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Reviewed by:
  • The Future of Religion
  • Mark Wood
The Future of Religion. By Richard RortyGianni Vattimo. Edited by Santiago Zabala. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. 91 pp.

In The Future of Religion, Santiago Zabala, Richard Rorty, and Gianni Vattimo provide contrasting and often complementary reflections on the future of religion after the end of metaphysics. They join a growing number of contemporary theologians, philosophers, and cultural critics who recognize that we are presently undergoing [End Page 162] what may well prove to be the most significant turning point in the history of religious experience, a movement beyond the separatism resulting from absolutist and exclusionary religious claims. In addition to post-Enlightenment critiques of religion, the constitutional separation of church and state, and the retreat of religion resulting from, in Darwin’s words, “the gradual illumination of men’s minds” by advances in science, globalization’s world-transforming integration of individuals from diverse religious backgrounds into communities of shared interest and concern are further weakening the confidence with which any particular religious tradition may claim to possess absolute truth and, even more, fostering transreligious conversation and the formation of a postmetaphysical spiritual culture.

The future of religion, writes Vattimo in Vero e falso Universalismo cristiano, lies not in “seeking the triumph of one faith over the others.” Rather we must “rediscover—after the ‘metaphysical’ age of absolutisms and of the identity between truth and authority—the possibility of a postmodern religious experience in which the relation with the divine is no longer corrupted by fear, violence, and superstition” (p. 26). We know all to well the horrific costs of failing to accomplish this goal, and today the union of religious absolutisms and weapons of mass destruction make our failure potentially catastrophic.

In his introduction, “A Religion without Theists or Atheists,” Zabala notes that Rorty and Vattimo present a way of thinking beyond the ontotheological tradition that “consists of weakening and dissolving the ancient European concept of ‘Being’ and the very idea of ‘ontological status.’ This new, weak way of thought not only opens up alternative directions, it also recovers tradition: the relationship between the believer and God is not conceived as power-laden but as a gentler relationship, in which God hands over all his power to man” (p. 3). In the “Age of Interpretation” neither science, nor philosophy, nor religion enjoys epistemological or ontological authority over the other. The resulting “Gadamerian culture of dialogue,” which understands that “all positions are equally ‘valid’ because ‘of the lack of confidence in truth’ constitutes the greatest success obtained by the deconstruction of metaphysics” (p. 11). After metaphysics, “postmodern man, no longer needful of the extreme, magical reassurance supplied by the idea of God, accepts the probably that history is not on his side at all and that there is no power capable of guaranteeing him the happiness he seeks” (ibid.). Living without metaphysical foundations means affirming our ontological historicity, epistemological insecurity, and existential finitude. Rather than “search for truth,” says Zabala, we now “seek solidarity, charity, and irony” (pp. 17–18).

In “Anticlericalism and Atheism,” Rorty articulates the historical movement to postmetaphysical thinking as one in which “philosophy professors began to stop asking “bad questions—questions like ‘What really exists?’ ‘What are the scope and limits of human knowledge?’ and ‘How does language hook up with reality?’” and began to focus on questions regarding how we can best practice solidarity, charity, and love (p. 29). Rorty’s description of our situation leads him to confess that his earlier self-identification as an atheist was philosophically mistaken. To deny the existence of God assumes one has evidence in support of this claim. But evidence against is equally empirically unavailable as is evidence for the existence of God. President [End Page 163] Bush, Rorty adds, is at least right about this much when he says that “‘atheism is a faith’ because it is ‘subject to neither confirmation nor refutation by means of argument or evidence’” (p. 33). The shift from atheism to anticlericalism is a shift from a metaphysical to a political stance, signifying Rorty’s commitment to challenging antidemocratic structures of power that legitimate their existence by claiming they have been ordained by...