On January 29, 2008, the editors of First Things graciously posted an article of mine called “Atheism and Violence.” It attempted to puncture the thesis of the New Atheists that religion is an anthropological phenomenon that uniquely leads unsuspecting and otherwise super-nice human beings to unmotivated acts of pointless violence. Tied to that notion is its correlative thesis, which the New Atheists also preposterously defend: that the demise of religion and the spread of atheism will inevitably lead to a future earthly eschaton of peace and harmony—nothing to kill or die for, no religion too.
This position (a pose, really) is easy enough to puncture. One need only point to Friedrich Nietzsche’s advocacy of euthanasia in Thus Spake Zarathustra or his lucubrations on the Blond Beast in The Will to Power. Well, say our hearty band of New Atheists, those are just the ravings of a dyspeptic grouch on the verge of a mental breakdown, so let’s ignore him, determinative as he might have been for Western civilization in the twentieth century. Ah yes, the twentieth century. At this point comes the inevitable mention of Stalin’s starvation of the Ukraine in the 1930s, Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s, or the famine in North Korea from 1995 to 1997 under the “dear leadership” of its dictator, Kim Jong-il.
So inevitable are these rejoinders that the New Atheists come “forewarned and forearmed” with their own talking points: They lamely respond that Communism, you see, is really a religion, albeit a political one—a deft piece of terminological sleight of hand that might be more convincing if one of those same New Atheists (one Sam Harris by name) were not himself an advocate of violence. In his book The End of Faith, for example, Harris comes to this charming conclusion:
I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage. . . . Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary.
Hmm. Given the New Atheists’ need to insist on the link between religion and violence, one might expect Harris to have been excommunicated from their clique upon immediate publication of his book. But of course their target isn’t really violence per se, only that abstraction called “religion.” So their indignation is, one is not surprised to learn, selective.
But these stale fish have been fried often enough already. Here I wish to place in the frying pan the work of another popular atheist, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose quirky joint book (with John Milbank), The Monstrosity of Christ, I reviewed here several months ago. When the book arrived for reviewing, I was not that familiar with Žižek’s writings, which certainly helped me in writing what I hope was a fair review.
Although I don’t feel I have anything to retract in what I said there, I did spend some free time this summer poking around in Žižek’s books, out of little more than idle curiosity. While a dismaying experience in many ways, it did help confirm my already well-grounded suspicion that the bond between atheism and violence runs much deeper than the reveries of the New Atheists will allow.
This linkage becomes most evident in Žižek’s book appropriately titled Violence (Picador), devastatingly reviewed last year in The New Republic (December 3, 2008) by Adam Kirsch (subscription required). Not surprisingly, Kirsch catches Žižek speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
On the one hand, for the wider public Žižek will happily play the liberal. Thus, in his op-ed piece for the New York Times of March 24, 2007, called “Knight of the Living Dead,” Žižek condemned the torture used to extract a confession from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (the Al Qaida leader who confessed to being the mastermind behind the attacks of September 11):
Morality [opines Žižek] is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called “objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is “dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.
Nice words; but when he’s addressing his more sympathetic New Left audiences, he willingly serves up a different dish: indeed their favorite catnip, anti-Americanism. In his op-ed piece for the Times, Žižek only claimed that the U.S. government was renouncing its own Western values (“no court that operates within the frames of Western legal systems can deal with illegal detentions, confessions obtained by torture and the like”). In fact, America was turning its back on its deepest Enlightenment roots and reverting to the Middle Ages (“are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle?”). But now in his 2008 book, violence defines the very essence of American culture. Thus, Žižek says in Violence, the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, whose abuse so horrified the world, were “effectively initiated into American culture.”
One can almost see the bien-pensant heads among Žižek’s many adoring fans on campuses throughout the world nodding away in wise agreement. But there’s actually more to his thesis than such lazy anti-Americanism—indeed, his enthusiasm for American pop culture is legendary. In a way, it is America’s special fondness (by his lights) for violence that draws him to American pop culture in the first place. It’s all so very dialectical, you see. Here is Kirsch’s withering dissection of Žižek’s pop Marxism:
Torture, which appears to be un-American, is pronounced to be the thing that is most American. It follows that the legalization of torture, far from barbarizing the United States, is actually a step toward humanizing it. According to the old Marxist logic, it heightens the contradictions, bringing us closer to the day when we realize, as Žižek writes, that “universal human rights” are an ideological sham, “effectively the rights of white male property owners to exchange freely on the market and exploit workers and women.” Nor does Žižek simply condemn Al Qaeda’s violence as “horrifying.” Fundamentalist Islam may seem reactionary, but “in a curious inversion,” he characteristically observes, “religion is one of the possible places from which one can deploy critical doubts about today’s society. It has become one of the sites of resistance.” And the whole premise of Violence, as of Žižek’s recent work in general, is that resistance to the liberal-democratic order is so urgent that it justifies any degree of violence. “Everything is to be endorsed here,” he writes in Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, “up to and including religious ‘fanaticism.’”
To all of which I say, timeo Danaos, et dona ferentes: Beware of atheists bearing gifts of understanding, especially when they praise “religion.” Not that the New Atheists have exactly arisen in horror at this heretic in their midst, who has the temerity to praise the very bane of their existence - any more than they expelled Sam Harris from their little flock. The venom they reserve for Christianity seems somehow all used up when it comes to responding to atheist advocates of violence.
But then, as we all know, ideologues only scratch where they itch. Because the New Atheists subscribe to their atheist religion of “scientism” (science as a god), their only interest is in attacking worldviews that threaten to undermine their scientistic naturalism, which Christianity certainly does. The New Left, on the other hand, wants to overthrow capitalist society in favor of some pie-in-the-sky vision of a future egalitarian society; and if religion is a “site of resistance” against capitalist anomie, then so much the better for religion. (After all, as Nietzsche said, it’s not the cause that gets these hotheads all riled up, it’s the fuse.)
This split within the atheist camp surely explains Žižek’s popularity with the New Left. Kirsch analyzes this peculiar cult status in the following passage, which is simultaneously both amusing because of the unexampled silliness of Žižek’s position and yet also quite dismaying because of his popularity:
The curious thing about the Žižek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror—especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose “lost causes” Žižek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes—the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult. A glance at the blurbs on his books provides a vivid illustration of the power of repressive tolerance. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Žižek claims, “Better the worst Stalinist terror than the most liberal capitalist democracy” [although here, it must be added, Žižek is paraphrasing Alain Badiou, not giving his own view, a point elided by Kirsch]; but on the back cover of the book we are told that Žižek is “a stimulating writer” who “will entertain and offend, but never bore.” In The Fragile Absolute, he writes that “the way to fight ethnic hatred effectively is not through its immediate counterpart, ethnic tolerance; on the contrary, what we need is even more hatred, but proper political hatred”; but this is an example of his “typical brio and boldness.” And In Defense of Lost Causes, where Žižek remarks that “Heidegger is ‘great’ not in spite of, but because of his Nazi engagement,” and that “crazy, tasteless even, as it may sound, the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough, that his violence was not ‘essential’ enough”; but this book, its publisher informs us, is “a witty, adrenalin-fueled manifesto for universal values.” In the same witty book Žižek laments that “this is how the establishment likes its ‘subversive’ theorists: harmless gadflies who sting us and thus awaken us to the inconsistencies and imperfections of our democratic enterprise - God forbid that they might take the project seriously and try to live it.”
And yet our “Enlightened” secular liberals dare to call believers irrational! As G. K. Chesterton said (but apparently in not quite these exact words): atheists don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.