Thursday, 1 August 2013

Suspicion and Faith

Thanks to a recommendation from my cousin Luke I've just finished reading a book by Merold Westphal called Suspicion and Faith.  It's the most refreshing and challenging Christian analysis of atheism I've read for some time.

The hinge on which the book hangs is the idea that there are two sources of atheism, and that they require two radically different approaches from Christians.  The first he calls "evidential atheism" and is based on a sceptical approach to religion.  When Richard Dawkins asserts that the theory of evolution removes any need for a creator, he is engaging in evidential atheism. 

The second is what he describes as the "atheism of suspicion".  This atheism does not arise from doubts about the evidence for belief, but from doubts about the motivation of religious believers and the function religion plays in our societies and our individual psyches.

Scepticism is directed towards the elusiveness of things, while suspicion is directed toward the evasiveness of consciousness.  Scepticism seeks to overcome the opacity of facts, while suspicion seeks to uncover the duplicity of persons.  Scepticism addresses itself directly to the propositions believed and asks whether there is sufficient evidence to make belief rational.  Suspicion addresses itself to the persons who believe and only indirectly to the propositions believed.  It seeks to discredit the believing soul by asking what motives lead people to belief and what functions their beliefs play, looking precisely for those motives and functions that love darkness rather than light and therefore hide themselves.

It is appropriate for Christians to attempt to refute evidential atheism, because it is about content - about facts and the nature of reality.  On the other hand we attempt to refute the atheism of suspicion at our own peril.  Our motives as believers, and the role we and our institutions play in history, are a long way from being above reproach.  In fact, the writings of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus carry a very similar thread of suspicion towards religion, and Christians would be best to listen carefully.

With this in mind, he recommends reading the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche as a Lenten meditation, a penitential reading aimed at self-knowledge and repentance.  These three thinkers are pillars of modern atheism and all embody in a different way an atheism of suspicion. 

If you find the idea of atheism for Lent shocking, there's a good chance this is the book for you.  Why not just read the gospels and the prophets and get the critique from there? Westphal makes two points.  The first is that as modern writers, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche write to a situation like our own, so we don't have to strip away layers of ancient culture to understand them.  The second is that the message of Jesus and the prophets has itself fallen victim to the processes of interpretation which these critics of religion say is part of the problem, so it is hard for us to hear them.  Hence the atheists of suspicion, who have no allegiance to our traditions of interpretation, can help us to see these texts with fresh eyes.

It's hard to summarise Westphal's message in a short post.  His analysis is complex and needs to be read with close attention as he trolls the voluminous and often difficult writings of his three subjects, attempting to grasp the essence of their analysis of religion.  However, at the risk of horrible over-simplification here is a quick taster.

For Freud religion is a form of defence mechanism, helping us to conceal from ourselves and from others our true motivations.  This can happen in many ways, depending on our own psychological make-up.  It could be, for instance, that we use religion as a way of bargaining to avoid actually giving up the things of which we feel most ashamed.  It could be that in our religious rituals we act out, individually or collectively, the thing we most desire to do - eating the body and blood of God as a way of acting out the murder of our own fathers, for instance.  And it could be that our praise of God is a form a flattery, concealing our contempt and hatred in words of love because we are afraid to express our true feelings. 

The thing is, though, that this is not mere hypocrisy.  All these things take place below the level of consciousness, concealed from ourselves as much as, perhaps even more than, from others.  Through this concealment we assuage our tortured conscience while avoiding real change.  This kind of analysis leads Westphal to label Freud as a "theologian of original sin".  His analysis should remind us that sin in biblical Christianity is not the committing of particular acts, but something embedded in our very being.

For Marx religion is viewed politically as a form of "false consciousness", preventing the oppressed classes from clearly understanding their oppression and rising up against it.  Religion either actively aids their oppression by ordaining the existing social order as God-given, or diverts their response to this oppression by encouraging them to endure it rather than change it.

It is hard to deny that the Christian religion has been used in this way through history.  Yet the Bible itself is full of passages condemning the oppression of the poor and proclaiming God's wrath at the oppressors, and Jesus proclaimed a kingdom in which there would be no hunger or oppression.  How have these many passages been so effectively neutralised? 

Westphal spends a number pages analysing the strategies, from the clumsy but sometimes effective ones of banning or editing the bible (both effective in maintaining North American slave ownership) to more subtle strategies of interpretation which emphasise passages which support the status quo, resort to vague generalisations about justice to evade specific action here and now, or locate the justice proclaimed by the prophets and Jesus in a future ideal realm rather than in the present.  Christians need to beware of all these manoeuvres, which place us at odds with the God who is for the poor in a special and distinctly practical way.

Most difficult of all is Westphal's analysis of Nietzsche.  First of all, he has to remind us that Nietzsche may have been Hitler's favourite philosopher, but Hitler would have been unlikely to be Nietzsche's favourite politician.  Nietzsche was scornful of racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular.  It helps to see how Westphal compares him with Freud and Marx.  Freud, he says sees religion as our ontological weakness seeking consolation.  Marx sees it as sociological power seeking legitimation.  For Nietzsche it is sociological weakness seeking revenge.  It is the way powerless people seek to exercise power and seek recompense from those more powerful than them.

Hence, Nietzsche helps us to avoid the pitfall into which Marx could lead us - if God is on the side of the poor, then the poor must be good.  This is not so - the poor (including us, because most of us are powerless if not actually physically poor) are just as open to suspicion as the rich.  It's just that the poor and powerless have even more need to conceal their true motivations, to hide their anger and hatred behind a mask of love and goodness.  Hence many of what we like to think of as our virtues turn out to be "glittering vices", behaviours which seem attractive but mask our fundamental rejection of the good.

I could go on, but this is enough to give you an idea of the murky world into which Westphal leads us.  If we want to be true to the message of Jesus and the prophets, he says, we need to be prepared to have our motives questioned.  We need to be prepared to answer for how we use our faith.  Does it advance the cause of justice or the cause of oppression?  Do we seek to right wrongs or humiliate those who perpetrate them?  Do we seek genuine virtue, or glittering vice?  Do we seek God, or use him to justify ourselves?

These are not pleasant questions, and it is easy to evade them.  I must confess that when Dinesh D'Souza turned the tables on atheists I enjoyed the points he scored at their expense, however cheap they may have been.  Yet I know Westphal is right, my triumph is a mask for my own shame in the face of religious crimes and betrayals.  Refutation of the atheism of suspicion is a defence mechanism which only confirms the accuracy of that suspicion.  A better response, a more Christian but infinitely more difficult one, is to listen with humility and allow even our enemies to lead us to repentance.

1 comment:

Alistair Bain said...

Hi Jon

I've got the same book at the moment partly read.

You've reminded me to get back to it.

He's a great writer.