A cluster of terms delimits religion in contemporary debates by naming that which it is not: immanentism, naturalism, materialism, monism, and of course, atheism. One of these terms appears in the title of this website and the rest in many of its essays. Though they do a lot of heavy lifting, they rarely receive elaboration.
In different ways, and with different emphases, these terms point to a fundamentally “irreligious” philosophical standpoint or worldview, predicated on the denial of the existence of a “supernatural” or “spiritual” realm beyond the material world of the everyday. It should give us pause that most of these terms remain primarily used and defined by religious people and in religious terms.
Figured within a religious frame, these terms are negative in at least two senses. First, they are the inverse or denial of the religious mindset or worldview, assuming that religion is centered on belief and presupposes the existence of a “transcendent” or “supernatural” reality. And second, they often carry a pejorative connotation, as a set of philosophical premises that is somehow lacking or defective in both descriptive and normative ways.
In Charles Taylor’s notion of “the immanent frame,” for instance, immanence refers to a way of experiencing the world that has “sloughed off the transcendent.” This loss leaves individuals “buffered” and “directionless,” infusing modernity with a general “malaise”, which in turn drives the contemporary proliferation of new religious demands and worldviews. This novelty spurred by lack is what Taylor calls the “super-nova” effect.
The purpose of this forum is to recover a different way of understanding terms such as “immanence,” “naturalism,” “materialism,” and “monism” in order to overcome their parasitic, negative relationship with religious premises and thus shed the negative connotations they have accreted in Christian-centered Western thought. We want, in other words, to reconstruct a positive way of imagining irreligion, on its own terms.
To do this, we propose to return to the work of a set of authors from the Western tradition who have attempted to create a self-sufficient, coherent description of an immanentist world. We wager that within the prevailing trends of Western thought there is a tradition that has challenged the widespread assumption that any sound philosophical understanding of the world must necessarily culminate in “metaphysics” or “theology.” Moreover, in uniting the various strands of this tradition, we expect a new picture will emerge that offers a better account of a presence that has for too long been figured as an absence.
Often reviled and frequently misunderstood, this tradition extends temporally from before the emergence of the great monotheistic religions (in figures like Democritus, Epicurus, and later Lucretius) to those strands of contemporary philosophical reflection that describe themselves as “post-modern” or “post-metaphysical” (think of figures such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, or Bruno Latour). Between these two temporal extremes are a host of other influential figures who have arguably revived and reshaped this tradition: Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Auguste Comte, but also arguably Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.
To be sure, the criteria for inclusion in this “immanentist” tradition are likely to be objects of discussion and disagreement—not least among those who participate in its disparate strains. A secondary goal of recovering these figures and the links amongst their respective systems of thought is therefore to interrogate the notion of “tradition” itself, asking what this term might mean when applied to authors who explicitly reject the categories that Hannah Arendt understood to comprise tradition itself: the “authority” of the past and the “religion” of transcendence.
Are there meaningful conceptual trajectories that can be traced between ancient Greco-Roman atomism, Spinozan monism, Humean empiricism, Marxian materialism, and post-modern naturalism? And if so, can any coherently and self-sufficiently “immanentist” worldview be said to unite them?
These are open questions we raised for discussion to a group of contemporary leading experts in the hope of making legible an underappreciated tradition within the Western canon and contributing to contemporary debates on the nature of religion and its role in the public sphere. By recovering a positive presence within that which exceeds or negates the religious, we can, perhaps, initiate a new frame that moves beyond a historical dialectic and embraces a more complex intellectual ecology.