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Reviewed by:
  • The Future of Religion
  • James J. DiCenso
The Future of Religion. By Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo. Edited by Santiago Zabala. Columbia University Press, 2005. 112 pages. $24.50.

This volume brings together two prominent contemporary philosophers to reflect on religion in its relation to ethics, society, and politics. The book is well-structured, with an introductory overview by the editor, an essay by Rorty, another by Vattimo, and finally a lively dialogue. Since both Rorty and Vattimo also discuss each other's work in their respective essays, the book provides an excellent opportunity for these major representatives of continental thought and contemporary American pragmatism to engage in constructive and fruitful discussion.

Zabala's introduction sets up the contributions of the two major thinkers by defining some key terms and concepts, and by sketching some of the general parameters of current philosophical analyses of religion. The main tenor of this piece is surprisingly optimistic: the end of metaphysics, also called the "death of God," has, he states, "cleared the ground for a culture without those dualisms that have characterized our western tradition" (2). This means that a form of "weak thought" has emerged that eschews the grandiose claims of metaphysics, while providing re-conceptualizations of religion that are less power-laden and authoritarian. Zabala also views this de-essentializing approach to religion as correlated with a de-essentialized way of doing philosophy, "the ultimate goal of philosophical investigation after the end of metaphysics is no longer contact with something existing independently from us, but rather Bildung, the unending formation of oneself" (4). This captures a key feature of both Rorty's and Vattimo's emphases on the human ethical influences of religion, also shared in varying ways by a range of recent theorists. In a post-metaphysical approach, religion is interrogated as a vital element of the historicity of human existence and thought, rather than as something static, disconnected from the specific features of lived time and place.

At the same time, there are limitations to this articulation of a historicized approach to understanding religion. For example, in Zabala's summary of current trends, the terms "religion" and "Christianity" are often used interchangeably. Zabala, following Vattimo, also emphasizes that Christianity has [End Page 173] played a key historical role in the development of secular or post-metaphysical culture. However, he goes so far at one point as to state blithely that "it is through developing its own laic vocation that Christianity can become a universal religion" (7). This view is in danger of assuming one's own cultural, historical, and religious standpoints as normative, and losing sight of the vast and polymorphous complexity, not to say incommensurability, of the historicity of religions and cultures.

Rorty's essay, "Anticlericalism and Atheism," sketches his views on the current status of "postmetaphysical" philosophy and religious thought. He questions the assumption that "philosophy can be done ahistorically," and likewise questions traditional binary structures such as apparent/real and necessary/contingent (29–30). This rejection of classical metaphysical assumptions opens an approach to religion that focuses on its impact on the ways human beings live their lives. If Rorty mounts a critique of religion and theology, it is not based on epistemological questions of truth or falsity, and he has little concern for the modern preoccupation with the conflict between religion and science. As he emphasizes, "neither those who affirm nor those who deny the existence of God can plausibly claim that they have evidence for their views" (33). The key critical issue for him no longer concerns atheism, but rather anticlericalism. He states that "anticlericalism is a political view, not an epistemological or metaphysical one" (33). His concern is the political impact of culturally entrenched religious institutions, and on this matter, Rorty's critique is uncompromising. He allows that ecclesiastical institutions may provide comfort for those in need, but that nevertheless they "are dangerous to the health of democratic societies" (33). Unfortunately, this important argument is not well developed, but the key idea seems to be that the otherworldliness sustained by these institutions is dangerous because it diverts us from efforts to better ourselves and our social worlds.

Typically, having noted the...


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pp. 173-176
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Archived 2007
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