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March 22, 2007


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Adam Kotsko

Religious discourse is obviously not a monolithic thing. Clearly there are parts of the Bible that you would reject, but there are also parts you agree with (presumably). Those parts that you agree with (although not on "religious" grounds) can help you to form alliances with people for whom the Bible is authoritative.

I don't understand what would be particularly problematic about this.

For instance, let's say that evangelicals really have decided to care about the environment -- then by all means, let's work with them to protect the environment, and use the most effective language possible (stuff from the Bible about humanity's responsibility for creation, etc.) in encouraging more and more evangelicals to join in this action. The end result would presumably be less damage to the environment, something that can be considered a positive development from a variety of perspectives.

The example of evangelicals joining up with Jewish Zionists to maintain US support for Israel and with conservative Roman Catholics to oppose abortion and gay marriage show that they are open to alliances with groups with whom they do not share broad presuppositions. Obviously these alliances have so far been destructive -- but if they can be mobilized toward positive causes, that would seem to be a good thing, and the only way to do that seems to be to make the appeal convincing on religious grounds.

At bottom, I don't understand the fear of religious language more generally, or what you think you're conceding (too much of) if you use it. Does quoting a moral saying of Jesus require you to subscribe to a 6,000-year-old earth, for instance? It doesn't seem like it does. Leftists should not allow fundamentalists to be their guide in interpreting the Bible or religious discourse as a seamless and non-contradictory whole -- the fundamentalist approach just empirically does not work, as becomes evident if one simply opens up the Bible and reads.


Great turn.


Adam, I go back and forth on this issue. On the one hand I think you're obviously right: if the aims and goals are the same then there shouldn't be hesitation in working together. On the other hand, I'm deeply suspicious of religious frameworks because they seem to introduce forms of grounding into collective discourse that are corrosive to thought.

With regard to this latter point, I'm always reminded of the opening of Plato's Euthyphro. Socrates has asked Euthyphro to define piety.

In his initial approach Euthyphro responds by saying that "...the holy is what I am now doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer who commits a murder or a sacrilegious robbery, or sins in any point like that, whether it be your father or your mother, or whoever it may be. And not to prosecute would be unholy. And, Socrates, observe what a decisive proof I will give you that such is the law. It is one I have already given to others; I tell them that the right procedure must be not to tolerate the impious man, no matter who. Does not mankind believe that Zeus is the most excellent and just among gods? And these same men admit that Zues shackled his own father Cronos for swallowing his sons unjustly, and that Cronus in turn had castrated his father Uranus for like reasons. But now they are enraged at me when I proceed against my father for wrongdoing, and so they contradict themselves in what they say about the gods and what they say of me" (5d8-6a5).

To this Socrates responds with incredulity, wondering whether or not these stories are true and how we could possibly determine whether or not they are true. Herein lies, I think, the whole crux of the matter. Euthyphro would like to ground his moral claims in these stories. He might very well be correct in his moral sentiments. But what happens when Euthyphro encounters an Egyptian who shares none of these stories? How is it possible for Euthyphro to persuade that Egyptian? Moreover, what establishes the legitimacy of Euthyphro's stories? Isn't he inherently dependent on the authority of Homer or whatever sources told him these stories? Doesn't this entail that he'll end up accepting whatever that authority says without question? And doesn't this open the door for all sorts of nonsense and horror?

I agree, there's a lot that's admirable in Jesus and Paul, but do I really need Jesus and Paul to know these things? For instance, Jesus tells me to turn the other cheek. Yet I'm able to go to Socrates' Crito and discover essentially the same imperative when Socrates points out that "injustice should never be returned with injustice". What makes Socrates' account particularly interesting is that he's able to ground this principle without an appeal to divinity, but through reason. Doesn't observation and reason carry far more possibility of consensus and persuasion than reason precisely because it reasons from grounds that can be repeated by the interlocutor for themselves? If you are incredulous about the person that claims that eggs can become solid you can plop them and water and find out for yourself. Similarly in moral domains where we can use the lives of other people as examples. Isn't this far more open to otherness than a moral teaching that bases itself on the absolute authority of the teaching (Jesus is listened to not because of what he says but because of WHO he is, i.e., God).

It's often said that it is counter-productive to alienate the religious since they make up such a large portion of the population in the United States. This strikes me as ridiculous. I think back to Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, etc., and think of the context in which they were writing which was exceedingly religious. Clearly they weren't tactful nor were they pleasing to the religious of their time. Yet it wasn't those people that they were seeking to persuade: It was the audience witnessing these debates and the children of these people. Through their fire, argumentation, and mockery they transformed Europe. Europe is nearly entirely secular today. Why not here as well? Progressive religious voices are a tiny minority here in the United States. I'm not optimistic that is changing. Additionally, there's a good deal in contemporary Christian religiousity that *should* be mocked, publicly revealed, and ridiculed.

I don't have much optimism for the outcome of Jodi's conversation. One of the central reasons for this is that those involved in fundamentalist movements here tend to be tied to closely knit congregations and communities that define their social existence. Friendships, romantic relationships, support networks, and economic relations emerge out of these communities. Consequently, even if some minimal persuasion does take place, the social price the individual would pay for leaving their church is too often too high for a real impact to take place. Inwardly the person might agree, but there's simply too much at the libidinal level of social ties invested in changing one's beliefs. Better to target their children and potential converts to these movements through vigorous public dialogue that is uncompromising where religion is concerned and that increasingly marginalizes it as anti-social, anti-democratic, and corrosive to flourishing social life. But hey, I live in Texas in the heart of the fundamentalist evangelical apocalyptic movement, so perhaps I'm seeing something very different than what you see in Chicago.

Anyway, apart from these inflamatory points, all I wanted to say is that it's not simply a question of shared goals: There's a question of what legitimate grounds collective deliberation should unfold on. Appeals to the transcendent, narrative, and divine simply don't work very well in a multicultural environment such as our own as they divide, rather than referring to grounds that we can share and agree on.

Welcome back Jodi! You were missed.


Thanks for the comments, folks.

I think that I tend to look to use of religious language in terms of the character of the Symbolic one is instantiating--what is the order of reasons and ideal that have currency, legitimacy, that are worthy of being appealed to, that can ground our reasons?

Since I also recognize that the terrain of reasons relies on irrational nuggets and kernels of enjoyment, it is not a matter for me simply of reason v. non-reason; rather, it is of giving way to religious justifications and arguments that carry with them a different set of intense attachments (I think my argument here is imprecise and likely not defensible--yet).

So, my issue differs from Sinthome's--the problem for me is not that religious justifications don't work, it's that they do: and what does this mean?

I'm not sure about the answer, but I think it is different for politics and for government--it might very well lead to all sorts of alliances etc. But what is the shape of the government/state/rule that results? that is my worry--the specter of theocracy.


"So, my issue differs from Sinthome's--the problem for me is not that religious justifications don't work, it's that they do: and what does this mean?"

Jodi, maybe you can say a bit more as to what you mean when you say they do work. I was suggesting that in a multicultural context these discourses are polarizing and conflictual in nature. There might be a number of values that I share in common with my Christian counterpart, but as a Muslim I find myself in disagreement with him due to the grounds on which we arrive at these principles. A good example might be the legendary opposition between Baptists and Catholics. Something about the introduction of transcendence and narrative exacerbates the conflicts.

patrick j. mullins

I'm sorry to be tedious here, but precisely what is that thing. I find it disturbing--it looks like a sculpture made of meat scraps with a white eggplant stuck in it for the tongue. You can nearly smell it. Sorry for digression, everybody else seems to know what it is, or can stay focussed.

Adam Kotsko

I second Patrick's question. I was going to ask about it myself, but you know how I get carried away with the "scary religious language" thing.

Quick question: Yes, using "religious" arguments arguably reinforces the authority of "religion" (although appeals to what is morally attractive in Jesus' practice seems to me to be a different kind of appeal than simply one to authority -- and I will note that early Christian writers were more than happy to refer to parallel stories of Socrates in legitimating their own practice). But all this worry about the kind of symbolic order, etc., strikes me as just another manifestation of procedural liberalism -- get the communicative space sorted out first, then we can rely on the results of our deliberation. And while I agree that Europe (including its secularity) is an attractive model compared to the US, much of that welfare-state stuff consisted of activities that the state took over from church enterprises, and was initially installed by conservative politicians for conservative reasons (i.e., so women could stay at home, etc.). And now the more secular Europe is tending toward neo-liberalism. So while I support a more secular ethos in principle, I'm not sure that it leads necessarily to positive results -- at least not to the extent that it should be our first priority to establish secularism.

That's where I think that Marxism made a misstep -- the supposedly definitive critique of religion was way too easily achieved.

Adam Kotsko

The "quick question" would be "Isn't this just procedural liberalism?"


Great post on abortion over at Weblog, Adam.

I'm not in disagreement Adam, just stating why I'm leery as it seems to come so often with so much baggage. So one option is to try to promote a "counter-reading", like Jefferson did when he put together the "Jefferson Bible" where all the miracles were cut out and he treated the New Testament purely in terms of Jesus' moral teachings. That's a'okay in my book, and you'd probably be able to get me to admit that Jesus put forward some ethical teachings that are unparalled by thinkers prior to him. Another route would be to promote a sort of leftist Jesus such as Wallace is trying to do. But Wallace has also said some pretty horrific things about secularism and damnation that seems to negate the other things he says by pulling the theological baggage back in.

I came across this little gem over at Free Republic last night. As you may or may not know, Free Republic is among the largest conservative blogs and is regularly referenced on cable news. I'm even told that Tony Snow, of all people, was one of the original founders years again. Anyway, if the man Jodi was talking to described himself as a "fundamentalist", I suspect he's highly sympathetic to a number of these points. I simply don't see how the sort of "recoding" and attempts to produce different attachments based on religious texts can work in the way Jodi is hoping with such people. In my own observations of those who endorse this type of fundamentalism, there's already a high degree of familiarity with leftist depictions of Christianity, and there are all sorts of mechanisms in place to dismiss them as being "pseudo-Christian". Moreover, it also seems that dominant forms of religiosity in the United States today are appealing precisely because they feed into the dark jouissance Jodi briefly mentions, allowing one to enjoy the things they feel their forbidden to enjoy under democracy and "political correctness". That is, it's precisely their homophobia, attitudes towards women, rampant nationalism, crypto-racism, and judgment that is appealing. How can new attachments be formed when these are the things that attract one to the movement in the first place. Anyway, here's the post from Free Republic:


I believe that next year there will be thousands upon
thousands of us who will not sit out of the election
but our numbers will be found in third party voting
statistics after the election. The voting tally
summaries of those parties, actually more conservative
than the current Republican Party, will be yet another
wake-up call to the GOP.

Prior to the Second World War, "Evangelical" meant
what Christian Fundamentalism means today. We actually
consider modern evangelicalism to be quite an anemic
variety of Christendom anyway.

Now this "evangelically" (Actually, Biblical
Christian) family wants:

1. To be left alone by government at every level to
biblically educate my own children. I don't want the
attendance officers (truant officers) on my porch.
Their school buses stop in front of my house every
school day at 3:00 pm, and I certainly don't want my
children emulating what I see getting off of them.

2. To be left alone to worship according to the
dictates of my own conscience without having to
register my church with government. That's called a
separation between church and state. We don't want any
government agency designing the names of our church
officers so that they fit in to the government's
paperwork schemes. We don't believe we should have to
be labeled or coded or categorized just so that
government for any reason can tick some box and then
assume they have defined us correctly.

3. To know that if something were to happen to my wife
and I to take our lives, there would never be any
possibility that any of our children, even for one
hour, would end up under foster care of sodomites
(homosexuals or lesbians) or other such perverts. We
want a government that will guarantee that no judge
would ever allow any of our children to be adopted by
sodomites or other such perverts. Oh yes, we have
documents that clearly express our will for the care
of our children in the event of our demise -- but we
also know that courts are sometimes used to circumvent
such clear written instructions.

4. We want a government that will absolutely, in no
uncertain terms, guarantee our wives' and daughters'
inalienable right to be "keepers at home" (Titus 2:5;
etc.). We want a government that will dismiss from its
collective mind forever the thought of women
potentially being included in any military
conscription, or being forced to serve in any
alternative form of public service outside of their
own home. We want our wives and daughters to feel safe
in their homes when their biblical Christian
conviction is that their place is in their homes,
raising the next generation of Christian patriots,
statesmen, Gospel preachers and missionaries.

5. We want government to guarantee that if it
conscripts our sons, they will not be forced to serve
and live where sodomy and other perversions are
practiced. Also we want to know that our sons will not
be forced into the moral conflicts that could easily
arise having to serve in combat with females.

6. We want government to guarantee that if our sons
are conscripted it will be for reasons that would that
enhance the SOVEREIGNTY of our nation as the United
States of America, as well as its continued freedom.
We are not interested in sacrificing our sons for the
glorification of the United Nations organization or
its scheme of "perpetual war for perpetual peace." We
actually want the United States out of the United
Nations entirely.

7. We want government that will guarantee that our
Christian heritage will not continue to be diluted by
continuing to allow the current mass illegal
immigration, or by legally allowing super-large
numbers of immigrants.

8. More, ...

There are now very good alternative patriotic,
pro-constitution parties that have a firm grasp of our
nation's history and heritage, and who still believe
that history and heritage is important right on.

No, sitting out the election is not the answer. We
believe the answer is to actually cast a vote
SOMEWHERE in the direction that we would have hoped
the GOP to be going

Adam Kotsko

Right, yes, fundamentalists believe appalling things. Absolutely. I hate the motherfuckers. Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists like this person, but the extremists represent a significant and very loud minority, who in practice are very frequently able to scare the more moderate people into line.

For a more radical "counter-reading" of the gospel that LEAVES IN the miracles, you should check out my advisor's book "Insurrection of the Crucified" (by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr.). Just sit down for an hour and read through the gospel of Mark, then read this book (a quasi-commentary).


Thanks for the reference Adam.


Hi folks--I'm in Washington, Dc--and just got robbed; I'm at a meeting and stupidly thought my stuff was ok behind the bar; my wallet was cleaned out of cash--in 3 currencies; but I guess I should be happy that they left my cards and ipod.

Anyway, Patrick: the photo is of a beef/cow tongue in a market in Quito. I thought it was totally gross but that my response was clearly culturally specific.

Adam--that's hitting below the belt! You know (or I think you know) that I struggle as a recovering Habermasian; so, to accuse me of procedural liberalism, well, that hits really close to home--it drives me to discourse!

more seriously, you are right--I don't have a defense and I am think are your argument applies; yet, I can't yet shake my affective response.

So, Sinthome--to my mind, the problem isn't that religious arguments are exclusive or non-universal but that they are religous. It's like I think your argument is too weak, that the only problem with religion is narrowness. I think it is different--I think it is religion per se and a religious justification for governance and approach to politics. And for me part of the difficult is that I don't see a strong coherent alternative.

patrick j. mullins

Thanks! Yes, it could be culturally specific, although I wouldn't have had it within the context, since I've had similar experiences. I thought this was an artificial concoction of chicken guts with some kind of vegetable stuck in it to present your combo talk of the chicken and fries place and the 'foreign tongue'. For all I knew, given the 2 shelves, you'd emboldened and put this together as a charming bit of artifice in your garage.

Now that I know what it is, I don't find it appealing, but not especially gross either, because if if was in the market, it was still fresh. I couldn't quit thinking it might be in process of putrefaction in a big way...Nevertheless, quite an image. I am now grateful, as it's most unique, whereas before you described it, I was in a fugue state that would have made me think I was a slothful person if I hadn't gotten a lot done today.

Adam Kotsko

That picture reminds me of the cover to The Indivisible Remainder, one of the truly great covers of our age.


"So, Sinthome--to my mind, the problem isn't that religious arguments are exclusive or non-universal but that they are religous. It's like I think your argument is too weak, that the only problem with religion is narrowness. I think it is different--I think it is religion per se and a religious justification for governance and approach to politics. And for me part of the difficult is that I don't see a strong coherent alternative."

I think you're misrepresenting my argument here. My points were addressed to Adam and his question regarding why some are uncomfortable compromising with religious forms of argumentation. In that connection, my point was that such compromise concedes forms of deliberation contrary to the philosophical project grounded in immanence and secularism.

I don't know that I've said anything about narrowness, but I have raised concerns about the possibilities of re-aligning attachments in the ways you suggest, precisely because of the issues of jouissance you raised in your initial response. I don't see that adopting the religious language of the person speaking is any more effective in addressing this jouissance than reason is. That's the sticking point of jouissance as you well know. But then again it depends on who the audience is. Is the audience the man you're talking to on the plane (then I'm skeptical, he already has too many defenses) or those witnessing your dialogue with this man (that makes me more hopeful).

As for "coherent alternatives" this strikes me as a failure of imagination. We have over 2000 years experimenting with coherent alternatives... Why not draw on those? Why throw the baby out with the bathwater. Argue from secular grounds. Do so publicly as you're doing here on the blog. Encourage others to do so. Find ways to deliberate on secular grounds. Above all proliferate those standards throughout the social sphere. These religious approaches are in an upsurge right now because they took over radio and television waves. What can you do to counter-act that? Adopting religious language doesn't strike me as a very coherent alternative.

Adam Kotsko

Sinthome, It seems that you don't have a very lively awareness of the way that "reason" can be reified into an authority -- and one with no court of appeal. Surely a Deleuzian can do better than a return to Voltaire.


"the philosophical project grounded in immanence and secularism"

Sinthome, could you possibly define, or say a bit more, about what you mean by the two terms "immanence" and "secularism"? And to what degree are they or are they not identical?


Adam, I wasn't calling for a return to Voltaire but merely pointing out that here we have an example of someone living during an extremely religious time who managed to enunciate a secularist view that subsequently gained wide support. It's the example that counts here, not the content of the position. Why was he and the other philosophes successful? The religious of his time were outraged by the claims that he and other similar thinkers made in much the same way that they get outraged today when someone lampoons them and rejects their positions. Some of the more moderate philosophes even made claims very close to what Jodi makes here and pleaded for the philosophes not to anger the religious, but to compromise and just shift their attachments in different directions. But ultimately they won the day through being outspoken and militant on these issues. The truth of the matter is that we just don't have very outspoken voices here in the United States. Why not be more ambitious... Organize, get things out there in the public sphere, publish outside of academic journals like Zizek or Dawkins or others. Begin to build a very vocal collective movement. Lobby heavily for legislation that outlaws homeschooling and forms of public organization that allow for isolation of religious communities from the rest of the symbolic space. The aim shouldn't be to convert or change those who are already deeply attached to fundamentalist, extremist, religious movements, but to rally those on the fence, the children of fundamentalist believers, and to create a sort of symbolic or common sense that increasingly marginalizes these groups such that eventually their positions come to seem absurd in the public eye in a way that they aren't even entertained (in much the same way that no one debates whether the world is round today). By this I don't mean academic voices, but voices that are out there very visibly in the public eye. Whatever else one might think about their work, this is beginning to change a little bit with folk like Dawkin's, etc. So much of any change, I think, is simply getting it on the table of public discourse.

You're right, of course, the reason can always be reified into authority through cults devoted to certain thinkers or scientific claims. However, these claims can always be revisited, scrutinized, discarded, and subjected to critique. With revealed religion I can either accept or not. There's not much in between due to the manner in which it's based on narrative.

Discard, by immanence I simply mean an ontology that admits no appeals to anything transcendent to the world or material field. Thus, yes, I see the standpoint of immanence as intrinsically secular.


In retrospect, i suppose that what i was most interested in was your understanding of the secular. Immanence does require, by definition, a rejection of the transcendent. But i suppose it's less clear to me how this equates to secularism. Perhaps i have overdetermined your view of secularism, but it does seem that it is a heavily enlightenment-based one. And i don't think there's an identity between the "history" of enlightmenment and the "history" of immanence. For you, enlightenment seems to begin with Socrates, when he makes reason prior to the gods, etc., and then we can follow this throughout history. But it seems that immanence, at least in Deleuze's understanding, has a more sporadic emergence, and in fact emerges with very mythographic or "religious" (not in the transcendent sense) thinkers -- Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and so on. Now all of these thinkers had critiques of relgion, of superstion, whatever, but i suppose what's interesting to me is that none of them simply opposed a secular dynamic to a religious dynamic, as you seem to be doing.

So, not sure how clear i've been, but hopefully this begins to get at why i think it's incorrect to simply identify immanence -- as a strictly ontological, anti-transcendent position -- with secularism.

p.s. i suppose one could ask as well about the function of language of redemption in Adorno, or the rather blatant immanentization of the Christian trinity in Hegel


also, i forgot to throw in, regarding the history of enlightenment with Socrates, etc: many of the thinkers allied with this history do not have an immanent ontology -- such as Plato, the neoplatonists, etc, or even deists such as Jefferson and other enlightenment advocates of secularism


I don't disagree with anything you're suggesting. I should emphasize that while I'm very interested in Deleuze I'm not a Deleuzian as Adam suggested, so I don't necessarily agree that he claims about the nature of immanence. Actually I would date the emergence of immanence as a thought with Thales as the "all is water thesis" seems to posit something common to all being and departs from narrative (Hesiod, Homer) as a ground for comprehending the world. I read the history of philosophy as a long march in trying to fulfill the promise of this thesis, though I don't know that it's ever been achieved. For me the operative distinction would not be between immanence and religion, but rather between immanence and narrative. Mythos just happens to be one of the most common forms narrative takes. You are, of course, right when you point to figures such as Descartes or Plato in arguing for some sort of transcendence whether of God as the actual infinite or the forms, etc. Again, the difference is the departure from narrative in articulating these positions. That is, Descartes does not come to his belief in the existence of God through Scriptural revelation, but through reason. His god shares very little resemblance to that of Christianity, and he even thought of morals as a branch of medicine, not redemption. Immanence is here interpreted as immanence to consciousness.

You are also right that I am a fan of the Enlightenment. I don't see why we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, but rather see the critique of Enlightenment as part and parcel of the Enlightenment. Thus, for instance, when Jodi evokes the challenges of jouissance with regard to the reason/non-reason distinction as if to dismiss reason, all I can do is wrinkle my nose in wonder, thinking this just means we have to go back to the drawing board. To Jodi I would point out that it's not a mistake that Lacan and Zizek made so much of thinkers such as Descartes, Kant, Hegel, etc. But what's odd about this observation is that these concerns are readily discernable in the Enlightenment thinkers as can be easily seen by examining Hume, Spinoza's, and Descartes' careful examinations of the human passions vis a vis the political, and in Lucretius' De rerum natura (which was a tremendous influence on the Enlightenment).

Jodi points out that Jesus seems far more concerned about hypocrisy, pride, loving one's neighbor, etc. I certainly agree. But is the fundamentalist coming to his picture of Christianity based on a poor reading of the Bible? In my own discussions with fundamentalists I've made similar points, but I'm then given a long discussion as to how Jesus came to fulfill the law not to abolish the law. At that point, all the Old Testament teachings are brought back in. The fundamentalist then sees this reading of the Bible as being, at best, a partial reading, at worst a false distortion of Jesus. If the Bible is the revealed word of God and therefore unassailable, how is it possible to pick and choose? And how can these things be subjected to critique from within. All we can do is accept the narrative. And, of course, one of the most pernacious elements of fundamentalist movements has been the commitment to inerrancy and Biblical literalism that then renders the position immune to critique. I'm inclined to say Jesus said some true things because he had reason, not that these things are true because Jesus said them. I would much prefer to see these teachings taken up for their own sake, detached from any talk of sin, redemption, the afterlife, etc., so that the focus might be on the redemption or change of this world.

I'm really unclear as to why you feel an immanent position is not identical to a secular position. What could be more secular than Lucretius explaining the world about him in terms of combinations of atoms, making no considerations about the afterlife in ethical deliberations, and basing ethics on coefficients of pleasures and pains in ways that maximize the integrity of the body? I only give that as an example, not an endorsement. Moreover, I see little resemblance between the theology of Descartes and the religion of Christianity. For Descartes miracles disappear, moral teachings become a matter of health, and we explain the world purely in terms of mechanical causes. Even in Hegel God simply seems to become the community.


I also think the sporadic appearance of the thought of immanence is part of what makes it a precious thing that should be fought for and preserved against narrativizing tendencies of thought.

Anthony Paul Smith

"Immanence is here interpreted as immanence to consciousness."

Than it is not immanence.

Fun facts: Secular and immanence are religious words. Immanence is not in any of the standard encyclopaedias of philosophy while it is found in those of religion. The secular can only be known in relation to religion, as a negation of. I would challenge you to show me a purely secular anything. Even your conception of Enlightenment is tied to narrative, "Oh the great Lucretius, with his text, changing the world!" As if the Enlightenment approach to religion is not the very root of the current crisis in Europe over the "yellow peril" and the "unrelenting tide of Muslims"!

Does this notion of ‘religious language’ bother any one else? What makes the language religious or not?


Anthony, Kant ties his position to immanence as immanence to consciousness, as do the phenomenologists. You'll find Jean-Luc Marion making similar claims about Descartes in his study. I'd nonetheless agree that such stances fail to complete immanence and contain residual transcendence.

It seems to me that you're conflating history with narrative. When I refer to narrative I'm talking about something like explaining why we have olive trees by telling a story about how Daphne was trying to escape Apollo and turned into an olive tree.

Anthony Paul Smith

So you have a problem with the way people use unscientific stories to explain the nature of reality, but have no problem with Lucretius' materialist poem?

Narrative and history are not so easily separated, and you know that. That is what is most nefarious about neo-conservative strategies against things like "A People's History of the United States" - they have their own historical narrative they can weave using the tools of 'good historians'. Reason, despite all your faith in it, is not the answer to all the problems of politics or social life. It was pounded into my head, but a good historian and lover of many Enlightenment ideals, that the truly horrifying aspect of the 20th century was how reasonable everyone was. And, yes, I agree with you that we shouldn’t throw out reason or rationality because of it, but you are overloading the term with downright messianic aspects.

Adam Kotsko

Why is narrative a bad thing? I'm not following. (Perhaps I've spent too much time reading Marx.)


I value Lucretius for his idea and the goal he put on the table, not for his execution. You're absolutely right about the difficulties of separating narration and history. Is there something you would recommend reading as to how everyone was so reasonable during the horrors of the 20th century? These horrors strike me as having more to do with inflamed nationalisms. Why isn't reason a good answer to problems of politics or social life? How are you conceiving reason in coming to these conclusions?


Adam, the first thing that comes to mind is procedural. How do we deliberate together when we don't share the same narratives? Inevitably we have to refer to other grounds that are no longer narrative. Marx is narrative in the same sense of Homer?


I agree that it's a bit difficult to separate history from narrative -- i may be wrong, but i would need to see more.

For example, is it not the case, Sinthome, that your very history of enlightenment is a narrative of "reason"? While i don't agree with it, the essential problem seems to be that some narration of the 'history' of reason is necessitated by your concept of reason, which by your same conception is disallowed by it. Part of the reason i brought up Hegel is that he goes to the heart of this -- yes, of course, God just becomes the community, or more precisely the Holy Spirit does. The point being that even this thought of reason, and of a reason that ideally would not be 'reified' (as you said it should not be in response to Adam), must incorporate a narrative element. And one of these elements -- the supreme one, actually -- being Christianity, both its rational logic and its narrative.

But again, i would contend that this sort of 'secularized' or rationalized Christianity is precisely what one has today in Europe (regarding Anthony's comment on this).

Also, a question: do you think that the motifs of, say, redemption in Adorno, or of messianism in Agamben, fall short of your criterion? Not saying that, if they did, it would be an immediate argument against you -- just trying to get clear on what counts as reason, purified of religion and narrative.


Sinthome says: "For me the operative distinction would not be between immanence and religion, but rather between immanence and narrative."

but isn't it the case that the operative distinction is actually not immanence v. narrative, but rather something like reason v. narrative, given that non-immanentist thinkers count straightforwardly on the anti-narrative, or anti-secular side?


I have no problem with a secularized or rationalized Christianity. Often there's a rational kernal amidsts the supernatural. I'm repeating myself now, but in what way is reference to history such as the history of the enlightnement equivalent to narrative such as we find in Homer where elements of the world are explained through an appeal to the supernatural? Isn't this a bit of a bait and switch?


Also, regarding secularism, i would tend to see the secular as a particular rather than universal discourse. Sinthome, your assumption seems to be that by bracketing narrative/particularistic discourses, we are immediately in a universal realm of reason known as the secular.

But again, it seems that secularism is a very particular development within western europe, and that reason is inarticulable, something ineffable, without some kind of narrative -- as I tried to say above regarding Hegel. Indeed, the only way i can understand a non-narrative account of reason would be via some kind of transcendence, where your construal of a narrative of reason/enlightenment is something belonging to the realm of the finite, to be said away, via negativa, in virtue of pure reason.


"But again, it seems that secularism is a very particular development within western europe, and that reason is inarticulable, something ineffable, without some kind of narrative -- as I tried to say above regarding Hegel."

So is formalist mathematics, but that in no way undermines its universalism it just entails that it arose in Greece. I am not at all suggesting that discourse is immediately universalist when it becomes secular. It requires hard work, critique, and analysis for that to be obtained. It's an ongoing process.


Isn't the argument of the dialectic of enlightenment precisely that the narrative of enlightnement is nearly identical to Homer's narratives?


Yes, but the argument you made, in defense of the secular, seemed to be that it stood above all the particular discourses of islam, christianity, judaism, animism, whatever. It seems that the argument you're making would need to be that secularism is great because it IS universal, not because it is not any of these particular discuourses.


Is that argument necessarily sound and am I necessarily endorsing the narrative of enlightenment in the way they propose? There's nothing in my remarks that suggests that myth and narrative aren't often infused in logos, hence part of the reason for critique. I've repeatedly emphasized that the project of immanence is incomplete and has never been fully successful. Consequently if one does accept Adorno and Horkheimer's argument, the point could be made that this itself is an enlightenment style critique, purifying the enlightenment project of this messianic dimension.


I believe that secular approaches allows those engaged in dispute to resolve these disputes through the production of shared standards of truth, resolution, etc. Christianity and Islam do not offer me this with people outside my community. This, for instance, is one of the central problems in the United States with religiously driven politics. Fundamentalists cannot enter into deliberation with those that do not share their principles as there's no shared ground. It's the Bible or the highway. For instance, one of the women working for Bush's abstinance only education program was completely unbothered that it was leading to a rise in child pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted diseases. It wasn't a matter, for her, of what produced a prospering and healthy society, but of saving souls. Those souls were saved even if kids got pregnant because this is what her religion told her. There's no way I can even dialogue with such a person as we can't find any shared grounds. I either accept her narrative or I'm ignored.

Anthony Paul Smith

A particular work I cannot recommend because this was a long time ago and I frankly don't remember. One literary source, with narratives and all, would be every book every written by Kurt Vonnegut.

Isn't talk of purification a bit, I don't know, freaky? Even if it wasn't somewhat political nefarious isn't there a messianic element to it?

I'm conceiving of reason as the faculty we have for thinking logically within the world. I guess that's an OK definition for what I'm thinking of, but my basic point is that reason is simply a thing to be used and not a sovereign. But this is not sufficient and I am not completely happy with the way I’m spelling it out there.

Can you tell me now what you think the secular is? If anything I’ve seen a kind of religiosity in your posts about the Enlightenment, giving witness to it, much like Deleuze and Guattari’s evangelization of the plane of immanence in What is Philosophy? I'm not saying this is bad, but it is a contradiction.


But i don't see why this woman represents Christianity. And even if evangelicals are statistically prominent in the US, they are far from representative of what Christianity is. One could probably find Christian-language allies against such a woman. Indeed, for most Christians, i don't think morals-as-medicine and morals-as-redemption are so distinct.

But all told, my main point is that I don't see why antagonism towards fundamentalists, or even evangelicals, necessitates your narrative of reason/enlightenment. I support neither this evangelical narrative nor your narrative, and in fact tend to see a structural similarity -- namely, it seems that you place us, today, between the times of the advent of reason (= creatio ex nihilo, or the incarnation) and its fulfillment (= 2nd coming). Thus, just as an evangelical might criticize the way the church has acted, he can compare this to an ultimate standard, as you can with partial fulfillments of reason, etc.

Obviously i'm not going to dissuade you from your enlightenment narrative, i'm just trying to say that it is very much a narrative, demanding a kind of belief and affective devotion. And also that it is insufficient to say that it is neutral, or non-narrative. Rather, what makes it differnt from Christiantiy or animism or Islam is simply that it's an equally unfounded, and fundamentally opposed, narration of existence.

Anthony Paul Smith

We're coming to a similar problem always - the narrative can't really be called 'biblical' re: the abstinence fascist. And saving souls is just another form of 'rational' capitalist economics that says the economy is more important than particular suffering. Etc, etc.

Adam Kotsko

Sinthome, If you get to deploy fundamentalist nutjobs as the best representatives of religious people, then I hereby declare that the Troll of Sorrow speaks for you as a secularist.


Anthony, I take it that secularism is just the refusal to appeal to the supernatural in deliberations pertaining to practice and knowledge. What is the religiousity you've seen in my Enlightenment posts? Are you suggesting that any talk of how one might produce a better future-- even if I'm fundamentally mistaken --is religious in character? That seems to give pretty wide scope to religion. And is any veneration of those things that have been invented throughout history religious?

Discard, I'm not talking about abstractions but what is current here in the United States. These groups tend to be the ones with the predominant power, ergo...

I'm not sure why you would call reason equally unfounded, but perhaps you're right. At the very least, hasn't reason founded itself pragmatically again and again with the success of its science, mathematics, and technology? Procedurally, however, even if it is the case that it is unfounded or ungrounded the figure of Socrates works well. Socrates' aim in the early dialogues, it seems, is just to keep the dialogues continuing as tragedy seems to occur at precisely that moment we believe that we know or have the truth. Are there forms of Christianity that adopt that stance and enact it concretely in practice?

When you evoke the identity between morals-as-medicine and morals-as-redemption with one another? For instance, is the primary aim of a Christian ethic for the person you describe one of human flourishing in this life... Or are you making some metaphysical assertion that we somehow experience our lives as incomplete so long as it doesn't involve being redeemed and looking forward to an afterlife? It seems to me that you're imposing a frame on my understanding of reason with your first and second coming equation. As a materialist that adopts the stance of immanence, I'm commited to the thesis that everything is in time or had to come-to-be. I don't, however, see how that commits me to a messianic thesis about the nature of reason. When you talk about the evangelical comparing his church to a standard, you're still talking *within* the community of *evangelicals*. I'm talking across communities that don't share common religious beliefs at all.

The nature of your strategy is clear however: Step 1 make a case that philosophy is equally narrative. Step 2 say that all narratives are on equal footing with one another. Step 3 there's no reason than not to reject the religious narrative, let's go with it. Why not simply desire for that narrative to end altogether? Those Northern European countries like Iceland, Holland, the Netherlands, etc., look pretty nice to me.

We all keep throwing these words around and I'm finding that I'm not even sure what they mean: Religion, narrative, etc. I was fairly clear, I think, that religion and narrative was referring to Biblical text, the supernatural, soul, prophecy, God as creator, prophets, and their equivalent in other traditions and so on. Are you really saying that discourses of reason are equivalent to this? Now if you think any reference to the supernatural is secondary or irrelevant to religion, then why not dispense with it altogether. Let's do what Jefferson did, cut out all talk of miracles from the Bible or of Christ's divinity, and just treat him as a philosopher. What do we gain from keeping this notebook with all these stories about how the world came to be, acts of god, resurrections, prophecies and so on? I look forward to the day when we read the Bible in much the same way as we read Homer... As a historical curiosity and in some places an inspiring piece of literature. You speak of affectivity and devotion in relation to religion. But why do these things belong to religion or why are they owned by religion? I'm devoted to my career and developing my teaching, and thereby work hard at them. I feel enthusiasm for these things. I feel joy when I triumph or experience success and despair when things aren't going well. Are you really telling me that this is all religion? As for belief... Really? When I solve a mathematical equation or engage in an experiment or make a prediction based on initial conditions, it's really a belief on the order of faith?


That's not fair, Adam. There's nothing trollish in speaking about these groups given the power and voice they have in American politics today. Why the abusive ad hominems? I say I'd like to see an end to all religion. This comes as no surprise. Somehow advocating this turns me into a troll? Couldn't you instead make an argument as to why this isn't desirable or how it's impossible, etc?


"The nature of your strategy is clear however: Step 1 make a case that philosophy is equally narrative. Step 2 say that all narratives are on equal footing with one another."

With regard to steps 1 and 2 -- i think that one can make evaluations b/w different narratives, and that one must. all i'm saying is that philosophy cannot distinguish itself from the religious in virtue of its non-narrativity.

"Step 3 there's no reason than not to reject the religious narrative, let's go with it. Why not simply desire for that narrative to end altogether?"

Well, i agree with your approach. "I despise 'X' narrative" -- to me, this is more defensible than criticizing narrative as such. And I make no claim that we should "go with" the religious narrative. My position is simply dissent from your narrative as well as the Christian narrative of which you speak. But i don't think that our only choices are the Enlightenment narrative as you put it and the evangelical narrative. Nor that the choice is between narrative or not.

That's the outcome of my "strategy".


"Those Northern European countries like Iceland, Holland, the Netherlands, etc., look pretty nice to me"

I'm not a big fan of northern europe. However, to be specific, I think Iceland is exemplary in this regard. They are immanentist but religious/pagan! This is the sort of thing i'd support. And they have many, many narratives -- the sagas, etc.

If what you want is Iceland, i'm with you. But this isn't the Enlightenment you're talking about, at least not as i understand it.

Anthony Paul Smith

I'd like an end to reductionist scientism, but it seems on the ascendancy.

I don't think you got the point Adam was making. Do you know who the Troll of Sorrow is? If not, he is a guy who often comes around and accuses us of all being irrational, non-mathematical, obscuratinist, etc. Adam's point was that you are taking evangelicals as the end point of religiosity and that if you can do this, he can take the troll of sorrow as the end point of secularity (he often decries us as priests and child molesters). This wasn’t a case of the dreaded ad hom and he wasn’t name calling.

Jesus wasn't a philosopher and to treat him as such is a non-immanentist move. What you do, as an academic philosopher, what Jefferson did, as a revolutionary and politician, and what Jesus did, as a religious leader/prophet/whatever I have to say so you don't chortle into your coffee at the irrationality of it, are not equivalent moves. If you try to make them as such I think you end up as a political platonist, trying to find guardians to protect the boundaries and understanding yourself, as a philosopher, against your other, which is always the artisan poor.

Surely there is a better, more interesting philosophically and politically, conception to be formed of religion than 17th Century rationalism.

Adam Kotsko

Yes, I was referring to the Troll of Sorrow qua secularist nutjob, not accusing you of being a troll.

FUN FACTS: There are more self-identified secular or non-religious people in the US than Baptists! And not all Baptists are fundamentalists -- there are significant branches that are liberal/mainline.

Poke around this site for a while:


Adam Kotsko

By which I mean, more self-identified seculars than Baptists who actually show up in church in a given week.

N. Pepperell

Probably a bit unwise for me to drop in at such a late stage in a complex debate - but wisdom might not be my strong point...

A lot of my work - perhaps all of my work, in some senses - centres on this issue of whether, and how, it becomes possible to talk about something like normative ideals without exploding the framework of a secular approach. I think it's actually very difficult to do - I don't know that it's something I'll ever manage to do successfully.

My instinct is that the argument requires examining whether there might be some peculiar properties of recent history - whether we might have, quite accidentally and while focussed on other things, demonstrated to ourselves that certain potentials are available to us: potentials, for example, to treat social institutions and practices as, essentially, arbitrary and human creations. This practical historical demonstration then places pressure on forms of narrative that would assert the necessity of any specific social institution, form of practice, or belief. The background, practical awareness of the potential to transform social institutions becomes an irritant - something that won't allow certain positions to remain doxic. The implications of the existence of such an irritant aren't all "good": while critical forms of (secular and religious) thought can ground themselves in this historically-achieved insight, various forms of fundamentalism can also be understood as, in a sense, post-doxic forms of religious thought...

I mention this not even as a gesture - too little space and time to explain how I might develop these sorts of thoughts. My point in mentioning this issue though, is to address some of the questions Discard was raising, about whether the assertion of some kind of normative ideal - whether "Reason" or something else - might in the end require a sort of performative contradiction, via an appeal to some sort of foundationalist narrative: my suggestion would be that, while I'm sympathetic to your irritation at the way such narratives often do lurk in the background in discussions of this sort, I don't think this is a necessary move. I think it is possible to "close the loop" and to provide some kind of meaningfully self-reflexive account of how secular (and immanent) forms of thought might come to awareness as a possibility in the present time. This kind of analysis couldn't "disprove" religious forms of thought. It could, however, render such forms of thought unnecessary hypotheses: forms of thought in which we do not need to engage, in order to understand and ground the sorts of things we want to understand and ground...

Of course, tossed out like this, this is nothing more than my personal assertion... ;-P So it's nothing more than a placeholder, and not terribly convincing... I just wanted to express that I understand your concern about what often simply are mystical dimensions behind the assertion of secular normative ideals - and that I think there are some possible ways around this problem...


"Jesus wasn't a philosopher and to treat him as such is a non-immanentist move. What you do, as an academic philosopher, what Jefferson did, as a revolutionary and politician, and what Jesus did, as a religious leader/prophet/whatever I have to say so you don't chortle into your coffee at the irrationality of it, are not equivalent moves. If you try to make them as such I think you end up as a political platonist, trying to find guardians to protect the boundaries and understanding yourself, as a philosopher, against your other, which is always the artisan poor."

Anthony, I'm unsure what you're getting at here. This seems like a desire to remain fixed and fast to the identity of a thing (in this case Jesus). Astronomy didn't begin as astronomy, but rather as astrology (as in the case of chemistry and alchemy as well). Why not deterritorialize Jesus in this way as well, in much the same way that mitochondrial DNA comes to be displaced from its initial place becoming something other when taken up into the cell? The early Greek gods can, for instance, be seen as an instance of tautological ground. Rather than treating objects in their immediacy, they introduced mediation into the object, indicating that it was in need of explanation or ground. Hence Zeus comes to be seen as the ground of lightning. Through this the concept of cause emerges and eventually we drop talk of the gods altogether. Ethics calls for some sort of ground. Religion might initially mark this necessity without providing it. Eventually we can move on dispensing with it.

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