In my last post, I claimed I wasn’t an atheist. That’s a complicated declaration. Atheism, despite being technically no more than contra-theism, is most of the time a philosophy with positive content. It’s usually strict materialism buttressed by other moral and political ideologies (though who could really separate the latter two categories). For the New Atheists (Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris), atheism is materialism with the support of the myths of technological advancement and a hierarchy of civilizations. There are also exceptions to strict materialist atheism, such as the popular French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville’s rejuvenation of Aldous Huxley’s perennialism (though the former gives no credit to the latter) in The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality (L’esprit de l’athéisme). Comte-Sponville’s argument, as well as Huxley’s, is roughly that there is a kernel of truth underlying all religions, and this kernel is most clearly articulated in hardcore mysticism and other esoteric theology and philosophy (e.g., Sufism, Kabbalah, pantheism, strains of Buddhist philosophy, Gnosticism, critical theory in Western philosophy, etc.).
However, this kind of spiritual atheism still bears the stain of Christian imperialism, to use Gil Anidjar’s term. I don’t know of any form of atheism that doesn’t hold true to this, because to use the term is always to bear its past and employ that past intentionally or unintentionally. (I say the latter in answer to those who would argue for an atheist Buddhist tradition, which would necessarily bear the connotations of atheism in translation, and which is also a questionable claim given the pervasiveness of reincarnation doctrine and the alignment of atheism with strict materialism). As I’m sure many readers have noticed, a lot of people tend to shy away from the term atheism—even if they are strict materialists—largely because they think it has antireligious connotations with which they would prefer not to be associated. I sometimes fall in this camp, and in my last post I drew on some of the work of Anidjar to argue that I’m neither religious nor atheist (nor spiritual or a seeker, for that matter).
In his Immanent Frame post, “The poverty of atheism,” Anidjar is critical of the common desire to “name.” In this sense, I can’t name my position except in terms of critique, where that critique is an overture to a more complicated explanation that requires a conversation or an essay. Perhaps this is for the best. We might consider such a process the intellectual equivalent of the slow food movement—though to be clear, I’m implying an analogy, not a genealogy. In this way, slow thought means slowing things down despite the pressure to speed them up (where the latter idea is to increase efficiency—which as we all know is an intrinsic good, I kid). Basically, what I mean to say is, “Hey, I have no name for what I am.” I’m not sure if I can call such a statement a complaint as much as an observation, and practically it means something like, “Well, I guess you could call me an atheist, but I’m not really an atheist. I could explain more if you are interested.” And there we begin.
These are the quotidian politics and morals of my relationship to religion and atheism—terms I use despite myself, and terms I’m careful in using, as I straddle the line between honesty and tedious academic explanation. I feel my scholarship will really begin to do its heavy-lifting after we’ve gotten this initial conversation out of the way. That does not mean just using the term “atheism” anyway, but rather refusing to do away with it wholesale and refusing to elide important differences. I want to say, “I’m not quite an atheist, and now that you understand my meaning and now that you understand where I’m coming from, let’s have a conversation about this thing we call atheism—without dismissing it and without feeling the need to cling to it.” After secularization? It seems “after atheism” offers an equally compelling line of inquiry.