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Newheiser by David Newheiser CC BY-NC 2.0
Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

Atheism and the Critique of Sovereignty

By disrupting pernicious claims to transcendence, atheist political theologies can help us redress suffering in particular places while keeping hope for radical transformation.

From its inception as a modern field of study, political theology has been concerned with the secular. Carl Schmitt described the persistence of theology in secular politics, and he diagnosed modern disenchantment as a disaster. Although many of us have moved beyond Schmitt, secularization continues to shape the field in which political theology works – whether as an analytical tool or an argumentative foil.

It is therefore strange that political theology has had so little to say about atheism. Whereas the language of “secularization” speaks in the deadpan tone of sociology and political science, atheism is an identity that inspires passionate attachment. Because some communities have claimed the term as their own, atheism resists scholarly analysis, but this is also the reason this work is important. From 17th century France to India today, atheism animates the material practice of actual lives.

I recently edited a collection, The Varieties of Atheism, which seeks to expand this discussion. By considering the significance of atheism for science, society, literature, and the rest of life, the chapters show that atheism is more varied – and therefore more interesting – than philosophers and public figures tend to acknowledge. As I argue in the introduction, atheism is vibrant and diverse: like religion, it is a matter of meaning, emotion, and moral formation (not only belief).

The present symposium demonstrates the value of a capacious understanding of atheism. Political atheism is often associated with organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation that defend the rights of unbelievers. In the United States, such groups have played an important role in resisting theocratic forms of Christianity. However, advocacy of this kind remains limited by its focus on religious and nonreligious beliefs.

In contrast, this symposium develops a broad vision of atheism and politics. Moving beyond familiar polemics over the authority of science, the essays explore the meaning of atheism for the politics of diverse communities – from primary school students in rural Britain to Black activists in 19th century America. Crucially, these forms of atheism call into question authoritarian religion even as they undercut an atheism that claims cultural supremacy.

As Julian Forth suggests, the contributors describe a politics of immanence that resists domination. Anna Strhan and Christopher Cameron trace the work of activists to promote tolerance of atheists and religionists alike. In different modes, Hollis Phelps, Timothy Stacey, and Mikkel Flohr each describe a politics that resists the claim to transcendent authority, whether in the form of theist ideologies or ideological atheism. And Roberto Che Espinoza finds an atheism against empire in the teachings of Jesus.

Since I am preoccupied by the critical potential of political theology, I was struck by the contributors’ examination of sovereignty. From Schmitt to Agamben, many scholars have associated political theology with sovereign authority. This suggests that theology is political insofar as it seeks either to control the public sphere or to withdraw in favor of spiritual purity. Where these theorists set political theology at odds with democratic pluralism, I have argued that some forms of theology open every authority to contestation.

In my reading, this symposium shows that atheism can enrich a negative political theology – one that lives in the tension between political realism and utopian critique. Because religion and its critics are connected by a complex relation of affinity and resistance, revisiting atheism can help us untangle the fraught relation between theology and politics. This is necessary if we are to understand the challenges facing our societies, but it also can help us address them.

Environmental devastation, gendered repression, and racialized violence are often sustained by authoritarian theologies (whether civil or religious). By disrupting claims to transcendence, atheist political theologies offer tools to interrupt this pernicious circuit. In this way, they encourage us to redress suffering in particular places while keeping hope for radical transformation.

The Politics of Atheism

Symposium Essays

The Politics of Black Atheism in the United States

From the mid-19th century, African American atheists have been central figures in the Black Freedom Struggle. Their political activism was oftentimes explicitly motivated by their atheism and has provided an important example to contemporary Black atheists and humanists.

Performing Indifference: On Atheism and Political Theology

This essay outlines an ontological form of atheism to suggest novel ways to conceptualize political theology and forms of socio-political praxis. An atheism of indifference is offered as a means to resist the theological framing of socio-political issues.

Atheism and the Critique of Sovereignty

By disrupting pernicious claims to transcendence, atheist political theologies can help us redress suffering in particular places while keeping hope for radical transformation.

Jesus as a Political Atheist

To think of this empire as anything other than wrapped up in mimesis is to think otherwise. This essay explores how mimesis has captured us all and conscripted us into its political ontology. This essay offers another way to consider being; another way to find ourselves with the introduction of Jesus as a Political Atheist.

Remembering immanence: a short appeal for a good atheism in troubled times

What is the role of atheism in bringing hope to troubled times? Controversially, I/Stacey stress(es) that atheism too often reproduces the transcendence it claims to reject. Instead, bringing insights from my/his time among activists, I/he argue(s) that a good atheism must be in touch with immanence.

Tearing Down the Heavens: Marx’ Critique of Religion, Atheism, and Political Economy

For Marx, religion is more than “the opium of the people,” it is the mirror of society turned upside down. This essay examines Marx’s critique of religion as well as his critique of other contemporary critiques of religion. This critique of religion became the starting point of his critique of political theology and, later, political economy.

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