What's wrong with Martin Hägglund's rereading of religion
America is awash with talk of secularism and socialism, and yet atheism remains unpopular. While the so-called “nones” have surged to a quarter of the population, less than four per cent of Americans describe themselves as atheists — the least favored religious minority in America. You might say that America is such a religious country, even our secularists are religious.
A new book by Yale University’s Martin Hägglund makes the case for something like the inverse of a theological commonplace. Just as Christians might argue that every secular concept is at root theological, Hägglund argues that every religious impulse is at root secular.
In a fascinating and sympathetic review essay in the the New Yorker, James Wood tackles Hägglund’s new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon).
“Hägglund’s central claim is that a good deal of what passes for religious aspiration is secular aspiration that doesn’t know itself as such. He wants to out religionists as closet secularists. When we ardently hope that the lives of people we love will go on and on, we don’t really want them to be eternal. We simply want those lives to last “for a longer time.” So his reply would probably be: Just admit that your real concerns and values are secular ones, grounded in the frailty, the finitude, and the rescue of this life…
“The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious. Hägglund’s argument here is aided by Hegel’s thinking about religion. For Hegel, as Hägglund reads him, a religious institution is really just a community that has come together to ennoble “a governing set of norms—a shared understanding of what counts as good and just.” The object of devotion is thus really the community itself. ‘God’ is just the name we give ‘the self-legislated communal norms (the principles to which the congregation holds itself),’ and ‘Christ’ the name we give the beloved agent who animates these norms.
“It’s strange that Hägglund, in a book that moves so easily between Hegel and Marx, doesn’t mention the German philosopher who bridges those two thinkers, and who wrote more lucidly than either about religion: Ludwig Feuerbach. In The Essence of Christianity (1841), Feuerbach proposed that when human beings worship God they are simply worshipping what they themselves value, and are projecting those values onto the figment of objectivity they choose to call God. Feuerbach is particularly interesting on the question of immortality. He says that heaven is the real God of man: it is heaven we are really after. When Christians say, ‘If there is no immortality, then there is no God,’ they are actually saying, ‘If I am not immortal, then there is no God.’ They make God dependent on them. ‘As man conceives his heaven, so he conceives his God,’ Feuerbach writes.
“Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.”
Hägglund’s interest in Hegel and Marx is utterly unsurprising for a project such as this. Hegel provides a philosophically serious grounding for seeing all the transcendent values — namely God — immanentized, collapsed into history. In this way, as Wood observes, communities don’t really worship a transcendent God, they worship their own norms, and then call those norms “God”. It is to say with Hägglund, we worship ourselves, we worship nature as such, and “the human quest for meaning”.
Between Hegel and Marx, Woods rightly notes the strange absence of Feuerbach in Hägglund’s religious secularism. But the absence is a kind of presence, since Hägglund is in many ways Feuerbach Redivivus. It was, after all, Feuerbach (not Hegel) who argued that Christianity promised man eternal life only to deprive him of temporal life — or, in Hägglund’s terms, Christianity veiled the secular impulse with the religious. Feuerbach said “atheism … is the secret of religion itself.” And that’s a fair summary of Hägglund’s argument too.
Wood is right that Hägglund’s neglect of Feuerbach matters — but he never quite tell us why it matters. I’ll wager an answer. It allows him to sweep over profound philosophical reflections on metaphysical causation, venerable traditions of Hellenistic wisdom which show that the intellect is capable of arriving at truths which we have not made up for ourselves, and which begin to answer why there is something rather than nothing. It allows him to arrive at the view that humans quest after meaning without any transcendent reason, end or purpose given to the quest.
James Wood complains that the New Atheists are parasitic on Christianity, or at least theism, which always seems to arrive at a “sticky intimacy” by trying to “disprove the host’s existence”. On the other hand, Wood prefers the way Hägglund’s “secular faith” can absorb all the religious truths without being against them. But this is just a dependency of a different kind. It’s nothing other than the counterfeit attempt to comprehend the catholica without any real concept of what causes and constitutes the whole.
Hägglund’s desire to articulate a universalizing spirituality for secular nones is understandable. It’s a grand Feuerbachian projection of the typical Yale English professor whose secular faith compels him to vote for socialists. But it lacks the grandeur of the truly transcendent religious claims that it must contend with in America.
It’s really quite a sad religion that ends not with victory over sin and death, but just victory for Bernie Sanders. The end of secular faith is utterly temporal, and gives the restless heart no rest at all. For this reason, it will always be the case that Christ Crucified is not a symbol for some “deeper secular impulse”, but the judgment of that impulse which tries to see ourselves in the place of God.