The Lens of Suspicion

The Lens of Suspicion

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.

About the author

Kalyan Viswanathan

Kalyan Viswanathan is the Executive Vice President of Dharma Civilization Foundation. He holds a Masters Degree in Computer Science from Ohio State University and a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS, Pilani). He is a student of Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, with whom he underwent extensive study of Advaita Vedanta in the tradition of Adi Shankara. He is also the President of Sanatana Dharma Foundation, Dallas, Texas

COMMENTS (4)
Reply

The naunces of interpretation by the propounders of “hermeneutics of suspicion” – very well put forward, Sir. When the lens is “objective but suspicious”, it is apparent that absolute objectivity is not the intention, but rather, suspicion is. It looks more like “suspicion” veiled by “objectivity” – like trying to find an object with a pair of soiled glasses – it is no wonder, the object will look distorted.
Absolute objectivity will be like a pair of lucid glasses which will look at the object and grasp it as it is and not twist its meaning as per one’s inherent conditionings

    Reply

    it takes a lifetime to learn Hinduism, it rerfes to living your life. The answer is as cryptic as most of the Sanskrit texts of Hindus which have as many interpretations. I am reminded of the times when a lot of people Indians or otherwise find it tough to reconcile with the supposed differences and decide to pay attention one or two aspects of any religion and ignore the rest.Someone I knew once said that all religions have to accept change and if they try to hold onto a past then change will walk over it and the religion will be left to history. That applies to Hinduism today more than ever. A few people want to hold it back and drag it to the dark ages but this is the very act that will kill its growth as a way of life.

Reply

The case of Hermeneutics of suspicion is very well presented. This explains perfectly the distorted picture presented of Hinduism in the West. One should ask why do these scholars not apply the same standard to Islam or for that matter to the writings of Marx, Nietzche, Freud and co.

    Reply

    HI Chris Thank You very much for creating such a wolferdunl blogsite As by name you can easily imagine that i am a born hindu. i am a 19 year teenage living in india .but never understood the importance of my religion. It might surprise you that I started getting close to Hinduism..by reading blogs from westerners like you only ya sometime i was inspired by Swami Vivekanada. i Think the wester Hindus are bringing back the glory of sanatan Dharma and trying to sread its message through out the world. You People are Creating a better Hinduism in west, than what we are practicing it in india as far as i know hinduism is a Sanatan dharma it treats equally ..so how can it stop one from following this path i would proudly say You all are hindu..and most welcome to my faith infact you people showed me the way its just beacause of little minded people who doesnt allow a outsider to accept hinduism.who cant think beyond some limit. everyone is most welcome to my religion irrespective of colour and destination.Thank You Vey much I ll keep blogging here.

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