Richard Kearney

After Atheism: New Perspectives on God and Religion


This series was first broadcast in the spring of 2012, my last year at Ideas. Since then these shows have been available through the Ideas website. I learned this week that they no longer are, so I am now making them available here. In my original plan these programs were to form one big series with the seven episodes of The Myth of The Secular which I have already posted. They were broken apart only for convenience in scheduling, and because these five seemed sufficiently similar in theme to be able to stand together on their own.

What was on my mind, broadly speaking, at the time they went to air, was the so-called “return of religion” - a figure which I thought described a resurgence of religion in philosophy, as much as in politics. In politics this movement is sometimes traced back to the years around 1980. Fundamentalist Christians played a crucial role in the rise of Ronald Reagan in the United States, producing what political theorist William Connolly called “the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine.” In Iran a theocratic revolution replaced the secular government of the Shah with a regime in which the Ayatollah Khomeini became the Supreme Leader. The prediction of an earlier generation of sociologists that religion would soon drown in a rising tide of secularization had failed - and quite spectacularly. In philosophy, the “linguistic turn” had led to widespread acceptance of the idea that our knowledge has no absolutely secure and unassailable foundation. Faith was suddenly something that philosophy and theology have in common, rather than what sets them apart. Parisian philosophers began writing in praise of the apostle Paul as a paragon of committed knowledge.

Religion’s restored prominence produced a backlash from the defenders of science and enlightenment. The so-called “new atheists” appeared. “God is not great,” sputtered Christopher Hitchens. Religion is childish, incoherent nonsense, said biologist Richard Dawkins. I found this response obtuse, but not because I wanted to speak for some unreconstructed revenant called religion. I thought rather that there was new ground to be mapped - a new and perhaps unprecedented religious situation to be investigated. Philosopher Richard Kearney, who leads off this series, had then just published a book called Anatheism: Returning to God after God. His new word, anatheism, gave a name to the condition I was interested in exploring - one that was neither theistic nor atheistic in the older sense of these terms. (The God Who May Be, an earlier series in which I first introduced Kearney on Ideas is also available on this site.) The other thinkers in the series echo Kearney - John Caputo speaks of “religion after religion” in much the same sense as Kearney speaks of “God after God.” James Carse makes the case that “belief” is not definitive of religion. Roger Lundin, adapting a phrase of W.H. Auden’s, speaks of “believing again” as something fundamentally different than naive first belief. William Cavanaugh, who had then just published a collection called Migrations of the Holy, argues that the main site of “religion” in our world is not the church but the state. These five comprise the line-up of the series in the following order:

Program One - Richard Kearney

Program Two - John Caputo

Program Three - William Cavanaugh

Program Four - James Carse

Program Five - Roger Lundin

The God Who May Be

"If I had to choose a sentence from the Old Testament for my blazon," my old friend and teacher Ivan Illich once said, it would be Timeo Dominum transeuntem: I fear the Lord is passing me by."   To him it meant, pay attention and always remember that you can never know from which direction or in which form the Lord may appear.  He encouraged me to think this way too, and, even as a broadcaster, I tried not just to rely on what I already knew but also to keep my ears open.  Consequently, I was obedient when Nathan Loewen, a young man I met a conference at McGill, told me that I really ought to come back to Montreal later that year in order to meet and listen to Richard Kearney, an Irish philosopher of religion, who would be addressing a regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion that Nathan was involved in organizing.  This proved a very happy chance and eventually opened up a whole new line of thinking for me.  I liked Kearney's talk as much as Nathan had thought I would, and, when we talked afterwards, I found him receptive to the idea of our spending a couple of days in recorded conversation with a view to producing a series for Ideas on his work.  I read my way into his writings, particularly the trilogy he had recently completed  - The God Who May Be (2001), On Stories (2002), and Strangers, Gods an Monsters (2003) - and later that year I headed for his home in suburban Boston, where he teaches at Boston College.  The interviews were a success, and The God Who May Be was broadcasts on Ideas in three parts in early 2006...