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Scepticism and suspicion

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 23 March 2015


There have been two movements in modern atheism. It began with the argument that there was no evidence for the existence of God. This may be regarded as evidential atheism, and is based a scepticism in which all concepts were doubted. This is illustrated by an anecdote put about by Bertrand Russell. He held that if God had asked him why he did not believe in his existence, Russell would have replied "Not enough evidence God!"

It was thought that healthy scepticism would rid us from the ancient superstitions and dogmas and lead to a new age of rationality.

The second wave of atheism presumed the nonexistence of God. This presumption led inevitably to a suspicious examination not of belief but of the believer. If God did not exist then belief was an illusion. Freud worked this out in his theory of the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious and declared that religion was a universal neurosis. Marx examined the function of belief in politics and came to the conclusion that it was the opiate of the people that ensured that they accepted their situation in life.

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Thus the two movements of modern atheism were based firstly on scepticism and secondly on suspicion.

I came across the following definitions of scepticism and suspicion in Merold Westphal's Suspicion and Faith.

"Scepticism is directed toward 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."

The first movement of modern atheism was championed by the likes of Hume and Kant.

The second phase of opposition to Christian belief is based on the suspicion that believers are not what they seem, that their belief is self-serving and has little to do with truth. The major proponents of this view are Freud, Marx, Feuerbach and Nietzsche. They all see religion as irony that masks a latent function.

Believers deal with the anxieties of life by projecting a loving supernatural father who will look after them on earth and welcome them into heaven after death. Belief was thus transparent. Belief is formed not on truth but on what was needful. For example, Mary is elevated to be almost a member of the Trinity because female believers required a woman with whom to sympathise.

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Feuerbach's criticism of Christianity was that it encouraged the best properties of humanity and projected them as properties of a supernatural being. Thus humanity was impoverished by the enrichment of God. Marx used this idea in the political arena and stated that the poor had rich gods and belief served to keep them impoverished. This criticism reveals believers to be childlike and unable to accept the realities of human existence. Nietzsche regarded Christianity as producing a slave race that refused to grasp its own power.

The close relationship between the aristocracy and the church in both France and Russia, for example, looks more like crowd control than an adherence to religious truth. We could certainly say the same about medieval Christianity with its friezes of the last judgment showing those on the left of Jesus being dragged off to hideous punishment and those on the right enjoying the life of heaven.

It is tempting to agree with the postmodern fashion of analysing everything in terms of power relations. Political power was based on religious power.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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