‘We already know what is good and just…’[1]: Idolatry and the scalpel of suspicion

Winifred Wing Han Lamb

Table of Contents

Nietzsche’s critique
Christian response

Suspicion of religion and of religious believers is inherent in western atheism and it is not hard to find this reflected in philosophical thought. However, the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’[2] has been marginal in mainstream philosophy of religion which has concentrated on epistemological issues, inspired by what Merold Westphal has called ‘evidential atheism’.[3] This critique of religious faith focuses on the alleged epistemological shortfalls in religious beliefs, pointing to its incoherence, unintelligibility and inadequate evidence.

While the theme of suspicion is muted in mainstream philosophy of religion, it is explicit and open in the work of Nietzsche, Freud and Marx but also in a less known work of David Hume, The Natural History of Religion. [4] Nietzsche was well aware of the epistemological objections to Christianity but he came to the realisation that his own atheism was evoked by something deeper than epistemological objections. His ‘genealogical’ investigation was inspired by suspicion about believers themselves and the extent to which such individuals are motivated by self-interest in their professions of faith. The focus is therefore on the integrity of believers and on the very possibility of truthfulness in believing. This is, of course a confronting critique for religious believers. How then can this ‘atheism from suspicion’[5] open the way for dialogue between believers and their philosopher critics?

Dialogue and mutuality of engagement have not been notable characteristics in mainstream philosophy of religion. In fact philosophy has invariably set the agenda in both the content and approach taken in this enquiry. As Charles Taliaferro writes, philosophy of religion has often been characterised by ‘aggressive critique on the one side and defence or accommodation on the other’.[6] How then can a more equitable exchange be created for religion to speak on its own terms?

Suspicion of believers is reflected in the statement quoted in the title: ‘We already know what is good and just’. The full paragraph is found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra in which he describes a class of people, categorised as ‘Pharisees’ as follows: ‘As those who say and feel in their hearts: “We already know what is good and just, we possess it also; woe to those who seek thereafter!”’ These are closed-minded people that today we would call fundamentalists.[7]

The passage is part of Nietzsche’s concentrated critique of Christianity which becomes progressively more vituperative in the course of his writing, but the condition he calls ‘pharisaism’ is a form of corrupt interiority which he extends beyond Christians to Jews and in fact, to all ‘the good’. In other words, ‘pharisaism’ is intended as a general characterisation of the slave morality which Nietzsche both profiles so insightfully and attacks so violently. He seems quite unambiguous when he says, ‘Pharisaism is not degeneration in a good man: a good part of it is rather the condition of all being good’.[8]

As noted above, Nietzsche’s critique reflects the assumption within western philosophical thought that religious faith is a form of self deception which leads to epistemic closure. In other words, there is an underlying prejudice that all serious religious conviction has the seeds of fundamentalism. In his depiction of faith as self affirming illusion, Nietzsche represents Christians as psychologically diminished people who seek a packaged faith that they can control in order that they can live unchallenged with all that they believe and ‘know’.

In this chapter, I will show (with particular reference to the Christian faith), that discomforting as suspicion is to believers, it can engender dialogue in at least two ways: first, by the mutuality, or a ‘logic of implication’ which suspicion itself introduces; second, by the insights which suspicion elicits from religion which serves religion by contributing to its self understanding. In addition, suspicion also increases general understanding by sharpening the differences between the interlocutors.

Here the notion of idolatry maps out the ‘rhetorical space’,[9] or the areas where engagement can be found. In other words, as far as Christianity is concerned, what philosophers like Nietzsche say about such interior corruption cannot be rejected outright since it resonates with what Christian faith itself characterises as idolatry. I use ‘scalpel’ as a metaphor for the incisive work which suspicion can do when religious believers confront suspicion and acknowledge the presence of idolatry in their beliefs and practices.

I will suggest that we can utilise this dynamic to open up dialogue with the serious religious sentiments with which suspicion resonates, not only in Christianity, but in any religious tradition which values a spirituality of inwardness. The paper will now fall into two parts. In the first part, I will outline the critique from suspicion in David Hume and in Nietzsche’s profile of pharisaism. In the second part, I will consider Christian responses to critiques of this kind. 

Nietzsche’s critique

In his Natural History of Religion, Hume argues that religion originates from self-regarding human instincts, such as ‘the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery [and] the terror of death’ and the ‘unknown causes’ of such deep emotion are objectified into the divine. Hume uses terms like ‘superstition,’ ‘idolatry,’ and ‘polytheism’ to describe the various ways in which religion is used to further those essentially self-regarding instincts.

While Hume showed a certain admiration for the lofty and noble ideals of religion, he advances his atheism with this challenging question: how could so much violence be done in its name.[10] Centuries later that question is echoed in the postmodern protest that the big stories of faith have given us as much terror as we can take.[11]

Hume’s answer to his own question is challenging but illuminating to believers. He concluded that many religious people are able to live with the fundamental contradiction between the ideals of their faith and the violence which it produces because they have domesticated their religion into cosy ideas and ‘comfortable views’ which have lost all their challenge and edge. As he sees it, believers are so cocooned in their web of beliefs that they will use it to justify whatever they want. These people are in control of a religion that they use to advance their self interest.

With this in mind, Hume raises another question: how does this kind of domesticated religion fit in with religious worship? Does not worship of God require a letting go of self interest? Is not true worship a self-forgetful, non-calculating act? Hume therefore concludes that believers are simply psychologically incapable of worship and that what they call adoration and worship is nothing more than placation and flattery of the divine. An insurance policy against things going wrong.

In drawing the distinction between flattery and adoration, Hume anticipates Nietzsche who (as we shall see) represents religious piety as a form of restlessness borne of anxious self-preoccupation. Believing as he did that it was the philosopher’s duty ‘to squint maliciously out of every abyss of suspicion’,[12] Nietzsche was convinced that his account would reduce faith to nothing more than the manifestation of psychological disease. His conclusion that Christianity is the most virulent form of the morality of ressentiment led Nietzsche to the broad conclusion that the Christian form of life is not only disingenuous and anaemic, but ‘pharisaical’ through and through.

Nietzsche’s analysis of pity clearly illustrates the dynamics of Christian slave morality. For Nietzsche, what Christians consider to be virtues arise from weakness and low self esteem but they also show the ‘cunning of impotence’[13] since in caring for another, they enjoy the taste of superiority and of being in the stronger emotional position. Pity is thus often ‘obtrusive’ and ‘offends the sense of shame’, hurting another’s pride. Hence Nietzsche advises that ‘unwillingness to help can be nobler than the virtue that rusheth to do so’.[14] In Nietzsche’s characterisation, however, pharisaical Christians use pity as a covert revenge. Armed with their good deeds and acts of kindness, they parade as ‘embodied reproaches’ to those around them.

Nietzsche’s representation of pharisaical moralism illuminates the dynamics of idolatry to show how failure of character breeds epistemic closure. Three personality traits structure pharisaical morality: self-enclosure, self-loathing and self-deception.

Firstly, self-enclosure. The pharisees hate new challenges. Nietzsche describes them as ‘the beginning of the end’ because they are unoriginal and ‘cannot create’. By resisting visionaries like Zarathustra and Christ they ‘sacrifice unto themselves the future...the whole human future’.[15] Since their spirit is ‘imprisoned in their good conscience’,[16] the pharisees are ‘not free to understand’ (my italics) new ideas. As Nietzsche judges, the Pharisees ‘already know what is good and just’.

Secondly, Nietzsche insightfully suggests that pharisaical traits reflect a deep self-loathing. They speak of the person who is not content with himself, but who is always wishing that he were someone else: ‘If only I were someone else...And yet—I am sick of myself!’[17]

Thirdly, the person who cannot bear himself also cannot bear to reveal who he is. But the dissembling of the pharisee works so well that duplicity passes over into self-deception, which flourishes within his lonely life. Nietzsche presents graphic descriptions of this squinting weak-willed individual who slinks about in dark places, continually brooding and machinating forms of underhand ascendency. The weak are consequently weighed down and ‘exhausted’ by their project of self-preservation: by thoughts about the next move and the next masking act. Such inauthenticity works itself into an art form and issues in a restlessness which Nietzsche describes as ‘roving about’. Accordingly, the heart of the pharisee is a ‘swampy ground’ where ‘worms of vengefulness and rancour swarm’, in which ‘the air stinks of secrets and concealments’, and ‘the web of the most malicious of conspiracies is being spun constantly’.[18]

The picture of Christians gets worse. Indeed, there is no doubt of Nietzsche’s thorough hatred of Christianity when he wrote in The Antichrist,

I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty—I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind…[19]