Atheism is hot right now. Books by Dawkins, Hitchens, and others have gotten a good deal of attention. But we should not misinterpret their significance. They are, I suspect, preaching to the choir. Not many people become Christians by reading, say, the apologetic writings of C. S. Lewis. The main consumers of apologetic writings are believers and those with a fairly strong inclination in that direction. It is partly a matter of faith (actual or incipient) seeking understanding and probably more importantly, faith seeking reassurance. The believer understands that we walk by faith and not by sight, but does not wish to think of that faith as blind, arbitrary, or irrational. Apologetic writings articulate the internal rationale in terms of which belief(s) makes sense.

Very likely it is the same with atheistic apologetics. Not many atheists (or self-described agnostics who act as if they were atheists) got to where they are because they became disenchanted with proofs for the existence of God, just as very few believers came to belief by finding these proofs convincing. Psychological, social, and moral factors play a large role in both directions. I suspect that atheistic apologetics play a similar role to theistic or explicitly Christian apologetics. Unbelievers, in this case, who got where they are by a very complicated and not entirely intellectual process are happy to be assured that they are being rational in their unbelief.

It is important, however, to distinguish two kinds of atheism. One kind, which we may call evidential atheism focuses on such questions as whether it is possible to prove the existence of God or to prove the non-existence of God, especially in relation to the obvious existence, extent, and intensity of evil in the world. Or, in a less ambitious manner, the question becomes whether it is rational or not to believe. Rationality is a lower hurdle, since it can be rational to believe something that turns out to be false. Thus children who believe what their parents tell them are not acting irrationally, nor are they violating any cognitive duties, though their parents may be mistaken on this or that point. Similarly, it may well have been rational for Colin Powell to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction although it turned out that he didn’t. At the same time, if the charges of “cherry-picking” intelligence are true, it may have been irrational for Dick Cheney to have the same belief. Unlike truth, rationality is personal relative. One and the same belief may be rationally held by one person but only irrationally by another.

So evidential atheism revolves around the questions: can we know (with reasonable certainty) that God does or does not exist? And would it be rational or irrational to believe that God exists?

Another kind of atheism can be called the atheism of suspicion. It employs the hermeneutics of suspicion. ‘Hermeneutics’ signifies reflection on interpretation, and theologians are familiar with the term in connection with questions about how to interpret the Bible. In the present context, the term has a slightly different meaning. First, it is not a normative, how-to enterprise but a descriptive theory (or range of theories) making the claim that our understanding is interpretative in nature. Rather than pure intuitions in which our mind passively mirrors the world or the meaning of the text, understanding is an active construal of its meaning in a context where other construals are always possible. Second, the suggestion is that it is not just in theology or law that interpretation matters but rather, that often or even always our understanding is interpretive in nature, not only in academic disciplines but also in everyday life.

But the key term here is suspicion. Our interpretations are guided by suspicion when we construe a belief or practice as involving self-deception. The suspicion is that while we understand our beliefs and practices in terms that are honorable or at least innocent, what is really going on underneath is neither, but rather something darker, or shameful by our own standards. Hence the need to hide it from ourselves. Thus we speak of justice in relation to our belief in and practice of capital punishment, but Nietzsche suspects that what is really at work is more accurately named revenge. Similarly, in Freudian language, the dream (in its manifest content) may seem to be innocently about our uncle while its true meaning (its latent content) is our jealous rivalry with a colleague.

Or, we can take a lighter example from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. When Frederick, an apprentice pirate, is doing a bit of R and R on the Cornish beach and comes across a bevy of nubile maidens (who turn out to be the daughters of the Modern Major General), he asks if there is not one of them who in the name of duty would marry him and rescue him from his involuntary piracy. Being properly Victorian young ladies, they all say “No” most emphatically—all except the beautiful Mabel. Scolding her sisters for their lack of pity or compassion, she says she is willing. Without any special training they show themselves to be masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion.
They sing:

The question is, had he not been

A thing of beauty,
Would she be swayed by quite as keen
A sense of duty?

If the casting director has been lucky, Frederick and Mabel don’t just have beautiful voices. He is a hunk and she is a babe. He has been reading his Kant (on a pirate ship?), and he states his case in the language of duty. She has been reading her Aristotle (as a Victorian maiden?) and puts her case in the language of virtue (pity, compassion). But beneath this lofty disguise with which the two young lovers deceive themselves, the sisters see all too easily that what is really driving the scene is ordinary, everyday sex appeal.

The late French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, has called Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud the “masters of suspicion.”[2] These three, of course, are perhaps the most widely influential atheists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But they are not evidential atheists. They do not try to disprove the existence of God or to show theistic belief to be irrational with reference to the lack of evidence for or the weight of evidence against such belief. Atheism is best seen as axiomatic for them. The question is not whether there is a God of the sort that the Abrahamic monotheisms affirm but rather, since “we know” that there is not, how can we explain why such belief is so widespread and so powerful? As masters of suspicion, they suspect that while theistic believers describe their religion in intellectually and morally honorific terms, the deepest motives and the operative functions of belief are less lofty and for that reason are kept out of sight (of the believer if not of the suspicious unbeliever).

We can thus define the hermeneutics of suspicion at work in these atheisms as follows. It is:

the deliberate attempt to expose the self-deceptions involved in hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually or collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behavior and our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown. (SF 13)

Before turning to the three atheisms before us, there are several things we might notice about the hermeneutics of suspicion as a general practice.

Beliefs exposed by suspicion to be less than lofty may nevertheless be true. Thus, for example, I may believe a piece of nasty gossip, for which I have no supporting evidence, because of my hatred or jealousy toward the person involved. My believing is shameful, but the belief may still be true. We would be committing the “genetic fallacy” to assume that a badly held belief is necessarily false. Quite possibly Dan Rather was too eager to believe that George W. Bush had shirked his duty in the National Guard. The suspicion that he was for this reason insufficiently critical of his source cost him his job. But that belief may well be true nevertheless.

In this area, it is often quite easy to play that tu quoque game. That’s Latin for “it takes one to know one.” Thus, in response to Freud’s claim that theistic belief is infantile, it is easy enough to reply that his atheism is an adolescent rebellion against any parental authority. But we should notice 1) that this does not settle the question of truth, 2) that both charges might be right, and 3) that there may be, as I will suggest, a more appropriate response for the believer.

Truth is no defense against the charges leveled by suspicion. It may well be, for example, that the convicted defendant deserves to be sentenced to a long prison term or even to death. But the speeches made by the family of the victim at the sentencing hearing may be expressions of little more than hatred and revenge. Similarly, even if theistic belief is true, the believings may be vulnerable to and discredited by the critiques of suspicion. Frederick would have missed the point of the sister’s gibe if he tried to argue that they really had a duty to help him, just as it would be beside the point for Mabel to insist that they really were lacking in compassion.

Suspicion is most easily practice by “us” against “them,” whoever “we” and “they” may be. Thus atheists against believers and vice versa, or Democrats against Republicans and vice versa. But this is not necessary, and the above definition of the hermeneutics of suspicion deliberately says ”our” instead of “their” in order to suggest that, while we may get good at suspicion by practicing it on “them,” its proper function may be to practice it upon ourselves in a kind of Lenten self-examination, worrying about the log in our own eyes before going after the speck in theirs (Matt. 7:1-5). What if the biblical prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself were the originators of suspicion against the piety of the covenant people of God? What if Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are plagiarists, who should have footnoted their biblical sources? What if today’s believers should explore the religious uses of these modern atheisms before trying to refute them? What if their critiques are all too true all too much of the time? If “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (Isa. 64:6) and “The heart is devious above all else: it is perverse” (Jer. 17:9), then believers, too, might be among those “who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18), creating God in our image and in accord with our own desires.

That is just what Freud says, noting, as if to protect himself from my plagiarism charge, that his psychological analysis agrees with religion (in substance if not in language) in the claim that we are all miserable sinners. Believers are self-deceived about what is really going on both in their beliefs and their practices. Freud says that religious beliefs are like dreams and religious practices like the rituals of obsessional neuroses (for example, Lady Macbeth’s hand washing compulsion). The latter comparison is too complex to be treated here, so we will direct ourselves to the cognitive dimension of religion, which in any case is the scene for the question of theism vs. atheism.

To call religious beliefs analogs of dreams is to say that they are disguised wish-fulfillments. For Freud, adult dreams, at least the one’s he finds of interest, are representations of the satisfaction of forbidden desires, especially sexual or aggressive (hateful) desires. But since these desires are forbidden, their naked (no pun intended) representation would be too costly in terms of the guilt it would produce. So in dreaming we disguise the fulfillment so as have the best of both worlds. The manifest content is an innocent, if puzzling representation, while the latent context provides the forbidden emotional satisfaction while remaining hidden from view.

Religious beliefs are like this for Freud. What we would like is a God at our disposal, a powerful father figure who would take care of us, protect us from the indifference of nature’s forces, including, in the final analysis, death and from the rigid demands of society and culture. In addition to being a Providential Power, we would like to have a Moral Lawgiver and Judge who would be sure to give our enemies what they’ve got coming. But in relation to ourselves, we’d like to see the moral dimension relaxed, so that the Heavenly Father would be more like a doting grandfather. It is as if we wanted to be able to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be my name.
My kingdom come,
my will be done
on earth as yours is in heaven.

Of course, the believer is too pious to pray this blatantly. (The example is mine, not Freud’s.) So the more familiar words are used, but Freud’s suspicion is that we deceive ourselves and that the deepest motivation and the operative function of the prayer is more truthfully expressed in the version which, undisguised, sounds blasphemous.

The God we really mean, as distinct from the God we persuade ourselves that we mean, is indeed created in our own image. But not ex nihilo, not from whole cloth. All that is required is a little (or a lot) of editing. It’s more than a little like political spin. One doesn’t abandon factuality altogether; one only re-describes it in favor of oneself or one’s party, distorting the truth in the process. Similarly, in the theological case, one takes a reality that the unbeliever wouldn’t question, say the Highest Power, which for the atheist might well be nature or matter, and describes it as our Loving Heavenly Father. Or again, one’s point of departure might be the biblical God whom one (or a whole tradition or community) edits to be more congenial and less demanding. Thus Bonhoeffer can speak of “cheap grace” and Kierkegaard can speak of “paganism in Christendom.” N.B. These last two instances show that atheism does not have a monopoly on the hermeneutics of suspicion. It is also (and I would argue, originally) found in the prophetic strands of biblical religion and in theologies that haven’t edited them down to the place where their critical voice is effectively silenced.

Whereas for Freud theistic belief is our weakness before the forces of nature and society seeking consolation, for Marx it is social power, economic and political, seeking legitimation. In his vocabulary, it is ideology. He uses this term in a narrower and more specific sense than we normally do. For us ‘ideology’ signifies a political philosophy, a body of ideas that articulates a fairly determinate political, social, and economic ethos. For Marx it signifies such ideas in their role as providing legitimation for the dominant social order. Thus, as he and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

Marx sees society as composed of three strata. The most fundamental is the economic system, the means of production, and the relations of production. But ever since primitive communism (when the plains Indians get buffalo everyone eats, and when they don’t nobody eats), the slaves of antiquity, the serfs of feudalism, and the wage laborers of modern capitalism have been exploited by those who owned the means of production (primarily land until the industrial revolution).

Such systems require enforcement, and political systems play that role. But force by itself is never enough. It needs to be supplemented by consent or at least by compliance. So ideologies come onto the scene to provide theoretical justification of the political-economic system. Moral, legal, metaphysical, and religious ideas play this role. Especially religious ideas, for nothing provides a stronger legitimation of a social order than its being (believed to be) the will of God. So, while religion sees itself in terms of lofty metaphysical truths and moral ideals, Marx is suspicious that its primary function is to put the divine stamp of approval on the current form of exploitation. (This is closely related to the claim that all wars are, at base, “holy” wars, justified by some theistic or secular religion such as communism or democracy.)

For this reason, Marx is not surprised to find that the working class in England is not conspicuously pious. Sundays are their only respite from an oppressive work week. But he is aware of such phenomena as the piety of the American slaves, and he notes that Christianity as an ideology does its legitimizing work partly by offering justification to the beneficiaries of exploitation and partly by offering consolation to its victims. Thus there is a better world awaiting just over Jordan in Beulah Land, and in heaven all God’s chillun got shoes.[3] Religious hope weakens the impetus toward rebellion. However, the focus of ideology critique in Marx is the way religion assuages the consciences of those who live off the labor of others so that they can, for example, go to church in the morning and come home to whip their slaves in the afternoon.

While Marxian theory calls our attention to the important role religion has played in the legitimation of such social systems as slavery, apartheid, and segregation, it tends to be blind to the role of religion in the anti-slavery movement, the anti-apartheid movement, and the civil rights movement. Religion, it would appear, is Janus faced. It can be used to do the devil’s work, and it can function as a prophetic critique of social sin. In general, the masters of suspicion identify a spot at which theistic belief is undeniably vulnerable and talk as if that were the whole story about Christianity. So it is tempting to believers to call attention to this one-sidedness, and, in the case of Marx, to call attention to the atrocities accomplished in his name. But if such a “defense” is left at that it is doubly defective. On the one hand it is a refusal to take Jesus seriously about the priority of the log in “our” own eyes over the speck in “theirs.” On the other hand it is a refusal to recognize that even if the Marxian critique of Christianity is one-sided, the side to which he calls attention has been all too true all too much of the time. It is a reality and not a fiction.

The use of the past tense here points to a last, desperate attempt to miss the point. We can congratulate ourselves on having slavery, apartheid, and the Jim Crow south behind us. We have sided, at least after the fact, with those who in the name of faith opposed these evils. But all too easily we become like the Sunday School teacher who taught a lesson on the Pharisee and tax collector who went up to the temple to pray, the former in self-righteous complacency, the latter in repentant humility (Luke 18:9-14). Then she said, “Now, children, let us bow our heads, fold our hands, close our eyes, and thank God that we are not like that Pharisee.”

To read Marxian atheism for Lent is not to find some way to dismiss or discredit him. It is rather to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety. It is well to remember that the German Christians lent their support to the Nazi regime by their own anti-Semitism, whether is was vocally overt or silently complicit. (Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like those Germans.) Piety that is silent in the face of social injustice is as vulnerable to Marxian critique as overt support for oppression of various kinds. For silence, too, is the consent that lends legitimacy.

If for Marx religion, especially Christianity, primarily functions[4] as ideological legitimation of social power, for Nietzsche it primarily functions as verbal revenge for social weakness. The strong (the rich and powerful) think of themselves as good, but in a sociological rather than a moral sense. They are noble rather than base, the elite rather than the hoi polloi, the upper crust rather than the crumbs, the disposable leftovers of the social order. They are the masters over against the slaves. Nietzsche uses these latter terms in an obviously expanded sense. Beyond the institution of slavery as such they signify the fundamental distinction between the dominant and the dominated in any social order.

It is the “slave revolt in morality,”[5] that makes ‘good’ the opposite of ‘evil,’ especially in the context of biblical religion. As we might by now suspect, it is not that God in heaven gives a law that commands some things as goodness and forbids others as evil. The story rather goes like this: the slaves have no power, physical or social, with which the punish their oppressors, thereby wreaking their revenge and satisfying their resentment. So they use the only weapon available to them: language. They call their masters “evil.” This is because the masters fail to accept the constraints placed upon their otherwise unfettered power by the “good” as required by the new ethic of altruism and asceticism. With the help of their intellectuals, whom Nietzsche identifies as the priestly caste,[6] the slaves give birth to the dominant morality of the west and the religions, Judaism and Christianity, that are its primary bearers. God functions as the primary source and enforcer of the new values, “good and evil.”

These religions speak much of neighbor love and social justice. But Nietzsche thinks that what is really at work on the dark underside of these pieties is the spirit of resentment and revenge. Thus where the manifest content is justice, he suspects that the latent content is revenge; and where the manifest content is pity or compassion, he suspects that the latent motive is to establish one’s own superiority, not only materially but especially morally. No doubt Nietzsche assumes too quickly that this is the whole story about the moralities and monotheisms of Judaism and Christianity; and no doubt his theory would not have had the survival power it has shown if there had not been more than a grain of truth in it. Just as the prophet Nathan boldly told David, “Thou art the man,” so Nietzsche accuses theists of self-righteous self-deception, trying to hide from others and successfully hiding from ourselves the ways in which our pieties serve our individual and collective wills to power. Nietzsche would not be surprised, for example, to find Christians on both sides of the abortion debate all too eager to dub their opponents evil, not only because of their beliefs and practices relating to the substantive issue, but also, in a second level of Nietzschean name-calling, precisely for their eagerness to call “us” on the other side of the issue evil.

The religion critiques of these three masters of suspicion have an irony to them. They accuse Christians, and others, of worshiping idols, gods created by their own thoughts in the service of their own not very pious desires. In discussing this trio with a group of students at a Christian college, I once said that I thought I had probably never prayed to a God who wasn’t an idol. Their immediate reaction made it clear that they were as horrified as they were puzzled. So I explained. I thought that the God who hears my prayers is not an idol but the maker of heaven and earth. However, God as represented by me and to me in my prayers is always to a greater or lesser degree edited, both by me and by the traditions that have shaped me. It is not just my finitude that makes my ideas inadequate to the reality of God (though I think this is certainly true); it is also the sinful desires by which I and the traditions by which I have been formed have suppressed the truth by revising God (Rom. 1:18). The students got the point and became very sober.

Luther would have understood more quickly. He writes, “Through sin we are completely turned away from God, so that we do not think correctly about God but think of Him simply as we do of an idol.” [7]

We can speak here of the Third Commandment idolatry[8]: “you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God” (Ex. 20:7) Taking the Lord’s name in vain is not just a matter of swearing. We violate this commandment whenever we put our theistic, even our specifically Christian beliefs and practices in the service of our own interests insofar as they have not been fully brought into conformity with God’s will. Just to that degree we make God into a fictitious fulfiller of our wishes (Freud), whether this be to underwrite our own privilege (Marx) or to undermine the good name of those we dislike (Nietzsche).

So the atheisms of these three masters of suspicion may well be helpful aids in Lenten self-examination leading to repentance. There are, however, three dangers to be alerted to. First, if we fall in love with practicing suspicion on “them,” leaving its practice upon ourselves and our communities for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, we lapse into the phariseeism that has never been the monopoly of those whom Jesus opposed in his earthly ministry. Second, just to the degree that we begin to see the universality of sin as an epistemic category, a distorter of religious as well as irreligious beliefs, we can become cynical, losing the possibility of loving our enemies and even ourselves. Finally, we may lose sight of grace, God’s ever present help in forgiving us and creating within us a clean heart. As so often, it is the hymn writer who comes to our aid:

Not for our sins alone they mercy, Lord, we sue;
let fall thy pitying glance on our devotions too,
what we have done for thee, and what we think to do.
The holiest hours we spend in prayer upon our knees,
the times when most we deem our songs of praise will please,
thou searcher of all hearts, forgiveness pour on these.
And all the gifts we bring, and all the vows we make,,
and all the acts of love we plan for thy dear sake,,
into thy pard’ning thought, O God in mercy take.
Bow down thine ear and hear! Open thine eyes and see.
Our very love is shame, and we must come to thee
to make it of thy grace what thou wouldst have it be.[9]


[1] This perhaps surprising suggestion is a chapter title in my book, Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998). Henceforth SF. Some churches, I am told, have developed Lenten study groups in keeping with this suggestion. The reader is referred to this volume for more detailed development of the atheisms of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and of their possible appropriation by believers.
[2] Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1970), p. 32.
[3] For a comprehensive and classic study, see Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
[4] A reminder. The hermeneutics of suspicion looks for hidden motivations often best revealed in actual functions or uses rather than focusing on the question of truth. For our three atheistic masters of suspicion the question of truth is already settled and doesn’t need to be argued, or a best only very briefly.
[5] Especially as developed in On the Genealogy of Morals.
[6] Here, again, the term has an extensive reference. It surely applies to the clergy, but beyond that to all those whom, in Marxian language, might be called the ideologues of the slaves, those who base morality and legality as well as religion on the distinction between good and evil.
[7] Luther’s Works, Vol. 12, Selected Psalms I, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), 309.
[8] For Catholics and Lutherans it would be Second Commandment idolatry.
[9] Henry Twells, “Not For Our Sins Alone” (1889), in Rejoice in the Lord: A Hymn Companion to the Scriptures, ed. Erik Routley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), no. 506, stanzas 1-3, 5.