Slavoj Žižek and the Illusion of Religion

Slavoj Žižek and the Illusion of Religion September 13, 2013
Brilliant philosopher or crazy homeless man? You decide.

I’m getting audited, which I can tell you completely sucks. And I’m getting audited for three years of tax returns, which means triple the pain — it’s like getting an enema with thumb tacks. I’ll write about it more sometime.

But because of that, I need a couple more days to chew on and answer this week’s Question That Haunts — it’s a good one. In the meantime, here’s a fantastic guest post by Zane Schertz, following up on last week’s post about Slavoj Žižek. About himself, he says, “I am a death of God theologian. I am currently studying dialectical materialism, and Jacques Lacan’s stade du miroir. My main theological influences are Thomas Altizer, Slavoj Žižek, Soren Kierkegaard, George Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Drew Sumrall. You can find me on my blog and on Twitter.” Here’s Zane:

In the theological realm there has been much discussion over Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek. What makes this a bit of anomaly is that Zizek is a self described atheist. So the next logical question is, what can an atheist teach us about theology and the Christian walk? Well, first we must understand there are many varying forms of atheism. Just as there are many varying forms of Christianity, Judaism and so on. So before we dive in, understand that to lump Zizek in with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and so on, is to lump Tony in with Mark Driscoll. It’s irresponsible and we will ultimately miss what Zizek is saying.

Slavoj Zizek is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and a professor of philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School. Now Zizek is a character to say the least. His style is manic, ugly, and all over the map. Have you ever had so many thoughts going on in your brain that your mouth can’t keep up? I assume Zizek spends all of his waking moments in this state. He just talks and talks and talks and talks and talks [you get the point] and within that time he jumps from topic to topic to topic to topic. So needless to say, more times than not it’s difficult to keep up with his thoughts and antics. However, when he gets dialed in, there is no one person more brilliant, exciting, and passionate than Zizek.

I asked Tony if I could guest post here to discuss how this atheist madman can and should be implemented into modern theology and Christianity. My goal is to be as coherent as possible, but when discussing Zizek this sometimes becomes a bit difficult. So I am currently thinking maybe I bit of more than I can chew. Anyway, here is my best effort to explain Christian [atheism] as Zizek sees it:

Zizek states that religious belief is an objectively functional illusion. For an example, he cites Christmas and Santa Claus. We all realize that Santa doesn’t exist, it’s a mere illusion, and yet we haven’t discarded the belief. Why? Because it functions objectively as an illusion that signifies our worldview of the holiday. Another example is the ancient Greeks and mythology. Zizek claims the ancient Greeks were not idiots. They knew on top of Mt. Olympus they wouldn’t find Gods, yet it remained an illusion which functioned objectively in their worldview.

Let’s look at it from this perspective, we can say that money doesn’t bring happiness, but we clearly function as though it does. In the same way the Christian idea of God as transcendent/omnipresent is an illusion. God is dead. He died on the cross, which has led to our freedom to live out the New Testament. Now Zizek says, and I agree, that only by willing the death of God [Christian atheism] can we live fully as Christians. So to break it down, Z is saying, when we believe in the illusion of the transcendent/omnipresent God who pulls the strings ‘deus ex machina’ we cannot function as true Christians because we’re too busy keeping the illusion of Santa real.

So here’s where things get a little complicated because if you’re not familiar with Hegelian dialectics it’s easy to get lost. So I will try and break down dialectics in its most elementary form. For every idea there is a contradiction that pushes back, which ultimately leads to another outcome. So let’s imagine there is a violent storm, afterwords we see the sun emerge from behind the clouds, which will then lead to a rainbow. It is a triadic dialectic and it plays a crucial role in the death of God. Most today use the terminology of thesis—antithesis—synthesis to describe dialectics. I prefer abstract—negative—concrete because it shows that the first initial ‘thing’ is inadequate and requires the push back. Call it what you like it’s all the same notion.

The idea is that God [abstract] engages the world in all it’s profanity through the Incarnation of Christ. We are the profane [negative] and stand in complete contradiction to the Spirit/Divine. At the cross we find the death of Christ which is also the death of God. Now through the death of God we find the end of transcendence. The God who was once [out there] is now [right here]. This is ultimately the [concrete] in the dialectic. So what we find is not a bodily resurrection back into transcendence, but instead the complete self emptying of this transcendence into immanence. There is nothing pulling the strings in our life, so now we as humans must face the responsibility of our actions/in actions. The immanence creates a forward movement into our modern world. Now theology is no longer a static discussion based on rituals and dogmas, but instead we find a religionless Christianity that engages our modern world.

This is crucial, because now Christianity isn’t about life after death, but about life before you die. For Zizek the message of Christ was apocalyptic at its core. For us to find meaning and live as fully human we must rupture the structures that shape and skew our ideologies. With that comes true freedom from not only the state, but from religion itself.

I hope this was clear and concise, but like I said its a difficult topic to explain in a short post. If you take anything away from this I hope it’s that there is a new and vibrant movement forming with ideas that shatter the old. If you are serious about dissecting your beliefs I highly recommend reading Zizek’s work with Christ. Below are some noteworthy reads.

  • The Fragile Absolute
  • The Monstrosity of Christ
  • The Puppet and the Dwarf
  • God in Pain
  • Parallax View [chapter 2]
  • Less Than Nothing [first 400 pages]

 Have you read Zizek? If so, what have you learned?

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  • Craig

    While most atheists don’t believe God ever was, Christian atheists apparently believe that God once was, but no longer is (God is dead; people killed him). Does it make any difference, in practice, which you believe?

    • NateW

      I would want to push back against saying that “God is dead” means the same thing as “once was, but no longer is.” One thing that our Western culture is particularly bad at is understanding the radical eternality of God. We think of eternity as if it were a straight road that we travel upon extending infinitely into the future “forever,” but the ancient Hebrew concept of eternity is more like an ocean that covers the entire globe on which we float in a rowboat. One the road, there is objective past, present, and future and there is a clear direction of travel and, we assume, a destination at the end of the road. We can look behind us and see where we were and we can look ahead and presume to know where we’re going. On the global ocean though, there is no past or future, there is only ever “right now” bound on all sides by a horizon, always hiding what lies beyond. Where I have been and where I am going are the same place. No matter how long or how far I row I never reach the horizon, will never know what lies beyond it. No matter which direction I set out in I am always on my way back to where I started. Eternal life then isn’t a matter of discovering the secret of living “forever and ever” it’s a way of being that sincerely acknowledges, embraces, and shares the full measure of life in this present moment.

      God’s “death” then isn’t an event that can be marked on a timeline, It is an eternal event—that is, rather than being one that happened, it is one that is eternally happening, right now. God isn’t dead, God is always dying.

      Like Schrodinger’s Cat, at any given moment God is both dead and alive.
      In fact, somehow, with God, life itself does not precede death, but raises from within it. Life rises from the ashes.

      When Atheists say that God doesn’t exist, I often agree with them. The religious God is dead, nails being pounded into his hands and feet, he himself feeling the same pain again and again at every instance of oppression and suffering. When we experience the darkness of the void, the black absence left when one feels forsaken by God, Christ is there suffering with us, dying for us.

      • Craig

        Nate, thank you for such a substantive reply. As I now interpret the idea, the “death of God” means the death of certain conceptions of God, and, rather differently, the death of God (specifically Jesus) as a being in time.

        However, I am now confused about what Jesus is supposed to represent. On the one hand, you suggest that Jesus is the “religious God” who died with nails pounded into his hands and feet (good riddance). On the other hand, I’m supposing that Jesus is also supposed to be the valid expression of the timeless God to creatures who cannot think of anything (beings, thoughts, actions, events) except as existing within time. That is, Jesus represents not the false, merely religious God, but rather the true, eternal God whom, apart from Jesus, we cannot to any meaningful extent comprehend.

  • Thursday1

    Zizek claims the ancient Greeks were not idiots. They knew on top of Mt. Olympus they wouldn’t find Gods, yet it remained an illusion which functioned objectively in their worldview.

    Problem is, this is totally false, the vast majority of ancient Greeks (give or take a Democritus or Xenophanes here or there) very much did believe in their gods. Zizek apparently can’t get out of the modern mindset: since the Greeks were obviously highly intelligent, and highly intelligent people don’t believe in ghosts and gods (at least not in our day), the Greeks couldn’t possibly have been sincere polytheists. Does not follow. I have been urging people to read the new work in psychology of religion: Guthrie, Boyer, Atran, Bloom, Bering, Luhrmann, Henrich, Naranzayan. It’s very illuminating. M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus is very good specifically on the ancient Greek mindset.

    Timothy Materer has some good work on the persistence of polytheism among poets even into the modern period, and how this is often glossed over or suppressed by English literature scholars. Start with his book Modernist Alchemy.

    • timothy snediker

      I think you may have missed Zane’s point.

      Zizek is not saying that the Greeks didn’t believe in their gods. He’s saying they didn’t REALLY believe in their gods. The Greeks believed the same way that modern Christians believe, which is to say, they don’t REALLY, ACTUALLY believe what they say they believe. There has to be a disavowal of belief at a certain point, such as the Christian who believes God has the power to heal their sick child, but wouldn’t dream of withholding medical care from their child. If they did withhold care from their child and insisted on “praying them back to health,” we would call them monsters or barbarians.

      Zizek is claiming that if we want to REALLY believe we have to become precisely these sorts of barbaric, monstrous, yet radically ethical monsters.

  • Joel Harrison

    I’m not a Zizek expert by any means, but I think an important piece missing from this is found in Crockett and Robbins’ account of Zizek on religion: Whereas people like Freud and Freuerbach described religious thinking (specifically Christianity) as a “false consciousness” to be overcome and discarded in order to get to “reality,” Zizek (following Lacan) argues that all consciousness is false consciousness. There is never NOT an edifice that we construct about ourselves and our world to shield ourselves from the disruption of the Real. If one were to discard the false consciousness of religion, one would immediately construct another. And Zizek thinks that his version of materialist Christianity is a good option as far as false consciousnesses go.

    Your account seems to suggest that we discard belief altogether, which would be more Freuerbachian or Freudian, rather than what Zizek is saying which is to allow our beliefs to “believe for us.” We gain freedom in recognizing that our ideologies re: religion are a false consciousness, but Zizek argues that “religion” is still there (or should be)–just operating differently, with the recognition that it is us, not the Big Other, imposing it.

  • CurtisMSP

    “Christianity isn’t about life after death, but about life before you die.”

    That is exactly what Jesus and Paul taught too. Luke 9:23, 2 Corinthians 6:2.

    The fact that so many Christians think otherwise shows you just how wrong Christians are sometimes.

  • CurtisMSP

    What is the difference between “objectively functional illusion” and “really good fiction”? There is no difference.

    What makes really good fiction really good, is not that it is a nice story that many people like to read. Rather, really good fiction is really good only when it tells us something about our shared, universal human experience.

    If a “functional illusion”, or a “fiction”, tells us something utterly true about our shared human experience, isn’t it it completely reasonable to share and talk about that illusion?

    • NateW

      Exactly. Really good fiction can be more true than most “non-fiction.” Facts and Truth are not the same thing.

  • CurtisMSP

    Atheism and modern religion are both wrong.

    Not because they give the wrong answer, but because they ask the wrong question.

    The question is not: Does God exist?

    The question is: What stories do people tell to each other, and how can we understand those stories to improve our relationships with each other?

    If both atheists and Christians tried to answer that question, they might be surprised by how much they agree with each other.

  • Jonnie

    Thanks for this Zane. I’ve spent a bit of time with Zizek, and appreciate some of his ‘theological’ work. Would it not better to say though, more honest in the sense of what Zizek is servicing the theological for, that Xian theology–particularly the idiosyncratic Hegelian christology that he picks up and de-absolutizes–seves as a nice representation or example of the kind of traumatic exerience he is trying to induce in us. In other words, like Hegel, the theological is merely an instantiation of something, a particularly helpful trope, of the “real” truth, the trauamtic void for Z. Now of course, Hegel seems a bit more committed to the centrality of uniqueness of the Xian religion in displaying this movement or dialectic he’s philosophically interested in, but Zizek seems to shamelessly merely use an Xian Christology to invoke Lacan right?
    I’m interested as to how you feel about this. Are you similarly fundamentally committed to something philosophically similar to Zizek to where the theology is a nice picture (as in picture-thinking) of the real truth? Does theology work merely in this regard? If so, what is the criterion for selecting certain aspects, moments, verses, of the biblical narrative and not others to apply to the philosophy? Hegel was surely doing this. But, is theology in this vein then ONLY something that serves as picture thinking for something else. That, at bottom, is quite a subservient role right?

    • NateW

      I would say that yes, christian intellectual/cognitive/systematic theology does play only a subservient role within the endeavor of making Truth known, but I would also say that this is equally true of every philosophy.

      Truth is made known ONLY by incarnation, by living it out, by putting flesh and bones on it. In other words, truth is known when it is experienced and participated in, not when it is rationally understood. Words can of course play a role in this as they are employed within relationships (whether real, literary, etc) but it is not the words themselves that bear Truth, but the Spirit in which the words are spoken.

      So, to the extent that our goal is to communicate truth, every word spoken, written, or thought is merely a tool, the same words are able to be wielded in such a way as to reveal truth or to hide it.

      I believe that the life and death of Jesus reveal the kind of life, the way of being, that alone is able to transfer True knowledge from one person to another.

      This Way is eternal, the words we use to speak about it are merely temporary servants.

      • Jonnie

        My point is that he’s shamelessly cherry picking bits that vivify his understanding of the void or negation of the negation, etc.

        I don’t know what to do with the transcendental stuff you said after. Your “truth” sounds a bit to gargantuan and transcendetnal to me.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Ah – you men and your complicated theories and fancy words! The answer to the (correctly identified) problem of humans relying on God as the great wizard of oz is actually simple. And it in no way requires God to die. Just go back to the beginning. The first thing God does with man is bring the animals to be named by him. So consider this; Naming is an act of power and responsibility. This power and responsibility is handed over to man, by God, from the start. God’s sovereignty is not threatened by man’s independence and self-direction. In fact, this independence and self-direction is expected of us by God. He did not bring the animals to man and say, “this one is called a giraffe and this one is called a horse”, etc. It wasn’t a quiz – there was no right or wrong answer. It was an act which is utterly incompatible with a God who micromanages or who has his own plans which it is our duty to simply fall in line with. Creation is God’s work; what to do with it is our choice and responsibility. Of course, there are inherent limitations and consequences for our choices which are dictated by the ways in which creation has been designed to work. But within that, we have freedom and responsibility.

    The supposed problem of transcendence and immanence lies with the error found in the idea of the conflict between abstract/transcendent/perfect God and concrete/immanent/profane us. First, the reality is that the latter is not in opposition to the former, but in fact comes out of it. The second issue is the long standing myth that prior to the fall, everything was perfect. At the extreme you have creationists claiming that prior to the fall, there was no death of any sort. Even more progressive Christians see the fall as the root of sin and violence. However, God himself declared the creation “good” and mankind “very good”. Eve told the serpent that God had not only said not to eat the fruit of the tree, but had forbidden even touching the tree. So either she was lying or mistaken. Imperfection was part of God’s creation from the start. And he saw fit to come and walk on the earth, alongside humanity, “in the cool of the evening”. The supposed conflict between abstract/transcendent/perfect and concrete/immanent/profane has no existence outside of our own mental constructs. Adam and Eve were naked before the fall and it was fine. They were naked after the fall and it was still fine, but now they perceived it as a problem.
    The incarnation brought the transcendent and the immanent back together, in a way that we can see and understand. However, the idea that the death of Christ removed religious concerns from the next life and placed them in this life is false. The Jewish religion was markedly unconcerned with the afterlife. The idea itself is almost entirely missing from the OT. At the time of Jesus, several theories about the afterlife had crept into Jewish folk religion under the influence of Babylonian religion which they had been exposed to during the Babylonian exile. If anything, the resurrection was completely unforeseen and disruptive of the previous flow of religious understanding in the opposite direction of what Zizek claims. The faith of the Hebrews was already grounded in this life rather than in the next. The duality between concrete and abstract was a Greek addition which was in conflict with the Jewish conception of the world and its relationship with God. In this context, the resurrection was needed to solidify the idea of transcendent as a ultimate reality with which we should be concerned. The danger is the rejection of our responsibility for ourselves and each other in this life. The Upside is the answer to the conundrum of Jews voiced throughout the OT: the meaning of a man’s life in the face of death.
    The resurrection can only be understood in the context of the incarnation; one without the other privileges one over the other in a way which is in conflict with the nature of creation. Both together reveal the dignity and priority of each way of being. Rather than conflict between the two, the incarnation shows that this life is in no way in conflict with the transcendent. The resurrection shows that the inescapable suffering and death which marks the concrete is not the problem we have conceived it to be. Rather, those things come out of and exist in service to the transcendent.
    If there’s a death of God, it is simply the death of our false ideas about God. Which is actually very consistent with the death to sin, of the old man, etc which is promised the Christian follower. God is not dead nor does he need to be for mankind to be free, responsible, etc.

    • Joel Harrison

      That was decidedly not simple. =)

      I’m not clear on much of what you’re saying in the first 90% of your response, but regarding the last paragraph, the post is missing the important point (as myself and others allude to) that this is exactly Zizek’s point, with the important difference that ALL ideas about God are false ideas about God, and even more importantly, all ideas about reality, no matter what they are, (atheistic, theistic, whatever) are attempts to cover up the traumatic void (as Jonnie points out below.)

      • Rebecca Trotter

        Basically I’m saying that it’s in no way necessary for God to die in order for us to embrace our responsibility and independence – that was the intention from the start. Second, the dichotomy/conflict between concrete/transcendent, etc is false. And it was recognised by the Jews as false. That’s a concept transferred late to Christian thought under Greek influence. So the idea that the incarnation was mean to put an end to our fixation on the afterlife in favor of this one doesn’t make sense in context. And as explained here, Zizek isn’t arguing that our false/incomplete/inadequate ideas about God need to die. He’s arguing that God IS dead. That it was a false idea about a being with no underlying reality which was put to death. But without the resurrection and without the divine out of which the “profane” has come from, then the fundamental problem of the meaning of life in the face of death remains. People’s experience of transcendence in this life points to nothing. It seems to me that Zizek is presenting God’s death as the solution to the problem of people rejecting their independence and responsibility in favor of letting God pull the strings. I am saying that the death of God is neither a needed nor helpful answer to the problem.

        • Joel Harrison

          Okay, but I’m not seeing anything in your original argument regarding God’s death that addresses Zizek’s arguments. I guess that’s where my confusion is coming from.

          The dichotomy you identify isn’t actually present in Zizek. He’s identifying something found in contemporary Christianity and offering a corrective. You’re kinda doing the same thing but you’re directing it at Zizek, which doesn’t really work. I think it’s safe to say he has a handle on avoiding binaries like that.

          As I and others have pointed out in a few of the comments, Zizek as presented here is incomplete. Your account of what he IS saying is basically what I’ve already said, except when you say “That it was a false idea about a being…” it’s important to point out again that all ways of thinking about reality are “false” for Zizek in the sense that they help us cope with and avoid the trauma of the Real. You still seem to be thinking in terms of existence/non-existence, which isn’t Zizek’s project. God doesn’t exist for Zizek. He’s an atheist. BUT that isn’t at all what he means by the “death of God.” Religion, for Zizek, is an acceptable way of being in the world–but only if belief operates in the way that he’s arguing it should. He wants to think through how things like fundamentalism and essentialism in religious being-in-the-world can be overcome. That said, it’s important not to conflate the idea that all consciousness is false consciousness with the function of the death of God for Zizek. God’s death ≠ false consciousness.

          One last thing that’s also important to keep in mind in working through this stuff: Don’t read the false consciousness thing or the DoG thing and think, “Well that’s clearly NOT how reality is.” We don’t nee to wonder whether or not his account of how things “really are” (i.e. his Lacanian account of consciousness, etc.) is 100% accurate because you don’t have to buy into that in order to understand the application of his account and how it might help us think differently about religion. Think of it as a tool that can help us accomplish a theological task. That’s sort of a “literary theory” way of thinking about theology that I think is helpful for people to begin work through this stuff.

  • Brandon

    What’s up with this resurgence in Death of God theology? I’m not as conversant with the work of guys like Altizer and Hamilton as I probably should be to engage in these conversations, but then I haven’t engaged with their work a lot because I don’t find their version of Christianity to be all that intellectually compelling. I think there is a reason it did not catch on in its initial phases during the 60s, and that’s because it doesn’t offer a satisfying account of faith to the average believer. Try explaining the gospel to your average person using death of God categories and see if it makes any sense to them. Again, I’m not an expert in the radical tradition, by any means, but from what I do know, it seems to be a vacuous system.

    • NateW

      “… It seems to be a vacuous system.” Haha, actually that’s precisely what it is! : )

  • Gustavo Frederico

    A nice paper about Zizek’s Atheist Theology – (on the International Journal of Zizek Studies):

  • Scott Paeth