The Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Rationality seeks to evaluate arguments using rules that label some arguments as good and some arguments as bad from a purely objective point of view. Formal logic is a tried and tested method for determining the soundness of many arguments since it allows the argument to be tested by rigorous standards. Informal fallacies are less stringent but still very helpful tools for evaluating the soundness of an argument. Almost everyone has run into such informal fallacies as ad hominem attacks, poisoning the well, guilt by association, improper appeals to authorities and false dilemmas. Anyone arguing for Christ with a skeptic should become familiar with all of these informatal fallacies since they are regularly practiced by both sides in the debate over the truth of Christianity.

I think, however, that a newer error in logic has been gaining ground in all types of debates, but few recognize it as the sloppy thinking that it is. It is regularly used in political debate. For example, looking at the debate over reforming social security through the creation of private investment accounts in the United States, the Republicans accuse the Democrats of fighting reform because they want to keep control of the moneys being paid in the form of social security taxes. Meanwhile, Democrats accuse the Republicans of supporting partial privatization because the Republicans only want to get tax money into the hands of their "fat cat" supporters. Note that both sides are using the motivation of the other side as the basis for opposing their position, while neither of these objections go to the merits of whether partial privatization would, in fact, work or reform the system.

The same principle can be seen in religious debate. I mentioned recently that I think it is an error for skeptics to try to dream up psychological reasons for Christians to believe that God exists as a means of explaining a continuing belief in God. You see, until it is shown that God doesn't exist, my potential psychological motivations for believing something that is untrue don't enter into play. Why not? Because it has not been shown that God doesn't exist, and so the most obvious reason for my belief that God exists is that God does in fact exist. In other words, until it has been shown that I am believing something that is untrue or extremely unlikely, then it is inappropriate to dream up psychological reasons for my continuing to believe in something untrue.

There is actually a name for this phenomena: it is called the hermeneutics of suspicion. Identified by Paul Ricoeur, the hermeneutics of suspicion is an approach to knowledge that calls into question the potential reasons that a person may hold a particular belief as a means of critiquing/discrediting that belief. The masters of this approach, as identified by Ricoeur, were Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto, Fredich Nietzche, a philosopher most famous for his pronouncement that "God is dead," and Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychology. All three, Ricoeur noted, had proclaimed that people believed in Christianity as the result of external motivations unrelated to the reality of God.

. . . Marx's analysis of religion led him to the conclusion that while religion appeared to be concerned with the lofty issues of transcendence and personal salvation, in reality its true function was to provide a "flight from the reality of inhuman working conditions" and to make "the misery of life more endurable."[7] Religion in this way served as "the opium of the people."[8]

Similarly, Nietzche's understanding of the true purpose of religion as the elevation of "weakness to a position of strength, to make weakness respectable" belied its apparent purpose, namely to make life for the 'slave morality', the weak, the unfit, a little more endurable by promoting virtues such as pity, industry, humility, and friendliness. Thus Nietzche unmasks religion to reveal it as the refuge of the weak.[9]

Likewise with Freud, the same pattern of "unmasking" to reveal and distinguish "the real" from the "apparent" is evident in his analysis of religion. So, while religion was perceived to be a legitimate source of comfort and hope when one is faced with the difficulties of life, in reality religion was an illusion that merely expressed one's wish for a father-God.[10] It was only a small step for Ricoeur to recognize the suspicion of religion and culture offered by the heroes and then apply the same principle to the act of communication under the rubric of a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Furthermore, Ricoeur insisted that it would be a mistake to view the three as masters of skepticism. Why is this? Because, while it is true they are involved with destroying established ideas "All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a 'destructive' critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting."[11] In other words, each of the masters have, in their own way, unmasked a false consciousness, a false understanding of the "text" (society) by systematically applying a critique of suspicion, with the result that the true understanding, one that more faithfully tracks and correlates with the real situation now becomes unmasked and revealed. All three, for Ricoeur, "represent three convergent procedures of demystification."[12]
"Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion: A Brief Overview and Critique" by G. D. Robinson.

What is wrong with this? Shouldn't the motivation for holding a position be taken into consideration when evaluating a position? What is wrong is not that motivation is being considered, but rather that each of these positions do not first evaluate whether the reasons for accepting Christianity as true are, in fact, false. Consider Brian K. Morley in "Understanding our Postmodern World" from the book Think Biblically: Recovering a Christian Worldview:

Rather than deal with the truth or falsity of an idea, this approach casts suspicion on the motives of the person holding it and supposes that we are prone to self-deception. It features less epistemological analysis of what is true or false and more psychological and sociological analysis concerning why people hold the views they do. Accordingly, skepticism in the postmodern age has more to do with beliefs about the nature of people and consciousness than with objective facts.

Certainly, it is appropriate to take into account whether a person may have a bias or prejudice for preferring one option over another when determining the truth or falsity of a claim. Motivations are very important to uncovering potentially hidden facts. But it is erroneous thinking to put all of one's eggs in the "what external motivation does he hold for beliving that?" basket.

For example, it is wrong to evaluate my reasons for believing that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are going to win American baseball's World Series this year on a purely psychological, sociological or economic basis without first evaluating my arguments for my claims. Yes, I have ties to Southern California (sociological reason to believe the Angels will win), I am a Christian who believes in the existence of angels (psychological reason) and I may even have bet $5.00 on the Angels to win in an office pool (economic reason). However, if my arguments for the Angels winning the World Series are sound (e.g., they have a strong pitching staff, the best power game in the American League, and Mike Sciocia has proven himself to be one of the best managers in Major League Baseball), then the fact that I have sociological, psychological and economic reasons for believing the Angels will win all become secondary. They only come to the forefront when I make a claim that I cannot otherwise support, such as if I were to claim that the pathetic Tampa Bay Devil Rays were going to win the World Series this year. While it is possible they could win (that's why they play the games), going into the season Tampa Bay is weak on pitching, weak on hitting and weak on defense. There is no reasonable basis to suppose that they will win this year. In such a case, the sociological, psychological and economic reasons for my belief become relevant.

In the case of Christianity, the claim for Christian belief is strong -- much stronger than skeptics will ever admit. Attempts to seek to explain my belief by my sociological, psychological or economic motives are misplaced because there is a very reasonable case to be made that my reasons for believing is that Christianity is true. If the evidence were weak or non-existent, then Freud, Marx and Nietzche may have been right in their reasoning. But since it is not the case that the evidence is weak or non-existent, Freud, Marx and Nietzche (and all of the countless other skeptics who have attempted to come up with reasons for belief in Christianity based for external reasons unrelated to the central question of whether Christianity is true) were simply engaging in fallacious thinking.


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