In a confessional mode, I’m afraid I have to get something off my chest: I don’t think I’m an atheist. Making things more difficult, I’m also clearly not religious. What I mean by this is complicated, so I’m going to try to use two posts to unpack it.
My position, if I were to label it, is rather Anidjarian (to adjectivize Professor Gil Anidjar, whose post on atheism earlier this summer I largely agree with). Unfortunately, to label my position and to adjectivize Anidjar are not very Anidjarian, but perhaps the generous reader will allow me to disavow both gestures without erasing the previous sentence. I also have to admit that it’s the last paragraph of Anidjar’s post that I find the clearest and most poignant, and it’s the dense argument made there that I find so compelling.
In an essay entitled “Secularism” that appeared in Social Inquiry in 2006, Anidjar draws on Edward Said’s Orientalism and Talal Asad’s genealogical work, among other touch points, in order to produce a critique of secularism. It seems to me that his critique of atheism, and concomitantly humanism (and perhaps antihumanism, depending on how one reads the middle part of his post, “The poverty of atheism”), is an extension of this earlier argument. To put it briefly, Anidjar argues that Christianity, secularism, and religion are mutually constitutive and codependent sites of discourse that operate together to undergird a long history of colonialism and imperialism. Tersely, he writes: “Secularism is Orientalism. And Orientalism is Christianity. It is Christian imperialism.”
The last paragraph of “The poverty of atheism” draws similar conclusions about the murky history of atheism and its imperialist employment. I share Anidjar’s wariness of atheism, but that said, I think it’s important to draw some distinctions moving forward since I worry that we’re getting a little carried away with the transitive property (Atheism = Secularism = Christianity = Orientalism) while erasing some important differences. I agree that the New Atheists are part of an imperialist discursive constellation, and I would elaborate that argument by saying they’re attempting to align the foreign and domestic enemies of the West, and the U.S. in particular, under a single rubric of “religion.” They can only do this through “atheism” and “secularism,” and it seems to me that to do so is certainly Christian imperialism in the sense that Anidjar means. That’s interesting, but it’s only one kind of atheism, albeit the atheism we usually mean when we say the word.
So what do we mean when we say atheism, and are there other kinds of atheism that don’t bear the stain of Christian imperialism? What if you’re not able to describe yourself as religious but are critical of atheist discourse, for the reasons Anidjar cites? What’s the alternative and should a label even be attempted? I’ll try my best to answer these questions in my next blog post, part 2 of this discussion.