Friday, December 16, 2016

Religion, Faith, and Atheism: The Phenomenology of the Abyss

by Joe Kirby

In Precarious Visions, sociologist Peter Berger argues for a distinction between “religion” and “faith.” “Religion” refers to the understanding of social reality that we inherit from being raised in this or that culture, and which we have a tendency to view as equivalent to reality itself. “Faith,” by contrast, refers to the realization of the contingency of our society, the realization that our own particular social world is not grounded in the nature of reality, but that we are rather all akin to actors playing roles in an enormous social drama. For Berger, the essence of Christianity lies not in “religion” but in “faith,” as the shattering personal encounter with a reality that transcends our parochial social world:
The confrontation with the living God … strips men of their alibis and disguises. The aprons of fig leaves spun with the lies of institutional ideologies cannot cover man’s nakedness as God seeks him out of his hiding places. In this, indeed, all men are the children of Adam, who said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Gen. 3:10).
As an approach to the story of the Fall, this coincides with a Hasidic interpretation from Martin Buber’s Hasidism and Modern Man: the fall does not occur when Adam eats from the fruit, but rather when he hides from the presence of God afterwards, and the beginning of the path to redemption occurs when Adam speaks the words “I hid myself,” thereby recognizing what has occurred. For his part, Berger interprets this hiding from God in terms of the construction of a “religion,” which is often used to justify the killing of others:
[God] has not recognized the sovereignty of our card-house institutions or the extraterritoriality of the moral hiding places which men have concocted among themselves. He steps into the palace of the king and the judge’s chambers, ignoring the royal mantle and the judicial robes, and addresses the naked man underneath the costume as He addressed Adam: “But the Lord God called to man, and said to him, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). And as kings and judges renounce their human brotherhood with their victims, pointing to the immunity of their office, God will address them in words no different from those addressed to Cain: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). (Precarious Visions, 192)
Here, the socially conditioned justifications whereby we condemn our fellow humans, often in the name of the God of “religion,” are destroyed by the God of “faith.” Beneath the social role, as represented by ritually prescribed clothing, the king and the judge are nothing more than naked human beings, and they will ultimately be obliged to bear personal responsibility whatever they have done.

Peter Berger published Precarious Visions in 1961. Just six years later, however, in The Sacred Canopy, he repudiated the distinction between “religion” and “faith,” arguing that modern sociology shows how the God of “faith,” who calls to the naked human from the abyss beneath our cultural world, is actually just another instantiation of the God of “religion” – a further example of culture grounding its own parochial moral judgments in the nature of reality. This means, according to Berger, that the problem faced by Jeremiah concerning “how to distinguish genuine and false prophecy,” the “terrible doubt that apparently plagued Thomas Aquinas as to whether his own belief in the arguments for the existence of God may not after all be a matter of “habit,” as well as the “tormenting question of numberless Christians … of how to find the true church,” are all rendered moot by the “vertigo of relativity” to which the science of sociology exposes us.

In terms of the debate between “atheism” and, let’s say, “Religion” (this time with a capital “R”), the contrasting perspectives of these two books provide an interesting rubric through which to think. “Atheism” follows Berger’s position in The Sacred Canopy: there is no valid distinction between “religion” and “faith” (or between “religion” and “Religion,” for that matter). The apparent nakedness of “faith” is actually just another layer of a culture’s “R/religion,” and both are totally undermined by the abyss of relativity to which the science of sociology exposes us. By this view, really stepping outside of “R/religion” necessarily entails atheism – and as long as the debate is framed in this way, it will appear as though “R/religion” can only be sustained by fideism and fanaticism, by a stubborn refusal to think, by an irrational rejection of the truth of science.

When atheists do bother interacting with the perspective of “faith,” they usually argue that people of “faith” are actually closeted atheists, people who have walked most of the way toward honest rationality, but who haven’t quite mustered up the courage to fully shed the protective womb of their traditional culture. My favorite expression of this view comes from 19th century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who contemptuously dismisses those “honest but timid souls” who reject “the vigorous and powerful being, the brutally positive God of theology” in favor of a “nebulous, diaphanous, illusory being that vanishes into nothing at the first attempt to grasp it”:
They are uncertain, sickly souls, who have lost their reckoning in the present civilization, belonging to neither the present nor the future, pale phantoms eternally suspended between heaven and earth, […]. They have neither the power nor the wish nor the determination to follow out their thought, and they waste their time and pains in constantly endeavoring to reconcile the irreconcilable. […] With them, or against them, discussion is out of the question. They are too puny. (God and the State, 17-8)
Contemporary atheists like A. C. Grayling and Sam Harris adopt essentially the same position: that “R/religion” is by definition fanatical adherence to unquestioned cultural norms, and that the perspective of “faith” is just a modern innovation concocted by people who have come under the dissolving influence of modern scientific rationality.

Speaking historically, it is not difficult to show that this understanding of the God of “faith” is grossly inaccurate. For example, at the end of book VII of Plato’s Republic, the perspective of philosophy is presented as the quest for our “true” parents (this would be akin to Berger’s “faith”), after we have realized that the culture in which we have been raised is really just an adoptive parent (Berger’s “religion”). However, a remark that Origen makes in his Homilies on the Song of Songs is significant not only historically, but also ontologically, as a way of understanding what has happened in our own culture. Origen argues that the logical order of spiritual life can be discerned in the order of the three books of Solomon: Proverbs, which corresponds to a practice of obedience to moral commandments, Ecclesiastes, which Origen himself describes as the spirituality germane to the natural sciences, and the Song of Songs, which corresponds to the experience of ontological love. By this rubric, it makes perfect sense why “religious” people exposed to the natural sciences would enter the perspective of “faith.” This is not the first step towards atheism, but is rather what is supposed to happen in a properly conducted “Religious” life: from obedience, through science, into love.

In this context, the problem with contemporary culture could be described as follows: the practitioners of specifically modern science have entered the spiritual life in the wrong order, dissolving the self in the abyss of Ecclesiastes, in the infinite expanses of cosmic time and space, before having cultivated a relatively “selfless” self through the practice of steadfast moral discipline. For those who practice in this way (and especially those who practice with the rigor and single-minded intensity of a German philosopher), reality will begin to manifest as it did to the likes of Nietzsche and Heidegger: as anxiety, dread, and despair – as the inverse of the ontological love that Origen describes as the fruit of a properly ordered spiritual life. On the other hand, for those who enter the abyss in the proper order, through the gate of morality, this anxiety will be akin to St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul” that precedes our encounter with the reality of God.

In any event, it seems to me that this would be a better way to frame the debate between “atheism” and “Religion”: What actually happens in the abyss? Does the experience of reality beyond our own parochial cultural training really reveal the “vertigo of relativity” – or is this experience itself just the parochial experience of modern scientific culture, a culturally concocted illusion of the abyss, as an ideological façade that functions to block our view of the truth?

Joseph Kirby is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on the philosophy of religion, politics, and ecology.

Photo: "Ships in Distress in a Raging Storm," by Ludolf Backhuysen, 1690, used from wikipedia, and is in the Public Domain..


  1. A lovely bit of table turning Joe, written with the panache I have come to expect of your work. The use of Berger's two works as your way in is an inspired stroke. And your "genealogical" turning of the tables at the end, enough to make Nietzsche himself smile before finding some brilliant and sarcastic way of transvaluing anew at your expense. But never mind some imagined contest with Nietzsche, your own contribution to the debate is a worthy bit of argumentation.

  2. Is our faith just a cultural turd writ large? Your article puts some fuss into the sold argument. There is something to being naked before God, and admitting it. You drew it to attention. JW