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  • The Challenge of Radical Atheism:A Response
  • Martin Hägglund (bio)

Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

On an occasion when I have been given so many reasons to feel joy and gratitude, it seems appropriate to begin my response with a reflection on happiness, or more exactly on the possibility of being happy. At the outset of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies happiness as "that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else" (2001, 1097a). Even when we seek the most elevated virtues, we do not seek to attain them only for their own sake but also because we believe that they will make us happy. In seeking happiness, on the other hand, we do not seek any state of being beyond happiness itself. Happiness is thus the highest good because we desire it as an end in itself. When Aristotle analyzes this end, however, he runs into the problem of temporality. Aristotle himself defines happiness as [End Page 227] an activity, which means that it takes time to be happy. But in being temporal, happiness is exposed to a future that may shatter it. Even at the moment one is happy, the moment is passing away and opens the experience of happiness to loss. According to Aristotle, happiness therefore requires a "complete life" (1098a), namely, a life that has come to an end. As long as one is alive happiness is never secured, which would seem to mean that one only achieves happiness through the completion of life in death. "Surely this is a paradox," Aristotle remarks, "that when a man is happy the attribute that belongs to him is not to be truly predicated of him because we do not wish to call living men happy, on account of the accidents that may befall them" (1100a).1

The problem outlined by Aristotle is at the core of the deconstructive logic I develop in Radical Atheism. If one defines the highest good as a state of absolute immunity—for example, as a happiness that is immune from accident and loss—it is inseparable from a state of death, since nothing can happen to it. Inversely, happiness or any other state of being requires a process of survival that takes the time to live by postponing death. On the one hand, to survive is to retain what passes away and thus to keep the past in resistance to loss. On the other hand, to survive is to live on in a future that separates itself from the past and opens it to being lost. The movement of survival is thus characterized by a double bind. Life bears the cause of its own destruction within itself, so the death that one defends against in the movement of survival is internal to the life that is defended. No matter how much I try to protect my life, I can only do so by exposing it to a future that may erase it, but which also gives it the chance to live on.

According to Derrida, the common denominator for all religions is that they promote an ideal of absolute immunity beyond the condition of survival, namely, the ideal of something that would be unscathed by time and loss. Atheism has traditionally denied the existence of such an ideal, in accordance with one of three different models. The first model is what I will call melancholic atheism. This type of atheism renounces the belief in the unscathed, but laments its absence and holds that we are doomed to disappointment because we can never attain the timeless transcendence we desire. One of the contemporary proponents of this view is Simon Critchley, who defines his atheism in terms of "religious disappointment: disappointment that what [End Page 228] I desire but lack is an experience of faith, namely, faith in some transcendent God" (2004, xviii). The second model is pragmatic atheism. This type of atheism argues that, while the fullness of being is an illusion, the religious desire for fullness is operative in all our commitments to the world. A prominent representative of this view is...


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