In yesterday’s New York Times Opinionator blog, Simon Critchley wrote about a Kierkegaardian conception of ‘faith,’ one which he purports is available even to atheists. I am… unconvinced, to put it mildly. To be perfectly honest, I would have gotten more out of that essay with a light vinaigrette and perhaps a glass of chardonnay. That is to say, Critchley composes a lovely word salad, as did Kierkegaard before him.
The details of Critchley’s essay aren’t interesting enough in and of themselves to address. I’ve seen it all before in many forms, and frankly a point-by-point analysis is wasted effort when each “point” is so thoroughly nebulous and insubstantial: When one cannot or will not define a single key term — faith, god, love — in any sort of clear, consistent, and/or coherent fashion, when every central concept one addresses can only be couched in metaphors and gestured towards rather than analyzed, what one is engaging in does not in any way resemble genuine, rigorous, truth-seeking argument. Without any fixed conceptual anchors — never mind facts; at this point I’d settle for one precisely defined term — the tools we use to justify claims through reasoned argumentation simply cannot be used: no deduction, no inference, no evidence, no examples, no counter-examples, etc. Such musings give an appearance of profundity, but they start from nothing, add nothing, and go nowhere. I can’t even call them intellectual masturbation; at least masturbation has a payoff.
I’ve read many variations on this theme over the years: discussions which purport to redefine ‘faith’ and ‘God,’ but in reality only obscure the meanings of such words as they are commonly used, and in the end utterly fail to offer any definitions at all, new or old. Whatever the intended purpose of the authors, such writings have no effect in the world but to provide intellectual cover for ‘faith’ as more ordinarily defined and manifested, wherein people believe claims about the world to be true — primarily religious claims — in the complete absence of legitimate evidence, or even in the face of clear counter-evidence. Defenders of traditional religious thought and institutions, even those whose views are most explicitly rejected by thinkers like Critchley and Kierkegaard, feel free to co-opt their musings nevertheless: The very Christians Kierkegaard criticizes borrow his prestige, and that of other respected academic theologians, to claim that their sort of faith and religion are intellectually respectable; they toss around Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” language as if it were coined in support of their religious views, even though it springs from a critique that rejects so much of what they embrace. So not only do such writers fail to justify their own claims — because those “claims” are not claims at all, but rather evocative poesy without substance or definable meaning — they advance the cause of those whom they theoretically oppose.
If it weren’t for the broader social context in which this process of willful gibberish-production and disingenuous co-option occurs, I suppose I would dismiss it as harmless. But unlike many academics, I pay attention to the role religion actually plays in the world around me. Academic theologians like Critchley seem willfully blind to the pernicious real-world consequences of faith beliefs: the widespread oppression of women and persecution of non-heterosexuals, the perpetuation of all sorts of real-world economic and political injustices because the attention of so many people is cleverly misdirected from their lack of adequate health care and employment security and educational access to faith-based distractions like “defending marriage” and prioritizing fetuses over women and already-born children. To call religion the opiate of the masses is to praise it with faint damns; religion’s human consequences are far more widespread and devastating than heroin’s. But, instead of turning their intellects to honest assessment and analysis of faith and religion, academic theologians — from their positions of vast social privilege — muse about faith and god and religion in ways that ultimately empower and support the traditional religious beliefs and institutions they purport to oppose, their efforts building rather than chipping away at the massive bulwarks that protect religious claims and institutions from legitimate and well-deserved criticism.
While I don’t find it particularly surprising when privileged academics slather intellectual whitewash over systematic oppression to which they are not subject, I must not be completely overwhelmed by cynicism just yet: I still find it disappointing.