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Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0

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.

Interviewer: “Do you have an idea of ultimate meaning?”

Activist: “I think these things come about through practice. Through people being the social change they want to see in the world. It sounds corny, but it’s meaningful to me”

What could it mean for atheism to be central to a socially and ecologically just future? Certainly we couldn’t mean exclusively so. If not the story of Jesus itself, then liberation theology, the Iranian revolution, and Solidarnost in Poland all in their own way debunked the idea that one must forgo transcendence as a prerequisite for recognizing this-worldly suffering. Some people at least, needed Marx’s “heart of a heartless world” to feel that there was a future worth fighting for. The materiliast position has been repeated (Morton 2017), and again brought into question (Stacey 2021, 86–87) in our age of environmental degradation. Many of the religious too, it turns out (cue gasps of shock), care that the earth is burning.

We might even ask whether atheism has an elective affinity with socio-ecological justice. The history of 20th century totalitarianism, high modernism (Scott 1999), and techno-optimism suggest otherwise. No. If atheism is a tradition at all, it is a varied, syncretic and living tradition. Thus just as with any tradition, the question of whether it is especially aligned with social justice is a distraction as likely to fuel religious-atheist tension as anything more positive.

Instead, we should ask, what ideas and practices can we hope atheists will draw on in the name of a socio-ecologically just future? In the following, I seek to do just this. I open by introducing my religious repertoires approach, which is designed to cut through a false religious/atheist binary, and unravel the content of living traditions. I then use this approach to illuminate the worlds of implicitly nonreligious activists. Finally, I close by making a counterintuitive claim: that atheism often risks emulating the transcendent traditions it purportedly challenges, proclaiming higher truths that miss the intricacies of life as it is lived. With deliberate irony, I call this transcendent atheism. Drawing on my ethnographic findings, I stress that remembering immanence is crucial to building a good atheism for troubled times.  

The Religious Repertoires approach

I use theories and techniques from the study of religion to ethnographically explore ostensibly secular and rational individuals, institutions, and ideas. My career began with the study (between 2010 and 2020) of liberally oriented community organisers in the UK and Canada (see Stacey 2022). More recently, my focus has been on environmental scientists, policymakers, and activists in the Netherlands (see Stacey 2024 or Climate Confessions for short form) and Canada (see Stacey 2021). Aiming to practice as I preach, I try to undertake research in ways that avoid totalizing logics.

I describe the people I work with as implicitly nonreligious because questions of what they do or don’t believe are simply of little interest to them (and indeed I try to avoid asking so as to not prime them with assumptions drawn from debates about religion and atheism in the media). But if pushed, most of those I work with would probably fall into the category of nones (Bramadat 2022; Frost and Edgell 2018; Killen and Silk 2004). Along the way, I have learnt that even people who see themselves as rising above religion and irrationality are nonetheless driven by what I think of as more-than-rational elements often associated with religion: magic, myths, rituals, and tradition. I have variously called these “spirited elements” or “religious repertoires” depending on the context and audience. I maintain the religiously connotative prefixes despite having criticized the practice in the past (Stacey 2021, 90) because although words widely employed in the study of religion and nonreligion like “imaginary” and “worldview” are increasingly adopted in the less religiously literate social sciences, they tend to lose a lot of depth in the process. Working with people consciously operating with a religious/secular binary, I seek to undo the binary by labelling as “religious” that which is assumed to be secular. But for now, since I imagine my audience to be primarily working in the field of religion or else to be atheists, and because there isn’t the space for nuance, let’s just stick to the less controversial “repertoires”.

There is not the space here to fully unpack what I mean by repertoires (and anyway I have devoted much space to it elsewhere). But just to briefly clarify: I am concerned with a set of practices that draw together cosmic ideas, ontological assumptions, epistemological assertions, existential feelings, and moral ideals, to make some ways of perceiving the world meaningful and others meaningless. I use the term repertoires to indicate that people’s propositional beliefs (or unbeliefs) are less helpful for understanding what inspires them than are their performances (Butler 1988; Day 2010). In my frame (by no means intended as exhaustive) repertoires consist of magic, myths, rituals, and tradition. For the sake of brevity, in this piece I will stick to the first three.

Typical definitions of these categories tend to over-reify belief. The result is to create a wall of separation between belief and unbelief, making beliefs seem rigid, while undervaluing the power of play (Stacey 2021) and feeling (Stacey 2022, 116–19), and, with this, the profundity and more-than-rational quality of atheists’ experiences and motivations. My definitions aim to push against this tendency.

By magic, I mean the feeling that an intense lifeforce or transformative power resides in an object, event, or technology against the odds, or without sufficient evidence. By myths, I mean stories of great events and characters that shape one’s understanding of how the world is, should, or could be. By rituals I mean routines and performances designed to bring one’s character in line with how the world is, should, or could be.

A simplistic reading of the observation that repertories matter in nonreligious contexts too would be to say “aha! See! So they are really religious after all!” Beaman’s will-to-religion (2013). That is not my intention. Instead, the crucial point to recognise is that even highly rational imaginaries are nonetheless underscored and shaped by deep wells of meaning that are hard to identify, harder still to understand and impossible to fully control. Rather than seeking to ignore them or rise above them, we might be far better off simply acknowledging them.

Repertoires of implicitly nonreligious activists

As one might expect, the repertoires of the implicitly nonreligious people I’ve spent time with don’t involve rapture, Great Men, or robes. Instead, they include the magical power of ordinary people, not all of whom are human, coming together to do extraordinary things; the myths through which these moments are kept alive; and the rituals of intense interaction that make those moments possible. With limited space, in the following, I offer just one example of each, offering just enough content to inspire others to take up the tools elsewhere (for a lengthy discussion of each, see Stacey 2022).


“What inspired me,” she says, her eyes twinkling as if to suggest this was not a rational decision but a leap of faith, “is that they believed they could win. They truly believed they could. With the power of global oil, the support of the government, these few humans really believed that they could stand up like a wall holding back the tide”

I identify magical feelings by attending to what I call enchanted voice and poetic language. Elsa conveyed both as she explained to me what made her experience engaging in anti-pipeline protests so memorable. Her cadence slowed, her voice became softer, and her tone more whimsical. She relied on the simile “like a wall holding back the tide” to convey the feeling of collective power.

Elsa does not find magic in a rapturous connection to some higher power, but in standing together against the seemingly unstoppable forces of global capital. Elsa’s is a common experience in activist settings, where the somewhat cliched phrase, “together we are more than the sum of our parts”, remains deeply meaningful.

What lends Elsa’s experience, and her story, its magical quality is the feeling of winning against all odds. To those that question whether we can really compare Elsa’s experience with, say, a religious miracle, it’s worth recalling another widely used phrase among activists: “it’s easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” Most people don’t believe it’s possible to change the global economy. Still less think that collective action will make the crucial difference. So: when you are standing there, linking arms with strangers, and you suddenly start to believe that another world is possible, it proves truly lifechanging. 


Magical moments are the substance of myths, and myths the means by which those moments are kept alive. When Elsa tells me her story, I feel goosebumps forming on my arms. Just as for her in the moment of experiencing, so I feel, upon listening, ignited with the possibility that the world could be otherwise. It is little wonder that the telling of these David and Goliath stories forms such a crucial part of activist practice. Pick up any book, from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, to David Graeber’s more academic Direct Action, and you will find that it is full of these tales.

Her story begins with a sense of connection to the trees and waterways that she has hiked alongside from childhood. Then, a moment of reckoning, when she realized a pipeline would be built through the land. Then comes the magical moment, when she discovers that something can be done.

Joseph Campbell (2008) suggests that this plot is common to all great myths. I myself am more sceptical, stressing instead that myths have four qualities that distinguish them from just any narrative: they are improbable in content, existential in theme, normative in aim, and agentive in their force. I have already dealt with the importance of improbability. As we see from my sketch of Elsa’s story, the activists I have spent time with emphasize the existential and normative connection between people, their community, and their wider environment.

In saying that myths must have agentive force, I mean that they influence us without our having a choice in the matter. I have not yet had the chance to analyse the factors that contribute to this force, but pooling findings from multiple projects, I would suggest it derives from a combination of the story itself, the power of the situation in which it is told, the wider culture into which it is being shared, and the individual psychology of the listener.


Elsa’s experience of linking arms with fellow activists was not a one-off, spontaneous, or unique moment. Activist organisations throughout the world put a lot of effort into cultivating a sense of connection in the group. Many employ some variation of a ritual that I, borrowing from the Industrial Areas Foundation, call “one-to-ones”. A one-to-one is a planned conversation in which people emphasize listening. One of the forms that I like the most involves two individuals sitting face to face, and spending two minutes each, uninterrupted, explaining why each of them came to the movement.

Why do I describe this as a ritual, and what does it tell us about the worlds of those I have worked with? The Dutch anthropologist Van Gennep famously described rites of passage as having three phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation. I think of rituals as having this same structure internally. The purpose of a one-to-one is to separate people from their rationality-driven, or else individualist self, to experience a shared vulnerability with their interlocutor, and, in the process, even if only briefly, to lose themselves to the encounter. One-to-ones have a clear, rational purpose: they are a means of expanding the network. But they also serves as opportunities to deeply encounter the emotional person before us. And it is such encounter that keeps people engaged in movements.

Conclusion: between transcendent and immanent activism

It is counterintuitive to say so, but there is a strand of atheist thought that risks reproducing the transcendent traditions it claims to be challenging. The aim is to rise above irrational, traditional, and religious interpretations of the world. This strand develops conterminously with science and political liberalism. While many may see science and political liberalism as radically immanent forms of rationality, it is important to recall the ways in which each is premised on the possibility of transcending subjectivity. Science does so for epistemic reasons. Scientists often define their practice as one of filtering out biases. The antithesis is religion, which, it is believed, both historically and necessarily stymies scientific progress. Liberals seek transcendence for ontological and moral reasons: since all ideas of the good life are necessarily subjective, politics must be devised in a realm that transcends such biases (for a longer discussion, see Stacey 2022, 16–40). It too opposes itself to religion (Laborde 2017), which places ideas of the good life front and centre, and thus tends towards violence.

Both science and political liberalism have brought huge boons, from modern medicine to human rights. But they also suffer from hubris. Neither scientific experiments nor political programmes are designed in a vacuum. Instead, they emerge out of and construct the traditions and aspirations of their beholders. But perhaps more importantly, when conceived and executed as programmes of pure rationality, science and liberalism have both proved belligerent and often deeply destructive. Think for example, of the bloodshed carried out in the name of rationalization, from the enclosures movement (Federici 2004), to colonialism (Losurdo 2014; Scott 1999), to postcolonial modernization projects (Schielke 2012). European elites depicted white working class and colonial subjects as backwards, primitive, and subhuman, as they cleared out their homes, destroyed their means of subsistence, and forced them into work. Similar feats are now repeated by postcolonial elites seeking to catch up with, surpass, or receive investment from the Global North. I argue that on account of its hierarchical and belligerent manner, a rationalized science and politics is self-defeating: it tends to trigger apathy at best and visceral reactions at worst. One only need recall decades of inaction on climate change, or the more recent success of scientifically illiterate and illiberal campaigns, from climate denial to populism.

I want to suggest that in contrast to transcendent atheism, the activists I have spent time with exude an immanent atheism. This is best encapsulated in the brief exchange with which I opened. Immanent atheism rejects the divine and ultimate – but not on the basis of some higher realm of truth. Instead, it does so on the grounds that the mundane and earthly is where attention should be focused. This is no rehashed materialism. As Donna Haraway (2016, 88) suggests in quoting Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s quip, “animism is the only sensible form of materialism”, immanent atheism recognizes that the rationalist human lens can never saturate what it observes (see also Harman 2018). That which we try to grasp always slips away from us. Could this be its spirit?

In briefly exploring the magic, myths, and rituals that envelop Elsa and her allies, this spirited, this tendency for experience to exceed rational explanation, constantly returns: in the experience of victory against the odds, in the sharing of heroic stories, and in the attention to human connection. Some may see my use of religiously connotative language as jarring. Conversely, following Beaman (2021), I see mine as an act of reclaiming this language for broader use. The religious do not have a monopoly on the profound. Indeed, the experience of profundity is what draws many into activist circles. It is just that, at least for the activists I have spent time with, the ordinary is already profound enough.

Against the aim of scientific objectivity, immanent atheism leans into subjectivity and material rootedness: it is about the feeling of being in relation with other humans and the other-than-human, and the moral imperatives that follow. And in contrast to the universal logics of liberalism, an immanent atheism implores us to engage with the particular people and ecosystems among which we find ourselves and on which we depend for our sustenance.

Of course, it was never my intention to suggest that transcendence must be dispensed with. It remains crucial to cultivating an interest in utopic visions and higher ideals. But these visions and ideals must never be pursued at the expense of one’s connection to and responsibility for the people and places with whom we’re already connected by virtue of living our daily lives.


Beaman, Lori G. 2013. “The Will to Religion: Obligatory Religious Citizenship.” Crit. Res. Relig. Critical Research on Religion 1 (2): 141–57.

———. 2021. “Reclaiming Enchantment: The Transformational Possibilities of Immanence.” Secularism and Nonreligion 10 (1): 8. https://doi.org/10.5334/snr.149.

Bramadat, Paul. 2022. “Reverential Naturalism in Cascadia: From the Fancy to the Sublime.” In Religion at the Edge: Nature, Spirituality, and Secularity in the Pacific Northwest, edited by Paul Bramadat, Patricia O’Connell Killen, and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme. UBC Press.

Butler, Judith. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40 (4): 519. https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893.

Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Third edition. Novato, Calif: New World Library.

Day, Abby. 2010. “Propositions and Performativity: Relocating Belief to the Social.” Culture and Religion 11 (March): 9–30. https://doi.org/10.1080/14755610903528812.

Federici, Silvia. 2004. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. 1st edition. New York, NY: Autonomedia.

Frost, Jacqui, and Penny Edgell. 2018. “Rescuing Nones From the Reference Category: Civic Engagement Among the Nonreligious in America.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 47 (2): 417–38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0899764017746251.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Illustrated edition. Durham: Duke Univ Pr.

Harman, Graham. 2018. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. London: Pelican.

Killen, Patricia O’Connell, and Mark Silk. 2004. Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone. Lanham: AltaMira Press. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1380559.

Laborde, Cécile. 2017. Liberalism’s Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2014. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London New York: Verso.

Morton, Timothy. 2017. Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. London; New York: Verso.

Schielke, Samuli. 2012. The Perils of Joy: Contesting Mulid Festivals in Contemporary Egypt. 1 edition. Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press.

Scott, James C. 1999. Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Stacey, Timothy. 2021. “Toying with Animism: How Learning to Play Might Help Us Get Serious About the Environment.” Nature + Culture 16 (3): 83–109.

———. 2022. Saving Liberalism From Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

———. “Religious Repertoires of Sustainability: Why Religion Is Central to Sustainability Transitions, Whatever You Believe.” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 50 (March 1, 2024): 100821. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2024.100821.

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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