Consider the skeptical claim that “religion only serves to provide an empty hope that helps us manage our fears.” God is a placebo. This all too common sentiment deserves a careful response, if only because of its proven rhetorical power to both discourage believers and bolster unbelievers against belief. Naturally as a Christian I agree that most religions offer false hope. However, I do believe that Christianity offers a true hope. I further believe this hope allays fear. How then do I interact with this claim?
Perhaps the most charitable way to interpret this claim is provided by Alvin Plantinga in his book Warranted Christian Belief. Plantinga attributes a similar claim to Freud and Marx. According to Freud, belief in God is the result of wishful thinking. Rather than forming Christian beliefs using reason, one forms them under a ‘wish-fulfillment’ mechanism. This mechanism serves to help one cope with the world by producing false—yet psychologically helpful—religious beliefs. So for Freud, Christian beliefs come from the wrong cognitive mechanism—wish-fulfillment rather than reason. That makes them irrational.
According to Marx, belief in God “is a result of cognitive dysfunction, of a lack of mental and emotional health.” Who’s to blame for this dysfunction according to Marx? Society! (No surprise there.) A third popular version is that religious beliefs have an evolutionary origin. Perhaps belief in God simply increases individual fitness or herd survivability. Of course, there’s no (non-theistic) reason to think that these fitness-conferring beliefs are true.
In summary, the skeptical claim amounts to declaring religious beliefs irrational by virtue of origin. Faith beliefs fail to meet the minimum criterion for rationality—production by “cognitive faculties that are functioning properly and aimed at the truth.”
Here’s where the rhetorical power is evident. There is no logical reason to think that an irrational belief is false. Neither is there a reason to think that it is true. Nevertheless Freud supposes that once “we see that religious belief takes its origin in wishful thinking, we will presumably no longer find it attractive.” Accordingly, if Christian belief is irrational we might as well abandon it (even if it turns out to be true).
Is the Freud and Marx objection compelling? That depends on two criteria. First, Christian beliefs must indeed be the product of wish-fulfillment. Second, wish-fulfillment must lead us astray from the truth when it comes to God. If either criteria fails then the Freud and Marx objection collapses. It turns out that they both fail.
First, why think that wish-fulfillment is the basis for Christian belief? I for one feel that many of my Christian beliefs do have a rational basis. That’s what I’m hoping to share on my blog! Furthermore, Christianity isn’t exactly all good news for beginners. “Christianity … 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… This isn’t precisely the fulfillment of one’s wildest dreams.” As such, many people tend to wish that God does not exist! Of course some parts of Christianity are very compelling, such as salvation as a free gift rather than striving to please God. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to conceive of Christianity as the result of conscious wish-fulfillment.
Perhaps wish-fulfillment occurs subconsciously. Indeed, “the beauty of Freudian explanations is that the postulated mechanisms all operate subconsciously, unavailable to inspection.” This can go both ways of course. If the Christian fears nature and wishes for divine help then surely the skeptic may fear the deity and wish him dead. In any case, subconscious wish-fulfillment merely amounts to an unverifiable assertion. My assertion is as good as the skeptic’s.
Plantinga suggests that “the only evidence that 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.” Of course, that evidence goes both ways. Children are also known to reject their father’s unbelief. The deep issue here is that Freud’s theories fail to specify what Christian belief would be like if it were the product of wish-fulfillment. As such, there’s nothing to test and no framework within which to weigh the evidence. Arguably then, the first criterion fails.
What about the second criterion, that wish-fulfillment leads us to falsehoods about God? Suppose that there is a natural explanation for Christian beliefs such as Freud’s wish-fulfillment (or perhaps evolutionary dynamics). What then? Not much. Just because wish-fulfillment produces Christian beliefs it doesn’t follow that it leads us astray in matters of God. Indeed, “perhaps God designed us in such a way that it is by virtue of those processes that we come to have knowledge of him.”
C.S. Lewis is famous for suggesting that our desires point to satisfaction in God. He writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Why think that our fears and desires would lead us astray rather than towards the truth? The only plausible reason for Freud’s cynicism towards wish-fulfillment was that he presumed that God does not exist. That brings us back to the beginning without any damage to Christian belief.
 Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 139.
 Ibid., 142.
 Ibid., 141.
 Cf. Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011) Ch. 10.
 Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 152.
 Ibid., 140.
 Ibid., 194.
 “First, it must show that theistic belief really does arise from the mechanism of wish-fulfillment; second … it must show that this particular operation of that mechanism is not aimed at the production of true beliefs.” ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 196.
 Ibid., 197.
 Ibid., 145.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 136–137.