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The Anti-Theism of Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty's language is suggestive of a universe in which God and politics as usual have no a priori meaning, where redescription, rather than tradition, is the defining norm of a culture. It is such a world that atheists have long sought to construct.

Omar Swartz

Issue #72, February 2005

Richard Rorty is among the most useful of contemporary philosophers for atheists to read and discuss. His writing is both accessible and inspiring, providing non-philosophers with a convenient vocabulary for countering, with easy to accept intellectual premises, the religious arguments and cultural politics of theists. Fundamental to this task is his argument that truth is the upshot of whatever free culture comes to value, and that if we take care of freedom and not worry about Truth, society will turn out fine. When we approach truth in this contingent, nominalist sense, conservative claims to religious, philosophical, and/or political certainty lose their privileged places in our society. We can then break their unfortunate intellectual hold on much of the American public.

With Rorty we learn that, within a society that champions a permanent indeterminacy in matters religious, cultural, or political, there is little room for priests and dogma, and the philosophical ground situating such authority as neo-conservatism, natural law, or laisser-faire capitalism is liquefied. What remains are the struggles of people in the cold and dark, with only their potential for solidarity, compassion, and commitment to their community to guide them. This potential, which we all share, is engaged by what Rorty celebrates as strong poets, the creative people who utilize the resources of language to construct progressive visions and goals for their communities. These goals and visions change with the coining of new, more exciting metaphors by increasingly talented and novel poets. When the problem of human meaning is seen in this way, as an opportunity for artistic invention and reinvention, people are likely to stop asking theological questions about, among other things, the "correctness" of their faith, the "errors" of other faiths, or the relationship between God and justice; instead, they may start asking practical questions about the health, fairness, and inclusiveness of their communities. The question: What is God's plan for our nation in the face of terrorist evil? would become, instead: What political choices can we make in order to live at peace with the rest of the world?

Luca Signorelli, 'The Damned' (Orvieto Cathedral, 1503)

Being a mature, fully actualized individual requires that we function in the absence of divine certainty, and, as Rorty reminds us, the agency that follows such maturity constitutes our species' greatest source of strength. As humans, we deserve credit for the positive things that we do; it is out of a weakness of character, an inability to keep our integrity as individuals that we defer our agency to God and what we euphemistically refer to as his blessings. Likewise, the harm that we do is wholly our harm and the responsibility for the hells that we create lie squarely on what, in Nietzsche's language, are our “human-all-too-human shoulders.”

Rather than to fear our human-all-to-human shortcomings, we should embrace them and use them as inspiration for our self-overcoming. In other words, we do not need the concept of human dignity in a religious or philosophical sense to be moved by the crying of a hungry child or by the pleadings of its mother for food. Suffering is enough to justify our efforts to reduce it. To seek in such horror other motivations, such as those found in metaphysical and religious rationales, is often a liability as we externalize our angst, hoping for non-human intervention, instead of utilizing our angst internally and creatively as a transformative power — as one human healing another. Here, humans are at our best. Here, the heroic has the potential to triumph over the tragic, but only if we allow humans the agency to be heroic, which the concept of God precludes. To be heroic, humans must engage life on their own terms and not the terms dictated by deities or their earthly mouthpieces (i.e., priests).

Rorty's anti-theism is a response to the coercion found in religion and is an embrace of fundamentally democratic principles, which religious hierarchy explicitly denies. As all argument depends on claims of authority, Rorty recognizes, even accepts, the religious claim to authority, but he encourages us to historicize such claims and translate authority into a series of propositions that can be evaluated against important localized needs (such as the necessity for an intelligent electorate). The strong poet, then, is entitled, even encouraged, to rely on religious inspiration. As long as the strong poet's actions lead to a larger social edification, it makes no difference whether his or her moral influence may appear, subjectively speaking, to be divinely inspired. In this respect, the theist strong poet (such as Thomas Merton), like the atheist strong poet (such as Frederic Nietzsche), looks exactly the same to the ironist, a person who feels that the worst thing in the world is to commit oneself to a singular identity (for example, monotheism or other anthropometric understandings of the universe). Both the theist and the atheist strong poet look identical in that both imaginatively create useful dialogue and that dialogue is equally useful, no matter how much one attributes, falsely, his or her insights to a higher spiritual power. The secular strong poet may be equally transcendental, mistaking an imaginative impulse for a higher naturalist or romantic Truth (or simply the universalization of one's radical individuality, in the case of Nietzsche). Either way, the effect is the same. Poetry and philosophy, government and religion, are strictly secular affairs. What we fight over is not their Truth, but the styles of our cultural expressions.

Detail from Signorelli's 'The Damned' (Orvieto Cathedral, 1503)

Rorty's liberalism is consistent with this discussion, since his notion of liberalism (in a Dewyian New Deal sense), and the liberalist criticism of poetry, politics, or religion, is engaged in a material practice that affects the here-and-now. Rorty's anti-religious sentiments are not directed at religion per se, as Rorty is in no position to comment on the truth or falsity of God's actual existence (and neither are any of us, clergy notwithstanding). Rather, Rorty's anti-religious stance is directed at religious argument as well as the practice of religion, insofar as it interferes with human solidarity and the establishment of secular communities purged of superstition, self-inflicted ignorance, and hypocrisy. Speculations as to the nature and identity of God are worse then useless, as they needlessly divide human beings and mystify the material sources of human suffering. If humans learn to take care of each other, the universe can and will take care of itself.

It is in this new cultural universe that Rorty is trying to create where the injunction against cruelty loses its religious/moral force and takes on the imaginative force of solidarity and identification. In Rorty's world, cruelty is not conquered (an act which may involve further cruelty), but is persuaded against through the more positive examples of a community-affirming discourse. For example, industrial and economic elites in the West can be blamed, during the nineteenth century, for lacking the moral imagination to grant suffrage and economic equality to the working classes and for subjecting the peoples of the colonized Third World to merciless exploitation. As a result, the industrial and economic practices of the nineteenth century called into existence a massive counter-force known as socialism. For most of the twentieth century, this counter-force testified to the dearth of imagination in the leadership capabilities of the First World nations, who fought socialism as if it were a disease as opposed to an inspired act of hope. A similar phenomenon is evident today regarding what self-serving politicians label "terrorism." The strength of Islamic militarism is, in some sense, proportionate to our lack of moral imagination, our selfish and shortsighted foreign policy over the past fifty years, and the selfishness and greed of our economic and political systems. Before we successfully engage the Other, we need to first successfully engage ourselves. Our own fundamentalisms are as much to blame for the condition of the world today as are al-Qaida and similar groups.

In general, Rorty argues that, as the Western world is moving away from theism as a grounding for political and moral argument, as it has since the Enlightenment (with setbacks in recent years in the United States), and as persuasion and debate come to substitute for theology and metaphysics as the heuristic generator of ethical practice, the social climate of the West has improved. As evidence for this claim, Rorty points to contemporary places like Bosnia and Rwanda, where religious and ethnic biases lead to brutality and war. In the contemporary United States, by comparison, a religious or ethnic metaphysics is at least being contested, in part, by groups such as the Atheist Alliance, and civil rights in this country have improved.

This is Rorty's world, the supposed anarchy of which disturbs those who argue that Rorty denies people who have religious sentiments a vehicle for its expression. This is a serious accusation, since Rorty does claim to champion a liberal culture, one that presumably accepts a multiplicity of views, including religious views. While Rorty, in this sense, practices a smuggled universalism that excludes religious views in the name of practical argument and justified belief, this reflects little more than the limitations of our current language. For example, Rorty contradicts himself in much the same manner as many so-called post-modernists do with their anti-essentialist “essentialist" claims. Yet Rorty resists, as much as Michel Foucault did, being considered a "post-modernist." Post-modernism is a label, and like all labels, it pigeon-holes and it reduces (in a sense, labels practice their own form of oppressive metaphysics). In many of its evocations, the term "post-modern" is used to denote absurd, anti-political, anti-religious, and otherwise inconsequential positions. Because of the reductionist, universalizing, and reifying tendencies of the word "post-modernism," and because it is often used to marginalize unpopular intellectual positions, Rorty and Foucault dissociate themselves from the term. The use of the term itself is inimical to the broad, philosophical systems of thought to which it refers. The fact that Rorty and other writers, such as Foucault, are forced to assert a preference for indeterminacy within the confines of a determinist language is further evidence for their claim that we need to work hard on imagining different intellectual positions, including religion and politics, than the ones we currently have.

Both Rorty and Foucault recognize that this task is not easy, but that it is crucial that we try. This problem of language itself, in relationship to thought, is part of the larger intellectual challenges that Rorty encourages us to explore. Rorty's position is rather straightforward: he desires nothing more than to remove himself from the universe of traditional religion and philosophy (their language and their problems) and from the hegemonic social world that religion and philosophy have, in the past, championed. This does not mean that Rorty is apolitical, anti-social, or even anti-religious (which would contradict his liberalism). Rather, Rorty views politics as taking place on a different terrain than that upon which the priest and the philosopher is equipped to engage. Priests and philosophers are, in an important sense, anachronistic. Rorty's language is suggestive of a different linguistic universe, one in which God and politics as usual have no a priori meaning, where redescription, rather than tradition, is the defining norm of a culture. It is such a world that atheists have long sought to construct.

Omar Swartz is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, at the University of Colorado. He can be reached via email at:

Previous articles in Bad Subjects:

Natural Law, Positive Law, Slavery, and Nuremberg: Toward a Pragmatic Legal Criticism in issue 69.

Social Justice and The Rule of Law in issue 70.

Copyright © 2005 by Omar Swartz. All rights reserved.