What is a theological concept? Part 2: A schema for distinguishing between different atheisms

In Difficult Atheism I offered a schema for understanding varieties of contemporary French philosophical atheism. In this post I want briefly to summarise that schema (adding some diagrams not included in Difficult Atheism), before going on to develop it further in the future. If you want to explore these ideas in greater length, please refer to the longer descriptions in Difficult Atheism itself.

It is a tripartite schema of imitative (or parasitic) atheism, ascetic (or residual) atheism, and theological integration.


“Imitative” or “parasitic” atheism

In DA I summarised this first variety of atheism in the following way:

‘imitative atheism’, merely replaces ‘God’ with a supposedly atheistic placeholder such as ‘Man’ or ‘Reason’, explicitly rejecting but implicitly imitating theology’s categories of thinking, changing merely the terms in which those categories are articulated. The placeholder might furnish the reason and the end – the Alpha and the Omega – of the world, provide the source of Truth or Value, or stand, god-like, outside the flux of intramundane becoming. [1]


Care, however, should be taken to distinguish imitative atheism from the casual use of religious or theological terms within an atheistic context. If a philosopher uses terms such as ‘miracle’, ‘faith’ or even ‘God’, it does not necessarily follow that her thought is imitative. An atheism is parasitic upon theology only when it deploys concepts that cannot be accounted for in exclusively atheistic terms but require assumptions proper to theology, whether or not those concepts happen to carry theological labels. This, of course, raises the question of what assumptions are proper to theology. This is a question that receives different, often contradictory answers; it will be one focus of this series of posts.


Camus as a bridge

The existentialism of the mid twentieth century marks a significant moment in the rejection of imitative atheism. Albert Camus struggles in the tension between the old imitation and a new refusal of parasitic thinking:

I continue to believe that the world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has meaning, and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one. This world has at least the truth of man and our task is to provide its justification against faith itself. [2]

Camus’s absurd holds itself in the impossible breach of imitative atheism, claiming concepts to which it knows it has no right. It is, he writes, ‘sin without God’ [3] (‘le péché sans Dieu’). His thought adumbrates the second tendency within post-Enlightenment atheism, a tendency that arises in part as a critique of imitative atheism.

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