After Atheism: Ideas explores new perspectives on God and religion

First aired on Ideas (30/4/12-5/5/12)

Public discussion of religion tends to be extremely polarized, split between religious fundamentalism and the aggressive atheism of such writers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But much of what people actually believe falls somewhere in between, and is subtler and more tentative. David Cayley explores the work of five thinkers whose recent books have charted new paths for religious faith; you can listen to the series in full below.

Part 1: Richard Kearney


In recent years, religion has been something of a battlefield. On the one hand, books with titles like God Is Back or, more alarming, The Revenge of God, indicate the increased influence of fundamentalist forms of religion. On the other, the writers sometimes called "the new atheists" have railed against religion in a spirit that some have called secular fundamentalism. Poet and novelist Richard Kearney would like to get past all this. The author of Anatheism: Returning to God After God, Kearney argues that it's a sterile polarization. He'd like to move on to a conversation in which doubt and faith, in his words, "criss-cross." This is explored in Part I of the After Atheism series, which you can listen to below.

Listen to part one below:

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Part 2: John Caputo


French philosopher Jacques Derrida is one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century, having invented the widely influential concept of deconstruction. However, Derrida faced many critics, who argue that he was no more than a kind of Dada-ist, a jokester whose work consisted mainly of tricks, puns and gimmicks. Eight years after his death, his reputation in the English speaking world continues to be shadowed by charges of "nihilism" and "relativism" that were often made against him. John Caputo, author of The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, disagrees with with this line of thinking. He contends that deconstruction and religion have a lot in common, and in Part 2 of After Atheism, Caputo presents his case for Derrida's theological significance.

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Part 3: William Cavanaugh


The founders of the American republic were frank about the religious character they wanted to give to the new state. Ben Franklin called for "a cult" of the nation. Thomas Jefferson suggested preserving mementos that would function, he said, "like the relics of the saints." They would "help nourish devotion to this holy body of the union." A few years later the leaders of the French Revolution would try to deify reason, with temples and festivals dedicated to this new god. These are examples of what William Cavanaugh calls Migrations of the Holy. That's the title of a new book in which he argues that what we now call religion is often just a distraction from the real objects of our devotion and the ends for which we're really prepared to make sacrifices. William Cavanaugh takes up these issues in Part 3 of After Atheism.

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Part 4: James Carse


James Carse is the author of a book called The Religious Case Against Belief. In it, he turns a lot of widely accepted ideas on their heads. According to any standard dictionary, belief usually defines religion. But Carse argues that belief is often the enemy of religion. Beliefs come and go, he says, but religions persist. Some religions have a lot of beliefs, some almost none, but even those with a lot preserve their identities even when those beliefs change. In Part 4 of After Atheism, Carse shares his thoughts on the nature of belief and the nature of religion.

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Part 5: Roger Lundin


In his book A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor traces changes in religious belief from the late Middle Ages to the present. Taking the year 1500 as a baseline, he argues that at that point in time, belief in God was a given, something obvious and unquestionable. Today religious belief is, in his words, "optional" — that is, a choice — made in the face of a bewildering variety of possibilities. In between lies a journey through doubt: a journey made by an entire civilization but also by each individual who opts for some religious conviction. Roger Lundin's book Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age chronicles this journey as it has unfolded in modern literature. He shares his thoughts on this process in the final segment of the After Atheism series.

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What do you think? What role does religion have in contemporary life? Share your thoughts on the subject in the comments below.

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