Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Deleuze, Religion, and Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_373



Deleuze was one of the most important French philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century. Deleuze saw his overall philosophical project in terms of overcoming transcendence and dogmatic images of thought that serves to reduce life to sad passions and ressentiment and in constructing an ontology of immanence and a thinking from the “outside.” Although Deleuze did not write specifically on a philosophy of religions, his critique of religious ideas makes it clear that he is in general critical of philosophy (Goodchild 2011, p. 139). However, unlike other thinkers who held an oppositional stance in relation to religions, he did not abandon religions but adopted a strategy of assimilating religious ideas that are positive and affirmative. This is why there is a continuous engagement with religious ideas in Deleuze’s thought. Deleuze’s approach toward religions is to be relevant in contemporary educational settings to the extent that it is marked by transcendence and dogmatic images of thought.

Deleuze and Religion

Deleuze is in general critical of religions. As early as in his first book on Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity, he argued that religions are nothing but a fanciful, illegitimate, and extensive use of the rules of association (Deleuze 1991, p. 76). This attitude toward religions is extended in his later works such as his last book with Felix Guattari What is Philosophy? where he states that religion introduces a form of transcendence that brings sadness (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 43). It is clear that this transcendence did not depart but continues to work in modern institutions. In Nietzsche and Philosophy, for example, he lamented the fact that modern philosophy possesses a “theological character” that serves to enslave thought to ressentiment and sadness (Deleuze 1983). Just as modern institutions may carry this transcendent structure, modern education may likewise also possess elements of this transcendence. This is the reason why Deleuze warns us against the evolution of educational institutions into forms of continuous control and instantaneous communication, made possible via the introduction of “corporate thinking” into education (Deleuze 1995).

Deleuze’s philosophical project can be regarded in general as a “destructive” one in the sense that it combats against psychological, social, and priestly representations that turn life into a tragedy. In Anti-Oedipus, he argues against psychoanalysis’ attempt to resolve the Oedipal complex, because it actually only reinforce the mommy-daddy-me structure, which only serves the colonizing function of capitalism. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze also calls his philosophical project “schizoanalysis,” thus leaving us no doubt as to the destructive function of their philosophy, that is, to destroy the Oedipal as a dogmatic image of thought which has been imposed on our unconscious (Deleuze and Guattari 2004a, p. 342). This critique of Freud can be extended to the much broader sense of representations, or dogmatic images, that inscribe a regulative law or significance into desire. Deleuze calls this the priestly curse on desire (Deleuze and Guattari 2004b, p. 171).

Although Deleuze was critical of religions in general, it would be a mistake to think that his attitude was simply a negative one. There are also places where he seemed to hold a positive or at least a neutral evaluation with regard to religious ideas. In Deleuze’s engagement with Kant’s thought, for instance, he introduced the possibility of an “atheistic metaphysics” arriving from within religions itself. Here Deleuze placed an importance on Kant’s theory of God not as an object of belief but as the transcendental ideal of pure reason that makes belief possible in the first place (Kant 1929, pp. 487–495). Kant’s theory is significant because here the idea of God no longer regarded as an object of belief but as a transcendental principle for the constitution of belief as such (Deleuze and Guattari 1984, p. 13). In Deleuze’s study of Bergson’s philosophy in Bergsonism, for instance, Deleuze also utilized Bergson’s theory to point beyond mere philosophical thought to a form of mystical thinking. According to Deleuze, it is the mystic who plays the whole of the universe as its “mystical soul” where philosophers can only consider such a soul “from the outside” (Deleuze 1988, p. 112).

Unlike other thinkers who adopted a more or less oppositional stance toward religions, like Nietzsche, Deleuze adopted a more moderate stance of adapting and modifying religious ideas for his purposes, because he believes that religious concepts, despite their “dogmatic” structures, can also offer us something of value. Thus, many of Deleuze’s philosophical concepts did not ignore but are built on the basis of philosophical ideas that are derived from religious debates in one way or other. For example, Deleuze’s use of the idea of univocity is derived from the philosophy of the thirteenth-century scholastic theologian Duns Scotus (Smith 2012, p. 169). In Expressionism and Philosophy, Deleuze also referred to Spinoza’s idea of “infinite substance” which is but a revaluation of the concept of God (Smith 2012, p. 174). In fact, some scholars even go to the extent of saying that the very chipping away at the repressive dimensions of religions produced something of value in thought. Accordingly, Shults has argued that hammering away at theism secretes “atheism” from the very structure of theism itself (Shults 2015, p. 1).

This suggests that for Deleuze the decisive philosophical divide is not simply between religious and the secular spheres but between immanence and transcendence. In the history of Western philosophy, the terms immanence and transcendence can have a number of the different registers depending on the contexts within which they are placed. In metaphysics, transcendence refers to the belief that there is a transcendent One or Being that stands over and above the Many or beings. This sets up a duality and a hierarchy in which beings become lesser in relation to the One, thus reducing their power to “act.” Deleuze pitted his philosophy against this dualistic and transcendent form of thinking by constructing a philosophy of immanence. In fact, Daniel Smith would even go the extent of saying that Deleuze hunted down transcendence and sought to establish an ontology of immanence throughout his philosophical career (Smith 2003, p. 46). Thus, even though schizoanalysis has a negative function of smashing dogmatic images of thought, it is also important to realize that it possesses a positive function in the sense of mobilizing the “schizzes” of desiring production and the assembling of revolutionary “machines.” Deleuze and Guattari’s project is thus one of destruction and yet also one of affirmation.

Religions and Education

There are a number of works that focus on the significance of Deleuzian thought for education. Some of the most notable ones are Kaustav Roy’s Teachers in Nomadic Spaces (2008), Inna Semetsky’s Nomadic Education (2008), and William Reynolds and Julie Weaver’s Expanding Curriculum Theory (2002) (Carlin and Walin 2015: xxi). This emerging line of scholarship has provoked us to think and act in the sense of creating concepts that for escaping impasses of thought. However, while these works are important, there is a relatively lack of works that focus on the relationship between education and religions. If modern philosophy continues to be pervaded by its “theological” shadow, then likewise modern education can also be possessed by a traditional image of education. This is one where Paolo Freire (1984) might refer to as the “banking” method of education. This is a model in which the teacher occupies a central position in the classroom, in which the teacher occupies a privileged position with regard to the relay of knowledge to unsuspecting and unknowing students who lack such knowledge. In such an educational model, there is created a situation of transcendence that is reenacted in the classroom, which reproduces the purported knowledge without any real explorations. In such situations, the teacher is placed in a privileged position, while his students are placed in a subordinate position. While this model has proven to be effective in relaying information, it reduces students into a passive position as it encourages absorption of information and not active thinking and learning. There is also much less opportunity when classes are about accepting information rather than explorations which reduces the chances for creativity.

One strategy of overcoming the inherent tendency of education to reduce students to passivity is by reducing the traditional hierarchical relationship between teachers and students in the classroom. Although this structural relationship has come to be accepted to be the norm in education, it is important to make the process of learning more democratic in order to facilitate the learning process and make it more active. The move toward a more student-centered and self-directed learning model in education rather than teacher centered and other directed is reflective of this change. This promises to return the students to their power to “act” and make learning more initiative. In recent years, Semetsky (2005) has called for self-organizing classroom where the hierarchical structure is dissolved, deterritorialization becomes a shared endeavor, and communication becomes transversal (Bonta 2013, p. 66). Cole has already discussed this concept where messages are broadcast to “concurrent independent objects” (Cole 2008, p. 24).

In addition to reducing the hierarchical structure in the classroom which has become prevalent in the educational system, it is also important to look into the motivations of students. Just as there are hierarchical structures in the educational system, there can also be a hierarchical structure in the students’ reliance on extrinsic and “transcendent” goals. Just putting students together in a classroom setting, and reducing the hierarchical position in class, may not necessarily lead to an improvement of learning behaviors. It may lead to some situations where learning becomes problematic when students lack the necessary motivation to learn. Thus, in terms of motivation, Deleuze’s critique of transcendence offers us a warning against an over reliance on extrinsic goals because this is a way of reinstalling transcendence. More importantly, it is about reemphasizing the learning process in education, making it affirmative and positive. Thus, the educational task in question is not in selecting between different extrinsic goals for learning but in affirmation of learning itself. From this perspective, the dominant neoliberal capitalist intrusion into university education obviously presents issues for a form of educational setting in which learning returns to a more privileged position. The drive to produce workers that respond to job training mentality and corporate thinking in fact poses an obstacle to learning itself which is characterized necessarily by a certain degree of creativity and uncertainty.

An important development in terms of a Deleuzian approach to learning and teaching would be the idea of “educational life-forms” (Cole 2011, p. 32). From this perspective, one of education’s central aims is about making life stronger and more affirmative. This idea of education life-forms gives educators more options in teaching as it helps to steer them away from merely following the structured programs that enter into our unconscious. With regard to this, there is also a need for a “philosophy of life” that attends to our unconscious. As Cole has stated, Deleuze and Guattari’s construction of the unconscious is one that is full of life – the multitude of signs flows, and territories in our minds are able to motivate and discourage us from behaving in certain ways. In this regard, we can no longer imagine that we can abstract ourselves from multitudes of signs that assail us, but with a “semiotics of life,” we are able to track and use the energy of the movement of signs in everyday life. This, according to Cole, is what Deleuze and Guattari would call a “schizoanalysis”; this is whereby we learn the semiotics of life so that it enables us to engage in a reading of psychosomatic energies and their dispersal into the social in an affirmative way. This suggests that we are not to seek to escape the madness of capitalist signs but to harness that madness to our advantage, by expanding the unconscious and then accelerating the consequent imaginative powers. We can use the semiotics of life as educational life-forms in that schizoanalysis and abstract machines are methods for not merely turning away from transcendence but in using the unconscious as a creative and regenerating force. Thus, Deleuzian philosopher offers us a way of harnessing the play of forces in the creative unconscious and using this force to make change happen in the world (Cole 2011, pp. 31–33).

An important element in terms of a Deleuzian approach to education, then, would involve inquiries into religious forms of thinking. Just as Deleuze did not abandon religions but extracted from these religious ideas a form of thought that is affirmative and positive, it is also important for us not to avoid religious ideas as a thing of the past but to examine it carefully and learn from its positive and affirmative aspects. If the main divide is between immanence and transcendence and not between the religious and the secular from a Deleuzian perspective, then an important aspect of education involves examining religious thinking, if only because they continue to pervade our thinking and exercise a hold over us, even over our educational thinking. More importantly, as some scholars such as Shults and Goodchild might say, when we turn toward religious ideas, we may find a core that is either “atheistic” and yet close to the divine (Goodchild 2011, p. 163) Hence, although Deleuze is in general dismissive and critical of religions, we must note that he is not against religions per se but against its transcendental structure, and this structure has continued to operate in modern institutions. Given that this is so, then the task at hand is to hunt down the transcendental structure in both religions and secular institutions, and that includes the educational system as well. The question then becomes clear. The problem is not in making education secular or in excluding religions from education but in finding and hunting down the theological and transcendental structures in religions and in our structures of thought. This suggests that it is also possible to find in the religious, elements that are not transcendent but immanent. If this is correct, then turning away from religious thinking runs the risk of dismissing a crucial dimension of thought itself. This is perhaps the reason why although Deleuze has consistently been dismissive of religious ideas, criticizing also the theological ideas that reduce life to sad passions in his more critical studies, he never turns away from the religious.

In terms of resources, there are a number of studies on the intersections between Deleuze’s philosophy and religions which may help us review the structures of education. The late Mary Bryden’s edited volume of Deleuze and Religion (2001) is an important contribution to Deleuzian scholarship in this respect as it contains a number of articles by different scholars reflecting on Deleuze’s religious connections. In addition to this volume, there are also others such as Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze (2012), Christopher Ben Simpson’s Deleuze and Theology (2012), and Kristien Justaert’s Theology After Deleuze (2012). More recently, the publication of F. LeRon Shults’ Iconoclastic Theology: Gilles Deleuze and the Secretion of Atheism (2014) also presents an interesting perspective on Deleuze’s attitude toward religions. Deleuze’s approach to religious ideas promises to offer us a model for reintroducing critical religious studies as a necessary component in today’s secular educational system today. While there are obvious issues in reintroducing religious studies in secular education, the answer does not seem to be to view religious education with suspicion or to abandon it altogether but to extract its affirmative and positive elements for the sake of diversity. Using Deleuzian terminology, the real challenge is in avoiding “dogmatic image of thought” and not abandoning thought altogether.

Conclusion: Education and Neoliberalism

One of the more dominant themes in contemporary educational theory that relate Deleuze’s work to education concerns the radical transformation that educational institutions are undergoing in the age of neoliberalism. Some of the main transformations concern the introduction of new educational technologies and pedagogies, teaching analytics and online MOOCS, etc. which require seemingly endless repetitive administrative tasks which seem to have little to do with education. These constitute new developments in education that together frame and inhabit our educational institutions. In fact, what has become quite controversial in recent years is the way in which university education has become increasingly restrictive, demanding professors track, measure, and report on exactly how their students are learning. This expansion of the teacher’s role from mere teaching and research to one of tracking and surveillance is but one of the many changes facing university education in the age of neoliberalism (Bonta 2013, p. 71). Deleuze himself decried the colonization of public post-secondary education in France by the business model that attempted to align curricula to the workplace, essentially transforming universities into training schools (Deleuze and Guattari 1994; Bonta 2013, p. 57). This accounts for Gough’s recent statement that university education should be rhizomatic and challenge arborescent models of thought (Gough 2006). While traditional forms of resistance advocated by Paulo Freire now seem outdated, a consideration of Deleuze’s approach to religions offers us at least two new insights as to the correct methods of engaging the phenomenon of corporatizing of higher education today. Namely, what is significant in Deleuze and Guattari’s works is that these are in some ways expressions of the people’s desire (Savat and Thompson 2015) and that it is not always necessary to oppose them because their energies could be recuperated for transformation of the educational landscape (Cole 2011).


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National University of SingaporeSingaporeSingapore