Žižek’s Left-Wing Case for Christian Atheism

In his new book, Slavoj Žižek advances a provocative understanding of Christianity as a progressive, secularizing force. It’s classic Žižek — by turns brilliant and infuriating.

Slavoj Žižek speaks during the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair, October 17, 2023. (Arne Dedert / picture alliance via Getty Images)

Slavoj Žižek is many things to many people: the “Elvis of cultural theory,” the most “formidably brilliant” left philosopher in the world, a fraud, a Marxist, an apologist for anti-wokism, and more. But probably few people think “Christian theologian” when Žižek comes to mind. Yet the iconoclastic Slovenian thinker has spent decades engaging deeply with Christian theology and history, from books like The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? to his debate with “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank.

All this, despite professing not to believe in God. Žižek’s new book, Christian Atheism: How to Be a Real Materialist, is his most developed account of his materialist theology to date. It is also, like most of his books, a microcosm of Žižek’s oeuvre as a whole — it sees him weigh in on topics from politics to psychoanalysis, from The Last of Us to quantum mechanics. This eclecticism will no doubt reinforce charges from many of Žižek’s critics that he is a dilettante, and his tendency to weigh in on topics without tackling them in depth is sometimes frustrating.

But even for those of us who are already familiar with his work, there is a lot to like about Christian Atheism. Žižek deserves serious credit for invigorating the long-needed debate about the relationship between religion and the broader left, helping move us away from both crude denunciation and simple liberal toleration. It’s a swell book that deserves praise for what it accomplishes and (appropriately) forgiveness for its myriad sins.

Left Hostility to Religion

The young Karl Marx observed that the critique of religion is vital to radical agitation. Marx insisted we realize that “man makes religion, religion does not make man,” as he put in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Criticizing religious dogma was needed for humankind to become self-conscious of its worldly constraints and its ability to change them, and to stop distracting ourselves from the task of remaking society with the promise of transcendent reconciliation beyond the temporal realm.

There were good reasons for left-wing critics like Marx to be wary of religion. From the French Revolution onward, right-wing thinkers from Edmund Burke to Joseph de Maistre through R. R. Reno have often insisted that religion plays a fundamentally conservative role in society. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke lamented the new “all conquering empire of light and reason” that was stripping away all the “pleasing illusions” that glued society together in a pyramid of rank and order. To correct this, Burke insisted that “sublime principles ought to be infused into persons of exalted situations, and religious establishments provided that may continually revive and enforce them.” Otherwise, the “swinish multitude” might see through the sublime illusion of divine right and recognize that the king was but a man.

Today, in Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Reno insists that Christianity is necessary to save people from the “shallow, lawless, and brutal” would established by “elite demagogues.” These liberal elites wage a “class war, a war on the weak,” which “is epitomized by the campaign for gay marriage.” This supposed class war has allowed the upper class to benefit from the corrosion of Christian morality so its members can live libertine lifestyles, the consequences of which will be “paid for by the poor.”

Given this long history of right-wing intellectuals claiming religion for themselves, it should come as no surprise that the Left has often followed Marx in seeing religion as something to be criticized and undermined. But these criticisms come in different forms, and many on the Left have adopted religious outlooks that go beyond simple rejection. Žižek’s “materialist” Christianity falls squarely in this camp.

Shadows of the Cross

There is a kind of vulgar, materialist critique of religion that has long had purchase on the Left, which holds, roughly, that God is an illusion appealed to by ideological institutions aligned with the ruling class, a main effect of which is to pacify dissent from the status quo. This view likely has roots in the caustic critique of faith and religious institutions by Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and David Hume. From this perspective, the Left ought to condemn and reject religion outright, so as to focus the attention of the oppressed on worldly injustices and potential remedies.

Marx advanced a more complex materialist perspective. He is sometimes read as crudely endorsing the vulgar materialist critique, thanks to his characterization of religion as the “opiate of the masses” in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. But in the full quotation from which that famous phrase comes, Marx describes religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” He held that the emergence of religion can be understood socially as a kind of psychic compensation for the alienation and suffering human beings endured on Earth. So long as oppressive social conditions persisted, we could expect people to hold onto religious “illusions.”

Materialist criticism of religion, on Marx’s view, is therefore not only or even primarily about condemning religious faith — but instead about understanding the social conditions that make it necessary and transforming them. Only when such a revolutionary change takes place will the feelings of estrangement that necessitated religion disappear, as human beings become able to resolve their problems directly and rationally.

A third materialist perspective on religion, drawing on Marx, G. W. F. Hegel, and others, sees in socialism and other left movements a secularized continuation of a fundamentally Christian project. They follow Alexis de Tocqueville in thinking there is a deep affinity between Christian doctrine and the Left’s push for more equality: with its traditional elevation of the poor and humble and its castigation of the rich and powerful, Christianity is in an important respect a more natural ally for the Left than for the Right. As Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America:

Of all religious doctrines, Christianity, whatever interpretation you give it, is also the one most favorable to equality. Only the religion of Jesus Christ has placed the sole grandeur of man in the accomplishment of duties, where each person can attain it; and has been pleased to consecrate poverty and hardship, as something nearly divine.

Critics of the Left have also suspected there was an affinity between its ideals and those of Christianity. Friedrich Nietzsche characterized socialism in The Will to Power as the “residue of Christianity and [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau” in a secularizing world. And Alasdair MacIntyre, back when he was a Marxist, argued in Marxism and Christianity that the Marxist tradition itself “humanized certain central Christian beliefs in such a way as to present a secularized Christian judgment upon, rather than the Christian adaptation to, the secular present.”

Žižek falls within this third tradition. The core of his argument, however, has always been more inspired by Hegel and French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan than by Marx. Following Hegel, Žižek argues that Christianity is distinct from many other religions in symbolically acknowledging the “death of God” through the crucifixion of Christ: God literally becomes humankind and then dies before being resurrected and ascending to heaven, after which the Holy Spirit comes to unite believers together in a community of free equals.

God Is Dead, and We Carry on His Legacy

Žižek’s reading of the Christian story is that God, as a transcendent guarantor of order and authoritative morality, dies, and human beings thereby come to understand that they are completely free. This is the ultimate “materialist” gesture, since it demystifies all the powers that claim legitimacy on the basis of a transcendent authority, and forces us to recognize the all-too-contingent and plastic nature of the social order:

What dies on the cross is not God’s earthly representative (stand in) but the God of beyond itself, what happens after the crucifixion is not a return of the transcendent One but the rise of the Holy Spirit which is the community of believers without any support in transcendence.

This echoes a similar claim that Nietzsche makes in The Genealogy of Morals, that it is misguided to see secularism as a force external to Christianity that undermined it. Nietzsche argued that the Christian belief in a transcendent God was in fact “destroyed by its own morality, in the same way Christianity as morality must now perish too. . . . After Christian truthfulness has drawn one inference after another, it must end by drawing its most striking inference, its inference against itself.”

Nietzsche wanted the death of God to herald the end of Christian morality, and lamented that it in fact survived in secular form in gentle egalitarian doctrines like liberalism and above all socialism. By contrast, Žižek sees Christianity’s self-secularization as the culmination of Christian ethics, with God dying and freeing humankind to take responsibility for its own existence.

This is where Žižek’s Christian “atheism” comes in. He holds that, historically, it is not sufficient to simply deny God’s existence, as though one can short-circuit ideology to directly apprehend material reality without illusion. A transition through religion was necessary, and Christianity deserves credit for narrativizing the death of God and the emergence of freedom and equality in the union of the Holy Spirit.

This idiosyncratic approach to religion is unlikely to win many converts from outside the Hegelian fold, though it is without a doubt suggestive and provocative. The claim that Christianity self-secularized and became leftist materialism suggests an interesting explanatory alternative to reductive stories about religion’s decline that (e.g.) simply assume religious faith lost its grip on the imagination with the rise of scientific rationalism.

It is unfortunate, then, that Žižek’s presentation of his arguments is not more rigorous or systematic, in the mode of, say, Charles Taylor’s epochal A Secular Age. A thesis as bold and controversial as the one advanced in Christian Atheism requires careful defense, beyond flashes of impressionistic connection and suggestive argumentation. It would require a deep historical exegesis that traces developments in Christian theology and practice carefully and programmatically, demonstrating how transitions and influences unfolded.

This could then be accompanied by a systematic theological defense of Christian atheism, in the vein of something like socialist Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology. Until we get such a treatment, Christian atheist materialism will remain more a provocative idea than a creed to live by.

Nevertheless, Žižek merits praise for presenting a distinctive take on Christianity, that, if nothing else, might persuade the Left to take religious issues more seriously. This is especially important in an era when forms of illiberal and authoritarian religious nationalism are on the march. Progressives and socialists need to avoid the kind of crude materialism implicit in Barack Obama’s dismissal of those who cling to guns and religion as a compensation for their material woes — they need a thoughtful perspective on the place of religious faith in history and in the social order.