More importantly, though, I really do wish to invite others to consider Critchley's suggestions about faith, which are informed by similar lines of inquiries I pursue in my work. The hypothesis in the paper posits an open approach to faith that is irreducible to any determinate creedal formulation, and hence possibly shared by 'believers' and 'non-believers' alike. Faith as a certain affective capacity to enact trust and fidelity ('religious' or not, who hasn't been drawn into such relations made possible by a promise?). Faith as a capacity to always remain hospitable to the incalculable future to come, which, if it comes, would awaken change, affirm hope: recalling at once the finitude of our condition, an open question summoned by the impermanence giving breath to this very life. Yours faithfully.
What is dismaying about Religion for Atheists is how deeply it embodies the ideology of the present—how it can describe so well the anxiety, isolation, and disappointment of secular life and yet still fail to identify their source. Botton’s central obsession is the insane ways bourgeois postmoderns try to live, namely in a perpetual upward swing of ambition and achievement, where failure indicates character deficiency despite an almost total lack of social infrastructure to help us navigate careers, relationships, parenting, and death. But he seems uninterested in how those structures were destroyed or what it might take to rebuild them, other than a few novelties like a restaurant where patrons are guided into intimate confessions with strangers, or temples without gods. Botton wants to keep bourgeois secularism and add a few new quasi-religious social routines. Quasi-religious social routines may indeed be a part of the solution, as we shall see, but they cannot be simply flung atop a regime as indifferent to human values as liberal capitalism.
The crisis of secularism goes much deeper than a deficit of personal meaning. The separation of church and state is so entrenched in the Western mind that it can be difficult to see the capitalist nation-state as a theological and political whole. Secularism is not strictly speaking a religion, but it represents an orientation toward religion that serves the theological purpose of establishing a hierarchy of legitimate social values. Religion must be “privatized” in liberal societies to keep it out of the way of economic functioning. In this view, legitimate politics is about making the trains run on time and reducing the federal deficit; everything else is radicalism. A surprising number of American intellectuals are able to persuade themselves that this vision of politics is sufficient, even though the train tracks are crumbling, the deficit continues to gain on the GDP, and millions of citizens are sinking into the dark mire of debt and permanent unemployment.
The rise of radical political religion in the U.S., most recently in the forms of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, is not, as almost any mainstream pundit would put it, a dying gasp before the final triumph of liberalism. Rather, it is re-awakening of the theological desire that was always latent in liberal democracy, resting beneath its supposedly secular principles. As Jacques Derrida argued, Western politics have an auto-immune disorder: they are structured to pretend that their notions of reason, right, and sovereignty are detached from a deeply theological heritage. When pressed by war and economic dysfunction, liberal ideas prove as compatible with zealotry and domination as any others. Citizens see the structure behind the façade and lose faith in the myth of the state as a dispassionate, egalitarian arbiter of conflict. Once theological passions can no longer be sublimated in material affluence and the fiction of representative democracy, it is little surprise to see them break out in movements that are, on both the left and the right, explicitly hostile to the liberal state.
Simon Critchley, an English philosopher who currently holds a professorship at The New School in New York, wants to provide a theoretical framework for that hostility, one that begins with our disenchantment with religion and our disappointment in democratic politics. Critchley has made a career forging a philosophical account of human ethical responsibility and political motivation. His question is: after the rational hopes of the Enlightenment corroded into nihilism, how do humans write a believable story about what their existence means in the world? After the death of God, how do we account for our feelings of moral responsibility, and how might that account motivate us to resist the deadening political system we face?
This is what Critchley is after: a work of self-becoming powerful enough to break through the status quo, but one that is defined by its self-negation, its responsibility to others, and its nonviolence.
We might call this a secularization of a dramatic religious experience, or a radical acceptance of our own emptiness. But unlike an evangelist, Critchley understands that attempting to fill the void with traditional religion is to slip back into a slumber that reinforces institutions desperate to maintain the political and economic status quo. Only in our condition of brokenness and finitude, uncomforted by promises of divine salvation, can we be open to a connection with others that might mark the birth of political resistance. Critchley seems to suspect that a dark period of economic depression is just the moment for us to admit our weakness—when we are more acutely aware of how little most of us in the liberal capitalist machine have to lose. The challenge is to avoid numbing ourselves with optimistic employment forecasts or dreams of heaven, but rather to let our agony drive us to political imagination.
This is the crux of the difference between Critchley’s radical faithless faith and Botton’s bourgeois secularism. Botton has imagined religion as little more than a coping mechanism for the “terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability,” seemingly unaware that the pain and vulnerability may intensify many times over. It won’t be enough to simply to sublimate our terror in confessional restaurants and atheist temples. The recognition of finitude, the weight of our nothingness, can hollow us into a different kind of self: one without illusions or reputations or private property, one with nothing but radical openness to others. Only then can there be the possibility of meaning, of politics, of hope.