Book review: Suspicion & Faith

Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, by Merold Westphal

Westphal is a philosophy professor and a Christian.

The book is about the three modern philosophers Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. (OK, Freud isn’t exactly a philosopher, but he wrote philosophically relevant stuff, so I’m calling him one for now.) These three have become known as the “masters of suspicion” for the common approach they took in attacking Christianity.

As Westphal explains in this book, most of the atheists we’ve been exposed to practice skepticism rather than suspicion. That is, they try to debunk Christian claims by showing that they are false. The three discussed in this book took a different tack. They exposed the unworthy motives that they insisted lay behind Christian claims. Freud argued that religious beliefs are subconsciously generated by our secret desires and the guilt we feel about them; Marx said they arise as the inevitable result of class conflicts, and represent the justification of the rich and the pacification of the poor; Nietzsche saw them as the disguised resentment of the weak and cowardly against those who are willing to act powerfully, joyfully, and courageously. All three agree that Christians are not aware of their false motives, but they have them nonetheless.

There are ways to defend ourselves against such criticisms, but that isn’t Westphal’s point here. He wants to ask whether we can learn from the critiques. Should we take the charges seriously? Should we search our hearts in humility and repent of the things we’ve been charged with?

I really like that approach, and I want to take several paragraphs to discuss my view of it.

First, I think there is a place for doing apologetics, for defending ourselves against attacks by opponents of the faith, but I think there is also a place for asking whether we are guilty as charged. In my opinion, most attacks on Christian motives are exaggerated, but there is nearly always a seed of truth in them, and we need to consider how we should respond to that truth. We know that because of the example of David and Shimei (2 Samuel 16:5-12) and because of what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-5.

Furthermore, this approach is very much in line with my own gifts and personality. I thrive spiritually when I listen carefully to critics of Christianity. Once I understand clearly why they feel as they do, it deepens my own walk with God. (I have a corresponding weakness, in that it is difficult for me to shoot down false teaching when it needs to be refuted. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, but I am not sure what to say about it at this point.)

Anyway, there are a few different ways to respond to someone who is as hostile to one’s faith as the masters of suspicion. One, of course, is to reject everything they say as nonsense. I think that’s a bad approach.

Another is to capitulate too quickly; to just accept whatever charge they make as true and try to fix things. That way of dealing with their attacks isn’t much better. Freud and Marx and Nietzsche are so thoroughgoing in their rejection of everything remotely Christian, and their objections are so emotionally charged, that it isn’t spiritually healthy to accept their assumptions uncritically.

So a third way is to hold onto one’s Christian beliefs and then use the complaints of our critics to alert us to little things here and there that we can do a better job of. This is easy enough to figure out on a surface level. Marx says that Christianity is a justification of the rich and an opiate for the poor, so we think, “How can I be sure I am not ignoring the plight of the poor?” Nietzsche talks about disguised resentment, so we double-check our attitudes to be sure we have forgiven people. That’s not a very good response either, though; it’s too superficial.

The fourth, best way of responding to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche is to go deeper. We can’t just think about how they view Christians, and then try to make ourselves look better than that. To be content with that would be to miss their point. They claim that our wrong motives are a) embedded into our very identities at a deep level and b) almost completely unconscious. We can’t see the problem by simple self-reflection.

What we have to do instead is wrestle with some deep theology about original sin and the nature of self-deception in Scripture. We have to find the precise connections between that and the suspicions these three raise. We have to track down the ways in which the views of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are themselves corrupted by original sin. Finally, we have to look for ways to apply the insight this gives us to our lives, but we have to find, not just any application we can think of, but those which go to the heart of the matter.

Doing all this takes more than intellectual analysis: it takes humility, wisdom, balance, and especially time. It may take months or even years mulling over the basic charges being made, and doing so in inward conversation with the Holy Spirit.

Back to the book: that’s what I felt was missing when I read it. Westphal is completely right that there is value in working through how we need to repent in light of the masters of suspicion, but he didn’t help me see how to do so in any depth. I felt as though he used approach three. He just grabbed some obvious superficial applications and wrote some mild exhortations and platitudes about them.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s carefully thought all of this through, and what seemed glib was deep. Maybe he just presented it simply for the sake of his audience. If so, I needed less simplicity. I needed to see the depth.

So much for my disagreement with the book. There were also several things Westphal did well. That he wrote the book at all is great, because his general point is one that needs to be made. His explanations of all three philosophers were clear, thorough, and easy to understand. He is doctrinally sound and reasonable throughout.

Would I recommend the book? Probably not to most people, but I wouldn’t be worried about recommending it either.

Would I reread it? Probably I won’t, but if I wanted to take a closer look at his summaries of each philosopher, it’d be worth doing.

Even though I was hoping for more, I didn’t dislike the book. It didn’t raise any alarms in my mind. It didn’t make me mad. It was a mildly enjoyable read. On a scale of 1 to 10 I would put this around 4.

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