The Lens of Suspicion

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When approaching the systematic academic study of Religion in academic settings, there are two fundamental positions that a scholar may lean towards – the position of a believer of the faith tradition, or the position of a dis-believer. While these two positions – belief and dis-belief are two ends of a spectrum of possibilities, any given scholar may get positioned somewhere in between. Although every scholar would like to claim that they have been perfectly “objective” in their study, i.e. exactly in the middle between belief and dis-belief, more often than not, their own individual biases and preferences, come through in their work. Thus, scholarly work in the field of religious studies often reveals more about the scholars’ own pre-dispositions than the subject they are studying. The Lens of suspicion may be summed up as “objective but suspicious”, and very often, the position of disbelief, is frequently presented as an objective study of religion, but which is nevertheless suspicious of the phenomenon of religion itself, resulting in varying levels of deconstruction and distortion.

The technical term Hermeneutics originated from the ancient Greek God Hermes who transmitted messages between men and Gods, and was the original interpreter, and later transformed into a general theory of interpretation of “texts”, primarily Biblical. In current day understanding, hermeneutics represents a theory of interpretation not only of texts, but also cultures, people and society at large. First formulated as such by the French Philosopher, Paul Ricouer (1913 – 2005), the hermeneutics of suspicion, in its most general sense, approaches any subject, text, culture or phenomenon with a degree of suspicion or distrust towards it. It presupposes that whatever meaning that the text may be offering at face value is somehow false, and that there is a hidden meaning, a disguised meaning, which when uncovered would represent a new level of understanding perhaps not even available to the original author or informant. Inherent in this presupposition is the view that the meaning communicated directly by the author of a text or an informant from a tradition, cannot be taken at face value, in the first place, since their meaning only serves as camouflage for the hidden meaning.

The three masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion were Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900) and Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939). Each was steeped in the process of uncovering hidden meaning, but it was Paul Ricouer who synthesized their thought into the integrated category called the hermeneutic of suspicion.

For example, Karl 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”. Religion in this way served as “the opium of the people” – a mere drug, a kind of pain killer or anesthetic constituting in a nutshell the Marxist view of Religion.

Similarly, Friedrich Nietzche’s analysis of religion emerged from a hypothesis that a person’s overtly stated and superficial meaning was only a proxy for deeper and even unconscious meaning often contrary to the professed meaning. For example, Nietzche argues that Jesus Christ’s explicit and overt message of love, actually masks and conceals a deeper and perhaps a less conscious motive of hatred and revenge, directed especially at the oppressive Roman order (On the Genealogy of Morals – 1887).

And Lastly, Sigmund Freud, using his own theories of the psychology of the unconscious, “unmasks” and “de-mystifies” religion to reveal and distinguish “the real”, which is hidden or repressed from the “apparent” – So, while religion according to Freud 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 a child’s repressed feelings and need  in the form of “one’s wish for a father-God” who would function as a protector. Thus a sentiment such as “Jesus loves me” is not a fact about Jesus, but rather the repressed child’s need for love, that has gone unfulfilled and unexpressed.

In each of the above cases, the primary discipline is economics, sociology or psychology which are used as the lens through which a secondary phenomenon called religion is being analyzed and critiqued. The general ascendancy of the secular orientation arising from the European Renaissance, granted legitimacy to all the other disciplines i.e. sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology, area studies etc. while subtly pre-supposing the lack of legitimacy of religion itself, and continually granted space for uncovering hidden meaning from religious texts, cultures, informants and religious and spiritual phenomena. While the hermeneutics of suspicion as a valid methodology of interpretation, arose and gained strength primarily in relation to Christianity, it became very soon a valid means of studying any religion, and presenting its propositions as new “truth”.

Thus what is religion but the opium of the people, the refuge of the weak, a child’s wish for a father God? This, then is the fruit of the hermeneutics of suspicion, nurtured during the European renaissance, and brought to bear in its full force and power on the study of religion in general and Hinduism in particular, in the halls and classrooms of the modern secular University. When the hermeneutics of suspicion becomes the privileged vantage point through which one views religion, one is no longer concerned with the study of religion for its own intrinsic value; the interpretive effort is no longer focused on examining the various messages and meanings inherent to a text or a commentary; the intellectual exertion is no longer focused on giving voice to the author of an ancient text and the listeners (or readers) who were contemporary to him (or her); the spirit and approach of study is no longer to unearth whatever value an ancient text might have for the contemporary mind and intellect – but rather the entire effort of study problematizes the participants’ narrative and “decodes” meaning beyond the text. I.e. to unearth meanings that are disguised, and present interpretations far removed from the original intent of the text or phenomenon itself.  In other words, the entire sense and significance of the text itself can be bypassed, rendered almost secondary to the scholar’s endeavor. This has been largely the state of affairs in the realm of the academic study of religion, at least as it applies to Hinduism in particular, and the Dharma traditions of India in general.

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