Ideas

After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion, Part 2

Public discussion of religion tends to polarize between two extremes: 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. It is subtler and more tentative. David Cayley explores the work of five thinkers whose books have charted new paths for religion. In...
French philosopher Jacques Derrida (Photograph: JOEL ROBINE/Getty). In Part 2 of "After Atheism", John Caputo presents his case for Derrida's theological significance.

Public discussion of religion tends to polarize between two extremes: 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. It is subtler and more tentative. David Cayley explores the work of five thinkers whose books have charted new paths for religion. In Part 2 of After Atheism, John Caputo talks about deconstruction and French philosopher Jacques Derrida.


In the spring of 1992, Cambridge University announced that it would give an honourary degree to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  It was an honour that seemed richly deserved.  Derrida had invented the widely influential concept of deconstruction.  But there was an immediate outcry - from within Cambridge's philosophy faculty and from an international group of academics who sent a letter of protest to the Times of London.   Derrida, these letter writers said, was no more than a kind of Dada-ist, a jokester whose work consisted mainly of tricks, puns and gimmicks.  His writings, the letter went on, failed to meet "accepted standards of clarity and rigour" and were replete with "semi-intelligible attacks on the values of reason, truth and scholarship." 

Derrida got the degree anyway, after the matter was put to a vote at Cambridge. 

However his reputation in the English speaking world continued to be shadowed by charges of "nihilism" and "relativism" that were often made against him.  Even when he died in 2004, the New York Times obituary, reprinted in Canada by the Globe and Mail, left the impression that his main legacy was to have sapped the morale of Western civilization. 
 
John Caputo disagrees.   He's Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia, and at Syracuse University.  In 1997 he published The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, in which he argues that deconstruction and religion have a lot in common.   In this episode, John Caputo tells his story, and presents his case for Derrida's theological significance.

The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida by John Caputo is published by Indiana University Press. 

The Weakness of God by John Caputo is published by Indiana University Press.


Listen to other episodes in the series:

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