One of Deleuze’s greatest (and most frequently cited) questions: “Why is philosophy so compromised with God?” The question comes from a course on Spinoza in 1980.
Throughout most of its history, philosophy has been so involved with discussions of God that the philosophy-theology boundary seems extremely vague. Why do philosophers focus so extensively on God and God-talk? He responds to the question through an analogy with the prevalence of God in modern painting.
Why is there so much focus on God in modern painting? One way of thinking about it is this: the artistic activity of painting wells up out of religious feeling, such that painting inevitably expresses some religious dependence on or devotion to divinity. In that case, religion is an inevitable constraint on art: the necessary dependence of art on human-divine relationships. Deleuze isn’t interested in that way of thinking about it. He risks another hypothesis.
For modern painters, God is not a necessary constraint, but is a site of “maximum emancipation.” With God, the painter can do things that can’t be done with humans or other creatures. With God, painting finds “a kind of freedom for itself that it would never have found otherwise.” This means that a pious and impious painter “are not opposed to each other because the way painting invests the divine is a way which is nothing but pictorial,” which is to say, nothing but artistic conditions for the “racial emancipation” of the painter and of the lines, colors, and forms of the world.
“With God, everything is permitted.” God allows the painter to break with the paradigm of representation: “to achieve a liberation of forms, to push the forms to the point where the forms have nothing to do with an illustration. […] the lines and colors lose all necessity to be verisimilar […] to resemble something. It’s the great enfranchisement of lines and colors […].” This liberation from representation means that the use of God also liberates painting from religion, theology…and God. “So much so that, in a sense, atheism has never been external to religion: atheism is the artistic power [puissance] at work on [travaille] religion.”
Just as painters used God to liberate percepts and affects, philosophers are so compromised with God because they are using God to liberate concepts from representation (thus liberating concepts from any representation of God and, mutatis mutandis, having done with the judgments of God). Atheism is the conceptual puissance at work on religion. Spinoza’s pantheistic atheism is a case in point.
This is not postsecular or postmodern theology cleverly defining itself as atheism. In this Spinoza course, Deleuze is explicitly affirming atheism, secularism, and modernity for their subordination of God to the demands of speculative philosophical invention. Atheism is the philosophy of religion.