Religion after atheism

After atheism can religion be rebuilt?

For philosopher Paul Ricoeur, religion after atheism must be built on the hermeneutics of suspicion, that is to say, it is concerned with the suspicion that enables ‘doing away with idols’ but also the hope that comes from  ‘paying attention to symbols’.

Of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, whom he regarded as the ‘masters of suspicion’, Ricoeur said:

“All three clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a ‘destructive’ critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting.” (Ricoeur 1970:33)

Suspicion is not cynicism. Neither is it scepticism, because it operates in he hope that there is some truth to be found beyond demystification. Suspicion is not an end in itself. It is a method of approaching truth in ‘critical openness’.

Of Freud, Ricoeur says:

‘One should not be in a hurry to correct this reductive hermeneutics bur rather should stay with it, for it will not be suppressed but retained in a more comprehensive hermeneutics’  (1970: 447)

In this new art of interpreting, this ‘more comprehensive hermeneutics’,  Ricoeur is looking for a ‘metaphor-faith beyond demythologization’, ‘a second naivete beyond iconoclasm’ (Ricoeur 1977, quoted in White 1995: 91)

He says ‘An idol must die so a symbol of being may begin to speak’ (Ricoeur 1974: 467).

Applying the hermeneutics of suspicion to Ricoeur

The question begged by Ricoeur’s approach is: if we stop interpreting literally (the idols) and start interpreting symbolically (the symbols), what is the symbolism symbolic of? What are the metaphors of his ‘metaphor-faith’ metaphors of? Symbolic and metaphorical interpretation imply that meaning is perpetually deferred. And yet Ricoeur writes of a symbol of being, as though the meaning of the symbolism can in fact be pinned down.  So which is it to be? Here it can be seen how it is possible, perhaps necessary, to go beyond Ricoeur, as did Derrida, his sometime assistant, and see the metaphorical as going all the way down.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, 1984 “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” in Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects eds. G. Shapiro and A. Sica. Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Roy J. Howard, 1982 Three Faces of Hermeneutics Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kearney, Richard, 2004. On Paul Ricœur: The Owl of Minerva. London: Ashgate.

Grant R. Osborne, 1991The Hermeneutical Spiral Downers Grove: IVP.

Paul Ricoeur, 1973 “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” Philosophy Today 17.

Paul Ricoeur, 1967 The Symbol of Evil, trans. E. Buchanan, New York: Harper & Row.

Paul Ricoeur, 1977 The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning trans. R. Czerny. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1975 “Biblical Hermeneutics” Semeia 4 (1975): 33.

Paul Ricoeur, 1978 “Explanation and Understanding: On Some Remarkable Connections Among the Theory of the Text, Theory of Action, and Theory of History” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. C. Reagen and D. Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 149-166.

Paul Ricoeur, 1970 Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1973 “Ethics and Culture: Habermas and Gadamer in Dialogue,” Philosophy Today 17 : 153-165.

Paul Ricoeur, 1974 [1969] The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics ed. D. Ihde Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Paul Ricoeur, 1995 “Philosophy and Religious Language,” in Figuring the Sacred, Mark I. Wallace ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

David Stewart, 1989 “The Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” Journal of Literature and Theology 3: 296-307.

Anthony Thisleton, 1992 New Horizons in Hermeneutics Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Erin White, 1991 “Between Suspicion and Hope: Paul Ricoeur’s Vital Hermeneutic,” Journal of Literature and Theology 5: 311-321.

White, Erin, 1995 Religion and the Hermeneutics of Gender: An Examination of the Work of Paul Ricoeur. Chapter 3 of Ursula King, ed, Religion and Gender, Oxford: Blackwell, 77-99.

Rowan Williams, 1988 “The Suspicion of Suspicion: Wittgenstein and Bonhoeffer” in The Grammar of the Heart: New Essays in Moral Philosophy and Theology, ed. R. H. Bell, San Francisco: Harper & Row.


9 thoughts on “Religion after atheism

  1. Pingback: Conspirama
  2. Hi Fourcultures,
    I have placed a comment in response to your comment on my post, “The Meaning of the West.” I hope you’ll respond.
    In response to your section on applying the hermeneutics of suspicion to Ricoeur, I would point to his concept of the hermeneutic circle found in his “The Symbolism of Evil” (p 351). Although meaning cannot be absolutely pinned down, it can be approached through the interplay of our belief and our understanding in what he calls the hermeneutic circle. Ricoeur points out that we moderns have lost our pre-critical naïveté, our immediacy of belief, but we can aim at a second, post-critical naïveté in and through critical thinking. By interpreting, we can hear again. In hermeneutics, the symbol’s gift of meaning and the endeavor to understand by deciphering are knotted together. In the circle: “We must understand in order to believe, but we must believe in order to understand.” Furthermore, I maintain that in order to believe, we must practice religion, not merely think about it. In the phrasing of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390 – 465), it is the law of worship which founds or establishes the law of belief. Belief does not come first, then worship, but rather worship produces belief. By living in the circle of belief and interpretation, the future that we believe God is leading us to will become ours.
    Pete M

    1. Thank you. I follow this line of thought a long way, but still take issue with the following:
      1. There is a question of what, if anything, grounds the content of belief in Ricoeur’s system. In other words, in practising in order to believe, couldn’t we be practising anything and still achieve the same effect (ie. belief in that practice)? Indeed, Buddhists have a saying which parallels the Christian version: ‘A Buddhist outside the Sangha is like a tiger outside the forest’ (ie. dangerously lost). So the content of belief could perhaps be Christianity or Buddhism or Islam or Wicca and there would be no way of distinguishing the ‘belief effect’ thus established. If so, is this a problem, or an opportunity? Isn’t this a closed circle of self-justificatory activity (my beliefs shape my life and my life is the evidence that my beliefs are true)?
      2. Further, to the extent that Ricoeur is correct, is he not providing an explanation for atheism: life in a disenchanted society creates the effect of personal disbelief. So there may be a parallel: in order to disbelieve, we must avoid religion, not merely think about avoiding it. Our social setting makes this avoidance relatively hard or easy.
      3. Back to my first point, is some kind of grounding really necessary? Taking Buddhism as an example, there is a general view that meditation practice is prior to any formulation of ‘Buddhist doctrine’, and indeed it could be argued that any form of post hoc reflection on the experience of meditation could be interpreted as a form of Buddhism (hence the wide variety of ‘buddhisms’ that co-exist). So the Christian Meditation movement founded by John Main, and the monasticism of Thomas Merton have both found it easy and natural to commune with Buddhists around the shared foundational experience of meditation.
      4. The formulation of lex orandi lex credendi in the Roman Catholic Catechism makes the point that ‘The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it.’ The structure/agency debate in social sciences would seem to suggest that this claim risks being overstated. In other words structure (‘the Church’s faith’) may ‘precede’ agency (‘the faith of the believer’), but it doesn’t determine it, except in a totalitarian religious polity. Indeed the Catechism implies this non-primacy of the Church’s faith: the believer is ‘invited’ to adhere, with the implication that there may be other forms of pre-existing faith/unfaith which a person has a nominal choice to adhere to or not.

  3. Dear Fourcultures,
    Thank you for your comment. Your issues go to the heart of religion because religion re-presents issues we all face in life. Living life with others requires that we trust others, that we believe the promises others make to us. Trust in the promises of God and, by extension, others is the main claim Judaism and Christianity make on us. We are to trust the promises. This is a direct reflection of life. All of life requires trust; nothing is certain. But if religious promises no longer convey meaning to people, they cease to believe the promises, or to be religious, or, as you mention, they find meaning in another religion or practice. Likewise, often people become atheists not from reasoned thought, but from the lack of a felt connection with a particular religious language, such as that of Judaism or Christianity. Usually, people don’t have to work at not believing; it just sort of happens like the loss of belief in Santa Claus or like the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and Spain. This is almost a perfect example of “lex orandi lex credendi,” but in reverse. One day people went to Mass; they practiced and believed, and the next day, or so it seems, no one goes to church and the churches are dying. When people stop worshipping, not only does their belief stop, but the institution built on that worship also stops being of interest. People haven’t renounced Catholicism, they’ve ceased to find it important, and so the church has collapsed.
    However, as you point out, different beliefs can be in competition. If so, how do we choose? Probably, in most cases we choose by default because we don’t think much about our beliefs. We believe what we’ve always believed, or what “everyone else” believes, or what seems “normal” or logical.” Few are like John the Baptizer who asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Few raise real doubts, real questions of trust. For most, belief is “just what is” without much doubt. Jesus’ answer to John is instructive. Jesus says look at the results: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:2-5). Many with deep religious faith feel that they’ve had real results in their lives from religion, but most people today in the West feel that religion or doctrines have had no effect on them. Cupitt says they now have replaced “God” with “Life.” In a fascinating radio conversation (, he stresses the importance of conversation has the way to consensus in belief. It is our consensus about large parts of our life together that creates our “reality,” which we experience as given and not really controversial. When people in the West talk now about “big picture” items, they often use “Life” the way earlier generations would have used “God.” They not longer use religious language; religion has little meaning for them although they may still hold to the cultural aspects of their religion like holidays.

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Peter. And thanks for the link to the interview with Don Cupitt. He taught me years ago and it was good to hear he hasn’t lost his touch! To pick up a theme you mentioned from his writing – and to link it with my original post on Ricoeur:
    if people are using the term ‘life’ religiously’ as a kind of replacement for God, are they (we?) doing it symbolically, or literally?
    At first this may seem an unnecessary question, since life is obviously life and we probably think we know what we mean by that. It doesn’t seem symbolic most of the time, it just seems ‘literal’. But where I live people often talk about ‘lifestyle’ and ‘having a good lifestyle’ or even just ‘having a lifestyle’. They very rarely explain what this would entail since it is assumed everyone knows. In this instance, lifestyle is used to signify a particular way of life, which, as it happens not everyone aspires to, but which is locally dominant. By extension, I wonder if we can talk about life in a naturalistic way. Surely we actually mean something more than just ‘being alive’, and therefore load the word life with extra meaning, right from the outset. Do we have a consensus on life, as we (sort of) used to have about God? Or does the consensus only hold for as long as we only talk to people like ourselves?
    I also wondered, listening to Cupitt and reading your comment, how confident we can be in conversation that is supposed to lead to consensus. I know this has been a major theme in, for instance, the work of Jurgen Habermas, which has spawned all sorts of ‘deliberative’ approaches to decision making, but I’m not convinced. Are there not some workable alternatives to consensus? To link this with one of the main themes of this website, it strikes me that consensus is a particularly Egalitarian way of going about decision making, or knowledge formation. This doesn’t of course make it wrong – it just means it’s not the only approach that might be viable.

  5. Hi Fourcultures,
    Thanks for your comment. I’ve posted my new essay, “The Church of the Afterlife” on my blog, “Worshipping at the Church of Non-Realism” ( I hope you’ll read it and comment. Thanks.
    In Cupitt’s discussion about “Life” as a replacement for “God,” he emphasizes that the terms are used this way by ordinary people who are not professional thinkers. Like the emptying of the churches in Europe, it just happened because peoples’ interests changed. The appeal of the supernatural just faded; no one forced it out. And now peoples’ concerns are for this life, which when they are in a reflective mood, they make a capital L value. But, as you mentioned earlier, the West is now disenchanted and it’s not going to be enchanted again. The supernatural is gone. Critical thinking and the science that flows from it keeps our gaze horizontal. As Cupitt’s new book proclaims: “Only the Sky Above.”
    Consensus is not a one time thing, but it is constantly shifting. Law is a consensus that is fairly stable, politics less so, and fashion even less. But each is the result of conversations and agreements coming out of the conversations. It’s not that “conversation that is supposed to lead to consensus,” but that “reality” or what passes for “real” is based on common understandings which often were a long time in the making and are hard to replace even when the evidence for doing so is strong. It’s interesting to see in science how accepted understandings are very often resistant to new findings, which must be pushed hard to be accepted. A famous case in point is the evidence that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria and that antibiotics will cure them. The people who discovered this were ridiculed for a long time for suggesting the impossible, because “everyone knew” that ulcers were caused by stomach acid. Although reality is arrived at by consensus, the road to consensus is often steep and rocky.
    Consensus building has an egalitarian look because they come and go more quickly in the West where critical thinking and the questioning of authority are valued. In less scientifically based societies, e.g., those in the Middle East, knowledge and values are handed down from rulers above the mass of people and stability in values is greatly prized. That is why western technology is such a threat to these rulers; they want it but accepting it is accompanied by the values that produced the technology. And, of course, these values are anathema to them, but they can’t have the one without the other. Coke Cola and fast cars will be the downfall of supernatural Islam.

  6. Hi Fourcultures,
    This is to alert you that I replied on March 23rd to your latest comment on “The Church of the Afterlife” on my blog. I hope you’ll read my response and comment.

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