Now entering its third year, the Secularism and Secularity Program Unit of the American Academy of Religion is going strong and looking forward to another great set of proposals. The call for papers for the 2015 meeting in Atlanta is now available, and the deadline for submissions is March 2nd.
Posts Tagged ‘atheism’
Future histories may report that the public discourse on religion was dominated by reductive naturalism until Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution appeared in 2011. One of the most distinctive features of Bellah’s book is his extensive use of the latest developments in the natural sciences, such as biology, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and developmental and child psychology. One of his purposes is, as he puts it, “to show how deeply we are shaped by a very long biological history.” This might give the wrong impression that Bellah’s approach is similar to the New Naturalist approach. However, Bellah’s is better characterized as a non-reductive humanistic naturalism, which is a synthesis of the humanistic (interpretative, social, and historical) understanding of religion and the naturalist approach.
A curious finding in sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund’s national study on the religious beliefs and practices of American scientists is that nearly one in five atheist parents participate in religious institutions.
Nona Willis Aronowitz at GOOD Magazine asks what changes might occur when “1 in 4 millennials don’t identify with any religion.”
The Guardian has been hosting a series of posts on the question of whether faith is necessary in order to appreciate religious art. A post by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin highlights the recent work of atheist artist David Mach to contest the assumption that religious art is necessarily made by believers
Over at the Religion and Ethics blog of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Slavoj Zizek has written an opinion piece on what he views as the aspect of the Christian legacy that is most important for radical politics today—atheism.
Atlantic columnist Wendy Kaminer discusses American Atheists’ suit to prevent the “World Trade Center cross,” an original cross-beam from one of the two towers that was recently moved from a lower Manhattan church to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The move, American Atheists charge, identifies the United States with Christianity and excludes nonbelievers from the ranks of the aggrieved.
Jacques Berlinerblau, on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog, enumerates some of the prevalent misconceptions that inform what he calls “Pop Atheism.”
In this age of overt commercialization of the holiday season—where no sooner have children returned from trick-or-treating than Christmas music is pumped through convenience store aisles on loop—Americans have become accustomed to the omnipresence of seasonal cheer. But, as Laurie Goodstein noted in The New York Times the this past week, there is a new band of interest groups wrangling for the holiday spotlight: “Just in time for the holiday season, Americans are about to be hit with a spate of advertisements promoting the joy and wisdom of atheism.”
Last Wednesday evening, eminent theorist of literature and culture Terry Eagleton gave a talk at Columbia University entitled “The New Atheism and the War on Terror.” New Atheism is also the subject of last year’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, which developed as the product of his Terry Lectures (no relation) given at Yale in 2008. Having never seen Eagleton speak before, the talk surprised me in a few ways, so I’d like to give a short review and also use the occasion to address some issues that were conspicuously absent given the title of the lecture.
Stefanos Geroulanos’s An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought—the subject of an ongoing forum here at The Immanent Frame—was taken up for discussion last week by participants in the yearlong seminar on secularism being held at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, NJ, and conceived and directed by Joan Wallach Scott.
At the NYTimes.com blog “The Stone,” Frans de Waal, C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, writes on the roots of human morality, using a series of fascinating examples from research on primate behavior to illustrate man’s natural attraction to “the good.”
In my last post, I made the claim that I wasn’t an atheist. That’s a complicated claim. Atheism, despite being technically no more than contra-theism, is most of the time a philosophy with positive content. It’s usually strict materialism buttressed by other moral and political ideologies (though who could really separate the latter two categories).
Geroulanos’s central thesis is compelling but simple: French antihumanism, in its theoretical mode, was based on a radicalized “negative anthropology,” i.e., the idea that man is a negating animal, as articulated in a widespread rejection of neo-Kantianism, first by Heidegger and then passed on to French thinkers like Bataille and Blanchot, largely via Alexandre Kojève and his “end of history” argument. Instead of the homo absconditus that Ernst Bloch was to locate in Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann’s “Protestant anthropology,” we have here a “last man,” heir to those “negations” of the world named freedom, history, and individuality, whose historical realization reveals that humanness is ultimately based upon a relation to death. And to the degree that this antihumanism continues to order thinkers like de Man, Derrida, and Foucault, it has also shaped many Anglophone intellectuals of my generation. Geroulanos tells a story that thus illuminates us too.
The health of Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist and critic of religion, has become a major news story. Hitchens is in treatment for esophageal cancer and his debilitating health has caused many to ask: should one pray for an atheist? Courtney Bender, professor of religion at Columbia University, discusses the question and whether “atheists have joined a religiously plural grid as another ‘religious’ minority, taking up a place alongside the Muslims and Sikhs and Zoroastrians.”
I begin this post by posing straightaway the questions that will guide my argument. In what way can atheism and antihumanism be posed and understood in intellectual history? In what sense do they constitute objects of study? How does one go about weaving and articulating for them an adequate intellectual-historical approach that may facilitate an understanding of texts, concepts, and systems of thought? I want to thank Martin Kavka, Sam Moyn, Judith Surkis, and Gil Anidjar for taking the time to read and address my book with the very encouraging care that each of them has taken. In what follows, I want to take into account a number of issues that they have raised, not so much to respond as to elaborate, in relation to their stances, some of the positions I have adopted in the book and in my introduction to this discussion. I thus frame this post as an attempt to tend first and foremost to methodological questions and critiques that have been raised directly or indirectly.
For many Minnesotans, religion is a private matter that shouldn’t be talked about—not even among friends. For others, it hardly makes sense to think of religion as public or private because it seems so obviously embedded in both spheres. As someone who has to talk about religion a lot, two rough groups emerge for me: on the one hand, there are the public non-theists; and on the other, there are those who talk about religion, whether or not they are actually religious themselves.
Famously posing a peculiar problem of translation, names are a necessary feature of our academic craft. We like to call things, but we may also need to, obviously, in order to give figure to that which we think and study. Remarkably true to that necessity, Stefanos Geroulanos tells us in the first pages of his impressive book that the “conceptual reorganization” he will describe and analyze became “an almost official face of French thought.” It was only later (with structuralism and everything, everyone, associated with and past it) that it “acquired the name ‘antihumanism’.” Geroulanos further proposes to expand the reach of the name “antihumanism” by meticulously documenting lesser known antecedents, earlier phases of what the term might otherwise designate, seeking thereby to bring together a fuller, and detailed, account of numerous and diverse actors, elements and factors, and trends too, which in fact jointly define the greater part of the last century.
Last week I wrote about the conversations I get into when I tell people what I do. Answering that I study religion usually leads to a conversation about it—a topic about as uncomfortable as politics during an election year. One of the first things people ask me in these conversations is what I believe. This question comes in a lot of forms, and every answer I give is an educated guess meant to quickly defuse any tensions. Sometimes I’m not particularly religious; other times I was raised Christian; and sometimes I’m simply an atheist.
“Man dies again.” Or so might one entitle a tabloid version of Stefanos Geroulanos’s excellent work on the history of antihumanist thought in twentieth-century France. The phrase, of course, echoes a New York Post headline—“Pope dies again”—that supposedly appeared when Pope John Paul I died in 1978, a mere 33 days after Pope Paul IV’s passing. Like that likely apocryphal tabloid title, the simplistic formula is an apparently contradictory, but perhaps telling, misreading. First, it drastically reduces the density, richness, and rigor of Geroulanos’s argument, which retraces multiple—at once overlapping and competing—formulations of atheistic critiques of humanism in the politically and intellectually turbulent decades following World War One. And second, it draws an associative link between the Post’s unintentional précis of papal political theology and those strains of French thinking which most insistently worked against the divinization of “Man.” Both the condensation and the displacement at work in the phrase seem to distort the book’s aims and claims beyond recognition.
Susan Jacoby’s recent post is one of the best statements I’ve seen in opposition to the “mamma grizzly” feminism of Sarah Palin et alia. But no one riposte is going to settle a debate that taps into deep, and deeply felt, cultural contradictions. We may be in the post-feminist era, but questions about feminism and women’s bodies and reproduction are far from “over.”
As a PhD student in Religion, my answer to the question, “What do you do?” is always a loaded one. The responses are mostly predictable, only occasionally aggressive, and sometimes spur wonderful conversations. Navigating these responses while minimizing awkwardness has become a bit of a hobby for me, so in addition to learning how to laugh on cue at the question, “Are you gonna be a priest or something?” I’ve come up with some strategies to steer the conversation to a place that’s more interesting for me personally, and if I’m in the mood, great for my research.
One of the things that intellectual historians show us, although often only implicitly, is the fluidity of the terms of debates that we take to be self-evident. In An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought, Stefanos Geroulanos shows us this fluidity by focusing on the French history of objections to (and reformulations of) humanist discourse from 1929 to 1952, a history that suggests that the rigidity of the categories of “religion” and “humanism” in Anglophone discourse is exceptional and unnecessary.
In a 1956 text on ethics and literature, Emmanuel Levinas offered the following diagnosis of the philosophical trends of his time: “Contemporary thought holds the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist. The gods are dead or withdrawn from the world; concrete, even rational man does not contain the universe.” This atheism that is not humanist, the sense that certain strands of contemporary philosophy had abandoned secularism’s central ethical and political investment in humanism, poses the motivating question behind the book I am presenting for discussion here, An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. In twentieth-century French thought, particularly in the period from the end of World War I through the late 1950s, a new form of atheism, and with it, a new conception of man, emerged and crystallized. What historians and critics of French thought, literature, and intellectual culture have, since the 1960s, called “antihumanism,” I argue, can be best understood in terms of this development, which is at once theological, epistemological, and political.
Recently, there was a brief back and forth at Cif Belief between Michael McGhee and Stephen Clark. The former, a self-described secular humanist, is currently on the philosophy faculty at Liverpool University, where the latter, “a professing Christian,” is Professor Emeritus.
At least since Ernst Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity, the separation between “atheism” and “religion” has been questioned and interrogated by many scholars. In the wake of the rise of the New Atheism, BBC Two’s “The Review Show” asks whether atheism itself can be called a “religion.”
At the Guardian‘s Comment is Free blog, Madeleine Bunting offers a stocktaking of the “God debate” since the publication of Dawkin’s The God Delusion. She focuses mostly on publications by British writers, including Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong. With a sense for paradox that would make Chesterton proud, Bunting concludes that, in a kind of dialectical inversion, the New Atheists’ attempt to make religion unacceptable had the effect of spurring more interest in it.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ruled that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. If this doesn’t constitute religion, then what does?
The Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships have been a source of fierce controversy among science writers, particularly since John Horgan’s ambivalent 2006 debrief essay suggested that the program is keyed toward promoting a religious agenda. The announcement of this year’s fellows has already aroused controversy, particularly surrounding science writer Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. Biologist Jerry Coyne went on the offensive.
At The Philosophers’ Magazine, Carl Packman gives an overview of Slavoj Žižek’s controversial “materialist theology.”
In The New York Times, James Wood suggests that the theological consequences of President Obama’s comments about the Haiti earthquake may be as troubling as those of Pat Robertson.
The New York Times reports on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annual interfaith breakfast, which for the first time in eight years included representatives of nonbelievers.
Lauren Sandler of DoubleX, noting statistics from the American Religious Identification Survey, asks why women are more likely to believe in God than men, “especially considering how God treats them.”
In Ashville, North Carolina, the Los Angeles Times reports, a city councilman is under fire for being an atheist (or, as he says, “post-theist”)—and the state’s constitution is on the critics’ side.
In Ashville, North Carolina, opponents of atheist City Councilman Cecil Bothwell are challenging the legitimacy of his oath of office on the grounds that the state Constitution disqualifies officeholders “who shall deny the being of Almighty God.”