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The Dartmouth
February 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Drowning in Religion

These traces I must follow indirectly: "Here or there we have discerned writing: a nonsymmetrical division designated on the one hand the closure of the book, and on the other the opening of a text. On the one hand the theological encyclopedia and, modeled upon it, the book of [humanity]. On the other a fabric of traces marking the disappearance of an exceeded God or an erased [hu]man." (Jaques Derrida, "Ellipsis")

I shall write therefore of God and of erasure.

The theistic question, even as best represented, belies its own complexity and irrelevance. In support of humanity and God, then, I posit the erasure of all questions and articulations of faith.

Unfortunately, confusion certainly develops upon the inevitable silence of this position when answering of that age-old question, in all its Occidental, monotheistic rigor, "Do you believe in God?" I shall attempt to justify that confusion, seeking to hear silence descend upon Dartmouth's theism. Well, I can dream anyway.

A story of St. Augustine presents the theistic question best. At shore of the Mediterranean sits St. Augustine contemplating the nature of God. A child is said to have then handed the saintly fellow a bucket with which to empty the sea, an evidently impossible task. I must imagine that through revelation alone did Augustine then realize that God too was a concept to large to be emptied.

Like any good scholar, Augustine must have been quite relieved at this new-found and eternal source for publication. Still, the revelation remained that God's nature is beyond the human capacity of knowledge. Certainly some knowledge could be obtained, just as some water could be emptied. In leaving the water's edge, however, the vast sea remains mostly a mystery.

We many have instead contented ourselves with going down to the shore, scooping up some little water, and then walk up from the water, with wonders enough to fill a lifetime.


You go down to the water

Drink down of the water

Walk up off the water, leave it be

But this is not my dream, sister

It is cold in heaven

I'm not sprouting wings.

(R.E.M., "Undertow")


The skeptical atheist has many opportunities to apply intellectual pressure to this strange activity. One might argue that contemplation upon some force other than the human demeans our true spirit and capacities. This argument serves to make explicit the dehumanization otherwise masked by humanization.

Still, on this I am with the theist, for contemplation of an external, yet personal force often reveals more about us that we ourselves would like to admit. Remarkable potency has been continually shown by religion in the unmasking of humanity, even if strong ideologies inevitably distort these realizations.

A stronger application of pressure might then come from a questioning of the entire project itself in praxis. The result of such pressure reveals the holes intrinsic in human contemplation. This trace, which can only be followed outside this text (sorry Jaques), leads to the deconstruction of origins, for the initial question finds itself steeped in the Western tradition. This tradition assumes that the "formal essence" of an object, symbol, etc. can be determined, if only in part, by contemplating its presence.

The question "What is God?" then becomes a fixation of the finite upon the supposed infinitely expressive. Whatever object, symbol, etc., that one contemplates, that is, becomes trapped in an indicative web woven by human constructs of signification. Human contemplations of such a being will thus radically misrepresent, in toto, the true nature of this god. We approach the height of arrogance in the believing in God based upon even the most fundamental of ontological intuitions.

On the other hand, the atheist too radically contradicts her or his own agenda. In denying the existence of God, ipso facto, the tradition of theism has been adopted. To truly understand the trace of my position, this naivete must be accentuated. We ought emphasize how any conception against theism still relies upon that text. To realize this is to take the first step in the erasure of theism. Rather than declare your atheism as your religion, I urge silence, for religion has no desired meaning. Life is complicated enough for my enjoyment. Why exhaust the point?


You know I am tired

Cold and bony tired

Nothing's gonna save me, I can see

I can't say I'm fearful

I can't say I'm not afraid

But I am not resisting, I can see

I don't need a heaven

I don't need religion

I am in the place where I should be

I am breathing water

I am breathing water

You know a body's got to breathe

(R.E.M., "Undertow")


So, I believe we should erase the theistic question, which has at once written the book of humanity and on the other hand exceeded its very theism and erased humanity. We should be less worried about simple answers than we are infuriated by simplistic questions.