It is all too common for people to think that the problem with unbelief is that it stands in opposition to belief, that it is that which prevents us from believing. However the problem with unbelief lies precisely in the dialectically opposing position: namely, it supports and sustains belief. In short it enables us to continue in our belief. To abolish unbelief then is to short circuit belief and draw us into a different mode of being that exists beyond religious belief. Let us explore this notion briefly.
To take an obvious example, in fundamentalist communities the explicit beliefs of the people continue to exist precisely because they are supported by a disavowed unbelief. For instance congregations might say they believe that if you show no doubt God will always come through, or that we are much better off in the next life, or that people are going to an eternity of punishment. Yet the very reason that these views can be sustained is because of the disavowed unbelief that supports them. In such communities people still call the ambulance if their loved one is having a severe seizure, they don’t shoot their children to hasten their journey to heaven (or show pleasure if held at gunpoint), or act as one would who knew that most of the people around them are on the verge of unending torture. Of course some people do this and, as we will mention below, it is their naïve belief that is more of a threat to the community than unbelief (which is actually required).
This cannot of course be directly acknowledged, indeed the fantasy in operation in a fundamentalist community is that what is needed is precisely more belief; that the community needs to take their beliefs more seriously. But in order to protect themselves from what would happen should they actually believe more they create barriers: the devil is at work, we need to pray more, we need to attend a conference to make us better warriors for Christ etc. etc.
This structure is the same as that which we witness is Hollywood films when two people deeply in love are about to kiss or consummate their relationship only to be disturbed at the last moment in some way. Take the example of Brief Encounter . The couple having the affair never consummate their relationship. The point at which they are about to (at a friend’s apartment), the owner of the dwelling unexpectedly returns and prevents it. The point of course is that the objective barrier is nothing but a cinematic reflection of the true subjective barrier. The relationship never can be consummated. They cannot ever have the sexual satisfaction that they feel lies just over the horizon (what can be called “jouissance obtained”). The external barrier is nothing then but a protection against a traumatic encounter with the truth, the truth that the sex will not live up to the promise (in Lacanese: that there is no sexual relationship). By never having the opportunity of becoming one the pair are thus protected from the structural reality that becoming one is an impossible dream.
This structure is more apparent in the case of me saying to a friend, “grab me when I go to defend my girlfriend’s honour by attacking that jerk at the bar.” What happens here is that I have to construct my own external barrier (my friends intervention) to protect myself from an encounter with the true barrier: that I am not able to defend her honour. That I will end up getting beaten to a pulp.
This is why fundamentalist communities are not threatened by the anaemic liberal claim that they believe too much. This is what they want. This is the fantasy that sustains them. Rather the truly radical claim is not that they believe too much but rather that they don’t believe enough. That their belief is sustained by a disavowed unbelief. What one does is challenge them to believe more.
The point here is that the unbelief allows the communities to get the psychological pleasure from the beliefs that they hold (treating them as a security blanket) without having to confront the horror of them.
This is why the people who leave fundamentalist communities are often not the ones who don’t take it seriously enough, but those who do (and who are thus confronted with the true horror of the communities beliefs). In my own experience I, along with a few friends, began to break free of religious belief precisely because we were naïve believers who took the teaching of the church more seriously than those in the church. The people who continued in a mode of disbelief were the ones that stayed because they were able to protect themselves from the trauma of actually believing their beliefs.
One poignant example I remember is that after a talk on healing in the church I briefly attended a person on my pew fell and broke his arm. I took him into a separate room and started to pray. Someone else called the leader into the room (who was also a doctor) to pray with us. He took one look at the arm and shouted that we had to call an ambulance. The point was that we had no need to do that as we fully believed the teaching he had given, the person who didn’t believe (or rather whose belief was sustained by unbelief) was the leader himself.
To confront the horror of ones beliefs one must be confronted with them without the support of unbelief. While unbelief seems to be the obstacle that prevents me from believing it actually acts in the same way as law to transgression. The law appears to be the opposite of transgression; as that which keeps it in check. But it is really that which gives it its libidinal support.
An actual example of this is of a woman who was sleeping around and who felt guilty about it. However, as she worked through the guilt, her desire to sleep around disappeared. While she thought the guilt held her sexual encounters in check and that, if removed, would lead to more one-night stands, the truth was the dialectic opposite. The guilt sustained the action. The removal of the obstacle (the guilt) removed the thing that the obstacle appeared to hold at bay (the sleeping around).
While the supportive nature of unbelief might be obvious in fundamentalist communities the challenge is in seeing it also in operation in liberal and progressive communities. Someone might, for instance, believe that the universe is in ultimate harmony and that all things work to the good. This seems like a beautiful belief, but it is only beautiful because it is sustained by unbelief. If we removed the unbelief and fully affirmed it we would realise that it isn’t too far from the views of people like Pat Robertson. We too would celebrate genocides, hurricanes etc. It is only while the belief is disbelieved that we can gain psychological pleasure from it without having to confront its horror. In short, we avoid the true nature of the belief as that which prevents us from fully embracing our human, all too human, situation.
The point of radical liturgy (the subject of a book I am writing at the moment) is that we are confronted by the horror of our religious belief through the removal of unbelief so that we move beyond it into what Bonhoeffer called “Religionless Christianity.”
This is however deeply traumatic for it means letting go of our intellectual security blankets and fully embracing the world with the courage to be, a courage devoid of ideological fantasies. The claim of the radical tradition however is that this full embrace of the world without guarantees is the way to truly taste life and life in all its fullness.