Eric Dean Rasmussen: In The Puppet and the Dwarf one of your theoretical maxims is that “in our politically correct times, it is always advisable to start with the set of unwritten prohibitions that define the positions one is allowed to adopt.” You argue that although proclamations for various forms of multiculturalist spirituality are currently in vogue, professing “serious” religious beliefs – that is, proclaiming one’s faith devoutly and unironically – is an exemplary case of an unwritten prohibited position, at least in academia. Do you really think that expressing sincere religious belief is so taboo in public discourse, at least in the United States? In fact, aren’t we witnessing a resurgence of fundamentalism? Under the Bush Administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” for example, fundamentalist Christian organizations are beginning to receive government funds to manage social services, etc. Should concerned academics not speak out against the erosion of the separation between church and state, or do you think that they “secretly believe much more than they are willing to admit” and it would be hypocritical for them to do so?
Slavoj Žižek: No, no I don’t think this is any longer the unwritten rule. I think that what we usually refer to as the ‘post-secular turn’ really designates not quite the opposite tendency, but that some kind of spiritually is again ‘in’ – even in academic circles. For example, in one of the predominant orientations, so-called deconstructionism, with its Levinasian ethico-religious turn, the motto is traditional onto-theology – where you assert God as a supreme being and so on – that is over. But then you play all of these games – there is no God, but there is some absence, a void, calling us, confronting us with our finitude. There is, as Levinas would put it, a radical Otherness confronting us with the absolute responsibility, ethical injunction, all that. So, what interests me is precisely this kind of – how should I put it? – disavowed spirituality. It is as if the form of spirituality, the ultimate, I am almost tempted to say, iconoclastic spirituality (which it is no wonder that the central representative is a Jewish thinker like Levinas, no?) is a kind of spiritual commitment which shouldn’t be positivized in a set of beliefs and so on.
It is amusing sometimes to follow the more detailed ramifications of these rules, what is prohibited, what is not. For example, this abstract Jewish spirituality is in; in other circles, some kind of a pagan spirituality is in. Of course, as you hinted at, these are in clear contrast to ‘mainstream’ America, the Bible Belt, where you find more orthodox belief. But even there, that belief already functions in a different way. The so-called moral majority fundamentalism is – to put it in slightly speculative Hegelian terms – the form of the appearance of its opposite. Let’s be serious: Nobody will convince me that people like Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft and George W. Bush believe. They may even be sincere, but… from Hegel we learned how to undermine a position – not through comparing it directly with reality to assert its truth status, but seeing how the very subjective stance from which you announce a certain position undermines this position. A classic, simplified Hegelian example would be asceticism. The message of asceticism is I despise my body, but all the focus is on the body, so the very message of the practice is the opposite of the official message. Along the same lines, if you look closely at – to take the most extreme example – televangelists, figures we all love, like Jim Bakker, or Jimmy Swaggart, with all their complaints against liberal decadence, and so on, the way they relate to religion is a kind of narcissistic ego trip. The way they deliver their message undermines the message. You don’t need an external criticism.
I’m willing to go even further here. For example, take family values. I disagree with my leftist friends who immediately cry wolf, “Oh family values, they want to reimpose the patriarchal family, what about gay marriages, new forms? blah, blah, blah.” No, let’s look at what effectively happened. I don’t think there was an era that did more to undermine so-called family and community values than the Reagan era, with Reaganomics. All these shifts to a new economy, with the end of fixed employment, mobility, etc. So, my response to conservatives is not that we need to defend plurality and different lifestyles, but look who is taking! Your policies undermined the family, and you don’t have any right to even speak about family values.
To return to the fundamentals of your questions, one of my theses is that belief is a complex phenomenon. I don’t mean this in a superficial way, “Ha, ha, they are fakes; they don’t really believe; they are cynical manipulators, and so on.” In a more serious way, what does belief mean? What does it mean when you say people believe in something? For example, I had very interesting conversation with a priest during the Turin shroud controversy, and he told me kind of a half-public secret – the French have this nice expression, le secret de Polichinelle, a secret which everybody knows about – that the Church really does not want, and is secretly absolutely afraid for, that shroud to be proven to be the real thing, the blood of Christ from that time. The idea is that the shroud should remain an object of belief, and its status shouldn’t be directly proven. It would complicate things if you proved the shroud was really from year zero in Palestine with, say, a DNA profile of Christ. [Chuckles] But at the more fundamental level, intelligent theologians like Kierkegaard knew that belief should not be knowledge, it must be a leap of faith. Often, when you believe in something, the utmost shattering experience or shock can be an immediate, brutal confirmation of your belief. For example, did you see the movie Leap of Faith? It’s naïve, and I don’t like Steve Martin in it, he’s playing a stupid role politically, but it’s a nice movie about a fake faith healer/preacher with Martin and Debra Winger.