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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

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.

In what follows, I argue that atheism fosters a certain disposition that performs indifference to forms of transcendence, via an ontological commitment to the insubstantiality of the one. Such an understanding of atheism is not meant to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, as outlined atheism is an indispensable theoretical, socio-political, and practical tool. Especially for the readers of this essay, atheism has implications for how we conceptualize political theology and develop forms of praxis.

I intentionally avoid associating atheism with a lack of belief in or rejection of the existence of God, gods, supernatural beings, or what have you. We could call this form of atheism belief-based atheism.

Belief-based atheism hinges on a literal reading of the term; we find this form of atheism disseminated in many popular, quasi-academic, and academic discussions, especially as posited in relation to or against religion. Personally, I find such a notion and its various manifestations uninteresting but, more to the point, atheism so understood presupposes and recapitulates the object of its critique in the form of negation. Atheism, in this sense, is a mirror image of the God it disavows, emerging from and maintaining itself in relation to religion and, in particular, Christianity.

Ironically, conceptualizing atheism as a lack of belief may reinforce belief, in the sense that it coincides with secularism and posits a “secularist metaphysics” (29) in place of the old religious metaphysics of transcendence, as Stathis Gourgouris argues in Lessons in Secular Criticism. Gourgouris suggests that we understand “secularism” as “an institutional term that represents a range of projects in the exercise of power (particularly in relation to state mechanisms) that often tends toward certain a priori and dogmatic instantiations outside the specific historical field” (29). Secularism, and the sort of implicit or explicit belief-based atheism on which it depends, is in this sense “vulnerable to a retranscendentalizing process,” to the extent that it “operates according to its own transcendental commands” (30).

Secularism’s relegation of religion to the domain of private belief provides a good example of this retranscendentalizing process. Rather than understanding the ostensible separation of religion from the public domain strictly in terms of an immanent, historically and culturally situated process, which we could call secularization, secularism understands it teleologically. The separation of religion is the natural outcome or end of history itself and, as such, must be instantiated and obeyed, even policed. Secularism, in this sense, becomes a metaphysics of transcendence, in that it operates according to inviolable first principles.

Nevertheless,Gourgouris insists that secularism is not merely a transformation of Christianity; it cannot be reduced to a “continuation of Christianity by other means” (29). However, at a formal level, the two share an insistence on transcendence as an operative principle, which is also an insistence on the substantiality of the one.

Contrary to this maintenance of transcendence, atheism, as I understand it, grounds itself on the insubstantiality of the one, ontologically and in the various forms the one takes. In contrast to belief-based atheism, we could call this form of atheism ontological atheism. Differently from the various types of belief-based atheism, this ontological commitment takes the form of a decision and a process of fidelity to it, condensed in Alain Badiou’s foundational claim in Being and Event that ““the one is not” (23; emphasis in original). For Badiou, being is detached from or nonreciprocal with the one, since what exists as such is essentially multiple.

Being is multiplicity all the way down, so to speak, just multiples of multiples, meaning that it is inherently void. Although in this sense the one is not, this does not mean that there is not oneness. But oneness is nothing substantial and is only ever a result. Badiou states, “[T]he one, which is not, solely exists as an operation. In other words, there is no one, only the count-as-one” (28; emphasis in original). To put the matter in slightly different terms, the one is always the outcome of implicit or explicit decisions, which include and exclude certain things based on predefined principles to achieve oneness. To fold this ontological commitment into the aforementioned discussion of belief, ontological atheism proceeds via indifference to belief or its lack; it is, as Gourgouris asserts, to be “unconcerned with the divine” (74).

This sort of indifference, I would suggest, is not the same as the “indifference” that ostensibly operates in so-called post-secular discourses and societies. The term “post-secular” can be deployed in various ways for specific purposes, but a predominant way to understand it is in terms of the social, political, and cultural persistence of religion in and against secularism’s attempts to the domain of private belief and, thus, hasten its end.

So understood, post-secularism often coincides with the so-called return of religion, but as Ingolf Dalferth notes, post-secular discourses and societies are putatively “neither religious nor secular. They do not prescribe or privilege a religion, but neither do they actively and intentionally refrain from doing so. They are neither for nor against religion(s), whether in the private lives of their citizens or in the public realms” (428). Post-secularism, so understood, can be descriptive or normative, but one of the problems is that, in practice, the indifference it putatively exemplifies does not function abstractly but contextually, in light of a previously operative sphere of meaning.

For Western societies, this sphere of meaning coincides in crucial respects with Christianity, which means that indifference is conceptualized and practiced as indifference in the shadow of Christianity. Nietzsche might have recognized such a tendency, when he elliptically opined in The Gay Science, “After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave, — an immense frightful shadow. God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow. — And we — we have still to overcome his shadow!” (167).[1]

Gianni Vattimo, for example, represents well this sort of Christianized indifference, in the sense that he posits a weak form of Christianity as the condition for a universalism that is both liberal and democratic. Although he cautions against taking this in colonialist or imperialist terms, he in After Christianity he continues to refer to this putative impulse of Christianity as its “mission” (97) and “lay endeavor” (99).

In practice, however, post-secular indifference may spill over into mild or strong forms of prescription. In the United States and at the extreme end of the spectrum, prescription occurs under the guise of “religious freedom,” “traditional values,” “reclaiming America’s heritage,” and the like. Current pushes against so-called left-wing indoctrination are, in this sense and among other things, nostalgic re-assertions of an imagined pre-secular, Christian past. The post-secular, ironically, becomes the means through which to assert a religious anti-secularism.

Indifference, as I conceive it, does not take the form of “neither religious or secular” but, rather, asserts the ultimate irrelevance of “God” or any overarching principle. To draw again on Gourgouris, it is “to live not as if God does not exist but to live as if God does not matter” (69). Atheism, in this sense, is not so much a position one takes but an existential “performance.” It “stake[s] out a position of living without presuming a content for the void of the Real, of living by assuming the void as core with no need to justify it, explain it, or theorize it—without a need for a transcendental, meta-performative guarantee” (69).

I would suggest that indifference, so understood, has implications for political theology. The boundaries of what constitutes political theology are not at all clear, and the term is often used loosely to name a host of phenomena, some of which do not entirely cohere. Perhaps another way to put it is to say that “political theology” is an overdetermined category.

At one end of the spectrum, political theology represents what purports to be a descriptive enterprise, concerned with tracing the relationship between the religious and the secular. How one approaches this project can no doubt vary, but description generally falls along diachronic or synchronic lines though: diachronic, in the sense that it concerns itself with historical or genealogical accounts of the passage from the religious to the secular; and synchronic, in the sense that it focuses on the structural maintenance of theological conceptualities in otherwise secular domains. In practice, we usually find some combination of the two.

At the other end of the spectrum, political theology names the intentional political inflection of theology and religious practice; theology and religious practice are understood as fundamentally political in orientation and concern, and shaped accordingly for desired political outcomes. Again, in reality we are dealing with a spectrum, meaning that disciplinary attempts to outline a political theology often fall somewhere in between, though they can certainly be heavily weighted in one direction or another.

The totality of this spectrum is represented well by the Political Theology Network itself, where critical readings of contemporary theological-political phenomena and theological justifications for certain types of political praxis exist side by side, sometimes uneasily. That the domain of political theology remains vague is, perhaps, not surprising, since it is often understood as a subspecies of religious studies, a notoriously difficult field to define, perhaps even more so.

Nevertheless, like some species of religious studies, political theologies often elide the descriptive and the normative, or even ground the normative as constitutive of political theology itself. Such elision is, not surprisingly, often found particularly in the political inflection of theology and religious practice. As Adam Kotsko points out in Neoliberalism’s Demons, for these approaches it is a “question of carrying theologically-based normative claims into the political realm” (17).

But normative claims also seep into ostensibly more descriptive constructions, intentionally or not. Carl Schmitt, certainly one of the foundational figures of political theology, is a good example here: as Kotsko points out, his reading of sovereignty in terms of secularized theological concepts serves as the basis to assert sovereignty against liberal democracies (27-28).

Framing the political in terms of political theology certainly has some descriptive and analytical purchase, as seen, for instance, in the sheer scholarly output that makes up the discursive spaces called “political theology.” But it is, in the end, just that, a framing that selectively gathers and delimits a vast set of conditions according to certain norms, according to particular one-counts, to recall Badiou. Framing the political in light of the theological presents the political as a theological problem—theology, grounded in religious practice, becomes the animating principle of politics, the power that organizes our world.

An atheistic approach to political theology could, perhaps, move in the other direction and reframe the political work that theology is doing. In Thought Under Threat, Miguel de Beistegui raises this possibility in his reading of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. In his interpretation of Spinoza’s reading of the Hebrew state, de Beistegui notes that, “[w]hile Carl Schmitt claims that the most important (modern) political concepts are derived from theology, Spinoza suggests the opposite: ideas such as that of a unique, omnipotent God are in fact a (religious) solution to a specific historical and political problem” (105). That is, “[i]n the theological-political nexus it is the political, and not the religious, which comes first” (106).

This reversal, for which Gourgouris also argues, can certainly be traced historically or genealogically, but it also has value in reading and reframing contemporary political formations. Privileging the political over the theological, even against the theological, could deal with political formations not as cross-pollinations of the theological and the political. Rather, the goal is mark the ways in which the theological is used to justify the political and to subtract the political from the theological via indifference to the latter.

As a way to illustrate this point, let me return to recent attempts in the United States to assert anti-secularism, which is ostensibly theologically- or religiously-motivated. Recall that the one, ontologically but also organizationally, is always an outcome, the result of a decision. Counting-as-one organizes multiples in a particular way. Take Christian nationalism, for example, the apparent rise of which has been the subject of countless social media arguments and invectives, and numerous popular and academic articles and books. Christian nationalism, it should go without saying, sums up multiple and, at times, divergent, discourses and practices. Christian nationalism just is this summing up, a particular way of organizing certain conditions, which are always multiple.

The problem, however, is that the organization of a set of conditions in this way tends to constrain seemingly contrary practices and discourses to the already-counted set—it determines how we should respond. Hence the constant and wholly predictable attempts to counter Christian nationalism with charges of hypocrisy and proffers of theological alternatives. Such approaches are understandable, especially when they come out of a place of religious conviction. But at the same time, countering Christian nationalism in this way assumes that the problem is, ultimately, theological.

The assertion and performance of atheism, as I have all-too-briefly sketched here, attempts to cut through the theological framing of socio-political issues. Rather than taking assertions of the theological at face value, it reads and responds to these as so many attempts to provide theological, transcendental justifications for problems that are political. The theological framing of the latter is, to draw on Badiou’s The Immanence of Truths, a “covering-over,” which “superimpos[es] a kind of mosaic of finitude over the potential infinity of a situation” (193).

Addressing socio-political problems, in scholarship, the interpretation of present situations, and the development of counter praxes, via atheism would practice indifference to the divine, as if the theological did not matter. The practice of atheism exposes the “potential infinity of a situation,” as a way to frame otherwise than theologically. Perhaps this is what atheism might contribute to political theology and our present situation.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 167.

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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