Slavoj Zizek hearts atheism.

By on February 22, 2012

So I don’t know how many philosophy buffs we have out there, but if you’re into theoretical speculations about the nature of things (or lack thereof) you’ve probably heard of Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is one of the most well-known and well-regarded of contemporary philosophers, in part due to his willingness to talk about things everyday people consume (movies, the media) and in part because he’s just a very entertaining guy. But he also says, as far as I can tell, a lot of smart things that I won’t even attempt to come to an understanding of so that I might summarize them for you. I’ve watched him speak twice on film and so far I’ve deduced that 1) Children of Men is a very, very good movie and 2) rather than fetishizing nature and “the natural” we should in fact strive to become more, not less, artificial. Hard core.

But for our purposes here, the important thing is that Zizek is an atheist and, furthermore, makes a good argument about why, at the end of the day, atheists love your religious freedom more than religious people do. On the topic of intolerance towards Muslims, he wrote this a few years ago for The New York Times:

These weird alliances confront Europe’s Muslims with a difficult choice: The only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the “godless” atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies.”

The entire article, titled “Atheism is a legacy worth fighting for,” is a succinct and clear refutation to perhaps the most common misconception about atheism – that without religion, we will all set about killing each other without restraint. If anything, Zizek points out, it is religion that makes such behavior possible, not atheism.

But my larger purpose in bringing this article to your attention is to provide you one possible alternative to the Four Horsemen when engaged in conversation about atheism with your left-leaning, New Agey or agnostic friends. Often, Dawkins and Hitchens are criticized for being not terribly well-educated in fields that intersect with their narrow interest in theology-as-a- hypothesis- about -reality, and consequently write books lacking nuance, historical knowledge, and philosophical sophistication. We can argue about whether or not that is true all day – I happen to feel the point about simplifying history is quite true in the case of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris – but if your acquaintances do not trust the intellectual rigor of these guys, Zizek is a great person to refer them to instead. I hardly see how anyone could go after Zizek for lacking nuance, although I’m sure someone has. But the point being, if your atheism-skeptical friends want someone who is deeply steeped in philosophy, history and politics to make the same arguments about atheism being good for society as do the infamous New Atheist horsemen, Zizek is your man.

And if they still disagree with you, you can just direct them to his wiki page and demand that they fully comprehend and explain his philosophy to you before claiming that his position is invalid. They will quickly give up and concede.

Discussion

My favorite Zizek is a tie between The Puppet and The Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, and The Monstrosity of Christ: Pardox or Dialectic? that he co-authored with John Milbank.

On the latter, the two authors sum up their arguments as follows:

“What matters is not so much that Žižek is endorsing a demythologized, disenchanted Christianity without transcendence, as that he is offering in the end (despite what he sometimes claims) a heterodox version of Christian belief.”
—John Milbank

“To put it even more bluntly, my claim is that it is Milbank who is effectively guilty of heterodoxy, ultimately of a regression to paganism: in my atheism, I am more Christian than Milbank.”
—Slavoj Žižek

Great stuff all around. And for those who can’t wade through such writing, you simply must check him out on YouTube. He’s an absolute riot to watch.

There’s a great documentary available streaming on Netflix called The Examined Life which features many great living philosophers, including Zizek. Definitely worth the time to watch.

Robin Marie

I happen to have the highest rated review of “The Examined Life” on Netflix :). Great documentary.

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