Atheism and Suspicion

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.

Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth...

What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of the great contempt. The hour when your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue. - Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, 3

For starters, check out the new sticker on the left sidebar, courtesy of Razib. After yesterday's post, I'm pretty sure the Dawkinsians would place me firmly within Dawkins' "Neville Chamberlain 'appeasement' school," as opposed to his "Churchill school," because I don't think Dawkins has the mind for the difficult issues associated with religion and faith, and I don't think being religious automatically makes you irrational in any way. In the Dawkinsian universe, that probably means that I'm trying to appease non-fundamentalist religious folk. I can't imagine this post will make them feel any better about my atheist credentials.

You see, while I don't really buy the Chamberlain-Churchill distinction, I do recognize an even more fundamental one: suspicion vs. skepticism (see this article by Merold Westphal, via Prosthesis, via Siris; see, I'm even linking the Christians!). I'm an atheist of suspicion, and the Dawkinsians are atheists of skepticism. What's the difference? Here's a description of the "school of suspicion," represented by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, from the Westphal article:

What unites [Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud] in spite of important and possibly irreconcilable differences is their joint practice of the hermeneutics of suspicion, 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.

Here is how Westphal describes the distinction between the two schools:

This suspicion is to be distinguished from skepticism, which gives rise to evidential atheism. Skepticism is directed toward the elusiveness of things, while suspicion is directed toward the evasiveness of consciousness. Skepticism seeks to overcome the opacity of facts, while suspicion seeks to uncover the duplicity of persons. Skepticism 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. It seeks to discredit the believing soul by asking what motives lead people to belief and what functions their beliefs play, looking for precisely those motives and functions that love darkness rather than light and therefore hide themselves. Where Hume and Kant challenge the soundness of the arguments for the existence of God, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud seek to show how theistic belief functions both to mask and to fulfill forms of self-interest that cannot be acknowledged.

Skeptical atheists tend to adhere to some sort of rationalism (in their Dawkinsian forms, they're almost always adherents of hard-core scientism, too). Their rigid reliance on particular types of reasoning can lead them to see the world in stark either-or contrast: you either approach the world scientifically (i.e., through what science considers evidence and argument, in an ideal version of science that exists, primarily, in the skeptic's head), or you are irrational. It's not surprising, then, that these skeptics, at least the militant ones, are incapable of seeing, much less accepting, that religious faith might have its own form of reason and evidence.

Suspicious atheists, on the other hand, question the scientist's reason as strongly and openly as they question religious faith. Here's one of my favorite passages from Nietzsche, to illustrate the suspicious position:

What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are--how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray, in short, their childishness and childlikeness--but that they are not honest enough in their work: although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish--they talk about "inspiration"--): while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of "inspiration", most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact:--they are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize "truths"--and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself. Beyond Good and Evil, Part 1, 5

One could rewrite that passage and substitute "scientist" (especially those scientists who step outside of science, intellectually) or "atheist" for each instance of the word "philosopher," and it would be just as insightful. The problem with skeptical atheism, from the view of the suspicious, is the same as that of religious faith. The skeptical atheist assumes that the causes of his or her beliefs are transparent, or at least discoverable through (ironically) introspection, and that when he or she looks for those causes, the skeptical atheist will inevitably find the rational arguments that the or she already believes to be the impetus for his or her atheism. As a someone who studies the human mind, I can't help but find this position naive (hey, at least I didn't say "childlike"). Perhaps ironically, my own experience in science has led me to atheism of suspicion. I'll give you two reasons for this.

The first reason comes from two sources: in philosphy, the phenomenological school, and in psychology, the ecological school of J.J. Gibson. These two schools arrive at similar conclusions for similar reasons. In both, the human mind does not encounter the world from an objective position. Instead, it is instantly invested in the world. Speaking scientifically, our brains and bodies evolved to help us survive in the world, not so that we could discover its immutable truths. The best illustration of this that I know comes from another animal: the frog. In a classic paper titled "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain," Lettvin, Maturana, McCulloch, and Pitts argue that the frog's visual system has four basic types of detectors that it uses to interpret incoming sense data. Three of these detectors are designed to detect large objects (i.e., "not food"), mostly through changes in luminance and contrast. The fourth detector is, in essence, a bug detector (i.e., "food"). It picks out small, curved objects, like flies. That's what the frog sees: "not food" and "food," and it's all the fly really needs to see to get by in the world. Our visual (and other sensory) systems are clearly much more complex than the frog's, but that doesn't change the fact that they evolved to allow us to see what we need to see to get by. In ecological psychology, the theory of "affordances" nicely captures this insight. According to this theory, perception is designed to serve action. When we see a chair, we don't just see its physical dimensions. We also perceive that it "affords" sitting, or in other contexts, that it "affords" standing on its seat to reach light bulbs that need changing. It is because our sensory systems evolved for purposes other than presenting us with a veridical representation of the world that they're so easily fooled. One need only read a review of the literature on visual illusions, top-down (i.e., cognitive) influences on perception, or change and inattentional blindness, to see just how profoundly "off" from a veridical representation of the world our perceptions can be, and generally are.

The second reason concerns the relative importance of unconscious/automatic and conscious processes in reasoning, motivation, and belief (if you watched Session 7 of the "Beyond Belief" series, this was the topic of Banaji's talk). The lion's share of what our brains do is done below the level of awareness. This is because our brain's are lazy, and conscious thought uses up an inordinate amount of the brain's scarce resources. As a result of our brain's laziness, our representations, goals and motivations, as well as their influences on our conscious reasoning, preferences, etc., are largely unknown to us. As one author put it, we are in a very real sense "strangers to ourselves." Much of what we believe is likely the product of those unconscious representations, goals, and motivations, as well as the automatic, unconscious processing of them, and the reasons for our beliefs of which we are consciously aware have probably been developed post hoc (see, for example, the research on motivated reasoning).

This becomes even more apparent when you look at patterns of belief. Razib, for example, has discussed the heritability of religion, and other research has shown that many attitudes show surprisingly high levels of heritability as well. There are reasons why red states are full of Republicans and blue states are full of Democrats; why Europe is more secular, for the most part, while the United States is more religious, and they have little if anything to do with the exposure to or penchant for reasoning; and why just about everything in Western philosophy went through Christian theology in the 17th century, and through science in the 21st century, and those reasons have little to do with exposure to or penchant for rational argumentation. They have to do with the largely unconscious representational and motivational lenses that people see the world through, and over which they have very little control.

So that's my atheism of suspicion. It might be tempting to call this position wishy-washy, or even inconsistent, because it says that all positions are irrational at their base, even its own. The only answer I can give to that is, all the more reason to be suspicious. Instead of naively arguing that one is right because the evidence is on one's side (or because one uses evidence, whereas all of the other positions do not), we should instead do our best to live in a way that is consistent with the values we've chosen (for whatever reason) to hold dear. For me, acting on that principle leads me to atheism.

It might also be tempting to say that this sort of atheism is too soft on religion, because it places it on the same footing as science epistemologically (hence my placement in the Chamberlain school). I hope the quote with which I began this post shows that this is not the case. I have a healthy respect for religion, and I am often in awe of its symbolism, and even its arguments (read Leibniz, and tell me you're not in awe!). But as Nietzsche, the most militant member of the school of suspicion notes, shows, one can criticize religion on other grounds. In my view, the religious, and Christians in particular, are hostile to the values that I have willed. As Nietzsche put it: "despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go." If that's being soft on religion, then I don't know how to be hard. I worry, though, that the Dawkinsians, and others of the ilk, have substituted their concept reason and science for God, and that their use of those will ultimately leave them "decaying and poisoned themselves," so that the world will eventually become weary of them as well.


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Great post, I think there are many atheists who are looking for a voice. That is why Dawkins has been so popular as of late. Blogs are great because they allow arguments such as yours here to be spread. No offense, but this entry will not get you any play on TV, but it will get a bookmark.

btw, this has way more typos then your usual post, a post-travel hangover?

By crash-dev (not verified) on 27 Nov 2006 #permalink

I have taken both views on this issue (skeptical and suspicious) and I am not really certain which viewpoint to take. However in the interests of resolving this for myself, I would ask you to please explain how something like our interpretation of the fossil record could be subject to the particular flaws of our brains. Are all those tests actually telling us that the fossils are less than 6,000 years old, but we are somehow systematically misreading them? Perhaps you will say that the specific claims of the Bible are not really crucial to religion as a whole, but in that case I don't think that you are really in disagreement with Dawkins.

Nice post. May I recommend Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained as a guide (based on anthropology and cog science) to some of the mechanisms by which we fool ourselves?

Interesting post. I consider myself an "atheist of skepticism" and I don't see your description as totally fair to my views, although it may fit Dawkins. For me, the crucial issue is whether we have reason or not to believe that God exists. I can acknowledge that what is or is not percieved as a good reason may differ for different people, that we all have unknown biases and presuppositions, and whatever other charges the "school of suspicion" wants to bring up. But at the end of the day, from a first-person point of view, if I have to decide whether to believe or not in something I have no other option than to examine, as objectively as I can manage within my human condition, whether the evidence is convincing or not. And if somone disagrees with me over what kind of "evidence" is appropiate, then we can have a discussion at the meta level over why should we accept certain things as evidence or not. These discussions may be unresolvable, that is, there may not be common ground for us to reach agreement; but why assume this from the start instead of having the discussion?

My key problem with your post is that it makes to wide a gap between metaphysical questions and ordinary life or scientific questions. If we try to solve a concrete scientific problem, we simply discuss the evidence, and if there is some question about the standards of evidence, we can discuss this as well; but the discussion is always aimed at truth, trying to find the most rationally supported conclusion. We do not use the facts of hidden bias, conceptual relativity, etc, to replace the simple and direct discussion of the issues. This is not to deny that the things revelaed by the "school of suspicion" are important and that we should bear them in mind; but they cannot perclude first-order, truth-aimed discussion of the questions. Why treat religion differently? Just because the different presuppositions are much more deep-seated? But isn't it pessimistic to assume that a rational discussion is impossible? Of course, the discussion has to be respectful, something Dawkins & Co seem not to be taking into account; but that's another issue altogether.

I actually really like and typically agree with Nietzsche's religious criticisms. I'm not sure that ends up being a criticism of religion in general mind you. But a lot of religion (and in the 20th century general ideology) certainly fits his portrayal).

I'm also pretty open to being suspicious about religion though and find most defenses of religion pretty wanting. Which isn't to say to me that there aren't some experiences that can't justify it. But they can't be akin to direct realism views which, as you note, illusions make implausible.

"...that religious faith might have its own form of reason and evidence."

this is the root of the issue. dawkinsians argue that whatever form of reason and evidence religion has, it can't be on par -- by any set of criteria (validity, functionality, rationality, etc) -- with the kind of reason and evidence employed by science.

now it is true that humans, in principle, are fallible beings; they are indeed irrational most of the time. but it is self-evident throughout the history of our civilisation that some humans try their best to escape from this irrationality, while others don't (or perhaps can't). that is, some people heartily care about being rational, some others not so. whether this distinction is descriptive or normative, i think, is where the problem lies.

To me, this is further evidence that the schism between the two "schools" of atheism is essentially manufactured. I see no incompatibility at all. Rather, I think what's going on here is a misattribution of criticism.

We can talk a lot about different models of atheism, whether "Chamberlain vs. Churchill" or "skeptical vs. suspicious", but the really, deeply core thing that people like Dawkins are getting at is the question "Why should we treat religion differently from everything else?" He concludes that we shouldn't, and then examines it scientificially, which is presumably how he examines everything else. I don't see the fault there.

Chris, you seem to take the same essential position in arguing that religion should be treated the same way that we treat everything else. You just differ from Dawkins in the way you treat everything else, and that's ok, even desirable. We need people using multiple paradigms, as your recent posts on the subject have suggested.

However, I think you and others are misinterpreting Dawkins' (and others') scorn for those who insist that religion be treated differently than everything else as scorn for those who treat everything in a different way than Dawkins or whoever is writing. That, frankly, is a mistake, and it leads to a lot of conflict that really shouldn't be happening.

In that sense, your responses have been a lot better than others who identify with the "Chamberlain" camp, in that you're proposing a much more sensible distinction between two different kinds of atheist. I'd even venture to say that it makes a lot more sense than some of the other proposed distinctions like "atheist" (implying a certainty not contained in the term) versus "agnostic" or "weak" versus "strong" atheism, because, unlike those, it actually addresses a real difference in flavour, as opposed to arbitrary distinctions. (To the extent that I will probably steal the terms to use myself in the future!)

I don't think we need to be drawing lines in the sand over this, and to that extent I think Dawkins could be as wrong as anybody else... But I also don't think that he's drawing quite the same line as some of the atheists who oppose him think he is. Certainly, the others you place into the Dawkinsian camp, like PZ, don't really care why or even, to an extent, whether people are atheists, so long as they don't use sloppy thinking to justify whatever position they hold. In that sense, I think you aren't that different.

Just to note Joshua there are religious people who don't think religion should be treated differently from everything else either.

Isn't that a big leap, Chris? To conclude from Maturana and Gibson that we really can know nothing about the world? I'm not endorsing the Dawkins brand of scientism, but just as you take from Marx and Freud that idea that things aren't simply the way they appear (appearance may just be the tip of the iceberg, in fact), we could also take away from Dawkins at least the notion that come what may, we need to keep looking for solutions. Perhaps the best way is to be moderately suspicious and and a little more than moderately skeptical -- no?

reading this post i found a similar confusion to shreeharsh and ME. sure things aren't always as they seem. the eye can be tricked. even visual perception. but evidence is better than 'seeing is believing' or else every ghost story told by a loan farmer would be true.

i think the distinction might be that several people can agree on the observation that we accept as Evidence in the scientific sense.

whether we can ever know our own reasoning is an interesting question. how do you study this though? how do you prove that someone doesn't know their own reasoning? is it that you record their reasoning and then compare it to the 'true reason' that you have discovered? if 'true reasons' for behaviors and beliefs can be discovered by stepping outside the subjective loop, isn't the most rational thing to assume that those empirically discovered 'true reasons' are one's own?

Amnesic, there are actually many, many studies showing that people aren't aware of the effects of biases and motivations/goals on their thought and behavior. Check out the motivated cognition link for some examples

i'm aware. my little point was that in order to perform these studies one must compare the participants' response to some standard. where do we get this standard? we have objective evidence that many people can agree on. for instance, in the example where the image is either a B or a 13 depending on motivation, we can all agree upon further inspection that this is an ambiguous representation that can't properly be labeled either way. we can all agree to call the necker cube a visual illusion. we don't get stuck in one configuration.

to run a motivated cognition study, the experimenter must choose what the participant is 'really' seeing. it follows that if i do enough studies on motivated cognition and religion that i can discover what biases can lead to atheism. by eliminating these biases one by one, you could eventually arrive at an atheism (or at least agnosticism) based in reason, no? i'm not sure that you could do the same in the opposite direction. if you aren't able to arrive at theism after eliminating your biases then it would be proper to call religious people irrational.

i'm not really hung up on proving that last point. i'm just concerned that your final argument may be eating itself by eliminating empirical bases for beliefs.

Well, one way is to compare it to a control group. Or you could use a within subject design and let each participant serve as his or her own control.

The Dawkinsians can more easily let go of their current concept of reason and replace it with something else. Religions always have to defend some ideas, or, when they give them up, have to say: "This is still religion!" or "This is still christianity!" even when they change the interpretations of their faith by 180°. Why is the label important?

Oddly enough, Chris just put up a new post about labels! =)

This post and the discussion reminds me of I really prefer fallibilism as my philosophy of science. It places emphasis on trying to break whatever theories we have. And to do that meticulously, and whenever we find flaws - to discard whatever doesn't work and try to figure out a better theory.

It reminds us to look at everything critically and be willing to discard any theory should the world fail to work in the way it predicts. And it should give way to more predictive theories as well.

This is what I read to your description of atheism of suspicion. Willingness to admit to the possibility that you are wrong and willingness to go and search for those errors in your thinking.

Instead, atheist of skepticism does hold religion to those standards, but does not admit to the possibility of oneself being wrong. He looks for evidence for his theories, justification for his theories, and against other people's theories, but not so much against his own theories. And in the end, he does not further the science as much as the other guy, because he is not willing to see his own bias.

I would like to (potentially) help clarify Chris' position.
I see that several individuals are skeptical of his suspicion (or perhaps merely skeptical of his lack of skepticism).

One of the points he made is that our beliefs are, at bottom, irrational. How could this be so? I'm a good atheist who defends everything I believe with rationality. Well, not everything exactly. You see, one cannot actually have a rational justification for every belief that one holds. This would lead to an infinite regress. Everything you belief is based upon some foundation, and that foundation is not itself justified. Some call this point irrational, or perhaps arational. Still others seem a bit more modest, and perhaps more accurate. They call it faith. At some point you have to accept something, just because. That point of "just because" is where one has faith, and because we all have faith in something, we ought to be more skeptical of our own skepticism.