Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion Creates the Disenchanted World

We have been studying dour old Max Weber. Unlike many early sociologists, he was not an atheist. But he was, as he famously wrote, "religiously unmusical."

The driving principle of modernity, he argued, was the relentless rationalization of all institutions and practices, including religion. He thought the world was "disenchanted," that moderns found it hard to hold on to a belief that there were personal, unrationalized forces lying behind this world, guiding it.

When I look at the survey research, more than a century later, I find that most people have no trouble believing in God and a whole array of quite personal and unrationalized forces. Yet it is a central myth of intellectuals that secularization is inevitable as people make the world more rationally ordered.

The gap between the intellectuals' personal disenchantment and their faith that everyone will eventually follow is filled, I think, by the doctrine of "the hermeneutics of suspicion." Paul Ricouer developed this approach on the model of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. He articulated what is, I believe, a common notion among intellectuals that what most people believe should not be believed. Instead, we should look for a reality underneath the surface reality. This, on the face of it, is exactly what religious people say.

The difference is that religious people believe God is under the surface appearance of this world, guiding it in a mysterious way on a positive and meaningful path. The suspicious intellectuals believe that material self-seeking is under the surface appearance of this world, twisting it in a not-so-mysterious way on a negative and possibly meaningless path. Both are doctrines, beliefs, leaps of faith.

The hermeneutics of suspicion is not an intellectual response to a falsely enchanted world. It is a doctrine that makes a disenchanted world, at least for intellectuals.

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