Believing in this World: Towards a Philosophy of Religion after Deleuze I

I’ll be posting a draft of a paper that will be presented at the University of Dundee’s “Philosophy after Deleuze” conference. Suggestions or disagreements are invited to be left in the comments below:

The growing interest in Deleuze has undoubtedly revitalized many aspects of philosophy that were neglected by mainstream Continental philosophy. The most exciting of which may be the resurgent interest in metaphysics on the level of those systems in the early 20th Centurty that built upon and challenged the scientific understanding of reality (I’m thinking, of course, of Bergson, James, and Whitehead). But I have not chosen to speak about metaphysics after Deleuze, or any of the other fields of inquiry that have been changed by Deleuze’s philosophy (be that philosophy of time, political philosophy, philosophy of nature, philosophy of art, etc.). I have chosen to speak on the philosophy of religion after Deleuze. Such a choice is already suspect amongst many who are inspired by Deleuze to return to metaphysics. The return to metaphysics has marked a rejection of, amongst other projects, the “turn to religion” that has been predominant in Continental philosophy, specifically phenomenology.

Whatever Continental philosophy is, and this is certainly a matter of debate just as it is a matter of fact that Continental philosophy is not one thing, whatever it is it has rarely been able to be done in departments of philosophy. In the UK the institutions where such work can be done and done well are limited and represented here today (Warwick and Dundee, but also Essex and Middlesex). In the States there is a similar situation. So, for better or worse, Continental philosophy has been read in departments other than philosophy. Departments of theology and religious studies were places where Continental philosophy could be done and this has lead to an overly abundant amount of literature on religion and theology. This literature represents an attempt to think of religion non-reductively. This non-reductive philosophy of religion is not an apologetic or an attempt to destroy religion once and for all, but to think religion from within its presentation. It has also produced an industry where people publish books and articles on the “prayers and tears” of philosophers, the “unacknowledged theological underpinnings”, and the “myth of the secular” that haunts the moderns’ philosophy of religion that appears, to many scholars, far too idealistic.

Before we go into more detail on this we should first ask what differentiated Continental philosophy of religion from what is normally called philosophy of religion in the majority of English-language philosophy departments. Philip Goodchild, an early English-language scholar of Deleuze’s philosophy and a philosopher of religion, has written the most insightfully on this question. According to his schema Continental philosophy of religion can be differentiated from mainstream philosophy of religion (sometimes under the misnomer “analytic philosophy of religion”) by their respective stances towards the critical philosophy of the 19th century. Mainstream philosophy of religion normally concerns itself with defending or criticizing religious and theological propositions under the strictures of modern reason. It undertakes the task of showing whether or not a religious belief is reasonable and often enters into interminable debates about the problem of evil, proofs for the existence of God, and the rationality or irrationality of believing in miracles. Continental philosophy of religion is largely inseparable from Continental philosophy more generally as it begins in recognizing that modern reason has been constructed through a critique of religious thought and practice. The Kantian project then brought pure reason under the critical reflection “in order to make room for faith” before then finding a place for religion within the limits of this reconstructed critical reason itself. Skipping ahead to Kierkegaard’s philosophy we can see that his influential philosophy of truth as subjectivity bound critical reason to the life of the individual. To learn the truth one had to practice and live through reason embodied in a particular mood towards reality. This Kantian and Kierkegaardian spirit, though perhaps not the word, continued in Europe under the auspices of Husserlian phenomenology.

Most primary and secondary work in Continental philosophy of religion are within the phenomenological tradition, either through Marion’s explicitly Catholic and theological mode or in Derrida’s secular deconstruction of religion. One factor in this has surely to do with the fact already stated that departments of theology and religious studies were a safe havens for this tradition, but something within phenomenology itself was amenable to the study of religion, both in its secular guise as the question of religion and its theological guise as the question of God. Eric Alliez has written on this connection in his characteristically impressionistic, though none the less rigorous, style arguing that phenomenology is already a theological discourse in that when it seeks to get to the things themselves it does so through a doublet of the given and givenness. Or, more clearly, when phenomenology talks about things it does so as the thing is given but also posits a transcendental givenness that becomes an Absolute Gift from which the gift must come. In this way phenomenology’s heuristic thesis of immanence gives way to originary call of transcendence. This transcendence turns into an auto-transcendence when phenomenology attempts to save the name of God under its erasure. A God, or any manifestation of anything, cannot be located outside of this dialectic of saving it under its erasure and thus becomes infinitely transcendent. Criticisms of the turn to religion vary, but a common political criticism is that this dialectic undercuts the ground from which one can criticize religion as it relativizes troubling theologico-political stances to the manifestation or goodness of the name. We can subtract from this thesis a metaphysical criticism where this abstraction from religion in process, the interplay of active and reactive forces in religion itself, betrays religion in the name of its manifestation.

This is where Deleuze’s philosophy enters the contemporary scene like a breath of fresh air. He was, of course, an atheist, but unlike others in his generation he made no qualification for this. Derrida, however, did when he wrote in his “Cirumfession” that he “rightly pass[ed] for an atheist”. When asked why he did not simply say that he was an atheist Derrida replied, ‘Because I don’t know. Maybe I’m not an atheist.’ Such equivocation has tended to upset those who think it ignores or covers over the dangers of religion in the contemporary age. From fundamentalist Christianity to fundamentalist Islam, though we should also note that Buddhism, that religion so often claimed as an exception to religious violence, also has supported and underpinned violent, “theocratic” regimes, from these religions they see nothing but violence in the name of a fantasy, namely God, that keeps the un-Enlightened fighting amongst themselves while giving Divine sanction to the abuses of power by governments. Deleuze, however, does not equivocate on this question going so far as to state, ‘Religions are worth much less than the nobility and courage of the atheisms they inspire.’