash against Žižek at the moment. One writer seems to even call him Buddhaphobic. Perhaps I’ll return to that in another post. Either way he seems to be a love or hate thinker. Personally I’m in the former camp. I can forgive him the endless self-plagiarism (whole chunks from previous books appear in other ones), the digressions, manic presentation style, the sweat and the lapses in Lacanian jargon. Why? Because he is so often very persuasive – and entertaining – and has things to say which actually seem important.

In an interview for Believer magazine he is asked an interesting question:

BLVR: Your book The Puppet and the Dwarf deals with St. Paul. In fact, it celebrates St. Paul’s Christianity in contrast to other forms of spirituality, i.e. gnosticism, new-age spiritualities, etc. So why would an
atheist defend Christianity?

His answer is fascinating…

SŽ: Today, spirituality is fashionable. Either some pagan spirituality of tolerance, feminine principle, holistic approach against phallocentric Western imperialist logic or, within the Western tradition, we have a certain kind of rehabilitation of Judaism, respect for otherness, and so on. Or you are allowed to do Christianity, but you must do a couple of things which are permitted. One is to be for these repressed traditions, the early Gnostic gospels or some mystical sects where a different nonhegemonic/patriarchal line was discernible. Or you return to the original Christ, which is against St. Paul. The idea is that St. Paul was really bad, he changed Christianity into this patriarchal state, but Jesus, himself, was something different.

What I like is to see the emancipatory potential in institutionalized Christianity. Of course, I don’t mean state religion, but I mean the moment of St. Paul. I find a couple of things in it. The idea of the Gospel, or good news, was a totally different logic of emancipation, of justice, of freedom. For example, within a pagan attitude, injustice means a disturbance of the natural order. In ancient Hinduism, or even with Plato, justice was defined in what today we would call almost fascistic terms, each in his or her place in a just order. Man is the benevolent father of the family, women do their job taking care of the family, worker does his work and so on. Each at his post; then injustice means this hubris when one of the elements wants to be born, i.e. instead of in a paternal way, taking care of his population, the king just thinks about his power and how to exploit it. And then in a violent way, balance should be reestablished, or to put it in more abstract cosmological terms, you have cosmic principles like yin and yang. Again, it is the imbalance that needs to establish organic unities. Connected with this is the idea of justice as paying the price as the preexisting established order is balanced.

But the message that the Gospel sends is precisely the radical abandonment of this idea of some kind of natural balance; the idea of Gospels and the part of sins is that freedom is zero. We begin from the zero point, which is at least originally the point of radical equality. Look at what St. Paul is writing and the metaphors he used. It is messianic, the end of time, differences are suspended. It’s a totally different world whose formal structure is that of radical revolution.

What I noted here in the first section was his suspicion of these alternative spiritualities. He seems to see in them a certain self-serving, trendy smugness. And for those in the Christian tradition, it is only fashionable of you find an oppressed discourse of gnostic/mystical rebelliion which grants you some type of victim status. This seems to accord with the way I claim mysticism is deployed by many in the New-age and Gnostic movements. What he does see as worth saving in the Christian tradition is not nice buildings, or moving songs (sorry, couldn’t resist the de Botton dig) – but some thing much more important. That is, Paul as the source for thinking about what radical equality might actually mean: an upsetting of natural orders, of hierarchies, and not of a futile gesture in the face of a society you ultimately capitulate to (as we might characterise the ‘alternative-ness’ of most alternative spirituality) – but of revolution.

This doesn’t make me want to be a Christian, but it makes me think that we (atheists) might have something to learn about just how socio-politically radical a set of ideas can be found in much religious thinking: and how we might yet need some of them in the face of the inclusivist, neo-liberal, post-ideological world-views that new-age spirituality seems to represent.