« Prev IV. The F&M Complaint Revisited Next »

IV. The F&M Complaint Revisited

Now that we have the A/C model before us, we can deal with the F&M complaint in summary fashion. As we saw in the last chapter, Marx’s complaint about religion is that it is produced by cognitive faculties that are malfunctioning; this cognitive dysfunction is due to social dysfunction and dislocation. Besides that famous “Religion is the opium of the people” passage, however, Marx doesn’t have a lot to say about religious belief—except, of course, for a number of semi-journalistic gibes and japes and other expressions of hostility.223223   See On Religion by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, ed. Reinhold Niebuhr (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1964). This is a collection of bits of various writings on religion by Marx and Engels. I shall therefore concentrate on Freud, who holds (as we saw in the last chapter) not that theistic belief originates in cognitive malfunction, but that it is an illusion, in his technical sense. It finds its origin in wish-fulfillment, which, although it is a cognitive process with an important role to play in the total economy of our intellectual life, is nevertheless not aimed at the production of true beliefs. On Freud’s view, then, theistic belief, given that it is produced by wish-fulfillment, does not have warrant; it fails to satisfy the condition of being produced by cognitive faculties whose purpose it is to produce true belief. He goes on to characterize religious belief as “neurosis,” “illusion,” “poison,” “intoxicant,” and “childishness to be overcome,” all on one page of The Future of an Illusion.224224   New York: W. W. Norton, 1961 (originally published 1927), p. 49.

Not to be outdone, a substantial number of subsequent psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have followed his lead. Thus Albert Ellis:

Religiosity is in many respects equivalent to irrational thinking and emotional disturbance. . . . The elegant therapeutic solution to emotional problems is to be quite unreligious . . . the less religious they are, the more emotionally healthy they will be.225225   “Psychotherapy and Atheistic Values,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 48, no. 5 (October 1980), pp. 635–39.

Sometimes these suggestions take rather bizarre forms, worthy, almost to be compared with Freud’s own highly imaginative stories about the origin of religion and the taming of fire.226226   See above, pp. 137–38. According to Michael P. Carroll, for example, praying the rosary is “a disguised gratification of repressed anal-erotic desires”—a substitute for “playing with one’s feces.”227227   “Praying the Rosary: The Anal-Erotic Origins of a Popular Catholic Devotion,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, no. 4 (December 1987), p. 491. Perhaps this isn’t up to Freud’s standard when 193it comes to evoking that mist-enshrouded world of our distant ancestors, but it does match Freud for implausibility. A rather common view has been that religious belief is not so much a matter of illusion or cognitive malfunction as of simple stupidity. This view has sometimes been expressed rather colorfully; thus Warren Wilson blamed the growth of evangelical Protestant groups in rural America on the fact that “among country people there are many inferior minds.” He went on to explain that revivalism was bound to persist in these regions “until we can lift the administration of popular institutions that are governed by public opinion out of the hand of the weak brother and the silly sister.”228228   The Farmer’s Church (New York: Century, 1925), p. 58. This kind of opinion is still widely popular among those who propose to study religion scientifically,229229   See, for example, Herbert Simon’s recent article, “A Mechanism for Social Selection and Successful Altruism,” Science 250 (December 1990), pp. 1665ff, in which he argues that the behavior of people like Mother Teresa, who are prepared to sacrifice their own interests for those of other people, is to be explained in terms of “docility” and “bounded rationality.” although (given current sensibilities) ordinarily not expressed with quite the same reckless enthusiasm.

Following Voltaire, Rousseau, and others, furthermore, people in these fields regularly declare that (in this modern, scientific age) the death of religion is at hand230230   Freud himself was often more careful on this point; see footnote 161, above, p. 140.—about as often, perhaps, as others predict that the return of Jesus Christ is at hand. Of course previous predictions of the former kind (like previous predictions of the latter) have failed; as a result, these forecasts of the demise of religion (if not of the world) now tend to be more circumspect. For example:

the evolutionary future of religion is extinction. Belief in supernatural beings and in supernatural forces that affect nature without obeying nature’s laws will erode and become only an interesting historical memory. To be sure, this event is not likely to occur in the next generation; the process will very likely take several hundred years, and there will probably always remain individuals, or even occasional small cult groups who respond to hallucination, trance, and obsession with supernaturalist interpretation. But as a cultural trait, belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge . . . the process is inevitable.231231   Anthony F. C. Wallace, Religion: An Anthropological View (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 264–65. Like the last three quoted passages, this one is quoted in Rodney Stark, Laurence Iannaccone, and Roger Finke, “Rationality and the ‘Religious’ Mind,” Economic Inquiry 36, no. 3 (July 1998). This very interesting paper takes an innovative approach to serious religious belief, swimming against the stream of sociological analyses that see such belief as a manifestation of one or another kind of irrationality.


Is there any reason to believe these things? Is there any evidence for the F&M complaint? Why should anyone believe it? First, however, it is only fair to defend this complaint against a fairly common objection. The F&M style of criticizing religious (or other) belief is often improperly dismissed as an instance of the ‘genetic fallacy’. The question, so the claim goes, is whether the theistic beliefs in question are true; the question is not how it is that someone comes to hold them or what the origin of the belief might be. Furthermore (so the claim continues), questions of origin are ordinarily irrelevant to questions of truth. (“Ordinarily”—of course we can think of silly exceptions. For example, we might know that Sam came to believe a proposition by accepting the testimony of someone who, on the subject of the belief in question, asserts nothing but falsehoods; in that case the origin of the belief is obviously relevant to its truth.)

This criticism of the F&M complaint is mistaken. True, questions of origin are ordinarily not relevant to the question of the truth of a belief; but they can be crucially relevant to the question of the warrant a belief enjoys. The objector fails to note that there are de jure questions and criticisms as well as de facto; his objection is relevant only if it is the latter sort that is at issue. But the F&M complaint is that theistic belief is not rational and lacks warrant. Unlike memory beliefs, a priori beliefs, or perceptual belief, theistic belief does not originate in the proper function of cognitive processes successfully aimed at the production of true belief. And if the problem, according to F&M, is that such beliefs have no warrant, then questions of origin may be intensely relevant; on many accounts of warrant, including the one I defend in WPF, the genesis of a belief is intimately connected with the degree of warrant, if any, it enjoys.

Furthermore, there is an indirect connection with truth. Return to the random generator of p. 161, above: I use the machine, proposing the selected proposition to you for belief. You demur, citing the origin of the proposed belief, whereupon I accuse you of committing the genetic fallacy. Surely I am wrong; the fact is you haven’t committed a fallacy at all, and your real complaint is that you haven’t the faintest reason to think the proposition in question true. It is the same with beliefs that have no warrant for anyone. We ordinarily assume that propositions with warrant have something going for them: it is likely, or at least more likely than not, that they will be true. If I have reason to think your belief that your name is ‘Sam’ has warrant (you’re pretty likely to know what your name is), then I have a reason to accept this belief. If I know that a belief has no warrant for anyone, however, then I have no reason at all to think that belief true, no reason at all to rely on that proposition. Once I see this, I see that the proposition in question has no claim whatever on my belief.

But is Freud right: does theistic belief arise from wish-fulfillment, thereby failing to have warrant? Is there any reason to believe this? 195Does he offer argument or evidence for this claim, or (in Mill’s phrase) other considerations to determine the intellect? Or is it mere assertion? Note that if the F&M complaint is to be a successful criticism, if it is to show that theistic belief lacks warrant, it must meet two conditions. First, it must show that theistic belief really does arise from the mechanism of wish-fulfillment; second (as I’ll explain below), it must show that this particular operation of that mechanism is not aimed at the production of true beliefs. Consider the first. Freud offers no more than the most perfunctory argument here, and one can see why: it isn’t easy to see how to argue the point. How would one argue that it is that mechanism, wish-fulfillment, rather than some other, that produces religious belief? Much of religious belief, after all, is not something that, on the face of it, fulfills your wildest dreams. Thus Christianity (as well as other theistic religions) includes the belief that human beings have sinned, that they merit divine wrath and even damnation, and that they are broken, wretched, in need of salvation; according to the Heidelberg Catechism, the first thing I have to know is my sins and miseries. This isn’t precisely a fulfillment of one’s wildest dreams. A follower of Freud might say: “Well, at any rate theistic belief, the belief that there is such a person as God, arises from wish-fulfillment.” But this also is far from clear: many people thoroughly dislike the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient being monitoring their every activity, privy to their every thought, and passing judgment on all they do or think. Others dislike the lack of human autonomy consequent upon there being a Someone by comparison with whom we are as dust and ashes, and to whom we owe worship and obedience.

And in any event where is the evidence (empirical or otherwise) for the Freudian claim? A survey wouldn’t be of much use. Hardly anyone reports believing in God out of wish-fulfillment; the usual reports are, instead, of being seized, compelled, or overwhelmed, or its just seeming right after considerable thought and agony, or its having always seemed clearly true, or its suddenly becoming obvious that it is really so. It certainly doesn’t seem to those of us who believe in God that we do so out of wish-fulfillment. Of course that won’t be taken as relevant; the beauty of Freudian explanations is that the postulated mechanisms all operate unconsciously, unavailable to inspection. The claim is that you subconsciously recognize the miserable and frightening condition we human beings face, subconsciously see that the alternatives are paralyzing despair or belief in God, and subconsciously opt for the latter. Even after careful introspection and reflection, you can’t see that the proffered explanation is true: that fact won’t be taken as even the slightest reason for doubting the explanation. (Just as with your indignant denial that you hate your father because you see him as a rival for your mother’s sexual favors. In fact your indignation may be taken as confirmation; you are resisting 196what at some level you know or suspect is the proper diagnosis.) So suppose you subject yourself to a decade or so of psychoanalysis, but still can’t see that this is the origin of your belief; well (so you’ll be told), psychoanalysis isn’t always successful. (In fact its cure rate, as far as scientific study can demonstrate, is about the same as no treatment at all.) Now things could be like this; and in the nature of the case maybe this sort of thing can’t be demonstrated. Still, why should we believe it?

As far as I can see, the only evidence Freud actually offers is the claim that we see a lot of young people, nowadays, who give up religion when their father’s authority breaks down:

Psycho-analysis has made us familiar with the intimate connection between the father-complex and belief in God: it has shown us that a personal God is, psychologically, nothing other than an exalted father, and it brings us evidence every day of how young people lose their religious beliefs as soon as their father’s authority breaks down. Thus we recognize that the roots of the need for religion are in the parental complex: the almighty and just God, and kindly Nature, appear to us as grand sublimations of father and mother. . . .232232   Memoir of Leonardo da Vinci in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), vol. 11, p. 123.

No doubt Freud saw a good bit of that in his day (and perhaps even in his own case: his relationship with his father, according to E. M. Jones,233233   Degenerate Moderns (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 191. According to Jones, Freud thought of his father as weak and “a pervert.” Jeffrey Masson, The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 222. See also Paul Vitz’s Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious (New York: Guilford, 1988). seems to have left much to be desired). But how is this alleged evidence supposed to confirm the thesis that theistic belief results from wish-fulfillment? The claim is that when the father’s authority (Freud doesn’t say whether he means specifically with respect to religious belief or more generally) breaks down, young people often lose their religious beliefs. How is that fact, supposing that it is a fact, supposed to be evidence for the thesis that theistic belief results from wish-fulfillment? That’s not at all obvious. Suppose theistic belief did result from wish-fulfillment: then wouldn’t we expect some kind of correlation between serious belief and a recognition of the pitiless, indifferent character of nature? On Freud’s thesis, we would expect that a young person would start evincing belief in God perhaps fairly soon after he comes to see that this is in fact the way the world is. But (given the thesis) why would we expect someone whose father’s authority had suffered a breakdown to give up belief in God? 197The fact is someone who had a warm, loving, respectful relation with his father would be less likely to see the cold and indifferent face of nature than someone whose father had lost authority. As far as I can see, therefore, this alleged evidence doesn’t fit well with the main Freudian thesis about the origin of theistic belief and certainly doesn’t serve as evidence for it. Perhaps it shows instead that some young people like to display their maturity and independence by rejecting the religious stance of their parents, whatever that stance might be. (Thus at present we find many cases of children rejecting the unbelief of their parents.) But it certainly doesn’t tend to show that religious or theistic belief arises out of wish-fulfillment.

Of course the thesis isn’t stated exactly, or with enough detail to enable us to see just what would be evidence for it. One naturally thinks that there must be a deeper, more precise statement of the theory somewhere; sadly enough, one can’t find any such thing. The evidence for the theory would perhaps have to be something like the way it fits or explains all the data, all the phenomena of religious or theistic belief. But before we could seriously assess its fit with the evidence, the theory would have to be stated much more precisely; we should have to be able to see what it does and doesn’t predict much more clearly than, in fact, we can. Freudian explanations have never been strong along these lines.234234   Adolf Grünbaum’s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) is a meticulous (and thoroughly unflattering) chronicle of the scientific failings of Freud and Freudianism. Some others are Malcolm Macmillan’s Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1991) and Allen Esterson’s Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of the Work of Sigmund Freud (Chicago: Open Court, 1993).

Even if it were established that wish-fulfillment is the source of theistic belief, however, that wouldn’t be enough to establish that the latter has no warrant. It must also be established that wish-fulfillment in this particular manifestation is not aimed at true belief. The cognitive design plan of human beings is subtle and complicated; a source of belief might be such that in general it isn’t aimed at the formation of true belief, but in some special cases it is. So perhaps this is true of wish-fulfillment; in general, its purpose is not that of producing true belief, but in this special case precisely that is its purpose. Perhaps human beings have been created by God with a deep need to believe in his presence and goodness and love. Perhaps God designed us that way in order that we come to believe in him and be aware of his presence. Perhaps this is how God has arranged for us to come to know him. If so, then the particular bit of the cognitive design plan governing the formation of theistic belief is indeed aimed at true belief, even if the belief in question arises from wish-fulfillment. 198Perhaps God has designed us to know that he is present and loves us by way of creating us with a strong desire for him, a desire that leads to the belief that in fact he is there. Nor is this a mere speculative possibility; something like it is embraced both by St. Augustine (“Our hearts are restless til they rest in thee, O God”) and Jonathan Edwards (below, p. 305ff).

And how would Freud or a follower establish that the mechanism whereby human beings come to believe in God (come to believe that there is such a person as God) is not aimed at the truth? This is really the crux of the matter. Freud offers no arguments or reasons here at all. As far as I can see, he simply takes it for granted that there is no God and that theistic belief is false; he then casts about for some kind of explanation of this widespread phenomenon of mistaken belief. He hits on wish-fulfillment and apparently assumes it is obvious that this mechanism is not “reality oriented”—that is, is not aimed at the production of true belief—so that such belief lacks warrant. As we have seen, this is a safe assumption if in fact theism is false. But then Freud’s version of the de jure criticism really depends on his atheism: it isn’t an independent criticism at all, and it won’t (or shouldn’t) have any force for anyone who doesn’t share that atheism. Given the results of parts II and III of this chapter, this is of course just what we should expect.

Now a believer in God, a Christian or Jew or Muslim, is unlikely to acquiesce in the F&M claim that belief in God has no warrant. (It is only a certain variety of ‘liberal’ theologian, crazed by the thirst for novelty and the desire to accommodate current secularity, who might agree with F&M here.) Indeed, a believer will see the shoe as on the other foot. According to St. Paul, it is unbelief that is a result of dysfunction, brokenness, failure to function properly, or impedance of rational faculties. Unbelief, he says, is a result of sin; it originates in an effort, as Romans 1 puts it, to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”235235   Of course it isn’t Paul’s idea that those who don’t believe are, by that very fact, seen to be more sinful than those who do. On the contrary: just a couple of chapters later he says we are all involved in sin, including, of course, himself (“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”). Furthermore, the malfunction that lies at the root of unbelief is not necessarily that of the unbeliever herself. Some kinds of unbelief (see below, p. 215) are like blindness; upon seeing a blind man, the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)—to which Jesus replied that this blindness was due neither to the man’s own sin nor to that of his parents. In the next chapter, we shall begin to explore the extended A/C model, considering some of the ways in which this suppression and impedance can go.

« Prev IV. The F&M Complaint Revisited Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection