Christian Belief as Wish-Fulfillment

There’s an objection against Christianity that goes something like this: Christian belief is the result of wish-fulfillment and so it is unwarranted. Note that two claims are being made here: (1) Christian belief is the result of wish-fulfillment, and (2) any belief originating in wish-fulfillment is unwarranted. Both of these claims are dubious.

Let’s get clear on what the objection looks like.

Sigmund Freud

Freud was a major proponent of this objection. He argued back in the mid 1900s that religious belief is the result of a psychological desire for protection (among other things). In The Future of an Illusion, he put it this way:

These [religious beliefs], which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impressions of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection— for protection through love— which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place.

Theistic belief, according to Freud, is the result of a psychological mechanism called ‘wish-fulfillment.’ Paralyzed by the natural world, we invent a being that can solve all our existential problems. This doesn’t mean Christianity is false, but rather that theistic belief ought to be railed against, risen above, as it were. There’s something seriously wrong with going on to believe in an illusion. Here he is again:

Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it. In other matters no sensible person will behave so irresponsibly or rest content with such feeble grounds for his opinions and for the line he takes…. Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual mis-demeanour.

Christian belief is intellectually irresponsible, says Freud. This is all because religious belief arises from wish-fulfillment.

The Genetic Fallacy

A common response to the wish-fulfillment objection is to say that it is guilty of the “genetic fallacy.” The genetic fallacy is committed when a conclusion is rejected because of how a person came to believe it. For example, consider the following claim:

Lisa was brainwashed as a child into thinking that people are generally good. Therefore, people are not generally good.

The fact that Lisa was brainwashed as a child says nothing about whether people are generally good. Likewise, the fact that Christian belief originated in wish-fulfillment (even assuming it did) says nothing about whether Christianity is true.

It should be noted that this response need not worry the atheologian. Freud himself didn’t think this was a good argument against the truth of Christianity. Rather, he argued that it renders theistic belief unwarranted. The question of origins is irrelevant to the truth of a belief, fair enough, but it can certainly play a role in the warrant of a belief. In that sense it still poses an epistemic threat.

Freudian Evidence?

The next question we want to ask is what sort of evidence exists in defense of the Freudian claim. Recall that Freud argued that Christian belief arises from wish-fillment. What reason is there to believe this?

Hardly anyone will report in believing in Christianity because of wish-fulfillment. The various interviews that Street Epistemologists have performed with lay Christians have seldom yielded such results (see here and here). The usual reports are that Christianity has always seemed clearly true, they were raised that way, or they’ve had various personal experiences that solidified their belief.

Of course, however, none of this is relevant since the Freudian explanation is on the level of the subconscious. We subconsciously recognize the despair that results from naturalism and subconsciously opt for Christianity. Conscious reports are irrelevant.

Now, this could be true, but what reason is there to think that the Freudian picture is actually true? What is the evidence? Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the Freudian explanation is underdeveloped; there are no precise predictions it makes and so there’s no good way of telling whether it comports with reality. The Freudian thesis is therefore in need of a serious spelling out and a serious defense before it can be taken seriously.

Proves Too Much

A problem that arises at this point is that anyone can tell a story about how her interlocutor’s beliefs are the result of subconscious wish-fulfilling desires. If this were a good objection, then it could be used against any belief, including the belief that God doesn’t exist or that evidentialism is true. It could be used against scientific beliefs, mathematical beliefs, moral beliefs, virtually any belief imaginable. Christians could just as easily claim that atheistic belief is the result of a subconscious desire to sin/rebel. Would that be enough to show that atheism is unjustified? Not possibly unjustified, but actually unjustified?

The answer of course is no. This objection is simply too ambitious; it proves too much. If mere claims of wish-fulfillment were enough to undermine justification, no one would be justified in believing anything.

What Follows?

Putting aside the previous worries, would it follow that Christianity is unwarranted even if we assume that Christian belief arises from psychological desires? Not necessarily. As Alvin Plantinga points out in Warranted Christian Belief:

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. Perhaps 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.

Here Plantinga says that God can use wish-fulfillment to reliably engender belief in God. God could use an innate desire for the transcendent to produce God-belief. And if God exists, then this psychological process would, by definition, be a reliable method. So even if we grant that Christian belief is the result of wishful thinking, it doesn’t follow that Christian belief is false or unwarranted [1].

Conclusions

Psychological explanations of Christian belief, as potential defeaters, don’t appear too promising. They don’t undermine the truth of Christianity (see the section above on the genetic fallacy), nor do they undermine a Christian’s having warrant. In fact, if the objection is a good one, it would demonstrate that no one is justified in anything they believe.

Psychology is an interesting subject, no doubt. But using a person’s psychology as a basis for establishing metaphysical or epistemological conclusions is highly problematic.


Notes

[1] Someone might argue that this assumes externalism. Fair enough; externalism is true.

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4 comments

  1. Hey Cameron, great article! Thank you so much for all your work and dedication that you put into your web page and Apologetics ministry. I am starting to dive into your matieral and it is great! Related to this article, I was wondering if you could clarify something for me. I am confused about how one could still be justified in believing in belief X if that belief was just wish-fulfillment. Could you define justified and warrant? Thanks for your time.

    1. Hey Brett! Thanks for your comments. Justification is being used in the deontological sense. We are justified in holding some belief B if we aren’t committing any epistemic sins in our holding B. Suppose John strongly believes that the past is real and really wishes this were the case. Thinking otherwise sends him into existential depression. Now, in addition to this, he’s looked at arguments against the reality of the past and found none that were compelling. What epistemic sins has John committed? Any?

      As for warrant, warrant is defined as the missing ingredient that turns mere true belief into knowledge. The section above from Plantinga explains how God could actually use wish-fulfillment to produce belief in God.

      I hope this helps!

      1. Thanks Cameron, that does help. In your example of John, would he be committing an epistemic sin by not being convinced by evidence against the past because of his emotional desire to not believe them due to his depression that would result?

        So when it comes to true belief, if someone has a belief that doesn’t commit any epistemic sins, then it is justified/warranted and thus becomes knowledge? I’m pretty new to philosophy and epistemology if you can’t tell 😉

        1. Hey again Brett! The answer to the first question is ‘not necessarily.’ Even supposing there were good arguments against the reality of the past (which there aren’t), it doesn’t necessarily follow John is unjustified. Those arguments would constitute propositional evidence against his belief, but he could have stronger non-propositional evidence (like a significantly strong seeming) that counterbalances his total evidence. In that scenario, he would still be justified in believing in the past, even if his belief was in part the result of wish-fulfillment.

          That condition would be sufficient for justification, but justification does not equal warrant. Warrant requires different criteria. See Part 2 of my series on whether we can know that Christianity is true:

          http://capturingchristianity.com/know-christianity-true-part-2/

          For further study, I suggest reading Alvin Plantinga’s “Knowledge and Christian Belief.”

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