Monday, November 19, 2007

Freud and Marx are fundamentalists of the Enlightenment and hold faith in the powers of reason. Nietzsche has lost even that faith

By Merold Westphal Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1993. 296 pp. $19.99.
As the title clearly indicates, this book has not been written in order to silence atheists. It has been written, rather, to bring the church to repentance and renewal, and atheists, Westphal insists, can be helpful in this regard because their critiques of religion bring into clear focus the dangers of religion to the spiritual life. It is too often forgotten that "in Jesus' eyes the righteous are more deeply alienated from God than are the sinners." But it is not just any kind atheism that can have such a salutary effect upon the Church. Westphal distinguishes "evidential atheism," which constitutes scepticism, from the "atheism of suspicion," which directs its attention not to matters of truth and falsity but to the evasiveness of consciousness that allows religion itself "to mask and to fulfill forms of self-interest that cannot be acknowledged." Under such conditions, religion "reduces God to a means or instrument for achieving our own human purposes with professedly divine power and sanctions," which means that the devotees really do not know what they, religiously speaking, are doing.
Thus, given the emphasis of Hebrew prophecy on corporate self-examination and the Christian emphasis on personal self-examination, Westphal concludes that it is possible to speak of the religious uses of modern atheism if it is the atheism of suspicion. Atheistic suspicion may be helpful to the Christian in recovering the Bible's own built-in polemic against those forms of religion corrupted by instrumental interests. Westphal is aware how threatening his suggestions regarding the religious values of atheism might be to his readers, and he attempts in the remainder of part one of the book to provide a gentle introduction to the atheism of suspicion by turning to a form of such thought found in religious, and therefore less threatening, thinkers like Martin Luther and Karl Barth. He also provides a very brief account of the origins of such a hermeneutic of suspicion in Francis Bacon's critique of the Idols of the Tribe and Cave and David Hume's critique of religion in The Natural History of Religion. Each of the remaining parts of the book is then devoted to the "masters of suspicion": Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche.
In approaching Freud's work, Westphal is well aware that Freud is an evidential atheist, and he thinks Freud's scientism deserves refutation. However, he argues that to do so would be a mistake because Freud's primary mode of critique is his suspicion of religion and that understanding him on this score will yield the Christian great benefit. Westphal fears that refutation of the evidential atheism may lead to a simple rejection of Freud's atheism of suspicion as well. What is of value in Freud is his concentrated attention on the role of motive in religion and on the function of religion. In understanding him on these points, it is possible for Christians to see that their beliefs are often held for reasons hidden from themselves and that, because of that self-deception, they believe and act so as "to domesticate the divine power [and] to co-opt and control it for [their] own purposes." As Westphal puts it with respect to the performance of religious rites, Freud shows "that the believing soul engages in religious practices without understanding their meaning, without, for example, awareness of the motives that give to the rite its wish-fulfilling character." This means, quite simply, that Christians do not really know what they are doing, and that is a spiritually dangerous state in which to be.
As is the case with Freud, Westphal maintains that Marx's evidential atheism is also open to criticism but argues that Christians have much to learn by understanding what Marx means in his reference to religion as "the opium of the people." Even though Marx fails to note that religion can function as protest, it is the recognition of the role religion plays in the legitimation of social structures that can be of great benefit to the Christian. According to Marx, Christians think they adopt religion because it is true, but the truth is that they have adopted it because of its instrumental value to them in their everyday lives here and now. In not being aware of this, Christians also fail to see not only the ways religion endures evil in this world but actually eventually embraces it. This means, Westphal points out, that Christians "must go beyond asking whether our beliefs are true and our conscious intentions respectable to asking the really hard questions. How does our theology function?"
Nietzsche, unlike Freud and Marx, is not an evidential atheist, according to Westphal, because his critique of religion is grounded solely in a hermcneutic of suspicion. His message for the Christian, however, is ultimately the same as that delivered by Freud and Marx. But there is one sense in which Nietzsche goes beyond the other two masters of suspicion, namely, in his suspicion of reason. Freud and Marx, that is, are still fundamentalists of the Enlightenment because they still hold faith in the powers of reason. Nietzsche has lost even that faith.
Westphal concludes this meditation on the religious values of modern atheism by noting the dangers that accompany such an exercise-such an undertaking can simply spawn its own hypocrisy in the battle to rid itself of hypocrisy, or it can degenerate into cynicism, or it may destroy all memory of the grace of God. Despite the dangers, however, he encourages a careful examination of such atheisms as an antidote to a pervasive self-deception within the religious life, which leads to a severely distorted form of piety. He sees this book, therefore, as primarily for the church rather than for the academy. If modern atheists are taken seriously, he is confident they will provide a stimulus to a self-examination that can help restore the integrity of religious life. Thus, he thinks of the book as a kind of lenten exercise.
Although not directed to the academy, Westphal's book is a careful and illuminating analysis of the nature and the religious import of the atheism of suspicion and will, therefore, be of interest to many in the academy. It is also, and primarily, a profound religious meditation of particular value to Christians, though not obviously limited to those within the Christian church. Donald Wiebe Trinity College Toronto, ON

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