Stefanos Geroulanos’s An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought—the subject of an ongoing forum here at The Immanent Frame—was taken up for discussion last week by participants in the yearlong seminar on secularism being held at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, NJ. The seminar, conceived and directed by Joan Wallach Scott—who, having completed The Politics of the Veil, felt the problematic of secularism to be too compelling to leave behind—brings together scholars from a plethora of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives, and with a wide range of cultural and chronological focal points, so as to advance inquiry into how, by whom, and to what ends the secular has been defined (and its definition, deployed) historically and today.

Geroulanos’s study provides a peculiar perspective on the seminar’s central theme, as it charts, not the emergence of a secularist juridical regime, nor the formation and calcification of a normative secularism in academic and political culture, but the “at once slow and monumental” disassociation of the syndromic complex characteristic of the philosophical tradition that traces its filiation to the Enlightenment, which cleaved atheist disbelief to anthropocentric faith in secular utopias and, concomitantly, to the human being’s capacity to comprehend its own existence and to attain, on the basis of such self-knowledge, its ethical and existential fulfillment in a world bereft of transcendence.

Tomoko Masuzawa—the first of three commentators to address Geroulanos—wondered aloud how the rationalist rejection of a personal god, long known as atheism, on one hand, and the easy optimism and zealous progressivism that later came to be associated with the term “humanism,” on the other, became so aggregated and even fused (as in “secular humanism”) in the first place. Noting that the term “humanism” in our present sense is generally absent in the nineteenth century, at least in German and Anglophone texts—perhaps thereby lending credibility to Geroulanos’s decision to limit the scope of his study to the early twentieth-century French milieu, which would be, in turn, a point of contention for other participants—Masuzawa recited the quotation from Emmanuel Levinas from which the book’s title derives: “Contemporary thought holds the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist. . . .” Dwelling on Levinas’s sense of surprise, she ventured that the aggregation of “atheism” and “humanism” must have happened “overnight,” in the interstices between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, so that the sudden disaggregation in the 1930s could have come as a “surprise.”

Similarly historiographical concerns were also at the fore of Judith Surkis’s subsequent commentary. Drawing an analogy with the theme of secularism, the seminar’s raison d’être, Surkis gestured toward the difficulty of studying something whose very definition is decidedly indefinite, and that of tracing transformations in the order of conceptuality, which especially appear to defy schematization under the rubric of linear causality. Can one posit, even provisionally, the reality of something like secularity, for instance, without reinscribing problematic presuppositions as concerns its content, its historical inevitability, or its contemporary salience?

Surkis remarked that Geroulanos’s book is exemplary in its eschewal of teleological insistence and recalled, as a methodological precursor, Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (1983). Veyne, as Surkis explained, proffered a “polygonal,” as opposed to a linear, model of causality, arguing that the historian, rather than look for a monolithic transition from belief to unbelief, ought to ask how the causes of each variably determine the enunciation or emergence of their respective objects in divergent circumstances. This is to suggest (on my gloss, at least) that the “object” in question be accorded modular and fundamentally variable definition—in other words, a minimum of discreteness, or determinacy, without definitive content. In closing, Surkis raised the question of the political implications of different conceptions of causality—a theoretical quandary that is, no doubt, something of a touchstone for anyone who wishes to critically engage with the conceptual ensemble of secularism, secularity, and secularization.

The final commentary was delivered by Gil Anidjar, who, echoing to some extent his earlier remarks on the book, argued that, while we should not be terribly surprised that the Christian concepts—e.g, finitude, theanthropy, redemption—that Geroulanos excavates and recalls to our attention continued to substantially inform French philosophy well into the twentieth century, we should perhaps be wary of the use of “atheism,” as in “an atheism that is not humanist,” to group and consolidate the multiple ruptures and reconfigurations that comprise Geroulanos’s history of antihumanist thought. For atheism, Anidjar suggested, all too easily substitutes for secularism without addressing its shortcomings, and its rehabilitation risks reasserting, however inadvertently, Christianity’s constitutive universalistic pretensions—or imperial intentions—thus subsuming, without acknowledging, heterogeneous alternatives, theological or other.

In response, Geroulanos contended that it was in opposition to the regnant humanist idealism of the French academy in the early twentieth century that arguments for and about atheism proliferated with unprecedented force and extension, and that it was of precisely this historical and philosophical phenomenon that he undertook to offer an account. But if the political and ethical implications of “atheist antihumanism” remain, in any event, nebulous and recalcitrant to codification, as certainly seemed to some of the seminar’s participants to be the case, Geroulanos’s genealogy nonetheless forces us to pose the question—once again and, in all likelihood, again and again—of what is staked in countersigning our ethical sensibilities, political aspirations, and existence itself in the name of “God” or “Man,” and even of other gods and other men.