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Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

Much is made of continental philosophys turn to religion or theological turn.

These phrases are often used interchangeably, and it is with this problematic
slippage I would like to begin. Religion and theology are overlapping, but distinct
categories. Much of continental philosophy is concerned with theological ideas messianism (most famously), but also fidelity, grace, theodicy, etc. Religion is not,
however, theology. Theological ideas are part of some religions, but do not exhaust
this category.
This reduction of religion to theology is problematic in two ways: first, it
understands the category religion in terms dictated by Protestant Christianity. As
shown by Tomoko Masuzawa and Talal Asad (among many others), the modern
sense of religion is constructed through the processes of colonial expansion and the
emergence of the secular state. The intuitive clarity of the concept of religion is at the
heart of its pernicious function - it obscures the politics of the invention of religion.
Second, it reduces the complexity of religion. Rather than a set of practices,
rituals, attitudes, affects, dispositions, institutions, symbols, texts and ideas, we wind
up with religion as dogma.
In this paper, Id like to push back against the reductive account of religion by
outlining a rival transcendental materialist version. This task is important for at least
two reasons: whether one mines theological traditions (Zizek, Badiou) or argues for a
radical atheism (Johnston, Hagglund), these debates and conversations are playing
out according to a set of norms and ideas established by Christianity. Not to
questions these norms and ideas, is to be complicit in the process by which those
norms were instituted. A transcendental materialist account of religion, operating
under the principle of no illusions, rejects the acceptance of any category as settled,
simple or theoretically given. We should regard religion as real, rather than as
epiphenomenal or an illusion, while questioning the category religion in order to

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

understand its dialectical constitution. In short, theism and atheism are boring
answers to bad questions.
Second, if we can reach an understanding of religion that moves beyond the
intuitive notion of this concept, it might become a site for the contestation of the
processes by which this category is constructed and maintained. As Gil Anidjar puts
it, religion is a polemical concept.1 The political force of this polemic, both material
and ideological, works by obscuring the constitution of the concept. Expanding the
concept of religion through revealing its historical and material basis is thus the
starting point for developing an adequate critical perspective on religion.
Ill begin be reviewing pertinent points from Hegels philosophy of religion (while
transcendental materialism interprets Hegel in terms of ontology and subjectivity,
relatively little has been done on Hegels understanding of religion), then explain how
recent work in the study of religion allows us to expand that philosophy of religion in
ways which resonate with transcendental materialism and conclude with some
reflections on the politics of this philosophy of religion.

Hegels Philosophy of Religion

There are three elements to Hegels account of religion that deserve particular
attention. First, he understands religion as a mode of cognition that is a moment in a
wider movement from consciousness to absolute knowing. Second, this mode of
cognition is the apex of what Hegel calls representation. Third, religion is defined in a
triadic relationship to the state and philosophy. I cant develop each of these points in
any detail. Besides, this is a conference on contemporary materialism, so I dont
want to spend too much time on Hegel, though Im happy to come back to this in the
1 Gil Anidjar, The Idea of an Anthropology of Christianity, Interventions 11, no. 3 (November 1,
2009): 3678 , doi:10.1080/13698010903255718.

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

To begin, the Phenomenologys section on religion has to be read in light of

Hegels claim that the True is the whole.2 By this Hegel means that the absolute is a
result, not as a terminus, but as a perspective from which thought grasps the
movement of thinking in its individual moments and as a whole. From this
perspective, Hegels discussion of religion is a mode of cognition in between morality
and philosophy.
This means that, at least in the Phenomenology, religion is not primarily a set of
beliefs or doctrines, but a distinctive mode of cognition. This mode of cognition is
representational thinking. Hegel presents religion as the moment in the formation of
spirit when substance enters into an immediate relation with its own self-alienated
content. As he writes in the Phenomenology self consciousness alienates itself
from itself and gives itself the nature of a Thing, or makes itself a universal Self. 3 The
self-emptying of self-consciousness generates an externalisation made subject. Put
succinctly, religion is the subjects immediate relation to its own self-generated
A similar point is made in the Philosophy of Minds discussion of representation.
Here Hegel, describes how imaginations self-sprung ideas come to have a kind of
representational existence, but as the creation unites the internal idea with the
vehicle of materialization, intelligence has therein implicitly returned both to identical
self-relation and to immediacy.4
Religion transitions into philosophy in understanding this relationship. For Hegel,
this is a communal activity in which the community becomes aware of itself as the
externalised other. Being and thought are divided into a Here and Beyond which
philosophy erases.5 As an aside - I think we need to alter Hegels formulation here.
2 G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 20: 11.
3 Ibid., 755: 457.
4 G.W.F. Hegel, Hegels Philosophy of Mind: Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical
Sciences (1830) with Zusatze (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 457:211.
5 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 765.

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

While the Here and Beyond is erased, the externality remains. Understanding the
self-emptying of substances generation of a mode of cognition in which the subject
relates to its own truth as external is to grasp the religious moment of subjectivity.
What transcendental materialism allows us to see, not only at the level of subject, but
at the level of culture, is that this truth is external. It is transcending, rather than
transcendent, but is not beyond.
We might put this in Lacanian terms: subjectivity is symbolically mediated. The
Symbolic precedes the subject and is constitutive of the subjectivity that comes to
know it. This knowledge is never complete and does not undo the fundamental
alienation experienced by the subject. This knowledge allows the subject to put the
Symbolic to a different kind of work. Transcendental materialism adds to this
Lacanian framing the additional insight that this mediation includes biological
Understanding religion as a distinct mode of cognition, however is only one side
of the reality of the concept of religion.6 The other side is the cultus. Religion must
be conceived in terms of both subjective and objective spirit. The cultus is the
practical relationship which facilitates the immediate relation to mediation constitutive
of subjective spirit. So, religion is not only a matter of the immediate relation to
mediation, it is also a matter of the historical, cultural and material conditions of that
So, religion should be understood as a mode of cognition which occupies a
particular place in the movement from consciousness to absolute knowing. This
mode is distinctive in its immediate relation to its mediation and this relation occurs in
the context of the cultus.
Before I turn to the topic of recent materialist theories of religion, I should point
out that while Hegels subjective account of religion is oriented towards absolute
6 LPR1: 335.

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

knowing, the objective account is oriented towards the state. As he writes in the 1831
lecture on The Relationship of Religion to the State:

in what we refer to as the people the ultimate truth does not have the form of
thoughts and principles, for what is to count as right for the people can only be so
esteemed to the extent that it is something determinate and particular. 7

The conceptual truth of philosophy is rendered determinate through religious

representations, allowing an immediate relationship to this truth in a way that
philosophy does not provide. This immediacy is politically expedient. For Hegel, the
religious mode of cognition facilitates the cultivation of the states values and plays a
crucial role in promoting social cohesion (though I think there is a case to be made
that there is space for an alternative reading, which we can come back to later if you

Materialist Theories of Religion

While Hegel sets up a quite nuanced conceptual account of religion, positioned in

relation to philosophy and politics, the application of that conceptual account reflects
a narrower understanding. The second volume of the Lectures on the Philosophy Of
Religion: Determinate Religion is one of Hegels most dated texts. A materialist
interpretation and application of Hegels philosophy of religion is thus helpfully
supplemented by recent work in the study of religion. Most notably, Manuel Vasquez
has developed a theory of religion that explores religion from what he describes as a
non-reductive materialist epistemological framework in which religious phenomena
are not merely derivative, but rather are supervenient materialities, which exert
7 LPR1: 460.

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

downward determination.8 Vasquez marshals recent work from sociology,

anthropology, ecology and neuroscience to develop this theory over and against a
notion of religion determined by the idealism and textualism of Protestant Christianity.
The result is a complex depiction of religion as a feature of human society that
can be partially explained by evolutionary theory and neuroscience (such as Justin
Barretts analysis of what he calls humanitys Hypersensitive agent detection
device), but cannot be fully explained by such.9 Vasquez theorises religion from the
perspective of a materialism in which material generates features that exceed
materiality. Transcendence is immanent, part of our own untotalizable but still
binding materiality.10
Vasquez also focuses on the material conditions of religious experiences,
emotions and ideas. The subject becomes capable of these experiences, emotions
and ideas through training and education. They are not the result of acts of will or
isolatable choices. Religion, in its exceeding materiality, has material consequences,
taking advantage (as it were) of our plasticity. The result is an understanding of
religion concerned with an analysis of the natural conditions that make religious
claims possible and binding as well as the material effects that these claims have in
everyday life.11
There are striking parallels between Vasquezs account of materialism and
transcendental materialism. While he falls into the trap of indicting Hegel for a
simplistic idealism and ignoring the ways that German Idealism can contribute to the
formulation of a strong emergentism, Vasquez ultimately endorses a theory of
religion based on the strong emergentism of Varela, Thompson and Roschs The
Embodied Mind. He is similarly concerned with the formation of subjectivity in
8 Manuel Vasquez, Beyond Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2010), 14.
9 Ibid., 187.
10 Ibid., 267.
11 Ibid., 163.

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

relationship to biological processes, especially the plasticity of the brain, and the
ways in which religion exerts downward causation on the materiality of the subject creating the possibility of its own experience. (So for example, some people are born
with neurological structures prone to what many cultures categorise as religious
experience. But, with enough time and the appropriate material conditions, we can
also learn to have religious experiences).
Johnstons transcendental materialism moves us beyond Vasquez in a few key
ways. First, while Vasquez offers a fairly detailed treatment of the sociology and
anthropology, his treatment of philosophy is less precise. Second, Vasquezs
materialist theory of religion is almost purely descriptive (or at least presents as
such). He is not concerned with the political implications of a materialist account of
religion. Even while he acknowledges that religion, understood in a wider sense, both
reproduces and contests a whole set of configurations of race, gender and class, he
is not interested in making the connections between religion and these other issues.

The Politics of Philosophy of Religion

To conclude, I want to begin to examine how transcendental materialism might

help us think the politics of philosophy of religion. As Alberto Toscano points out in
Fanaticism, contemporary critiques of religion often rely on the idealist, asocial view
that the say of religious representations and ideologies over human affairs can be
terminated by a mere change of consciousness.12 Vasquez, while unconcerned with
the parallels to Marx, agrees - religion must not only be discussed in terms of belief,
but the material (including biological) conditions of belief. The critique of religion
begins with the critique of the critique of religion - if the contemporary critique of
religion is primarily concerned with correcting erroneous accounts of the world or
12 Alberto Toscano, Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea (London: Verso, 2010), 182 .

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

subjectivity, that critique will remain ineffective (if the goal of critique is to achieve
some change in the world). There are thus two questions for a transcendental
materialist philosophy of religion: first, how can the conditions of belief be altered
(and what new forms of belief might result from changes); second, what kinds of
changes to beliefs could short-circuit the material impacts of those beliefs?
These questions do not assume the elimination of religion as a real possibility. If
we are working with Hegels definition of religion, in both its subjective and objective
senses, then religion is part of absolute knowing. That says little, however, about the
status of any particular (or to use Hegels term determinate) religion. A politics
predicated on the elimination of the immediate relation to mediation errs in refusing
to confront that this relation will persist. Focus on the task of elimination is a
distraction from the more important task of investigating the material conditions of
beliefs. (I was thinking about this in terms of some of the papers yesterday and I
think the Hegelian position might be something like a demystification or a
disenchantment that is not a demythologisation).
The anthroplogist Phillipe Descola, in his work arguing against the hard
distinction often drawn between nature and culture, argues our world is composed of
convergences of judgments and actions the effect of cognitive and sensory-motor
templates orienting the expression of distinctive behaviors, schemes of practice that,
in order to be effective, must remain implicit and shielded from collective
speculation.13 It is this last point which is key - these templates, as Descola says,
must remain implicit and shielded from collective speculation. Or, to return to a
Hegelian formulation, if religion is the immediate relation to mediation, the task of
contemporary materialist critiques of religion is to illuminate that process of
mediation. Transcendental materialism offers one perspective from which these
templates can be made explicit and vulnerable. Revealing these implicit structures
13 Philippe Descola, The Ecology of Others: Anthropology and the Question of Nature (Chicago, IL:
University of Chicago Press, 2013), 7576.

Materialism and religion essay (Baltimore Version) draft, please dont cite

and processes allows for them to become experimental fields - in revealing their
construction, we reveal their contingency.
As a kind of final word I was struck by some of the parallels between what Im
trying to argue and the discussion of habit and plasticity provoked by Thomas paper
yesterday. In discussions of plasticity, I think there is sometimes a rush to the
explosive Im guilty of this in work Ive done on plasticity and apocalypiticism. While
we need to preserve that element, I think there needs to be a greater emphasis on
something like a materialist understanding of how habits provide the basis for the
possibility of political change. In many ways that work is less exciting, but is
nonetheless essential. Religion as Ive been discussing it here would be concerned
with the habits needed to enter into different kinds arrangements of the immediate
relation to mediation.