Jean-Luc Nancy


A-atheism: is it a stammer? Perhaps, but in that case, then it is of the same variety that seizes several figures (John of the Cross, for example) in the presence of »god«. Or else, it is not a stammer at all: it is an attempt to reveal the negation of a negation, but in such a way that it would be neither the dialectical sublation nor the pure and simple invalidation of the second.

Atheism is the sole disposition of thought insofar as our – Western/global – culture – is structured and conducts itself entirely without an effective, active, organizational and collective relationship with a representation of the divine. This modern disposition merely ripens a seed essentially inherent in the beginnings of the Western turn of the world. This turn, in fact, has not had a more determining characteristic than that of the »departure of the gods«. The politics of the city-state, the philosophy of the logos and the economy’s replacement of production with simple reproduction all define a world no longer circumscribed by the presence of gods.

It thus follows that monotheism – such as it would become through the Hellenization of the Jews and the birth of Christianity – carries within itself a very profound and very remarkable ambivalence: a new divine order that actually conjoins itself to the treatment of atheism itself. The God of monotheism is no longer a god of presence, but of absence. He retreats into another world or into a world-beyond. But this other/world-beyond is also that which is required by a thought henceforth in search of a principal or a foundation for the world of given effectiveness.

It’s thus that the God of Judeo-Christianity has been able to become – at least in part (we’ll discuss the other part later) – the bearer of this principal or foundational value. It is from this basis that one can understand the becoming-modern of atheism or rather what gives the latter the imprint which makes it seem truly modern.


Modern atheism is no longer that of the departure or the turning away of the gods, but of the refusal of God. That is to say that it consists in the negation of a position – a thesis or hypothesis – indicating »God«. This position is that of a subject of the world or of the totality of beings. Not being as a quality of beings, scattered and spread across all that is, not that being which takes all the inflexions of the verb to be (to be heavy, true, powerful, active, situated, etc.), but the substrate of all modalities of being, their bedrock or principle. The subject, therefore, of being, the utmost of beings or rather the being more being than all others, and consequently also the self, the auto-position of this substrate that nothing else should support.

This thesis or hypothesis (here we can take this last term as a thesis supporting all other theses...) is capable of taking on two forms: either the subject in question is simply equivalent to the totality of beings, no more, no less, or else he forms a distinct being all by itself. The first form is the one Spinoza illustrates in the clearest of ways (Deus sive natura). The second posits a (»supernatural«) »supreme being«. The first one earned Spinoza accusations of atheism. The second, in contrast, seems to correspond to all the other great systems of classical, and then romantic, philosophy.

Yet, despite appearances, no metaphysics strictly contains this thesis. The »other- worldly« distinction of a metaphysical god is always accompanied by determinations apt to reduce the distinction (for example, the indispensable link between god and his creation, or the presence of his »image« or »providence« within it, etc.). In fact, the position of a subject of the world is impossible without condemning it to an infinite regression (what is the subject of the subject?) or else without returning to the Spinozan equivalence between »god« and »nature«. It is the absolute alternative between the pure »auto« and the pure »given«... Their alternative, or else, insidiously, their identity...

Metaphysics has always known this, even when it sought to dissimulate this knowledge. This is why, in the very middle of its history, it produced with Kant the ruin of the so-called »ontological« argument. The idea of a supreme being cannot entail the necessity of its existence because existence is only given, not deduced, and the only necessary existence is that which is given: it is the entire given of beings, with its contingency, therefore, or in its contingency.


There has never seriously been a metaphysical God, then, and »God is dead« at last affirms the late-blooming truth of the entire history of philosophy. Philosophy is atheist in principle, and with it the whole of onto-theology, in which »god« is the putative name or convenient cipher for a necessity of the given, the name postulated by the desire to make sense of the contingency of the world.

The thesis or hypo-thesis of God has no philosophical consistency. Theism is only the nominal and embellished reverse of atheism which is, at the same time, its real, logical and material truth, a cold and grey logic, in fact, as is the world’s solitude in the middle of nothing.

Thus we realize the uselessness of the notion of atheism. »God« is not a question for thought – and thought instead essentially consists in moving in the element where this question does not take place. Conversely, to fix oneself in the element where some Subject or other binds the world to its foundation is to cease thinking, whether this Subject is called God or Man, Nature or History. This is indeed the reason why no philosopher has »believed in God« even when defining his qualities (Descartes or Spinoza, and even Thomas Aquinas himself, and Occam as much as Leibniz, and so on).

Nevertheless, this does not mean that philosophers, and anyone else besides, can ignore the following: when it comes to the element in which no Subject, no Substance, no Foundation can present itself in any way – when, in other words, it comes to the element in which no Thing sustains or holds the indefinite multiplicity of things, in which no instance of unity other than a distributive and disseminative one (unity itself disseminated a priori) can sustain itself, then in this space of »nothing« in the sense of no Thing (all things = no Thing, no-thing) thought discovers that it thinks beyond all possible thought. It thinks beyond any Object and therefore beyond any possible Subject of an object in general.


And yet it thinks. And yet, it opens up precisely to this outside of thought itself or else it reveals to itself that it is going to exceed itself, not eliminating itself but not elevating itself either: doing nothing except opening itself. But this opening turns out to follow a different logic and a different dynamic than that of the thought of the object, of necessity and the concept in general (unless one considerably modifies the very concept of the »concept« itself, as Hegel does, and as Deleuze does, differently).

What takes shape then is a relation to something other than a thing. To something other than the world-thing. To a sign, in a certain sense, but not to the sign of a signification which would itself have a referent in the order of things. A sign as a signal of opening itself and towards it. A sign as a call, as an address, and at the same time as the reception of a call or an address; neither to do nor to seize whatever it may be, but to undo and relinquish every thing and every signification of a thing. A call for opening to the opening, not closed in on itself but infinitely opening the sameness of the same.

The name »God« might also have been the bearer of this sign, or even the sign itself. God as a sign of nothing, as the address of nothing but the opening of the world to a meaning which is outside itself (as Wittgenstein says), but which is not a »sense« in this outside because this outside »is« not. The difference between the inside and the outside, between the world and that which the world opens on to is not a difference of terms, since one of the terms is absent. It is the very difference of the same: the identity of an opening, not of a completion.

Is it possible to thus »invoke« the name of »God«? It is not clear; perhaps it has become henceforth impossible. Nonetheless, in secular usage this name has also had this function – if one may call it a function – and it had it in a major break with any kind of being or supreme subject. Never has a great mystic, a great »spiritual leader«, never has a true »believer« believed in the existence of God: of that we can be certain. They have instead invoked, implored or celebrated, they have adored – which is to say addressed – an unnamable name, which in fact remains unnamed, as a sign of the opening through which meaning escapes and the truth announces itself.

Such has perhaps been the prayer of the a-atheists: repudiating god and non-god alike, and stammering, open-mouthed.

Translated by Clodagh Kinsella