“God is Dead, but He Doesn’t Know It”

The true formula of atheism is not God is dead – even by basing the origin of the function of the father upon his murder, Freud protects the father – the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts

In order to properly understand this passage, one has to read it together with another thesis of Lacan. These two dispersed statements should be treated as the pieces of a puzzle to be combined into one coherent proposition. It is only their interconnection (plus the reference to the Freudian dream of the father who doesn’t know that he is dead) that enables us to deploy Lacan’s basic thesis in its entirety:

As you know, the father Karamazov’s son Ivan leads the latter into those audacious avenues taken by the thought of the cultivated man, and in particular, he says, if God doesn’t exist… – If God doesn’t exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day.

The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn’t know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors intimate doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today, we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed are not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves. “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is prohibited” means that the more you perceive yourself as an atheist, the more your unconscious is dominated by prohibitions which sabotage your enjoyment. (One should not forget to supplement this thesis with its opposite: if God exists, then everything is permitted – is this not the most succinct definition of the religious fundamentalist’s predicament? For him, God fully exists, he perceives himself as His instrument, which is why he can do whatever he wants, his acts are in advance redeemed, since they express the divine will…)

Slavoj Zizek, How To Read Lacan 

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