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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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 .
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.
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.
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… Read more »
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 😉
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… Read more »
This post is a big fat non-sequitur. You ought to understand Frued’s point in the context of his book first. In that book he gives reasons for rejecting the truth value of religion, then he offers an *explanation* for why people hold to religion in wish-fulfillment. Here’s a summary outline of his book: http://firmitas.org/FreudFuture.html Now you may reject his reasons for rejecting religion but he gives them, and as far as I can see only the blind will scoff at them. You just refuse to see in yourself what you see in other religionists, the lack of sufficient evidence, convincing… Read more »
Hi John! It’s great to interact with you. Here are my thoughts on your comment. First, you say that the whole post is a “non-sequitur” because Freud argues that religion is false. Two points. First, it’s not clear that Freud himself argued that religious beliefs are false. It seems that, if anything, he punted to the work of others (like Nietzsche, Fuererbach, and Hume). Second, even if this is right, it doesn’t follow that the whole post is a “non-sequitur.” The point I’m making is that the objection from wish-fulfillment fails. It doesn’t matter who does or doesn’t forward this… Read more »
Freud not Frued