1) The Real Issue: The debate between believers and atheists is confused. The real issue is not whether one should side with believers that assert the reality of the divine and supernatural, and the secular who assert only the reality of the material world or the naturalistic; rather, the debate is between logics of transcendence/sovereignty/patriarchy/state versus logics of immanence/anarchy. The issue of supernatural causation is a historically important issue given our current historical moment, but a sidebar to a much more fundamental issue. For my part, I am an a-theist, not an atheist. What that means will become somewhat clear by the end of this post.
2) Structure, Not Content: In these discussions, it is a particular structure we ought to attend to, not a particular content. Thinking in terms of content blinds us to a far more pervasive structure that can be instantiated in a variety of ways. To think structurally is to think about relations between elements where a variety of different elements can fulfill the same or isomorphic functions within one and the same structure. For example, the blueprint of a house and a house itself share one and the same structure, even though they have very different contents. The content of the house is the materials used to build it, while the content of the blueprint is paper and ink. Nonetheless, they instantiate the same relations. Similarly, the structure of Freud’s myth of the primal father and his account of the Oedipus share the same structure– both posit a transcendent figure as operator of a prohibition –while the two have different contents (one talks about fathers in a particular kinship structure, the other talks about a mythological figure that has no limitations on his jouissance, ie., he is able to enjoy all the women in the tribe including his own mother, daughters, and sisters). If we attend to content we miss that these two things share one and the same structure.
Structure is the reason that discussions about religion are not primarily about the supernatural and the divine. Here are some logics of transcendence/sovereignty that all share the same structure: theistic religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, nationalism, Laplace’s Demon or the all knowing eye in a particular science that conceives the position of every particle in the universe and its current trajectory, patriarchy, Stalinism, group movements organized around charismatic leaders, the relationship between a manager and his employees, correlationism, humanism, ethnocentrisms, essentialism, Plato’s conception of the Good in Book VI of The Republic, negative theology, etc. In each case we have a term treated as transcendent to the rest of the social order, or a term that is treated as an exception. All of these examples are examples of the logic of transcendence or sovereignty. Whether the supernatural is involved is beside the point, though in our current historical moment in the United States, supernaturalist logics of transcendence play a privileged role in the ideological state apparatus.
3) The Lacanian Matheme: I have tried to articulate these structures in terms of the Lacanian matheme and, in particular, Lacan’s four discourses and graph of sexuation, cf. The Democracy of Objects, section 6.1, “The Other Face of God”, Speculations III, forthcoming, and “Two Ontologies”, forthcoming. The importance of the Lacanian matheme lies not in giving a false sense of “scientificity” through its use of notation from second-order predicate calculus. Rather, the mathemes suspend our focus on content so as to be better able to discern patterns or structures that are isomorphic or the same in a variety of different milieus. Absent the mathemes we end up saying stupid things in the clinic. For example, we might say that a child raised by two mothers or by a single mother is doomed to be psychotic because there’s no father to serve as agent of prohibition or to inscribe the primordial metaphor required for the genesis of ordinary neurotic subjectivity. The matheme allows us to discern that no male figure need be present for a subject to be generated because it shows how a variety of contents can serve one and the same function.
Likewise in the case of theological structure. The defining feature of theological structure is not a divine supernatural being. Divine supernatural beings are only one variation of theological structure. It is rather a logic of exception, transcendence, or sovereignty that is the mark of all theological structure. This is why Laplace’s demon, patriarchy, Stalinism, nationalism, and Christianity are all structurally identical despite the fact that 1) only one of these instantiations involves the divine and supernatural, and 2) that they have very different contents.
4) Function, not Belief: We should attend to how something functions, not what the agent believes. For example, when I go to the grocery store my belief is that I am merely buying food to feed myself and my family. However, at the level of function I am acting in such a way as to reproduce the system of capitalism. Insofar as capital production only occurs in the process of capitalism, my action is a part of that produce that continues to reproduce this system. This is not my intention, but is nonetheless the function of my action. Likewise, people have all sorts of reasons for attending a Catholic church or for participating at a soup kitchen– and these intentions and beliefs are generally benign and good –but because of how the money they contribute functions within that institution, or because their action at the soup kitchen does not address the causes of poverty and hunger, the person functionally produces a system that has very different effects. The point here is not that people shouldn’t work in soup kitchens, but that they should also be engaged in activities that address the causes of that poverty and suffering. Part of this requires overcoming the fetish of belief.
5) Institutions, not Theology: Deleuze introduced the notion of “state thinkers” in Difference and Repetition. A state thinker is a thinker that naturalizes a contingent social order and hierarchy by providing a metaphysics that presents that order as natural, necessary, and ineluctable. Likewise, state thinkers sanitize the reality of a particular state by presenting that state in rationalized form. Think, for example, of the way in which Hegel talks about the necessity of certain oppression and crime within the social order as a part of its rational functioning.
State thinkers are theologians. When discussing any theological structure– secular or religious –we should attend not to the gymnastics of theologians, but to how the beliefs of the lay and how these institutions actually function in the world. For example, Catholic theology presents a very pretty beautiful account of its institution– think Marion or Thomas –but the social institution functions socially and politically in the world in a very different way. Similarly, capitalist and Stalinist theologians present inspiring accounts of their particular social institutions, but these systems, but what is relevant is how these systems actually function in the world. Again, we need to avoid the fetishization of these beliefs and comport ourselves like ethnographers.
6) Ineluctable Violence: Social and intellectual structures premised on sovereignty, exception, or transcendence ineluctably generate violence. This is because it is formally impossible to generate a totality or a whole, yet this is precisely what such structures aim for. Every attempt to generate a totality or a whole generates a remainder or an accursed share– what Lacan calls an “objet a” –that marks what the structure cannot integrate or the failure of the totality. Participants within these systems see this remainder not as an ineluctable and necessary consequence of attempts to form a social and intellectual totality, but as a contingent accident. The next step is then to eradicate this remainder as that which prevents the social order from being instantiated so that social harmony might be produced. In other words, structures of transcendence, exception, or sovereignty necessarily generate a friend/enemy logic.
This is the lesson of Lacan’s discourses of the master and university, as well as the masculine side of the graph of sexuation (which is really a formalization of the logic of sovereignty). As a consequence, the violence that accompanies nationalisms, ethnocentrisms, patriarchy, state systems, theisms, etc., is not a contingent or accidental feature of these systems, but an ineluctable consequence of these systems. These systems necessarily generate an “other”, an “outsider”, a “stranger” that both marks the impossibility of the totality and that becomes the target of violence, genocide, eradication, and exploitation.
7) Not All Religions Embody This Patriarchal/Oedipal Structure: Pagan religions, for example, do not embody this structure, but rather a logic of immanence. Similarly, Buddha is not a patriarch in Buddhism. Likewise, there are even versions of Christianity that do not embody this structure (though they are very rare). Those variants of Christianity would be the ones that see Christ as an ordinary man (not the son of God), who died on the cross showing that God, the patriarch, is literally dead, and who was not resurrected, and where the holy spirit is nothing but a metaphor for the activity of a community based not on law, but love, and not on a label or tribal identification (“Christian”), but where anyone– atheist, Hindu, Jew, pagan, etc. –could participate. In short, a Christianity without God and without Christ as patriarch. Such religions are “a-theologies”. Again, the issue is not one of the supernatural versus the naturalistic, or of belief versus unbelief, but of sovereignty versus anarchy, transcendence versus immanence.
8) Transcendence is the First Form of Violence: Transcendence is the first form of violence as it is premised on the idea that the world is not enough, but that it is in need of transcendent supplement. As such, it denigrates all the things of the world– as Nietzsche showed –and opens them to violence and exploitation. This too is what is shown in Lacan’s discourse of the master and university. Integrate, consume, eliminate, and subordinate is the necessary consequence of transcendence. This logic can be found everywhere in theistic traditions and the history of philosophy.
9) The Aim is Immanence: The aim is to form a structure of thought and society based on immanence rather than transcendence, anarchical relations versus sovereign relations. This aim requires a critical project showing the illusion that lies at the heart of all overcoding forms of transcendence or sovereignty, as well as the formation of anarchical collectives not premised on sovereign exceptions. It is a necessarily anti-patriarchal, feminist project insofar as feminine ontology, as Lacan shows, is premised on an immanence without exception or exceptional instance. To see the world as enough and without need of transcendent supplement is a central task of a-theology.