If God were to exist, God would undoubtedly be the one who cannot be defined — that is, who defies our representational capacities, who cannot be measured by our conceptual resources. In order to claim that God does not exist, one necessarily has to claim to possess a concept of God, a definition of what God is, but this is precisely what is problematic from the outset.

Claude Romano and Robyn Horner
Posted Thu 29 Jul 2021

The situation where adherence to a religious tradition becomes not only optional, but also often strangely alienating, profoundly modifies the experience of the believer, as much as it does that of the non-believer. For the believer, the possibility of atheism in the society to which he or she belongs should not, perhaps, be considered something regrettable. The possibility of atheism obliges that person to relate to faith in a different manner — possibly even with more depth and intensity, since it is no longer a commonly shared, obvious or uncontroversial attitude, but rather a stance that is existentially lived-through and which potentially makes room for different forms of uncertainty. Such uncertainty includes doubt, of course, but it must also include challenges to particular forms of naïveté.

This does not mean that believers never experienced uncertainty prior to the secular age: the experience of the “dark night of the soul” is a basic, inescapable experience reported by all the mystics. But even for the one who does not reach the peaks of mysticism, the possibility of atheism inevitably upends the very experience of faith or may even become indispensable to the living of that faith.

Moreover, as much as for the theist, the atheist can perfectly acknowledge the dimension of mystery inherent to our lives, and so be open to dimensions of the religious phenomenon. Mystery does not only amount to the “problematic” of the meaning of all human life; it is, instead, something stronger which seizes us and in which we are always already engaged. Gabriel Marcel famously distinguished between a mystery and a problem:

It seems, indeed, that between a problem and a mystery there is this essential difference: that a problem is something I encounter, that I find entirely displayed in front of me, and thus, that I can circumscribe and reduce — while a mystery is something in which I am myself engaged, which is therefore conceivable only as a domain in which the distinction of the “in me” and the “in front of me” loses its meaning and its initial value.

It is thus far from certain that the attitude of the atheist can only be defined as a stepping backward in the face of mystery or as a rejection of mystery, because it is also at play in faith, and one could even propose to broaden the meaning of the “religious” in order to understand it otherwise than as the belonging to a religious community defined by dogmas or beliefs. As Thomas Mann writes in one of his letters: “We live and die in mystery, and one can eventually call ‘religious’ the awareness that one has of this fact.”

Neither of the two terms of the disjunction believer/atheist is, therefore, a simple one. Our living in societies which include believers and atheists implies, first of all, the necessity of sharing different, but probably not incommensurable experiences. It should not be forgotten that the Christian was defined, at the beginning, as an atheist — seen from the perspective of polytheism, the official religion of Rome until Constantine. One is often the atheist with respect to someone else, the one who does not share “the faith”. Interreligious conflicts and even the resurgence of religious wars in our time remind us every day of this obvious fact.

Furthermore, the word “atheism” can refer to very different experiences and dispositions. Hence the importance of the notion of experience that we have placed at the heart of our investigations. If God cannot be defined, cannot be reduced to the measure of our thinking, but can be only encountered in a personal experience, in a paradoxical experience which pushes experience to its limits, the atheist is primarily the one who has not had such an experience, and not the one who denies the existence of God. Now, no one can assert that such an experience can never be had. Nevertheless, the meaning of such an experience needs to be specified, and along with it, all the illusions to which such a so-called experience can give rise.

Contemporary phenomenology, by attempting to broaden the concept of experience to allow it to include paradoxical experiences (“saturated phenomena”, to borrow Jean-Luc Marion’s expression) cannot avoid the question of how to differentiate between a paradoxical experience that would only reflect our own desires or fantasies, and which is thus only illusory, and one that would really deviate from the conditions of our ordinary experience.

Literalist atheism

In its simplest form, atheism is often thought to be the negation of belief in (a) divine being; this tends to limit any discussion to an exchange of irreconcilable truth claims. A dogmatic atheism of this kind asserts, quite simply, the non-existence of God as something that can be demonstrated. We observe this kind of atheism in the works of infamous atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Now, such an atheism often borders on inconsistency. On the one hand, outside the realm of a priori sciences in which it is, indeed, possible to prove the non-existence of certain things (for instance, in Euclidian geometry, the non-existence or impossibility of a triangle the sum of whose angles would amount to more or less than 180 degrees), it is already very difficult to prove the non-existence of anything whatsoever in the world. If God is not only a concept, a mere object of thought, but a being who can perhaps be encountered, of whom it is perhaps possible to have an “experience”, an a priori proof of God’s non-existence does not even make sense. It probably makes even less sense than the traditional alleged “proofs” of the existence of God. The believer is here more rational than the non-believer, since the believer can at least allege an experience (perhaps illusory) as the basis of his or her belief, while the non-believer cannot for his or her disbelief: it does not follow from the fact that one does not experience something that this thing does not exist.

Even more seriously, the atheist who wants to justify an assertion of the “non-existence of God” is committed inevitably to defining what the word “God” means. It is here, precisely, that the trouble begins. The atheist must rely at least on a nominal definition of what is intended by “God”, and this definition often turns out to be arbitrary. Such is the argument of Jean-Luc Marion, who observes that the death of God asserted by Nietzsche is no more than the death of a particular idol that has come to stand for God. In each case of such proofs, one must always ask whether it is the true God, the revealed God, who is at stake in the question. As for negative theism or the assertive and militant type of atheism we have observed in exponents such as Dawkins, the question is always to determine whether such an atheism — grounded on an implicit, but often arbitrary, definition of God — does not border on theological naïveté. In a word, the God about whom it is possible to prove non-existence on the basis of a definition that is always dogmatic or hazardous, can easily be suspected of not being the true God — granted, of course, that God exists.

If God were to exist, God would undoubtedly be the one who cannot be defined — that is, who defies our representational capacities, who cannot be measured by our conceptual resources. In order to claim that God does not exist, one necessarily has to claim to possess a concept of God, a definition of what God is, but this is precisely what is problematic from the outset. Even the “divine names” only reach God according to our own point of view. God can be characterised precisely — and in the Hebrew scriptures is shown to characterise Godself — as the one who does not allow self-definition. It is worth recalling that the primary meaning of the formula of Exodus 3:14, ’èhyèh ’ashèr ’èhyèh, which has been often understood as the first word of a “metaphysics of the Exodus”, in no way amounts to a definition (“I am the one who is”), but is on the contrary a refusal to be defined: it means literally “I am who I am” (and so “you don’t have to ask me this question”), or even more literally “I will be who I will be” — a reiteration of the promise which underlies the Alliance or Covenant. And so, to a request for nomination and definition, God answers with a reiteration of the oath: “I will keep my word, I will not betray my promise.”

Does this not make any dogmatic atheism a contradictory undertaking? In this respect, the Marxist critique of Feuerbach’s atheistic humanism is right on target: in some of its forms at least, atheism is nothing other than a reverse theology, a parody of a theology. William James already acknowledged such a possibility when he wrote:

“He believes in No-God and he worships him” said a colleague of mine of a student who was manifesting a fine atheistic ardor; and the more fervent opponents of Christian doctrine have often enough shown a temper which, psychologically considered, is indistinguishable from religious zeal.

Atheism and the flight of the gods

However, a second form of atheism must be considered, according to which atheism is no longer a theoretical assertion about the non-existence of God, but a modality of our relation to the divine, even if the latter is purely chimeric — which is to say, it is the experience of the loss of God, of the “flight of gods”, or God. Even Paganism did not ignore this kind of experience. The tragic hero undergoes the experience of the withdrawal of the gods, of his abandonment by them. Oedipus defines himself as atheos in Oedipus Rex — an expression that does not mean here “atheist” in the modern sense of the word, but rather being deserted by the god who has turned away from him, and so condemned him to a radical solitude, to which his long perambulation testifies in Oedipus at Colonus. “Atheist” does not mean in this context “the one who does not believe in the gods”, in the first place because the very idea of a belief in the gods is problematic for Paganism. As Paul Veyne has stressed, the pagan religion never truly had “believers”, even if it is true that it had “non-believers” — that is, the early Christians.

This other form of atheism, marked by the experience of the withdrawal of the gods, and possibly even of a pure and simple death of the Christian God, is foreshadowed in Pascal’s Pensées and fully developed for the first time by the young Hegel in Faith and Knowledge. Hegel identifies in this text “the feeling on which the religion of modern times rests — the feeling that ‘God Himself is dead’.” It is a phrase, of course, that is when taken over by Nietzsche in The Gay Science. Such an atheism is utterly different from a negative theism or a dogmatic atheism, and it addresses a challenge much more difficult for theology to meet. This time, the God who is dead is no longer a nominal definition, an idea of God. Instead, God has an intimate connection to “the Crucified”, as Nietzsche calls him, and God’s very disappearance gestures toward an historical experience, that of the “devaluation of all values” proper to the epoch of nihilism.

Yet, on the other hand, as it has often been noted, the “death of God” of which Nietzsche speaks seems to have its place prepared in advance in theology and Christology: it is prefigured by the complaint of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), and in the very words of Christ on the Cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Could such an atheism be understood as an element of the divine dramaturgy, and liable to receive an eschatological meaning? Or else, is it the announcement of an end of Christianity and Monotheism as such?

Whatever is the response to this question, this second atheism bears more intimate relationships to Christian theology than the first one. It raises especially the question of whether the God who is “dead”, and whose death prescribes God’s meaning in the age of “nihilism”, is a mere metaphysical idol, as Jean-Luc Marion has claimed, or else is the Revealed God himself, according to Nietzsche’s interpretation.

Before theism and atheism

Is it possible, then, to describe an atheism that is not simply a denial of God, and that does not co-implicate the loss of all value? Jean-Luc Nancy attempts this task, which means that he does not describe himself simply as an atheist. In Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, he argues that the force of Monotheism in Western thought builds towards its own overcoming. He declares that metaphysics is complicit with Christianity in that it “sets a founding, warranting presence beyond the world”, and everything “is played out in the mutual referral of these two regimes of beings or presence.” The exhaustion of metaphysics is fulfilled in the nihilism of Nietzsche, yet at the same time, metaphysics “deconstructs itself constitutively” and reveals “the extreme limits of reason in an excess of and over reason itself.” Christianity as metaphysics thus harbours a resource within itself that is deeper than Christianity: in its Anselmian formulation, thought “thinks something in excess over itself. It penetrates the impenetrable, or rather is penetrated by it.”

Nancy thus maintains that both theism and atheism are positions defined by an appeal to a higher principle upon which reason is founded. However, he writes: “the signal weakness of any logic of the premise … shows itself at the crucial point where theism and atheism prove to belong to each other … The decisive point is this — it ought to be the task of the principle … to exceed qua principle principiation itself.” In this way, Nancy argues for the priority of a kind of experience or intentionality that he names “faith”, but by this he refers neither to a relationship of trust with a transcendent being nor to a set of religious beliefs — as we might otherwise understand the term. As a type of intentionality or consciousness, then, faith is “the act of reason” that bears witness to “the event” (to the adventure or the experience of something that by definition is neither given nor presentable)while having nothing to show for it. As Nancy writes:

Faith is not weak, hypothetical, or subjective knowledge. It is neither unverifiable nor received through submission, nor even through reason. It is not a belief in the ordinary sense of the term. On the contrary, it is the act of the reason that relates, itself, to that which, in it, passes it infinitely: faith stands precisely at the point of an altogether consequent atheism. This is to say that it stands at the point where atheism is dispossessed of belief in the premise or principle and in principiate, in general … Reason does not suffice unto itself: for itself it is not a sufficient reason.

For Nancy, the name “God”, or that of the “holy” always comes too late, but it is an “attempt to designate” where no designation can take place, “as that which exceeds thinking infinitely without in any way being principial to it.” Faith opens reason, then, to its own insufficiency. However — and this is the crucial point for Nancy — while faith opens reason to its beyond, the event onto which faith opens is nothing other than reason.

To the extent that Nancy relies on something deep within or deeper than Christianity to overcome Christianity, Jacques Derrida suggests that Nancy is liable to the criticism that he is more Christian than the Christians. This would reinscribe Nancy within the very binary he seeks to evade. However, Nancy’s reference to the event whence faith opens reason to its beyond is an attempt to think the experience of what precedes the distinction between theism and atheism without becoming available as a principle for resolving their difference: this event is no-thing at all. Now, interestingly enough, Jean-Luc Marion seems to traverse the same terrain when he writes of “an opening of that which already no longer is”. It is here that Marion discerns the possibility of the event of the impossible: “If God ever has to appear to our eyes that have become blind to the twilight of the idols, clearly it will be in this opening, and no longer in the desertlike domain of the possible.”

What might such an experience look like? If it is unavailable except by means of a discursive reflection that always comes too late, how might it be known as such? For Nancy, the event prompting that discursive reflection comes as a surprise to thought. For Jean-Luc Marion, this event is known to feeling. If we were to think this with a definitively Heideggerian inflection, and not with a Schleiermacherian one, we might say that it is known to mood (Stimmung), which discloses our how of being in the world. Both atheist and theist would thus come to self-conscious reflection having always and already crossed a threshold. They would bring with themselves a mood that, according to Heidegger, is the co-condition of knowing.

What would be at stake, then, in the difference between Jean-Luc Marion and Jean-Luc Nancy? It is not so much that one believes in God and the other does not, but how each is fundamentally affected at that point of opening onto the world which is life, and how that is then understood and interpreted as experience.

Claude Romano is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Sorbonne and Professorial Fellow at Australian Catholic University. He is winner of the Grand Prix from the Academie Française for his work on phenomenology.

Robyn Horner is Associate Professor of Religion and Theology at Australian Catholic University.

This article is based on their contribution to The Experience of Atheism: Phenomenology, Metaphysics and Religion.