Is there a continuity between various strands of atheism, despite all of their differences? This important question – for atheists and those who study atheism – is difficult to answer because it is not easy to see what the bluntness of the new atheists has in common with the subtlety of other philosophers of nonreligion, such as Richard Rorty or William Connolly. Instead of attempting to find a unifying theory of atheism, I have proposed, in a recent article published in Telos, that we need a dialectic theory of atheology.
The triple movements of Hegel’s dialectic provide an avenue to wander through the various atheisms of the past without getting lost in the process. Famously characterized as the movement between thesis-antithesis-synthesis, Hegel’s dialectic is a method of thought to understand how contradictory concepts can be seen to come together when they are perceived as part of a movement between opposites. Importantly, for Hegel, this movement necessitates the combination of all of its parts. We cannot have the antithesis before having had the thesis, and we cannot have the synthesis without having had both thesis and antithesis.
In terms of the theory of atheology, we can identify three such Hegelian moments in the history of atheism – and indeed in contemporary atheist discourse. The first movement is a largely negative one, which I label ‘a-theology’. The privative a-, coming from Ancient Greek, is essential to the first step of this dialectic atheology. Atheists are first and foremost reacting to a conception of God, god or gods that they no longer find believable. This negative phase is often used as an argument against atheism. Atheism, some say, is reactive, negative, and destructive. It took a long time to claim the label, the epithet of accusation that for so long was attached to the word ‘atheist’. This is why I like to pinpoint the birth of atheism with the discovery of Jean Meslier’s Memoirs, in 1729, after his death. In this book, the Catholic priest from Champagne, for the first time in Western history, claimed to be an atheist. The negation is affirmed and embraced. And this is a good thing. This negative phase is necessary, not only historically, but perhaps for every atheist. There are moments when one needs to say ‘no’ to the demands imposed by certain conceptions of God. But of course, many of the bluntest critiques of the New Atheists remain solely within this phase, without seeing that there are two more steps to an atheology worthy of the name.
What is a potential positive side of this atheology? Atheology can also be described as an atheo-logy, as the antithesis to the a-theology described above. This atheo-logy is a systematic understanding of the fight against particular understandings of God. The focus, I argue in the article, is between those who recognize atheism as a belief, and those who do not. Other commentators in this blog, notably Stephen LeDrew, have argued this line well. Atheism is a belief, of the same order that religious belief is a belief. It does not rest on sufficiently firm scientific evidence to claim to be otherwise. But there are various ways to understand belief. In Ancient Greek, the terms pistis and doxa highlight two very different concepts of belief. Pistis, closer to our understanding of the term ‘faith’, is something that atheists have often reacted against. But doxa, as a form of ‘opinion’, or simply ‘belief’, is much more subtle. It is knowledge of inexact things, for Aristotle. We can still have true beliefs, but the level of knowledge we have of them is appropriate to their nature. In other words, any discussion of the nature of God is bound to be inexact. Spinoza’s deus sive natura (God or Nature) is just as much a possibility as Meslier’s ‘there is no God’. Both are particular doxa about the nature of God, both have been accused of atheism, but there is no objective way to differentiate between the two. Admitting that atheism is a belief – albeit one understood within a particular epistemic framework – is better than claiming the certainty of faith. A positive atheology will aim to build rhetorical – not scientific – arguments to convince that, among other competing doxa, it proposes the most convincing alternative.
No dialectic movement can be complete without a synthesis. The third phase can be labeled a ‘metatheology’, one that moves beyond (meta-) both theistic claims and, necessarily, simple atheistic claims as well. Atheology has not yet managed to move past these negative and positive phases, to build something radically different from what other religious doxa have built. Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’ provides an inroad: ‘Indeed, at hearing the news that “the old god is dead,” we philosophers and “free spirits” feel illuminated by a new dawn; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, forebodings, expectation’ (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §344). A new spirituality is needed for this synthesis of atheism. This new spirituality will not be one that mimics that of religions, through the building of atheist temples or of atheist Sunday Assemblies. It will provide a break with the past that is as powerful as the break between Judaism and Christianity, or Hellenism and Monotheism. What this atheist spirituality will look like remains to be seen, and a political atheology will need to articulate a model of modus vivendi (a way of living together) with other belief systems. It will not erase the first two phases of an atheology – atheism will always maintain a level of vigilance against theistic claims to absolute knowledge, and atheism as a belief will always need to convince that its explanations of the world provide an adequate vision to live by. Neither will it abandon some religious heritage. Dialogue between atheism and religions is as important as ever, and I am currently working on the consequences of this dialectic atheology for concepts of secularism and toleration. The hope is that spiritual atheism will provide the fullness of being that some religious persons find in belief in God, without needing the recourse to an entity that atheologists no longer find believable.
William Connolly (1999), Why I am Not a Secularist. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Charles Devellennes (2014), ‘A Theory of Atheology. Reason, Critique, and Beyond’, Telos, Vol. 166.
Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Ricoeur (1969), The Religious Significance of Atheism. New York: Columbia University Press.
Jean Meslier (2009), Testament: Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier. Prometheus.
Friedrich Nietzsche (2001), The Gay Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Richard Norman and Sean Sayers (1980) Hegel, Marx and Dialectic: A Debate. Brighton: The Harvester Press.
Gianni Vattimo and Richard Rorty (2007), The Future of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press.
Charles Devellennes is a lecturer in political and social thought at the University of Kent. He specialises in materialist and atheist political thought, both historical and contemporary. He has written on the baron d’Holbach, Jean Meslier, the new atheists, and atheist political theorists such as Richard Rorty and William Connolly. He is particularly interested in theories of toleration in modern thought, and in contemporary toleration of atheists as well as atheists’ tolerance of other beliefs.