Thursday, July 7, 2011


I don't know how much of a fuss there was about the whole atheist airplane thing, but I am friends with American Atheists on face book, and they posted quite a few little comments on it. The scoop is that AA attempted to hire planes in all 50 states on the 4th of July to carry banners that say "GodLESS America" and "Atheism is patriotic." A few states proved impossible because they could not find a pilot who did not fear retribution, either in the form of the loss of a job or the loss of a life.

For a second I would like to leave aside the virtues of the campaign itself and marvel at the sort of person who is offended by atheism, and who would be sufficiently offended to be driven to violence.

As for the virtues of the campaign, it should first be noted that if nothing else AA has done some work to let people know that atheists are not rare. In Seattle, where I live for now, one might be inclined to look at these flying banners as a waste of money and fuel, since here, as in many urban environments, we meet with very little oppression. Even as nearby as Spokane, however (where I wish they had flown the plane instead), the A-word is not so welcome, and, especially if I were a budding atheist teenager, a symbol of community might do quite a bit of good.

There are, I'm sure, a few other ways to look at this awareness-raising that might not be as optimistic as all this, but I honestly haven't given it a great deal of thought. I've been thinking about another side of things that will tie in with a post I've been thinking of making for a while.

I can dig what they mean when they say "Atheism is patriotic," so what follows here is not really meant to be a retort. I recognize that (some) theists use "atheism" as a thought-stopping abstraction, implying or openly stating that "these people" are outsiders with an alien or non-existent moral compass, whose very existence jeopardizes America's fragile capitalist utopia. So when AA says "Atheism is patriotic," clearly they are normalizing the reality of an atheist voice in the political landscape.

This is where Empire comes in. (I had hoped to return to reading this book again, but alas it was not meant to be. What follows is from months-old memory; I will not be able to return to this book until October, looks like.) For Hardt and Negri--who in this respect follow almost directly Deleuze and Guattari--the most important political and ethical achievement of post-medieval European thought is atheism. Indeed, the bulk of what is often referred to by the short-hand of Enlightenment thinking has been, by H&N's account, a strategic, covertly theistic revision of the advances made by humanistic philosophers since Duns Scotus.

I have to digress a bit here, because H&N's terminology is a bit problematic (and basically has to be). When H&N say "humanism," they are referring to a specific strain of post-medieval thought that really only includes some of those we are accustomed to thinking of as humanists. Sketched briefly, this line begins with the aforementioned Duns Scotus, and includes Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze. What distinguishes these thinkers from the much broader field of philosophers normally assembled under the general banner of humanism is what Deleuze calls a philosophy of immanence. These are philosophers whose primary ethical/political program is a theory of humanity without transcendence. They observe first that there is nothing in the human experience that is not directly sensible (that is, experienced by the senses); they observe second that recourse to transcendental, divine, or mediating forces is both unmotivated by observation and (this is the important bit) enables bad ethical/political reasoning.

Now part of the confusion here is due to the fact that this had been similarly observed prior to both H&N and Deleuze in the works of Althusser and Foucault. In "The Humanist Controversy," which I may have mentioned here before, Althusser argues emphatically that Marx was not a humanist on exactly the grounds that humanism as Althusser understands it is essentially if covertly theistic. The humanism from which Althusser is defending our memory of Marx is Feuerbach's humanism, which operates through transposing onto "man" those qualities of autonomy etc. which we had previously assigned to "God." H&N push this analysis even further, ascribing to all those philosophers of mediation and transcendence, including (crucially) Kant and Hegel, this same form of covert theism. What is at stake here first is the political refusal on the part of those "state" philosophers (in Deleuze's terms) to acknowledge the extent of existence. In every domain, when faced with the reality of immanence, these philosophers turn instead to mediation or transcendence, both denying the vitality of unmediated reality and manufacturing a false world that lays claim to the achievements and qualities of reality.

This brings us to the second, more important stake. Wrapped up in the Enlightenment insistence on mediation and transcendence is an implicit mandate for sovereign rule. The logic of theism--which I have been using as a short-hand for a belief in some extra-human force or authority--transfers to and supports the logic of the authoritative state. It is by this logic that we find ourselves, even in post-monarchical society, constantly returning to centralized models of the state, and particularly models of the state that centralize power on a single person. For H&N, and for D&G before them, the escape from state oppression must coincide with the escape from theological repression. In an alternative formulation, the acceptance of humanity as being capable of collective self-rule (which we should not confuse with anarchy) coincides with the acceptance of humans as parts of a fully immanent, rhyzomatic system, which is not overcoded or dismissed by pointing at "god" or even at "mankind."

In this sense, in an extreme, ethically and politically focused form, atheism cannot be patriotic, for the simple reason that the concept of patriotism relies on the sovereignty of the nation-state, which itself is a theocratic concept.