Is Christian Belief Just Wish-Fulfillment? Alvin Plantinga’s Assessment of Freud

Do you ever wonder why people believe the things that they do? If you do not share those beliefs, then you might be inclined to assign nefarious or otherwise unsavory reasons for these beliefs. The psychology of religious thinking is of particular interest. Most religious people never actually see a miracle or anything transcendent invading the physical world. All that we can see is nature. It would seem almost like common sense to believe only what our eyes and ears report. Yet there is this impending desire to believe that there is something beyond the physical world, that there is a God and he has a plan for us. In his book Warranted Christian Belief (WCB), the philosopher Alvin Plantinga discussed the explanation offered by Sigmund Freud, namely that Christianity is just a form of wish-fulfillment. Is that true? is Christian belief just wish-fulfillment? Alvin Plantinga’s assessment of Freud defends Christianity from this charge.

On page 139 of WCB, Plantinga expounded upon Freud’s view of the emergence of religious belief. The natural world offers pain, fear, and ultimately death. Desiring to escape from this, religious people subconsciously develop this idea that there is a loving Father in Heaven who will relieve the pain and make the world right again. Belief in God is an illusion that arises from this mechanism known as wish-fulfillment. Plantinga summarizes, “This illusion somehow becomes internalized.” So what did Plantinga say in assessing Freud’s position?

This Is Not The Genetic Fallacy

Most Christian apologists will hear this assessment and quickly rejoin that it is an example of the Genetic Fallacy. The Genetic Fallacy occurs when one attempts to falsify a belief by explaining where the belief originated. For example, if I were to become a libertarian simply because my father was a libertarian, and I wanted to resemble him, the critic may point out my faulty mechanism for adopting this political philosophy. Yet if the critic were to say that the political philosophy is thereby false, then he would be guilty of the Genetic Fallacy. In the case of Freud, the apologist who says that Freud is guilty of the Genetic Fallacy takes him to mean that Christian belief is thereby proven to be false.

Plantinga thinks that the accusation of the Genetic Fallacy is a little too hasty. On page 139, he pointed out that Freud believed that it is not possible to falsify belief in God. He went on to explain on page 194 that Freud was not assessing the truth of religious beliefs. He was assessing the epistemic warrant that religious belief enjoys. Even if religious belief turns out to be true, according to Freud, it is epistemically unwarranted because it is produced by a wish-fulfilling mechanism. As happy as we might be to say that Freud was guilty of this freshman-level fallacy, he probably cannot be charged with that.

Why Think A Thing Like That?

Plantinga pointed out in an earlier chapter that Freud had a charming way of telling stories about how a certain belief might emerge. He told a story (page 137 of WCB) about how religious belief emerged in the primal horde as a group of brothers would band together to murder their father and usurp his role. The totem meal evolved from there, later occurring as a religious practice, manifesting in Christianity as communion. His story about how religious belief could arise from wish-fulfillment takes a similar form. But then the question arises: why think a thing like that?

The ability to tell a story about how religious belief might have arisen on a naturalistic perspective is not evidence in and of itself. Accepting that human beings possess a wish-fulfillment mechanism, Plantinga asks on page 195, “How would one argue that it is that mechanism, wish-fulfillment, rather than some other, that produced religious belief?” It would seem that Freud’s story is little more than speculation. It is naturalism attempting to explain how religious belief arose. But there may be an equally satisfying explanation.

Our Father’s Authority

Given the last section, the question that we will have to ask is what reasons there are to believe Freud’s hypothesis. On page 196, Plantinga pointed to what he discerned to be “the only evidence Freud actually offers for his position.” The root of religious belief, according to Freud, is in the relationship that children have with their parents. The Almighty God parallels the father figure while “kindly mother nature” parallels the mother figure. When’s the father’s authority begins to break down, then so does God’s authority. This is seen in that children often lose their religious faith when they leave the home.

“But,” asks Plantinga, “How is that fact, supposing it is a fact, supposed to be evidence for the thesis that theistic belief results from wish-fulfillment? That is not at all obvious.” There are in fact several good explanations that could account for young people leaving the faith (often to cyclically return when they acquire a family). Plantinga offers the most obvious one. After leaving the home, young people desire their own identity, maturity, and independence. They want to be their own person. So they will reject much of what their parents tried to ingrain in their minds. So while this evidence might be consistent with Freud’s hypothesis, there are perfectly plausible explanations to account for it.

Freud’s Hypothesis Is Unfalsifiable

A scientific hypothesis is typically dismissed if it does not meet the criteria of falsifiability. For a scientific proposition to be falsifiable, it would have to be possible to conceive of a scenario in which it would be falsified. It seems that Freud’s explanation fails to meet the criteria of falsifiability. There is no way to tell if religious belief is generated from wish-fulfillment. If you were to ask a religious person why they believe, they might give you an explanation that does not involve wish-fulfillment.

Yet if you were to remind Freud or one of his disciples of that, he will say that the religious person does not know that her beliefs were generated by wish-fulfillment. The wish-fulfillment mechanism acts subconsciously. Plantinga pointed out on page 195 that “The beauty of the Freudian explanation is that the postulated mechanisms all operate unconsciously, unavailable to inspection… Even after careful introspection and reflection, you can’t see that the proffered explanation is true.”

Christian Theology Does Not Fulfill Our Wildest Dreams

There are some charlatans who offer fulfillment of one’s carnal desires. Yet this would not be a manifestation of Christianity as much as it is a perversion of Christianity. The charlatan is attempting to loot the parishioners. Insofar as Christian theology is concerned, it does not seem to fulfill our wildest dreams. In fact, it seems to do the opposite. Being a Christian involves laying yourself down, surrendering your will, autonomy, and your very being to the will of God. It involves pursuing after righteousness and leaving carnal pleasure behind.

Similarly, Plantinga pointed out on page 195 that Christianity teaches that everybody is under the power of sin – indeed, they are slaves to sin. Christianity is not alone in this assertion. Many other world religions teach that we are worthy of divine wrath and that there needs to be some sort of atonement for our sin. Many religions also teach the idea of eternal divine punishment. God enacts his justice forever, sometimes engulfing the dead in flames that never go out. At least at face value, there does not seem to be anything about any of these beliefs that is an example of wish-fulfillment.

I want to add one minor caveat to this point. I am not offering some sort of cheap apologetic by saying that only a true religion could make these theological claims. Many world religions teach that we are sinners, in need of redemption, and that Hell awaits. My point is not that this establishes that Christianity is true but only that these theological claims do not satisfy our wishes.

The Concept of God Does Not Necessarily Fulfill Our Wishes

The objector may retort (as Plantinga pointed out) that while these theological claims are not necessarily an example of wish-fulfillment, the concept of God certainly is. God is a loving Father who saves humanity from the horrors of the natural world. But why think a thing like that? First, our concept of God does not fit the criteria for what the natural man would want. The natural man would not want a judge. Yet the concept of justice is irrevocably imbedded in the loving Father who will make the world right. For making the world right entails judging the wicked.

Plantinga writes, “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 dust and ashes, and to whom we owe worship and obedience.” If you are an atheist and you find the concept of God thoroughly distasteful, then you might be evidence that God is not a product of wish-fulfillment.

In fact, if you concede that you dislike the concept of God, it might be argued that naturalism is an example of wish-fulfillment. Naturalism would entail that you have privacy in your own mind, that there will not be an ultimate reckoning at the end of the world and that divine justice will never be fulfilled. Naturalism will likely entail the doctrine that consciousness ceases at the grave and that you can finally escape from the horrors of the world. If you accept that theism is a product of wish-fulfillment, then it does not seem a stretch that naturalism could also be a product of wish-fulfillment.

Even Granting Freud’s Hypothesis, Religious Belief May Still Be Warranted

Suppose for a moment that it were established that religious belief derived from a wish-fulfilling mechanism. Plantinga thinks that it could still be a rationally held belief. It is not sufficient to point out that the mechanism that produces this belief is wish-fulfillment. One would have to establish that this wish-fulfilling mechanism is not “aimed at truth.” For “that is the crux of the matter,” writes Plantinga (page 198). “How would Freud establish that the mechanism whereby human beings come to believe in God is not aimed at truth?”

It may be that God imbedded in human beings a deep desire to believe in his presence. That desire could arise from any number of factors related to the natural world, including even our relationship with our parents. It could arise because of the fear instilled by the terror of the natural world. Of course, Plantinga is not suggesting that in fact, that is the case. But it may be. So if we cannot establish that the wish-fulfillment mechanism is not aimed at truth, then there is no reason to think that Christian belief will be unwarranted if it is produced by that mechanism.

Is Christian Belief Just Wish-Fulfillment? Alvin Plantinga’s Assessment of Freud

You might have discerned that this is far from a full book review of WCB. WCB is nearly 500 pages long. In this article, I covered some of the content on three or four pages. Plantinga’s thesis is essentially that Christian belief has warrant; an individual can be epistemically justified in believing in Christianity. In developing his model, he surveyed many of the objections to theism’s warrant, including Marx and Freud. After establishing that there are no tenable objections to warranted Christian belief, he established his model.

Note: I should point out Plantinga said on page 197 that he searched in vain for a more robust treatment of Freud’s argument. What he covered is the strongest version available.

Recommended Reading:
Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga
The Future of An Illusion by Sigmund Freud