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The Politics of Atheism Symposium sheds light on atheism’s emancipatory force. With a commitment to immanence, atheism can provide a counterweight to the pervasive appeals to God or other transcendent ideas used to legitimate systems of domination.

Beyond the misguided and uninteresting debates about whether or not God exists, atheism remains a persistent force for emancipatory projects. But there has never been just one atheism–there are many atheisms, diverse in their definitions and motivations. For Lucretius, the gods exist but they are indifferent to worldly affairs and humans should be indifferent to the gods in kind. For Spinoza, atheism is synonymous with pantheism where God is another name for Nature. For Nietzsche, God is merely a weapon of the weak for subduing the strong. These atheisms vary as much as the Hellenistic, Jewish, and Christian contexts in which they were nurtured. Yet, one could tentatively state that atheism essentially asserts the irrelevance of God or the “gods” to the world–that is, atheism asserts that God [or the “gods”] does not exist in any meaningful sense.

However, by asserting that God does not exist, atheism makes a theological claim even if this claim is fundamentally negative. Insofar as it remains speech about God, atheism remains theological. Therefore, the politics of atheism will be resolutely theologico-political. Questions such as “how do we live together without God?” or “How does atheism advance or inhibit emancipatory efforts?” are therefore political and theological.

Indeed, at times the distinction between religion and atheism is unclear. Atheism finds resonance within religions such as Taoism and Buddhism; the negative theologies of Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart, and St. John of the Cross; or more contemporary thinkers such as Paul Tilllich, Thomas J.J. Altizer, and Ganni Vattimo. These reasons alone destabilize the all too modern rigid delineation between atheism and religion. This is not to eliminate atheism’s distinctive claims, rather it indicates spaces where atheism and religion can enter ambiguous and sometimes fruitful encounters.

The Politics of Atheism Symposium sheds light on atheism’s emancipatory force. Drawing on diverse perspectives and disciplines including philosophy, history, ethnography, and theology, the contributors offer atheism’s theoretical and practical implications. Unlike the negation implied by the “a” of atheism, the political implications are positive and, at times, constructive.

Without diminishing the diversity among the contributors, their perspectives share what can be provisionally called a commitment to immanence. By immanence, I mean this life and this world should not be interpreted by ahistorical principles or ideas. The world provides its own principles for evaluating and engaging it and it’s to these principles that we must commit ourselves. Therefore, immanence is a counterweight to the pervasive appeals to God or other transcendent ideas used to legitimate systems of domination. These appeals run aground on the shores of immanence which never sought legitimation from such ideas in the first place.

The contributors assign primary value to our political and social life, our finitude, and our struggles in this reality, not to the ideals of another. Arguably, the very commitment to immanence is also what compels many to challenge the domination of atheism by modern Eurocentric perspectives. For some, the challenge to Eurocentrism entails giving room for marginal voices. For others, they work in the ambiguity between atheism and religion where it’s not clear where one ends and the other begins. Undoubtedly, the European legacy of atheism cannot be ignored, but it can be challenged, transformed, and opened.

Christopher Cameron reccounts atheism’s integral role among black thinkers and activists in the 20th century including James Forman, Huey P. Newton, and Sikivu Hutchinson. Their criticisms of religion were forged in the suffering of black communities by the dual evils of racism and capitalism. However, atheism was also a positive motivation for political struggle, organizing within their communities, and their vision of liberation.

Hollis Phelps explicitly draws on immanence to push atheism beyond its usual borders. For Phelps, atheism too often removes the transcendence of God only to recreate transcendence in other ways such as dogmatic secularism. Instead, he suggests that an immanent or an ontological atheism is indifferent to God’s existence or relevance. Rather than wrangling about beliefs, ontological atheism prioritizes politics and evaluates how theological concepts are invented to respond to political problems.

Roberto Che Espinoza challenges modern sensibilities by positing that Jesus was a political atheist. If political hegemony requires conformity through the process of mimetic desire to the god-like authority of the state or the nation, political atheism would be nothing less than counter-hegemonic practice. Through a refusal of mimetic desire, the life and teachings of Jesus enact a political atheism that continues to challenge political hegemonies today.

Like Phelps, Timothy Stacey explicitly relies on immanence as well. However, Stacey looks for immanence in the lived experience of non-religious activists. Stacey sees “religious repertoires” among activists who, though not religious, nonetheless engage practices of rituals, magic, and myths in their daily work toward justice. In his ethnographic approach, Stacey finds that atheism, religion, and beliefs can inhabit an individual in a productive dynamic.

Anna Strhan turns our attention to children as an often overlooked subject of experience and a source of knowledge. By looking to non-religious children, Strahn sidesteps the adults and institutions that populate formal politics to consider how children practice politics in their common spaces. She finds that rather than the combat one might associate with politics, children were inclined toward mutuality, respect, and plurality.

For Mikkel Flohr, immanence is found in historical materialism. He argues that Karl Marx’s critique of religion challenged the naive atheisms of the Young Hegelians. Though the Young Hegelians declared that religion was of human–not divine–origin, they failed to understand that the human is nothing other than the social and political relations of their world. Therefore, the inversion between God and humans called religion is only secondary to a deeper inversion–that of the state and of capital over the population.

Given the geopolitics that demand all populations genuflect before capital, obey the sovereign commandments of the state, or be transformed to the image of whiteness, atheism remains an indispensable force for emancipatory movements. This symposium pushes atheism to new territory beyond the boundaries designated by Eurocentric discourses to include marginal and even religious voices. In fact, it’s our hope that atheists and non-atheists will find tools in this symposium for counter-hegemonic practice and conviviality in our challenging times.

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.