The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology
Simon Critchley
Verso, 302pp, £16.99

“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 unblessed 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." No, it's not Alain de Botton. It's Oscar Wilde, writing in 1897. And it's these sentiments that Simon Critchley takes as his guiding theme for a sustained and fascinating reflection on the place of religion in political discourse. A fair summary of which might be this: religion - can't live with it, can't live without it.

The "can't live with it" bit is obvious enough to an atheist such as Critchley. Christianity has become unbelievable. So why can't we live without it? Because, he insists, modern political discourse is sublimated theology. And the only way properly to get at the unspoken drivers of much political philosophy is to recognise them as expressions of theological desire. "I will claim that the history of political forms can best be viewed as a series of metamorphoses of sacralisation," he writes.

This sacralisation may be a "fictional force" but it remains unavoidable, indispensable, even. Take Rousseau, Critchley's intellectual muse. On one level, The Social Contract is a thoroughly immanent and secular reflection. Authority is rooted in popular sovereignty. There is no authority other than the people themselves and this authority is expressed as law. But Rousseau continually wrestles with the problem of how this law can be recognised to have authority over a community if the authority of the law is seen to reside simply in the will of the community. Authority cannot be self-authoring. So there is a need for something that exists outside the community from which authority gains its authority - something transcendent.

Hence Rousseau's invocation of civil religion, a catechism of the citizen that he comes to see as something like a necessary fiction that binds a community together and provides the justification for the state's authority. Just as the omnipotent God was justification for the omnipotent monarch, so the idea of the will of God lay behind the will of the people. And although sovereignty came to be rooted in the civic rather than the divine, this does not mean that theological ideas lose their force. They are simply operating undercover.

One gets the feeling that all of this is so much more easily applied to the United States than Europe. For while the US prides itself on the existence of a firewall between church and state, there is no other country in the west where the theological ideas of civil religion retain so much imaginative force. For Critchley, the liberal-constitutional state of the US is an expression of the deism of its founding fathers. One familiar aspect of this is that American exceptionalism is derived from a secularised version of the Old Testament idea, buried deep in the intellectual DNA of the first Puritan pilgrims, that the people of Israel are uniquely chosen and blessed by God.

Like Israel, the US was to be a city set on a hill. This carries with it the idea that the US has a unique destiny. And that is what under­-lies the country's belief in, and continual appeal to, the idea of progress. As President Barack Obama put it in his inaugural address in January 2009: "These things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history."

The thinker who has done most to expose the theological aspirations of secular politics, and especially its infatuation with some version of providential design, is John Gray. Like Critchley, Gray thinks of modern politics as “a chapter in the history of religion". What begins with the millenarian thinking of the Hebrew scriptures finds its expression in the bloody utopianism of the Jacobins, the Nazis and Stalin. Here, the book of Revelation is the surprising template for modern political action. "What is essential to neoliberal millenarian thinking is the consolidation of the idea of good through the identification of evil, where the Antichrist keeps assuming different masks: Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and so on," Critchley writes. For Gray, the reason to expose the theological underpinnings of political discourse is to exorcise its power. Only tragic pessimism can free us from the violence of the theologian's ambition. But there are no votes in tragic pessimism. So the bloodshed continues.

However, Critchley differs from Gray over what one might call the question of original sin. For, as Critchley rightly points out, it is the question of human nature that ultimately sets political projects on different tracks. If human beings are basically good, the purpose of politics is to set them free to be good. Hence Critchley's version of anarchism. If they are "killer apes" as Gray has it, or beset with some ontological flaw, then the options are either resignation (Gray) or authoritarianism (Carl Schmitt).

It is here that Critchley reprises his notorious spat with the vituperative Slavoj Žižek, who, in 2007, accused him of being a patsy of the liberal-democratic state. Žižek suggested that Critchley's recommendation of anarchic resistance to the war in Iraq was easily co-opted by the George W Bush administration when Bush argued that the right to protest was exactly what the war was being fought to protect. Thus Critchley's style of politics was complicit.

Yet what is the alternative? As Critchley's analysis of original sin reveals, the alternative is the repressive violence of Žižek's left-wing authoritarianism.

Giles Fraser is the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?