I haven’t had time to review Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless because I haven’t had time to finish reading it amid my endless cascade of texts and trying to read the prequel, Infinitely Demanding. I’m pretty confident, based on the first chapter and the strength of Infinitely Demanding, in saying it’s a must-read. Here is a snippet of a write-up by Rollo Romig at the New Yorker book blog:
Political belief, Critchley argues further, isn’t just parallel to religious belief; politics as we know it is derived from religion. The concept of original sin, for example, “is not some outdated relic from the religious past,” Critchley writes, but is alive in any system of authoritarian rule—even the supposedly godless ones—in that they operate from the premise that “there is something essentially defective in human nature which requires a corrective.” Or look at anti-colonial politics: Critchley notes that Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” has its precedent in Saint Paul, who wrote of the early Christians as the “scum of the earth.” Even anarchism, the movement that brought us the slogan “no gods, no masters” (and the political form that Critchley finds most amenable), can be traced back to mystical Christian heretical movements such as the Movement of the Free Spirit.
Even secularism itself, Critchley maintains, is a religious myth, based as it is on a belief in progress. “The very idea of progress, that the future will be better than the past—which is the basic premise of American life—is a translation of the Christian idea of providence,” Critchley told me. “Most societies, for most of history, thought that history had a cyclical path, whereas Western society is defined by a linear idea of history, which really begins with Judaism and then finds its rearticulation in Christianity.” It’s a myth Obama drew on when he said that “we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for,” or that it’s possible to be on “the wrong side of history”—and, in doing so, gave American liberals their own shortlived moment of political hope (otherwise known as faith).
The religious conservatives are right: there is a theology behind the American political system—only it isn’t Christianity. It’s deism, the faith most closely associated with the Enlightenment, which professes, as Critchley puts it, that “there’s a God, but a God that doesn’t do party tricks.” Even if no one calls himself a deist anymore, it lives on it the political systems that the Enlightenment inspired—especially our own. Liberal democracy, Critchley argues, is simply the political form of deism. Natural law and natural rights, so central to the American creed, are fundamentally theological concepts. Thomas Jefferson may have been a freethinking, Bible-revising iconoclast, but he wasn’t just being figurative when he wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that such rights are endowed by a Creator; that’s what deists believe. And even without prayer in schools, the deist creed is coded into every national ritual we have, from the courtroom to the ballpark.
Here is a longer interview Critchley did with the magazine Frieze that previews some of the ideas in the book.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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