An Interview with - Three Questions on Modern Atheism An

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An Interview with - Three Questions on Modern Atheism An


    Three Questions on Modern Atheism: An Interview with John Milbank

    by Ben Suriano

The Other Journal (TOJ): It might seem appropriate to begin our interview by

    addressing the growing voice of this supposed new atheism as represented by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Onfray, et cetera, yet there seems to be nothing new here but a

    great display of amnesia concerning, among other things, their intellectual history.

    Moreover, what often passes for a religion/atheism discussion these days seems to be

    little more than a sensationalized intramural duel among real-life versions of Nietzsche‘s

    Last Man, as both atheists and religious interlocutors alike desperately try to assert

    moribund bourgeois ideals against one another.

However, despite the poverty and pettiness of its discourse, this particular cast of

    contemporary atheist and religious interlocutors has benefited from the media machine

    and its penchant for spectacles. Indeed, the popularization of New Atheism suggests that

    the late-capitalist culture industry is at work here, raising this spectacle to a reality,

    dominating the collective imagination and transforming our understanding of what it

    means to be religious or scientific or atheist, and perhaps this apparatus is what‘s really

    new‖ here. Could you begin, then, by discussing the underlying logic of the culture

    industry, an industry to which both sides of the debate seem tied and which finds it

    necessary to produce, stage, and amplify this discussion/spectacle?

John Milbank (JM): I think that you have put this question really well and at a level of

    sophistication that is usually missing. It‘s as if the crude and dualistic presentation of issues so common in the media has now penetrated the book market and captured a part

    of what is supposedly serious discourse. For a long time now, the media has presented

    religion in terms of traditionalistssuperstitious lunatic fundamentalistsversus liberal

    modernisers. This new shift seeks to imply that religion is fundamentally insanity, that

    its natural enemy is science, that liberal religious people are a bit confused, and that the

    only valid way to be a religious liberal is to be vaguely spiritual. I find it really hard to

    know what is going on here, so I can only offer some extremely tentative reflections.

It‘s important to note that the New Atheism movement began in the 1990s. Well before

    9/11 Dawkins, Dennett, and Churchland had already got going.

Is this a purely Anglo-Saxon phenomenon? Not entirely. In French thought there‘s been a

    gradual drift from poststructuralism (which, in retrospect, seems to be negative

    humanism after all) to new modes of speculative materialism. However, it‘s mainly in

    Anglo-Saxon countries that one gets the crude anti-religion polemic. One might suggest

    that that‘s because the entire modernity-science-capitalism thing is at its most virulent

    here. Perhaps the French just give a softer, far more sophisticated version of this

What needs to be focused on is the double impression given by the media: (1) religion is

    reviving and (2) clever people know that it is over. I find it fascinating that in Britain,

    which is of course far more modern than the United States, left versus right is

    increasingly seen as secular versus religious (though there are elements of this in the

     2 States). This is despite their recent history of conspicuously religious left political leaders.

One sees this phenomenon in the 2008 Parliament debate over an embryology bill. The

    press presented the debate as left versus right, science versus religion, et cetera and wrote

    naively as if science answered moral questions. But in reality, while the majority left

    members of Parliament supported experimentation on embryos, the fact that by no means

    all of them did so was, so to speak, hushed up. Increasingly, the media do not want

    complex stories, and they therefore make us live by this dualistic approach.

Yes, the spectacle of ―science‖ is now regarded an absolute destiny. It is the human glory

    to undo itself through science. British police shows like Waking the Dead now screen very long takes of the dissection of human bodies by glamorous women. The message is

    that science is beautiful and glossy, that finding scientific truth is the one moral impulse,

    and that human life is otherwise a tragic mess.

Dawkins and his cohorts want the supposed incompatibility of science with religious

    belief to be taught as an official part of a state agenda. This is tantamount to a revival of

    Soviet-style official atheism. It would mean that the obvious ‗debatability‘ of this view

    would be denied and free speech would therefore be denied to one side of the debate.

    Religious people as declaredly ‗anti-science‘ would inevitably become second-class citizens. But I‘m not arguing on ‗liberal‘ ground s here for the equality of all and every opinion. I‘m rather suggesting that some issues have to be publicly regarded as

    ‗debatable‘ even though on stands on one side or another. Hence I would argue that it is

    ‗radically irrational‘ to suppose that people who think religion and science are compatible are ‗obviously stupid‘. But I would also argue the reverse. People who think they are

    incompatible are in my view mistaken and not subtle thinkers but I can see how they have

    made this mistake for apparently plausible sounding reasons. There is no need to

    marginalise them as lunatics though the case for doing so would be far rationally

    stronger than the case for marginalising religious people.

What‘s this new scientistic fanatacism all about? Well, I suppose it is fundamentally

    about the collapse of all secular ideologies in the late twentieth century. One is left with

    the truth of science as the only reality of the modern. If science is simply the freedom to

    know, it can become Faustian. And apart from this freedom there is only the right to

    choose one‘s own lifestyle. The crucial thing here that the left has missed here is that

    sexual freedoms have increased exponentially while all other freedoms have declined.

Today in Great Britain, you scarcely have the right to demonstrate, and a higher

    proportion of Great Britain‘s population is in prison than the proportion of China‘s population that is in prison. The boy at the shopcounter with no customers is not allowed

    to read a book to improve himself, but who cares what he gets up to with sex and drink

    after the shop closes? Of course, there‘s also a double-think about sexits all OK and yet male sexuality is nearly always exploitative, etceterabut in general, it would seem that, as Adorno and Horkheimer and Marcuse predicted, sexualization is intended to keep

    us all quiet: neurotic, hysterical, frustrated, and unhappy but still looking. Knowing that


    we they can watch a porn film when they get home from work, workers may overlook the

    fact that they have lost the lunch-hour when they could have caught up with public affairs

    over a sandwich in the local library.

Thus with sex divided from procreation, science and sexual freedom come together in a

    tacit Malthusian programme of biopolitical manipulation. The State aspires both

    scientifically to control reproduction and to keep its citizens ‗drugged‘ with dreams of

    sex and the need to compete in the sexual agon. Michel Houillebecq is completely right

    about this and the left has to rethink its 60‘s-derived libertarianism if it wishes to

    continue to oppose capitalism.

Instead, by supporting the total disjuncture of sex and procreation, the left is really

    supporting a new mode of fascism. Women are lined up with science and choice in

    order to produce a new kind of ideal human subjectivitymale and autonomous and yet pliant in a ―female manner. The re-envisaged autonomous female body is the final site

    of the coming together of scientific objectivity and absolute freedom of choice. Perhaps

    one could even speak here of a new racism of the human race as suchit‘s to be made the object of an endless objective improvement and the expression of a will to

    freedom/will to power. Of course, this also means that the specific phenomenology of the

    female body is destroyed. It‘s denied that this body is inherently linked both to the male

    body (as also vice versa) and to another body that is itself and yet becomes not itselfthe

    baby. Having denied the link of babies to men and also to women, save as objects of their

    (male) choice, babies thereby become pure consumer objects, and all human

    relationality and personhood is abandoned.

    After the collapse of secular ideologies then, one is left with just science. But also, of course, the return of religion, since these now represent the only alternative

    ideologiesvirulent in the case of Islam where religion is still overwhelmingly practiced.

Post-9/11 has allowed the media to present the religion-versus-science story in ever

    cruder terms. Of course, it‘s highly significant that Christopher Hitchens also supported

    the Bush foreign policy. This is because, at bottom, neo-liberalism and scientism line up

    with each other. But Hitchens never really explains how his imperialism of reason relates

    to the messianic aspect of American imperialism. He and others don‘t explore the point at which fundamentalism and scientism can be in a hidden alliance in that the very

    emptiness of a formalist approach to economics and politics can allow an extreme

    religiosity to supply the concrete content. Racist and nationalist fascism can no longer do

    this very readily because races are mixed up and national identities are confusedso one is getting regionalism as much as nationalism. Religions by contrast supply diffused

    globalized identities so that religious extremism fits well with an era of globalization. Yet

    so also does naturalism, the idea that all we have in common is one material planet and

    our physical nature.

    Hence, the age of religious and philosophical ―agnosticism‖ is over—as Quentin Meillassoux says. Now we have two rival dogmatisms about the infinite, materialism and



Instead of these dire alternatives, we need more apophatic (though not agnostic)

    approaches to the infinite; we need to recognize that, as Charles Taylor says, many

    people embrace a complex mix of belief and unbelief, and as … Pope Benedict XVI advocates, we need more subtle mixes of faith and reason.

But the only way our media would recognize this complexity is if we were not dominated

    by capitalism in the mode of the spectacle.

    TOJ: In considering the historical development of modern atheism‘s cultural logic, what would you consider as its defining cultural form, if there is such a thing? That is, what

    has been continuously present throughout its modern history? Moreover, what key shifts

    in the way that power was constructed, distributed, and organized, especially through

    changing socioeconomic formations, might have provided the necessary material

    conditions for its emergence and particular shape?

    JM: I think that we‘ve scarcely begun to pose, much less explore, this all-important question. How is it that atheism arose so recentlyat the end of eighteenth centuryand

    yet so quickly established itself? Clearly, it began as an elite phenomenon, so it is from

    the start and up to now socially connected to the idea of a new, rival elite opposed to the

    old aristocracy. This means that it has to be considered a bourgeois phenomenon or else

    one of decadent aristocracywhich is another modern socialising mode.

I think that Charles Taylor in A Secular Age provides important clues by saying that the

    atheist self is the buffered self‖—no external spiritual forces can get to itand also that

    it is a self that is entirely in charge of its own morality and self-disciplining. Thus, as he

    argues, if Latin Christianity, because of its over-disciplinary mode and its festive

    deficit, ushered in this sort of self, atheism finally dispenses with the religious bit

    altogether. This atheist self is definitely the self that is totally autonomous and so it likes

    to reduce everything to predictable calculation. Spiritual security and worldly freedom

    and comfort are preferred over the aristocratic heroism of a quest for meaning. In Great

    Britain, even up to, say, Thatcher or even Blair, the establishment was still somewhat

    religious. But Blair, ironically, ushered in a new political class that saw politics like a

    business that is to be exploited, and this political class is essentially an atheist class.

    Maybe the explicit personal religiosity of the New Labour party in some way worked

    ideologically to mask this.

To my mind then, modernity is liberalism, liberalism is capitalism—―political

    economy‖—and capitalism is atheism and nihilism. Not to see this, or rather not fully to

    see this, is the critical deficit of Marxism. Again, Taylor is right: All critical resistance to

    modernity is ―romantic‘‘ in character. It (1) allows that more freedom and material

    happiness is a partial good, (2) yearns for elements of lost organic values, and (3) realizes

    that the anti-body, anti-festivity, anti-sex, hell-linked, disciplinary, over-organized

    character of Latin Christendom is ironically responsible for the Enlightenment mentality.


    I‘m starting to think that this triple romanticism is more fundamental than [any] left/right

    characterization, which after all, is a kind of accidental result of the French Revolution.

    Both left and right, as André de Muralt argues in L’unite de la philosophie politique, are

    nominalist: Both favor a strong, single center of money or power or both (right) or the

    rights of the many singly or when totted up (left). Both positions are also in the end


    It is also important now to re-read carefully Karl Polanyi‘s The Great Transformation, arguably the most important work of political economy written in the last century.

    Although it is a socialist work, which indeed goes rigorously beyond Marx‘s ontology and history of capitalism from a ‗religious‘, guild-socialist perspective, it is also suspicious of most socialisms state socialism certainly, but also many associative

    socialisms which he notably tracks back to late 17thC Quaker thought, because he sees

    these as all too akin to capitalist attempts to make indigency and impoverishment a

    paradoxical source of wealth. Instead, he favours both wide distribution of assets (like

    Chesterton and Belloc) and a guild-restriction of market entry which by limiting market

    competition actually protects market competition from monopoly. This allows

    ‗reciprocity‘ to rule – the primacy of mutual satisfaction of needs. This he argues is the

    human norm against Adam Smith. And against Hayek he is saying that ‗reciprocity‘ is

    the norm of markets. German ordo-liberalism or ‗social market‘ theory has often said the

    same thing. Maurice Glasmann in Afflicted Powers has shown how the British left has misunderstood his current and how close it is to both Polanyi and to Catholic Social

    teaching. One can also note in passing that Polanyi praises Archbishop Laud and

    condemns the Cromwellian commonwealth with respect to their treatment of the poor! It

    is a Catholic not a Protestant socialism that he points us towards............................

We need, indeed a new kind of romantic politics that is specifically religious, and often

    Christian, in thinking that one can only get distributive equality on the basis of agreed

    upon values and an elite transmission and guarding of those values. A more Carlylean

    and Ruskinian politics thenbasically left, yet with elements that are not really right so

    much as pre-modern and traditionalist. Strictly speaking, the pre-modern predates right

    versus left. In Great Britain, Phillip Blond is developing a crucially important new mode

    of Red Toryism, which might in my view be seen as a kind of traditionalist socialism.

    This is already having a profoundly transformative effect upon British politics and, in

    effect, marks the political translation of the paradox of Radical Orthodoxy and the

    beginning of its entry upon the political stage. RT is also rapidly acquiring a global

    influence. Others have been speaking of a ‗blue socialism‘ (myself ) or of ‗blue labour‘

    (Maurice Glasmann, a Polanyist Jewish Socialist and Jon Cruddas a prominent labour

    MP). However, I would argue that the paradox amounts to the same thing whatever way

    round one puts it. Blond draws upon genuine traditions of ‗Tory radicalism‘ (Richard

    Oastler etc) but in fact RT goes well beyond that. It stakes out a new radical

    communitarian ground against the liberalism of both right and left.

The hard thing now for critical thinkers to do is to think outside leftism. They have to see

    that if neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have totally triumphed, this is because the

    left in its traditional mode is incapable of carrying out an adequate critique of capitalism.


    In the end, this is because it‘s atheisticone needs to be religious to recognize objective

    values and meanings as not just epiphenomenal. Again Polanyi clearly saw that capitalist

    ‗primary accumulation‘ is always also an act of descralisation. Today in Great Britain, the left is more or less now defining itself as scientistic which actually permits an

    underwriting of a new mode of fascism and racism as I mentioned earlier.

Left Christians now must stress the Christian bit much more if they are truly going to be

    able to make a critical intervention.

    Atheism is bourgeois oppression; atheism is the opium of the peopleit claims to discover an ontology that precludes all hope. In the face of this we need now to celebrate

    the faithful legacy of peasants; learned, honorable and genuinely paternalist aristocrats,

    Christian warrior kings like Alfred the Great and Charles Martel; yeomen farmers and

    self-sacrificial scholars. Charles Péguy, William Cobbett and Hilaire Belloc are the men

    for the hour.

TOJ: How might we understand the key intellectual shifts that both made possible and

    legitimated the changes in the organization of power that contributed to the rise of

    modern atheism? Moreover, in light of the common readings of atheism as essentially

    negativeas a sober desacralizing, disenchanting, and demythologizing movement

    how should we understand the intellectual shifts of modern atheism in relation to

    Christian theology? Did atheism‘s intellectual development come by way of a thorough

    rejection of theology, as common readings claim, or more primarily as the construction of

    an alternative theology?

JM: Again, this is to ask absolutely the right question. Many authors, like Michael

    Buckley, have now shown that atheism was not ―subtractive. In the face of a decadent late-Baroque theology, it had positively to invent a self-sufficient naturalism, or else new

    modes of theism were invented. Often, indeed, atheism has operated as a religionof

    nature, of man, of race, of class destinyand now it‘s becoming the religion of science

    democracy is supposed to produce an obedient seconding of the verdicts of science,

    which are seen as answering all problems, even ethical ones.

Charles Taylor has now extended the anti-subtraction theory into the social realm. The

    very idea of social and political order without religion is bizarre by all traditional lights.

    The invention of secular order is an extraordinary achievement, if not highly questionable,

    because instead of faith, it requires rational foundations that one really can‘t have. Thus,

    practical atheism is more dogmatic than religion.

I‘d add to Taylor a bigger stress on the dubiousness of liberalism, which is mainly

    political economy. As Pierre Manent argues in his Intellectual History of Liberalism it

    ―empties the soul‖—it delivers negative freedom at the price of a loss of character.

We‘re now at a crossroads. Politics has become a shadow play. In reality, economic and

    cultural liberalism go together and increase together. The left has won the cultural war,


    and the right has won the economic war. But of course, they are really both on the same


The point is to resist this. And that means, of course, to re-think Christendom, but in

    more festive, pro-body terms, yet more interpersonal, less fearing terms, and terms that

    celebrate much more excellence and virtue in every realm, including those of craft,

    farming, and trade, and to re-think Christendom with greater will to the democratization

    of excellence.

    The other religions‖ thing in the end won‘t matter. The world as a whole is rapidly Christianizing, and even in Islamic countries like Bangladesh Muslims are finding their

    own specific and valuably Islamic way to Christ in notably increasing numbers. As Paul

    Claudel realised in Le Soulier de Satin, the meaning of globalisation is a shift to the primacy of the sea, la mer tout entière, and so figurally of baptism and personal relationship, however terrestrially sundered. The evil disasters of colonialism can only be

    redeemed when they are seen as perverse and yet providential ways to the further

    proclamation of Christian universalism.

But the challenge now is to have a good and true and not a perverted capitalist version of

    a global Christendom.

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