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.

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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.