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  • Life Terminable and Interminable:The Undead and the Afterlife of the Afterlife—A Friendly Disagreement with Martin Hägglund
  • Adrian Johnston (bio)

§ 1 From the Religion of Survival to the Survival of Religion —The Difficulties of Atheism

Jacques Lacan's 1974 interview with Italian journalists in Rome, entitled "The Triumph of Religion," implicitly addresses what has come to appear, with the benefit of hindsight, as a failure of vision on Freud's part. In his 1927 text The Future of an Illusion, one of the greatest manifestos of atheism in history, the founder of psychoanalysis predicts the inevitable demise of religion, allegedly doomed to wither away in the face of the steadily accelerating advances of the sciences; in accordance with a well-established Enlightenment narrative, Freud has faith that the progress of knowledge is bound to drive an increasing secularization of human societies through its relentless insistence on propagating the desacralizing insights of reason (SE-21: 38, 49–50, 53–56). By the time Lacan gives his interview in Rome—and this has become ever more evident since then—religion obviously seems to continue enjoying a vibrant [End Page 147] afterlife on the world stage in the wake of the Enlightenment emergence of the naturalist and materialist discourses integral to the scientific Weltanschauung (SE-22: 34, 160–61, 167–69, 171–74). Indeed, the potent forces of modernizing techniques and technologies, fueled by the massive economic energies unleashed by capitalism, have continued to prove themselves powerless to liquidate thoroughly the specters of idealisms, spiritualisms, and theisms. Simply put, the problem with the atheism Freud anticipates and celebrates is that it severely underestimates the resilience and persistence of religiosity (Johnston 2008a, 67–68).1 When asked how he explains the triumph of religion over psychoanalysis, Lacan, speaking with an acute awareness of post-Freudian history's resounding verdict regarding Freud's 1927 prophecy, responds, "If psychoanalysis will not triumph over religion, it is that religion is eternally tireless (increvable). Psychoanalysis will not triumph—it will survive or not" (2005b, 78–79).

Associating from Lacan's recourse here to notions of eternity and survival to Martin Hägglund's tour-de-force manifesto pleading for a "radical atheism" inspired by the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, one might be led to ask whether and how religion will survive in the shadow of Derridean Hägglundian analyses concerning the very concept of survival itself. Without spending too much precious time recapitulating the main lines of argumentation of Hägglund's book in the form of an exegetical summary, it will suffice to focus on a few of the key ideas in this response to his work. Hägglund defines radical atheism through contrasting it with familiar varieties of traditional atheism. The latter negates the existence of the divine and everything connected with it (immortality, indestructibility, fullness, flawlessness, etc.) without calling into question whether everything whose existence it denies is desirable. Such pre-Derridean atheism simply takes it for granted that those things vanishing with the renunciation of the transcendent beyond of an unscathed afterlife obviously are prima facie desirable. By contrast, Derridean-Hägglundian radical atheism not only negates what traditional atheism negates, it even contests the assumed desirability of the ostensible "paradise lost" produced by the denials of traditional atheism (Hägglund 2008, 1, 111–12), thereby refusing perpetually to wallow in the pathetic pathos of a position stuck forever pining after disappeared gods and withdrawn [End Page 148] heavens. The slogan of radical atheism, apropos the lack jointly posited by both traditional atheism and its religious opponents (specifically, a lack in this material world of a wholly immune eternal life), might be the hopeful declaration that, "You have nothing to lose but this loss itself!" In several significant ways, Hägglund offers readers a chance to reject melancholic atheism as a depressing, self-deceiving doxa hankering after an Elsewhere modeled on false promises of stagnant, lifeless security and stability.

Hägglund goes so far as to invoke a "law of survival" brooking absolutely no exceptions whatsoever (2008, 122). Viewed from Hägglund's perspective, nobody can and does ever really desire everlasting life qua timeless, unchanging being. Rather, the lively kinesis of...