Slavoj Zizek on Atheism & Christianity

It is no secret that atheist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, relies quite heavily on René Girard’s assessment of Christianity.

Slavoj Zizek refers to René Girard‘s work in the book God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse and concludes that Christianity, revealing the innocence of erstwhile sacrificial victims, “[undermines] the efficiency of the entire sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating: sacrifices (even of the magnitude of a holocaust) become hypocritical, inoperative, fake…” As this sacrificial mechanism is the cornerstone of religious behavior, Christianity thus indeed is “the religion of the end of religion” (atheist historian Marcel Gauchet). Zizek, still in the aforementioned essay, also briefly explains how Christianity potentially brings to an end the ever-present sacrificial temptation: “Following René Girard, Dupuy demonstrates how Christianity stages the same sacrificial process [of archaic religion], but with a crucially different cognitive spin: the story is not told by the collective which stages the sacrifice, but by the victim, from the standpoint of the victim whose full innocence is thereby asserted. (The first step towards this reversal can be discerned already in the book of Job, where the story is told from the standpoint of the innocent victim of divine wrath.)” This assessment of Christianity could also help to understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for a “religionless Christianity” (or maybe we should speak of a Christianity transforming religion rather than destroying it – click here for more).

In other words, Christianity is – in a profound sense – one of the main sources of secularization. Secular societies are challenged to build a world without “sacred sacrifices”. As Zizek notes, “the sacred sacrifice to the gods is the same as an act of murder – what makes it sacred is that it limits/contains violence, including murder, in everyday life.” Precisely because a secular society, heir to the dismantlement of “the archaic sacred” by Christianity, no longer possesses the traditional religious means to contain violence, it has to find other ways to deal with violence, or else destroy itself. Zizek quotes Jean-Pierre Dupuy in this regard: “Concerning Christianity, it is not a morality but an epistemology: it says the truth about the sacred, and thereby deprives it of its creative power, for better or for worse.” And Zizek continues: “Therein resides the world-historical rupture introduced by Christianity: now we know [the truth about the sacred], and can no longer pretend that we don’t. And, as we have already seen, the impact of this knowledge is not only liberating, but deeply ambiguous: it also deprives society of the stabilizing role of scapegoating and thus opens up the space for violence not contained by any mythic limit.”

(Quotes from Zizek in Slavoj Zizek & Boris Gunjevic, God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse [Essay] Christianity Against the Sacred, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2012, pp. 63-64).

Zizek’s understanding of Christianity, in line with Christians like Girard, Chesterton and Bonhoeffer (see below), allows him to criticize the “religious atheism” of people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and the like. For instance in the clip below:

Chesterton‘s reading of those famous ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?’ (‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’) is that only in Christianity, and for him this is crucial, God himself becomes for a moment an atheist. And this is so tremendously important for me.

I think far from this fashionable idea that the Christian era is over, you know, all of this Aquarius bullshit, and we are entering a new era… Yes, we are, but I don’t like this new era, neo-paganism and so on… I think that today precisely we should stick to this tremendous explosive impact, we are still not ready to confront it, of what Christianity is truly telling us.

This is why I like to say paradoxically that to be an atheist, but don’t be afraid, not in the Richard Dawkins – Christopher Hitchens sense, but this authentic atheism in the sense of experiencing the radical absence of any transcendent guarantee (and in this sense, for me, Stalinists, communists, Darwinists are not atheists… no, they always have some higher figure of necessity and so on…), you have to go through Christianity.

My formula is not just that I try to give some atheist reading of Christianity, how God is really meant, that’s bullshit, but that only through the Christian experience can you reach the abyss of what I call atheism, which, again, is something much more radical than all the bullshit of Richard Dawkins and so on.”


Zizek also explains how Christianity destroys every possible “scapegoat” people can use to escape their own freedom and responsibility. There is no “karma”, no “natural necessity”, etc. that justifies and explains why people are and behave as they do:

“The only way really to be an atheist is through Christianity. Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism, which can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within the harmonious whole of evolution, whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.”


Compare all this with the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from Widerstand und Ergebung):

“Und wir können nicht redlich sein, ohne zu erkennen, daß wir in der Welt leben müssen — ,’etsi deus non daretur’. Und eben dies erkennen wir – vor Gott! Gott selbst zwingt uns zu dieser Erkenntnis. So führt uns unser Mündigwerden zu einer wahrhaftigeren Erkenntnis unsrer Lage vor Gott. Gott gibt uns zu wissen, daß wir leben müssen als solche, die mit dem Leben ohne Gott fertig werden. Der Gott, der mit uns ist, ist der Gott, der uns verläßt (Markus 15, 34)! Der Gott, der uns in der Welt leben läßt ohne die Arbeitshypothese Gott, ist der Gott, vor dem wir dauernd stehen. Vor und mit Gott leben wir ohne Gott. Gott läßt sich aus der Welt herausdrängen ans Kreuz, Gott ist ohnmächtig und schwach in der Welt und gerade und nur so ist er bei uns und hilft uns. Es ist Matthäus 8,17 ganz deutlich, daß Christus nicht hilft kraft seiner Allmacht, sondern kraft seiner Schwachheit, seines Leidens!

Hier liegt der entscheidende Unterschied zu allen Religionen. Die Religiosität des Menschen weist ihn in seiner Not an die Macht Gottes in der Welt, Gott ist der deus ex machina. Die Bibel weist den Menschen an die Ohnmacht und das Leiden Gottes; nur der leidende Gott kann helfen. Insofern kann man sagen, daß die beschriebene Entwicklung zur Mündigkeit der Welt, durch die mit einer falschen Gottesvorstellung aufgeräumt wird, den Blick frei macht für den Gott der Bibel, der durch seine Ohnmacht in der Welt Macht und Raum gewinnt. Hier wird wohl die ‘weltliche Interpretation’ einzusetzen haben.”



  1. Berry Vorstenbosch · November 29

    This is a brief and really great meditation on “atheism”. I subscribe to its tenor. To bring in Zizek, Chesterton, Dawkins, Bonhoeffer in so short a space, and to say the essential thing, is really an achievement. It seems so clear for all to see, and nevertheless it also seems to be so difficult to understand.

    Liked by 1 person

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