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Published on February 24th, 2012 | by Daulton Dickey


The Faith of the Faithless by Simon Critchley

“When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unbiased bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.”—Oscar Wilde, De Profundis and Other Writings (Cited p. 3)

In his new book, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology (Verso Books), philosopher Simon Critchley uses the above Oscar Wilde quote as a launching point for discovering or establishing a possible foundation for a counter to the increasing rise of religion.

“I think the idea of a faith of the faithless,” Critchley writes, “is helpful in addressing the dilemma of politics and belief. On the one hand, unbelievers still seem to require an experience of belief; on the other hand, this cannot…be the idea that belief has to be underpinned by a traditional conception of religion defined by an experience or maybe just a postulate of transcendent fullness, namely the God of metaphysics or what Heidegger calls ‘onto-theo-logy.’’ (3-4)

Those who adhere to religion, Critchley tells us, experience faith differently than those who do not adhere to religion. The faith of the faithless can provide insight on faith itself more concretely than religious faith, which is diluted by dogma, tradition, and considerations of objects and concepts external to people. But The Faith of the Faithless is by no means a polemic in the vein of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens; it asks serious questions about religious faith and modern liberal democracy.

At root is a concern that secularism and liberal democracy has lost its way, sacrificing its hold on a coherent, unified philosophy to the religious right. “Politics has become a hideous surrogate for religious salvation,” Critchley writes, summarizing the view of John Gray, with whom Critchley seems to agree. “Secularism, which denies the truth of religion, is a religious myth. Specifically, it is a myth of progress based in the idea that history has a providential design that is unfolding.” (111)

“[…] although progress is a fact, faith in progress is a superstition, and the liberal humanist’s assurance in the reality of human progress is the barely secularists version of the Christian belief in providence.” (110)

To challenge the current liberal system, to establish faith divorced from religious institutions while acknowledging an ‘ontological defectiveness,’ a sort of original sin, in each of us, Critchley offers summaries, explorations, and criticisms of modern religious and political philosophy and theology, from Roussaeu’s theory of political fictions to modern philosophy’s analysis of St. Paul to meditations on the efficacy and limitations of non-violence.

Critchley describes our current state of affairs as a “series of nightmarish intrications of politics and religion: politics of religion and religions of politics, where we have entered nothing less than an epoch of new religious war.” (23-24) The relationship between traditional religion and modern political systems, the tensions and maneuvering such relationships create, has plunged our world into a state of darkness, but it is in our power as groups to alter the course on which we are presently set.

But these alterations occur individually, by employing a new type of faith, one that glances inward, that doesn’t appeal to or rely on external forces or entities. Critchley calls for a new faith, one endowed with supreme fiction–something we know to be fiction but we believe anyway. This supreme fiction will depend on love and ‘violent non-violence’ to unify and to compel us to act individually and, by extension, as groups toward the greater good.

How this can be achieved is only hinted at, but the crucial element is love, a love St. Paul preached in the early days of Christianity, a love “understood as that act of absolute spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate existing conceptions of identity in order that a new form of subjectivity can come into being.” (12)

The Faith of the Faithless is concerned with discovering a link between religion, politics, and philosophy, and, once found, in encouraging the proliferation of that link. Like Alain de Botton’s recent book, Religion for Atheists, Critchely is determined to move beyond superficial criticisms of religion and tackle the form of religion, of the system it represents, and to adapting and employing that system to legitimize faith for those who are blind to the concept, even if they possess a form of faith.

“[It] is perhaps the faithless,” Critchley writes, “who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security, guarantees, or rewards.” (252)

But in diagnosing the modern world, and in searching for possible cures, Critchley overlooks one crucial element: the fate of current religious faith. If cultural and personal traditions and beliefs should be changed, then what is to be done with theists? Their faith assures steadfastness in the face of new challenges, and the rise of a unified ‘faith of the faithless’ would present a new challenge in the long history of challenges.

Traditions lie at the root of religion. Those traditions help unify people. Stripping a faith system of its traditions and replacing them with new fictions will, at best, create splinter groups, furthering the divisions and conflicts confronting the Western world. Polities, too, rely on tradition, on easily digestible fictions. How can we reinvigorate the personal, cultural, and political landscapes without enacting pogroms on the masses, forcing them to change their beliefs?

Given the state of the world, in which the majority of its inhabitants are religious, nothing short of unprecedented cultural revolution would affect the change necessary to alter the intellectual landscape.

Although these concerns are not addressed with any degree of certainty, Critchley nonetheless presents a compelling thesis, though this is not a clear argument; it is, rather, the beginnings of an argument, a formulation of concepts to be expanded on—either by the author in following books or by other authors—somewhere down the road. At times dense, The Faith of the Faithless, nonetheless presents a thought provoking argument for nonbelievers to acknowledge a sort of faith they already adhere to, and, in the authors words, to embrace “faith as an experience of fidelity to a demand that [we] hold to be true.”

Verso Books
Hardback, 302 pages
ISBN: 9781844677375
February 2012
$24.95 / £16.99 / $31.00CAN

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About the Author

Daulton Dickey is a freak carving out his niche in a freak kingdom. He makes no apologies for it. As a writer, he’s annoyed people for several years by contributing to several prominent websites, magazines, and literary journals. His recent thoughts and writings can be found here:

One Response to The Faith of the Faithless by Simon Critchley

  1. Kristina Empora says:

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