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Žižek and the Logic of Religious Violence

In his book, Violence, Slavoj Žižek contests the standard story that religious adherents use in response to the claim that religion causes violence. Generally it is claimed that perpetrators of religious violence are “only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual message of their creed.” Žižek argues instead that we should wise up and admit that religions simply are violent and thus “restore the dignity of atheism, perhaps our only chance for peace.” In other words, Žižek calls religions to the mat, insisting that any easy answer of “they aren’t true representatives of my faith…” is necessarily a dodge.

However, what is ironic is that Žižek utilizes the exact same logic in his defense of the moral superiority of atheism to religion. He claims that we should “renounce religion, including its secular reverberations such as Stalinist communism” and that while “there are cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure,” these events are “rare exceptions.” Here Žižek is simply marshaling the same argument flippantly used by religious adherents to explain away the violent behavior of their fellow-believers. He claims that events of atheist-perpetrated violence are simply exceptions that abuse and pervert the noble morality of true atheism. Why should the exact same argument be more believable as a defense of atheism than of religion?


  1. bobby grow wrote:

    It shouldn’t.

    Of course the burden of proof is on Zizek to substantiate that the “Early Medieval” Crusades actually are commensurate with the teachings and person of Jesus vs. the Jihads that Radical (consistent) Muslims are waging today which in fact consistently do reflect the later Surah’s (more authoritative given the principle of abrogation) and the model and person of Mohammed.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  2. dcrowe wrote:

    What a straw man: religion as the cause of war! This is such a wearying argument…as if people were not absolutely clear, just from their own experiences, that justifications given for conflicts are usually distinct from the causes of a conflict.

    Case in point: Gandhi taught nonviolence. Gandhi’s underpinnings were certainly spiritual, but more than that they were about what he saw as true expediency. Still, in some regions of india, we were treated to spectacles of people shouting “Gandhi’s swaraj has come!” and then killing a whole bunch of people.

    The reason Zizek condemns religion and then proceedes to make exactly the same defense of his outlook is that every outlook, even those that make the clearest distinctions, can be perverted to the end of self-justification. Humans are pretty clever monkeys, that way. We are smart enough to trick ourselves into believing anything.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  3. Evan wrote:

    From the little I know of Zizek, I don’t know if he is arguing against anything that we wouldn’t want to ourselves. I haven’t read Violence, so I may be wrong, but he seems to critique “religion” the same way that someone like Barth might. This is why people talk about him- and he talks about himself- as a “Christian atheist” sometimes. I think he is viewing religion as something more domestic and sociological and seeking to separate a Christian/atheist ethic from this violent form of religion. Now, this approach itself can be criticized, but I think this is what he’s saying, rather than the idea that the faith we seek to proclaim is itself violent.

    This also explains why he can speak well of atheism and yet discount Stalin as something other than atheist… as a sort of secular religion that should be lumped with Crusading Christianity or Jihadist Islam or whatever else. The point isn’t to point out the speck in a neihbor’s eye and hypocritically avoid the log in his own, but to point out that true Christians should embrace their “inner atheist” in order to be faithful to the Gospel.

    Atheism for him is “true religion” in a way that transcends “religion” as a category. Which is basically the same understanding that has been put forward by Christians about Christianity as “true religion” for centuries.

    Whether Zizek makes a good case, others are better equipped to decide than I am. I enjoy him but haven’t invested to much time in really taking in his work and understanding him. But I don’t think he is doing anything here than offering a rather traditional critique of “religion”, one that many Christian theologians have offered before him.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  4. Evan wrote:

    [excuse all of the spelling errors!]

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Evan, I think the question is whether or not Žižek would be willing to grant Christianity the “irreligious” status that we would want to. Insofar as he does, perhaps he has an argument that we could go along with within a general critique of “religion.” But it seems to me, at least in this book, that he views Christianity as simply one other particular instantiation of religion, albeit one with which he has some sympathy, or sees in it the seeds of his sort of atheistic materialism.

    I guess what would really be interesting would be to see what he thinks of Dawkins, Harris, and the “new atheist” crowd.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 10:12 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    I would be surprised and disappointed if he had any sympathy with them at all. They are in totally over their heads when it comes to discussing anything like religious commitments, and that is being very very charitable. I have a hard time seeing anyone like Zizek taking them seriously. In fact I’m sure he could launch a fairly devastating critique of the phenomenon.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

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