In my last post I localized a paradox at the heart of Lacan’s teaching. On the one hand, Lacan puts forward a “true formula of atheism” that states that God is unconscious. There the line of reasoning seems to run that the unconscious is the discourse of the Other and that the Other does not exist. This would be a clever, indirect way of saying “God does not exist”. On the other hand, Lacan says that the gods belong to the order of the Real. How is it possible to reconcile these two claims. With respect to God and religion, I think Lacan can be seen as proposing what I call an “A-Theology”. A-Theology is not atheism, though it is related to some standard claims of atheism. Most generally, atheism is the denial of any sort of supernatural causation in the world and the existence of anything supernatural. In debates with religious belief, it generally points to the lack of evidence for miracles, the supernatural, souls, etc., and therefore the absence of reasons to believe in such things.
Of course, in relation to the findings of contemporary ethnology, it has become possible to charge the atheist with missing the point with respect to myth. Here the argument would run that myth is a particular way of understanding the world that was never intended to be taken literally. As I heard Caputo once put it at a conference when defending religion, “Of course the figures and miraculous events we see depicted in sacred texts and myths did not take place. Rather, the myths and stories of religion are closer to comic book stories, representing struggles between good and evil, the nature of the world, the meaning of life, etc.” Caputo’s thesis, of course, begs the question of why, if this is all myths are, we don’t choose better literature such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, etc. But whether we go with a somewhat unsophisticated thesis like Caputo’s or a more well developed thesis like Levi-Strauss’ approach to myth, the point remains the same: When we criticize these stories on the grounds that they violate the natural order and that there is no evidence in support of their truth, we have made a category mistake. We have failed to understand that myth is relating to truth and meaning in a different way. While there is certainly a great deal of truth to this thesis, it’s obvious shortcoming is that many followers of particular religious beliefs do take these stories literally rather than figuratively. Nonetheless, were this way of relating to myth to become the dominant paradigm in actual religious practices, it would be a substantial advance allowing for a much different dialogue between atheists and believers.
A-Theology, by contrast, differs from atheism in that its aim is not to refute or debunk claims about the supernatural. Where atheism focuses obsessively on religion as an explanatory hypothesis about the nature of the world, A-Theology, by contrast, is directed at a particular structure of thought and a particular form of social organization that it refers to, for lack of a better word, as “theological”. In this connection, it is crucial to emphasize that from the standpoint of A-Theology the conditions under which a particular structure of thought or social organization contains elements of the supernatural matters not a whit. In other words, a structure of thought or a form of social organization could be entirely secular in character, it could be an ultra-materialism, and nonetheless remain theological from the standpoint of A-Theology. Likewise, a form of social organization or thought could be pervaded by appeals to all sorts of supernatural phenomena and nonetheless be characterized as “a-theological” from the standpoint of A-Theology. The arch-materialist and determinist Pierre-Simon Laplace is an excellent example of a materialistic account of the universe that is nonetheless thoroughly theological. This is not because Laplace attributed the workings of matter to God– when Napoleon asked him about the place of God in his system, he famously replied “Je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse. –but rather because of the curious role that Laplace’s Demon plays in his understanding of nature. Similarly, perhaps Greece, prior to Platonic thought can be understood as A-Theological, despite being pervaded by all sorts of deities and supernatural phenomena. Given these two examples, it is clear that the distinguishing mark between the A-Theological and the Theological has nothing to do with the supernatural or the sorts of causality that function in the world.