Wednesday, May 9, 2012

So you call yourself an atheist?

You are either one way or the other. In the choosing of sides, we perhaps misunderstand much of our basic nature. And yet, when we do choose a side, a word, a way of life even, above all others, it is then that we can see hidden implications inherent within, secret whisperings like a cloud forming on the horizon on an otherwise sunny day. Perhaps it is because of these clouds that we can move forward. No idea can permanently be stuck, eternal, absolute. The movement of the world will not allow it.

When asked why he engages in the deconstruction of texts mainly within the philosophical tradition, why he seeks to show the internal inconsistencies within an argument until it dissolves into something else entirely, Derrida says that his only answer is that to allow an argument to dominate all else, which it can never do anyway, would be a type of death. This is the hidden implication within any ideal - its total realisation is death. As such, ideals can never truly be present in the world. They exist in conversation with each other.

Derrida is a terrible writer. Sometimes you get the sense that he is having his cake, and eating it. He can be infuriating. But at the (I hesitate to say) centre of what he is saying is something intensely practical, intensely commonsensical. He is basically saying that nothing can exist independent from all other things. Underneath the weight of the language games, asides, and massively long and complex sentences, lies something inherently simple and, dare I say it, good. Derrida's is the philosophy not of blowing apart, not of destruction (which he was at pains to point out) but of reconciliation and understanding.

What would he have made, then, of Dawkins' style of atheism? Preaching from the pulpit, Dawkins thinks it right to espouse logic and science over religion. Caught up in the debate since he began writing about evolution, Dawkins has taken it upon himself to fight science's corner. What would Derrida have made of Dawkins taking such a radical stance? Does his denial of religion set the stage for its return? By setting up such a radical evil in the face of the good of science as Dawkins does, he is shaping science's future, in its relationship to us, as the true believers of this new faith?

Whatever the outcome of these wars between religion and science - this epic power struggle - perhaps we can take a leaf out of Derrida's book. Perhaps we can remain aloof by having our cake and eating it, so to speak. To do this, all one has to do is go back to what Derrida said at a talk he was giving during a convention on religion.

During it, a member of the audience quoted a passage from one of Derrida's book back to the French man, "I rightly pass for an atheist." The audience member then asked, "Why don't you just say 'I am an atheist' instead of 'I rightly pass'? Is it because you have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God, or some doubts about whether you are an atheist? Suppose someone interpreted that to mean, 'I am to all appearances an atheist, but appearances can be deceiving, so don't be too sure - perhaps I am not'".

In typical Derridean style, he begins his answer by saying, "I am not simply the one that says 'I'". After emphasising de-centred non-presence, as is his prerogative, Derrida goes on to say something very interesting. He says that true belief depends to a certain degree on atheism in that "it goes through a number of atheistic steps". He mentions religious critique of idolatry as an aspect of this atheism.

The muslims forbid anyone making an image of Mohammed - to do so of the creator is unthinkable. Likewise, to speak the true name of God in the Jewish religion is impossible and/or forbidden. When Moses found the Jews worshipping a golden cow he flew into a rage. No one can worship false gods because there is only one, and the name that He gave to Moses when asked who He was was Yahweh, which translates as "I am that am." How can you make an image of a God who is pure presence?

Derrida's whole work could be interpreted as a critique of the notion of presence, of pure presence. It can also be considered as a type of dance with this notion and around it, the teasing out of its hidden possibilities. And, in the end, Derrida remains uncertain. Just as you can never completely do away with the possibility of presence, of death, so too can you never do away with the notion of God completely either, if we are to link this notion with metaphysical presence.

We must also consider the cultural context in which the Jews came up with this notion of a universal God, a universal presence. It must have been in conflict with the paganism of the time, with the worshipping of many gods, their images emblazoned in marble and mosaics, with kings calling themselves divine. In such a world, is not the belief in one God a radical step towards atheism?

A further possibility remains - perhaps atheism is the natural conclusion for any theistic religion, which is characterised as an emptying out of the presence within the pagan world view. First, get rid of the need for many gods, proclaiming there to be only one. The next logical step is to empty out the one God of His own divine presence, as if Yahweh, "I am that am", was a kind of dare, as if the statement were teasing Moses to ask the question, "What is that is?"

This would mean that atheism shares a hidden genealogy with theism. In his argument, perhaps Dawkins has the wrong target. He should look at the systems of oppression that grew up around it, and its use as a political tool to justify the cruelest policy. But to take the attack to the centre, the belief in God itself, may be akin to shooting oneself in the foot. Or worse, it may blind people to the true mistakes of the past, and we may be doomed to repeat this cycle in some way all over again, under the banner of science or something similar.

Derrida describes how the believer must take him or herself as close to atheism as possible, to experience a kind of dark night of the soul, to face the risk that they may be praying to nothing. In fact, he says, they are fully aware of this risk. This, Derrida holds, is essential to belief. One must take oneself as close as is possible to atheism. He paraphrases Levinas, who at once admitted that to a degree he is an atheist because he does not understand God to be an existing being. The true believer is fully aware that he or she is literally praying to nothing. They "run the risk of radical atheism". "If I believe in a being beyond Being, then I am an atheist in a certain way," Derrida goes on to say.

This is where Dawkins' argument about the flying spaghetti monster falls down, or is made to seem crude and shallow in comparison. He asks us why believe in something that does not exist, like a flying spaghetti monster? But is this not what the atheist does in affirming him or herself an atheist, calling oneself by that title, allying oneself with a non-existing being?

In the end Derrida describes his own position on the matter, one which I happen to agree with: "I cannot say that I am an atheist, as a position, 'I know what I am: I am this and nothing else' ... this would sound obscene. I wouldn't say that I am an atheist; I wouldn't say that I am a believer either. I find the statement ridiculous, that I am a believer. Who knows that? Who can affirm, or confirm that they are a believer, and who can say 'I am an atheist?'" And then, in a typically Derridean move towards the non-committal, he ends by saying, "I just write such sentences."

Of course, you do Jacques, of course you do.

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