“Anticlericalism and Atheism” – Richard RORTY

Some day, intellectual historians may remark that the twentieth century was the one in which the philosophy professors began to stop asking bad questions—questions like “What really exists?” “What are the scope and limits of human knowledge?” and “How does language hook up with reality?” These questions assume that philosophy can be done ahistorically. They presuppose the bad idea that inspection of our present practices can give us an understanding of the “structure” of all possible human practices.

“Structure” is just another word for “essence.” The most important movements in twentieth-century philosophy have been anti-essentialist. These movements have mocked the ambitions of their predecessors, positivism and phenomenol- ogy, to do what Plato and Aristotle had hoped to do—sift out the changing appearances from the enduringly real, the merely contingent from the truly necessary. Recent examples of this mockery are Jacques Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy and Bas van Fraassen’s The Empirical Stance. These books stand on the shoulders of Heidegger’s Being and Time, Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy, and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. All these anti-essentialist books urge us to fight free of the old Greek distinctions between the apparent and the real and between the necessary and the contingent.

One effect of the rise of anti-essentialism and of historicism is insouciance about what Lecky famously called “the warfare between science and theology.” A growing tendency to accept what Terry Pinkard calls “Hegel’s doctrine of the sociality of reason” and to abandon what Habermas calls “subject- centered reason” for what he calls “communicative reason” has weakened the grip of the idea that scientific beliefs are formed rationally, whereas religious beliefs are not. The antipositivist tenor of post-Kuhnian philosophy of science has combined with the work of post-Heideggerian theologians to make intel- lectuals more sympathetic to William James’s claim that natural science and religion need not compete with one another.

These developments have made the word “atheist” less popular than it used to be. Philosophers who do not go to church are now less inclined to describe themselves as believing that there is no God. They are more inclined to use such expressions as Max Weber’s “religiously unmusical.” One can be tone-deaf when it comes to religion just as one can be oblivious to the charms of music. People who find themselves quite unable to take an interest in the question of whether God exists have no right to be contemptuous of people who believe passionately in his existence or of people who deny it with equal passion. Nor do either of the latter have a right to be contemptuous of those to whom the dispute seems pointless.

Philosophy resembles music and religion in this respect. Many students—those who walk out of the final examination in Philosophy 101 determined never to waste their time with another philosophy course and unable to understand how people can take that sort of thing seriously—are philosophically unmusical. Some philosophers still think that this attitude toward the discipline to which they have devoted their lives is evidence of an intellectual, and perhaps even a moral flaw. But most are by now content to shrug off an inability to take philosophical issues seriously as no more important, when evaluating a person’s intellect or character, than an inability to read fiction or to grasp mathematical relationships or to learn foreign languages.

This increased tolerance for people who simply brush aside questions that were once thought to be of the highest importance is sometimes described as the adoption of an “aestheticist” attitude. This description is especially popular among those who find such tolerance deplorable and who diagnose its spread as a symptom of a dangerous spiritual illness (“skepticism” or “relativism” or something equally appalling). But the term “aesthetic” in such contexts presupposes the standard Kantian cognitive-moral-aesthetic distinction. That dis- tinction is itself one of the principal targets of anti-essentialist, historicist philosophizing.

Kantians think that once you have given up hope of attaining universal agreement on an issue you have declared it “merely a matter of taste.” But this description strikes anti-essentialist philosophers as just as bad as the Kantian idea that being rational is a matter of following rules. Philosophers who do not believe that there are any such rules reject Kantian pigeonholing in favor of questions about what context certain beliefs or practices or books can best be put in, for what particular purposes. Once the Kantian trichtomy is abandoned, the work of theologians like Bultmann and Tillich no longer looks like a reduction of the “cognitive” claims of religion to “merely” aesthetic claims.

In this new climate of philosophical opinion, philosophy professors are no longer expected to provide answers to a question that exercised both Kant and Hegel: How can the worldview of natural science be fitted together with the complex of religious and moral ideas that were central to European civilization? We know what it is like to fit physics together with chemistry and chemistry together with biology, but that sort of fitting is inappropriate when thinking about the interface between art and morality or between politics and jurisprudence or between religion and natural science. All these spheres of culture continually interpenetrate and interact. There is no need for an organizational chart that specifies, once and for all, when they are permitted to do so. Nor is there any need to attempt to reach an ahistorical, God’s-eye overview of the relations between all human practices. We can settle for the more limited task Hegel called “holding our time in thought.”

Given all these changes, it is not surprising that only two sorts of philosophers are still tempted to use the word “atheist” to describe themselves. The first sort are those who still think that belief in the divine is an empirical hypothesis and that modern science has given better explanations of the phenomena God was once used to explain. Philosophers of this sort are delighted whenever an ingenuous natural scientist claims that some new scientific discovery provides evidence for the truth of theism, for they find it easy to debunk this claim. They can do so simply by trotting out the same sorts of arguments about the irrelevance of any particular empirical state of affairs to the existence of an atemporal and nonspatial being as were used by Hume and Kant against the natural theologians of the eighteenth century.

I agree with Hume and Kant that the notion of “empirical evidence” is irrelevant to talk about God,1 but this point bears equally against atheism and theism. President Bush made a good point when he said, in a speech designed to please Christian fundamentalists, that “atheism is a faith” because it is “subject to neither confirmation nor refutation by means of argument or evidence.” But the same goes, of course, for theism. Neither those who affirm nor those who deny the existence of God can plausibly claim that they have evidence for their views. Being religious, in the modern West, does not have much to do with the explanation of specific observable phenomena.

But there is a second sort of philosopher who describes himself or herself as an atheist. These are the ones who use “atheism” as a rough synonym for “anticlericalism.” I now wish that I had used the latter term on the occasions when I have used the former to characterize my own view. For anticlericalism is a political view, not an epistemological or metaphysical one. It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they do—despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or in despair—are dangerous to the health of demo- cratic societies.2 Whereas the philosophers who claim that atheism, unlike theism, is backed up by evidence would say that religious belief is irrational, contemporary secularists like myself are content to say that it is politically dangerous. On our view, religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized—as long as ecclesiastical institutions do not attempt to rally the faithful behind political proposals and as long as believers and unbelievers agree to follow a policy of live and let live.

Some of those who hold this view, such as myself, had no religious upbringing and have never developed any attachment to any religious tradition. We are the ones who call ourselves “religiously unmusical.” But others, such as the distinguished contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, have used their philosophical learning and sophistication to argue for the reasonableness of a return to the religiosity of their youth. This argument is laid out in Vattimo’s moving and original book Credere di credere.3 His response to the question “Do you now once again believe in God?” amounts to saying: I find myself becoming more and more religious, so I suppose I must believe in God. But I think Vattimo might have done better to say: I am becoming more and more religious, and so coming to have what many people would call a belief in God, but I am not sure that the term “belief ” is the right description of what I have.

The point of such a reformulation would be to  take account of our conviction that if a belief is true, everybody ought to share it. But Vattimo does not think that all human beings ought to be theists, much less that they should all be Catholics. He follows William James in disassociating the question “Have I a right to be religious?” from the question “Should everybody believe in the existence of God?” Just insofar as one accepts the familiar Hume/Kant critique of natural theology but disagrees with the positivistic claim that the explanatory successes of modern science have rendered belief in God irrational, one will be inclined to say that religiosity is not happily characterized by the term “belief.” So one should welcome Vattimo’s attempt to move religion out of the epistemic arena, an arena in which it seems subject to challenge by natural science.

Such attempts are, of course, not new. Kant’s suggestion that we view God as a postulate of pure practical reason rather than an explanation of empirical phenomena cleared the way for thinkers like Schleiermacher to develop what Nancy Frankenberry has called “a theology of symbolic forms.” It also encouraged thinkers like Kierkegaard, Barth, and Lévinas to make God wholly other—beyond the reach not only of evidence and argument but of discursive thought.

Vattimo’s importance lies in his rejection of both of these unhappy post-Kantian initiatives. He puts aside the attempt to connect religion with truth and so has no use for notions like “symbolic” or “emotional” or “metaphorical” or “moral” truth. Nor does he have any use for what he calls (somewhat misleadingly, in my opinion) “existentialist theology”—the attempt to make religiosity a matter of being rescued from sin by the inexplicable grace of a deity wholly other than man. His theology is explicitly designed for those whom he calls “half-believers,” the people whom St. Paul called “lukewarm in the faith”—the sort of people who only go to church for weddings, baptisms, and funerals (69).

Vattimo turns away from the passages in Epistle to the Romans that Karl Barth liked best, and reduces the Christian message to the passage in Paul that most other people like best: 1 Corinthians 13. His strategy is to treat the Incarnation as God’s sacrifice of all his power and authority, as well as all his otherness. The Incarnation was an act of kenosis, the act in which God turned everything over to human beings. This enables Vattimo to make his most startling and most important claim: that “secularization . . . is the constitutive trait of authentic religious experience” (21).

Hegel too saw human history as constituting the Incarna- tion of the Spirit, and its slaughter-bench as the cross. But Hegel was unwilling to put aside truth in favor of love. So Hegel turns human history into a dramatic narrative that reaches its climax in an epistemic state: absolute knowledge. For Vattimo, by contrast, there is no internal dynamic, no inherent teleology to human history; there is no great drama to be unfolded, but only the hope that love may prevail. Vattimo thinks that if we take human history as seriously as Hegel did, while refusing to place it within either an epistemological or a metaphysical context, we can stop the pendulum from swinging back and forth between militantly positivistic atheism and symbolist or existentialist defenses of theism. As he says, “It is (only) because metaphysical meta-narratives have been dissolved that philosophy has rediscovered the plausibility of religion and can consequently approach the religious need of common consciousness independently of the frame- work of Enlightenment critique.”4 Vattimo wants to dissolve the problem of the coexistence of natural science with the legacy of Christianity by identifying Christ neither with truth nor with power but with love alone.

Vattimo’s argument provides an illustration of how lines of thought drawn from Nietzsche and Heidegger can be intertwined with those drawn from James and Dewey. For these two intellectual traditions have in common the thought that the quest for truth and knowledge is no more and no less than the quest for intersubjective agreement. The epistemic arena is a public space, a space from which religion can and should retreat.5 The realization that it should retreat from that sphere is not a recognition of the true essence of religion, but simply one of the morals to be drawn from the history of Europe and America.

Vattimo says that “now that Cartesian (and Hegelian) thought has completed its parabola, it no longer makes sense to oppose faith and reason so sharply” (Vattimo, Belief, 87). By Cartesian and Hegelian thought, Vattimo means pretty much what Heidegger meant by “onto-theology.” The term covers not only traditional theology and metaphysics but also posi- tivism and (insofar as it is an attempt to put philosophy on the secure path of a science) phenomenology. He agrees with Heidegger that “the metaphysics of objectivity culminates in a thinking that identifies the truth of Being with the calculable, measurable and definitively manipulatable object of techno-science” (30). For if you identify rationality with the pursuit of universal intersubjective agreement and truth with the outcome of such a pursuit, and if you also claim that nothing should take precedence over that pursuit, then you will squeeze religion not only out of public life but out of intellectual life. This is because you will have made natural science the paradigm of rationality and truth. Then religion will have to be thought of either as an unsuccessful competitor with empirical inquiry or as “merely” a vehicle of emotional satisfaction.

To save religion from onto-theology, you need to regard the desire for universal intersubjective agreement as just one human need among many others, and one that does not automatically trump all other needs. This is a doctrine Nietzsche and Heidegger share with James and Dewey. All four of these anti-Cartesians have principled objections to the pejorative use of “merely” in expressions such as “merely private” or “merely literary” or “merely aesthetic” or “merely emotional.” They all provide reasons both for replacing the Kantian dis- tinction between the cognitive and the noncognitive with the distinction between the satisfaction of public needs and the satisfaction of private needs, and for insisting that there is nothing “mere” about satisfaction of the latter. All four are, in the words that Vattimo uses to describe Heidegger, trying to help us “quit a horizon of thought that is an enemy of freedom and of the historicity of existing” (31).

If one stays within this horizon of thought and so continues to think of epistemology and metaphysics as first philosophy, one will be convinced that all one’s assertions should have cognitive content. An assertion has such content insofar as it is caught up in what the contemporary American philosopher Robert Brandom calls “the game of giving and asking for reasons.” But to say that religion should be privatized is to say that religious people are entitled, for certain purposes, to opt out of this game. They are entitled to disconnect their assertions from the network of socially acceptable inferences that provide justifications for making these assertions and draw practical consequences from having made them.

Vattimo seems to be aiming at such a privatized religion when he describes the secularization of European culture as the fulfillment of the promise of the Incarnation, considered as kenosis, God’s turning everything over to us. The more secular, the less hierocratic the West becomes, the better it car- ries out the Gospels’ promise that God will no longer see us as servants but as friends. “The essence of the [Christian] revelation,” Vattimo says, “is reduced to charity, while all the rest is left to the non-finality of diverse historical experiences” (77).

This account of the essence of Christianity—one in which God’s self-emptying and man’s attempt to think of love as the only law are two faces of the same coin—permits Vattimo to see all the great unmaskers of the West, from Copernicus and Newton to Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, as carrying out works of love. These men were, in his words, “reading the signs of the times with no other provision than that of the commandment of love” (66). They were followers of Christ in the sense that “Christ himself is the unmasker, and . . . the unmasking inaugurated by him . . . is the meaning of the history of salvation itself ” (66). To ask whether this is a “legitimate” or “valid” version of Catholicism, or of Christianity, would be to pose exactly the wrong question. The notion of “legitimacy” is not applicable to what Vattimo, or any of the rest of us, does with our solitude. To try to apply it is to imply that you have no right to go to church for the weddings and baptisms and funerals of your friends and relations unless you acknowledge the authority of ecclesiastical institutions to decide who counts as a Christian and who does not, or no right to call yourself a Jew unless you perform this ritual rather than that.

I can summarize the line of thought that Vattimo and I are pursuing as follows: The battle between religion and science conducted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a contest between institutions, both of which claimed cultural supremacy. It was a good thing for both religion and science that science won that battle. For truth and knowledge are a matter of social cooperation, and science gives us the means to carry out better cooperative social projects than before. If social cooperation is what you want, the conjunction of the science and the common sense of your day is all you need. But if you want something else, then a religion that has been taken out of the epistemic arena, a religion that finds the question of theism versus atheism uninteresting, may be just what suits your solitude.

It may be, but it may not. There is still a big difference between people like myself and people like Vattimo. Considering that he was raised a Catholic and I was raised in no religion at all, this is not surprising. Only if one thinks that religious yearnings are somehow precultural and “basic to human nature” will one be reluctant to leave the matter at that— reluctant to privatize religion completely by letting it swing free of the demand for universality.

But if one gives up the idea that either the quest for truth or the quest for God is hard-wired into all human organisms and allows that both are matters of cultural formation, then such privatization will seem natural and proper. People like Vattimo will cease to think that my lack of religious feeling is a sign of vulgarity, and people like me will cease to think that his possession of such feelings is a sign of cowardice. Both of us can cite 1 Corinthians 13 in support of our refusal to engage in any such invidious explanations.

My differences with Vattimo come down to his ability to regard a past event as holy and my sense that holiness resides only in an ideal future. Vattimo thinks of God’s decision to switch from being our master to being our friend as the decisive event upon which our present efforts are dependent. His sense of the holy is bound up with recollection of that event and of the person who embodied it. My sense of the holy, insofar as I have one, is bound up with the hope that someday, any millennium now, my remote descendants will live in a global civilization in which love is pretty much the only law. In such a society, communication would be domination-free, class and caste would be unknown, hierarchy would be a matter of temporary pragmatic convenience, and power would be entirely at the disposal of the free agreement of a literate and well-educated electorate.

I have no idea how such a society could come about. It is, one might say, a mystery. This mystery, like that of the Incarnation, concerns the coming into existence of a love that is kind, patient, and endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13 is an equally useful text for both religious people like Vattimo, whose sense of what transcends our present condition is bound up with a feeling of dependence, and for nonreligious people like myself, for whom this sense consists simply in hope for a better human future. The difference between these two sorts of people is that between unjustifiable gratitude and unjustifiable hope. This is not a matter of conflicting beliefs about what really exists and what does not.


RORTY, Richard, “Anticlericalism and Atheism”, in ZABALA, Santiago (ed.), Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo: The Future of Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.


  1. I have argued this point in some detail in an essay on William James’s “The Will to Believe”: “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibil- ity, and Romance,” included in my Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999). Also see my “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,” in The Revival of Pragmatism, ed. Morris Dickstein (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998), 21–36.
  2. Of course, we anticlericalists who are also leftists in politics have a further reason for hoping that institutionalized religion will eventually disappear. We think otherworldliness dangerous because, as John Dewey put it, “Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsi- ble for doing” (“A Common Faith,” in Later Works of John Dewey, vol. 9 [Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986], 31.)
  3. This book has appeared in English as Belief, trans. Luca D’Isanto and David Webb (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999). Quotations from Vattimo followed by page numbers in parentheses refer to that volume.
  4. Vattimo, “The Trace of the Trace,” in Religion: Cultural Memory in the Present, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, trans. David Webb (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998), 84.
  5. The question of whether this retreat is desirable is quite different from the Kant-style question “is religious belief cognitive or noncogni- tive?” My distinction between the epistemic arena and what lies outside it is not drawn on the basis of a distinction between human faculties nor of a theory about the way in which the human mind is related to reality. It is a distinction between topics on which we are entitled to ask for uni- versal agreement and other topics. Which topics these are—what should be in the epistemic arena and what should not—is a matter of cultural politics. Prior to what Jonathan Israel calls “the radical Enlight- enment,” it was assumed that religion was a topic of the former sort. Thanks to three hundred and fifty years of culture-political activity, this is no longer the case. For more on the relation between theology and cultural politics, see my essay “Cultural Politics and the Question of the Existence of God,” in Radical Interpretation in Religion, ed. Nancy Frankenberry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 53–77. It is also a different question than the one about whether religious voices should be heard in the public square where citizens deliberate on political questions. The latter question has been intensively dis- cussed by Stephen Carter, Robert Audi, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and many others. I comment on this debate in my “Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration,” Journal of Religious Ethics 31, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 141–49.

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