On Atheism and Belief: A Common Q&R in China

Often, in China, I will be asked what my major was. When I respond, “Theology” – and inevitably explain what that is – a question soon follows, “Do you believe in God?” Often asked with a half-smile, as if the person is expecting to be entertained by someone they hope to think is quite mad.

So, I enjoy the growing sense of confusion when I respond, “No, certainly not any traditional understanding. In fact, I no doubt could be understood to be an atheist.” A host of questions follow, “Why do you study theology?” “Why do you think this way now?” And my personal favourite, “Oh, so you don’t believe in anything?”

Sometimes I try to explicate my frustration with words such as theist, atheist, and agnostic. Both theism and atheism, I suggest work with shoddy definitions of “God,” and as such are not worth identifying with – is there anything more crazy than hoping to “prove God exists” on a posteriori, scientistic terms? Agnosticism, of course, takes the only reasonable position within this trinity, but it, again, defines itself in terms of a God whose “existence” could be determined either way with little more than a parallax shift. In this way, none of the above are worth the mental effort.

Of course, in classical terms I am an atheist, I guess; but this occupies little of my time, it is barely interesting. Slavoj Žižek states, in this regard,

“The true atheist does not choose atheism, for him, the question itself is irrelevant.”

This is really what I think can be said for myself. I simply do not need any notion of God in my life. I have found that I agree with Adam Kotsko suggestion that, “doing theology tends inexorably toward atheism.”

Of course, it is nice to mention other understandings of God (Tillichian, Process-theological etc.) that rework the categories beyond the above thesis, antithesis, negative synthesis. These theologies, however, I find, run toward a level of apophaticism that is correspondingly a movement into “atheism” (following Adam Kotsko, “doing theology tends inexorably toward atheism”) – you inevitably reach a point of stunning disinterest, maybe even realising that actually philosophies (say, Deleuzian thought) with similar goals do the exact same leg work with less metaphysical baggage (over, say, Process theology).


Moving on, however, it is the final question I often get asked that interests me most: “So, you don’t believe in anything?” Of course, in a certain sense, I hold similar beliefs to them – I do not believe in God, and have no discernibly religious practices in my life (other than writing about it, a lot) – so it is odd that they might be unreflectively casting themselves in this light; but, at any rate, I tend to respond, “Yes, of course. I believe in many things.”

For example, I identify as a Leftist and hold firmly to socialist values; I am staunchly anti-capitalist; I believe that society – most especially the poor – should know equality and justice, and am committed to them with great hope; I believe the scientific disciplines give us an extraordinary into the reality of things; I believe “religion” is a deep-seated human impulse that we must understand and refashion. None are self-evident, none are more correct than any alternatives, none are ontologically superior. Once one has assumed the need for one a sense of valuation follows – i.e. a materialist discourse only has power if one subscribes to the tenets of materialism. This is not to deny the power of a materialist discourse; but how could one find power in it truly, if one did not already believe in it?

It might be said, of course, in some facile sense, “But science gives us facts!” – I agree, the sciences do, just so. However, one is open to those “facts” because one has already come to believe in the need to interpret reality in a scientific, particularising, itemistic and atomistic, manner. If one has not, then the sciences will be experienced as irrelevant, regardless of “the facts.” The comedian Stewart Lee has a wonderful story about encountering a taxi driver who ends a conversation they both had with, “Yeah, well, you can prove anything with facts.” Indeed, one could, if one is accepting of “the facts.” This in some senses may an almost unbearably brilliant embodiment of Nietzsche’s “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

In this way, I believe in the above because as contingent discourses they have an affective power and interest that has grasped me – yet, could one not as easily live one’s life without any of the above (do not many already?), structuring instead one’s life around and interpreting lived experience through any other thing?

It is here, following Paul Tillich, I hold that “ultimate concern” is the best means for conceptualising “religion.” When “atheism” corresponds to “having no beliefs,” there is a problem. There is a category mistake if religion can only be equated with the positivistic, empirical truth of religious claims (“God exists,” “Jesus is God and was resurrected,” blah, blah, blah). Beliefs are everywhere, in everyone, as we each make the decision to live as if what we do has value, is important, and actually changes life meaningfully – from the scientist gripped ultimately by the sense that the evolutionary biologically discourse meaningfully changes things, to the artist who will not stop painting until a moment, a feeling is captured that radically represents our situation. Beliefs are an absurd mode in which live, directing us toward a making true of the truth; a making of facts based on the strength of our interpretations.

In many ways, I say I “believe” what I do because these beliefs, like religious beliefs, are absurd. Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins get to the bottom of this wonderfully, in their Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism, when they write:

“Yes, religion is a form of false consciousness. But all consciousness is a form of false consciousness.” (29)

I cannot agree more. In fact, this can be further elucidated following a quote they make from Žižek in RPE. Žižek notes that what remains “unthinkable,” for both fundamentalism and scientism,

 “is the ‘absurd’ act of decision which installs every authentic belief, a decision which cannot be grounded in the chain of ‘reasons,’ in positive knowledge.” (The Parallax View, 348)

In this sense, concomitant with the act of belief is the recognition that Enlightenment rationality, that so rightly critiques religion and exposes its contradictions and follies, must be recognised as being an absurd act of belief, which must turn its own particularising faculties upon itself. We cannot simply replace an absolutist religious discourse with a secularist one – we need an ending of absolutes. We must fall into the recognition of the pragmatic value, necessary structuring presence of, and fully contingent nature of beliefs, as such.

These beliefs of mine, are then in some way, perhaps, a means by which I, following Deleuze, am attempting to “believe in the world” – under the terms of how we best and most interestingly conceive of and think immanence, right now, in this time. In letting go of a transcendence that gives ontological and metaphysical priority to whatever discourse we have staked our lives upon – be it “religious” or not – we fall into the world, we fall into the chaos of noise and feeling, into the need to create and structure life. It is here our interpretations become beliefs, and our beliefs interpretations. They become acts of self-creation that are in turn social creation.

I believe in the world, I am ultimately concerned for the world, not because there is a pre-established sense ingrained in the act – but because there is no sense, there is no reason, there is only chaosmos, and I decide to make it with those who will make it with me.