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The Books Interview: Simon Critchley

The professor of philosophy at New York’s New School on “theologically engaged atheism”, Dawkins, Hi

In your new book, The Faith of the Faithless, you reject the "raw choice" between secularism and "theistic quietism". How would you characterise your own position?

There's a kind of secularist dogmatism I see in New York among the intellectuals I know. Then there's a theistic alternative that is rather certain of itself. There's something [the critic] James Wood wrote recently, about "a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief" - that is what I'm trying to get at. We cannot decide a priori that we're not going to engage with religious questions, nor can we decide a priori that religious questions are going to be the answers to philosophical or political issues.

By "secularist dogmatism", presumably you mean work by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens?
Yes. I think they're right on the metaphysics of supernatural entities. I don't think, though, that you can constrain that within naturalism as a dogma, because things are much messier than that.

I accept not a scientific conception of the world - that is far too grand - but I think that scientists in their various fields are doing fairly well. Yet I don't think you can explain practices like mathematics on a naturalistic view of the world. Naturalism, underpinned by a progressivist notion of history, underwritten by evolution, is a dogma that our age suffers from.

But I understand why people embrace it, because it seems to offer an answer to superstitious theodicy.

There's a section of the book devoted to the work of John Gray, who is one of the severest critics of that dogma.
There's nobody like John Gray to deflate the phenomenon of liberal humanism. He does it with extraordinary wit, economy and brilliance.

There's a kind of Schopenhauerian miserabilism in him that I'm very keen on. And an almost Taoist acknowledgment of stillness and calm that allows one to contemplate situations as they are. Gray is the Schopenhauerian, European Buddhist of our age. And I don't mean that in a disparaging way at all. I take him very seriously indeed.

In your discussion of Gray, there's a brief reference to President Obama as a "providential political theologian". What did you mean by that?
The belief that there is an "arc of justice", and that history has a right side and a wrong side. Obama worships the constitution, but that is underwritten by a theological narrative of progress which is providential.

I'm interested in his relationship with forms of radicalism in the United States that have always played on the connection between race and politics, in so far as that is mediated through a certain prophetic Christian tradition.

That prophetic language has largely disappeared while he's been in office.
It will reappear in the presidential campaign, I'm sure - but the languor and lassitude of the presidency has surprised me.

What happened in 2008 was that Obama caught hold of a visceral dissatisfaction with the way politics had happened in the US over the previous eight years. And people forget that the Obama campaign was done with volunteers, so they were basically organising themselves. The speed with which that movement dissipated was surprising, however.

Some of that energy has reappeared in the Occupy movement, hasn't it?
Yes, though with Occupy you have the question of its relationship to representative politics. What has always been interesting about American politics is the separation of state and civil society, and that civil society has been focused around forms of directly democratic organisation, often linked to religious communities.

Do you think Occupy contains the seeds of a viable long-term politics?
People could go off into the woods and do their own thing - there's a long tradition of that in the US. Or they could make their compromises with the Democratic Party, which is extremely difficult to imagine. Or, which is more likely, they could form a third party.

Simon Critchley's "The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology" is published by Verso (£16.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible