Religion and epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K080-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2022, from

5. Freud and Marx

Some of Freud’s treatment of religious belief is perhaps rather fanciful – for example, his suggestion that religion originated in a remarkable transaction among the ‘primal horde’. (The sons of the dominant male, jealous of their father because he had seized all the women for himself, killed and ate him; religion somehow emerged from the resulting guilt and remorse.) But he also makes a much more sober claim about the ‘psychical origin of religious ideas’:

These, which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfilments 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 impression 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 fulfilment 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-fulfilments shall take place.

(1927: 30)

The idea is that theistic belief arises from a psychological mechanism Freud (§4) calls ‘wish-fulfilment’; in this case, the wish is father, not to the deed, but to the belief. Nature rises up against us, cold, pitiless, implacable, and blind to our needs and desires. It delivers hurt, fear and pain, and in the end demands our death. Paralysed and appalled, we invent (unconsciously, of course) a Father in Heaven who exceeds our earthly fathers as much in power and knowledge as in goodness and benevolence; we believe he loves and cares for us. The alternative would be to sink into depression, stupor and finally death. According to Freud, belief in God is an illusion, in a semi-technical use of the term: a belief that arises from the mechanism of wish-fulfilment. But if Freud intends this as a criticism of religious belief, he must be thinking that what he says in some way discredits it, casts doubt upon it, and, in a word, shows that there is something wrong with it. So what, precisely, is the problem? We can put it by saying that religious belief (specifically theistic belief) is irrational; but what does that mean? Irrational in what way? In order to understand what is really involved in that complaint, we must make a brief excursion into the assumptions underlying the sort of criticism it represents.

It is natural to think that there are intellectual, or cognitive, or rational powers or faculties – for example, perception and memory. These powers or processes produce in us the myriad beliefs we hold. They are something like instruments; and like instruments, they have a function or purpose. If we thought of ourselves as created and designed either by a Master Craftsman or by Evolution, these cognitive faculties would be the parts of our total cognitive establishment whose purpose it is to produce beliefs in us. Their purpose, furthermore, is presumably to produce true beliefs in us; to put it a bit less passively, they are designed in such a way that by using them properly we can come to true belief. Our cognitive faculties work over an immensely large area to deliver beliefs on many different topics: beliefs about our immediate environment, about the external world at large, about the past, about numbers, propositions and other abstract objects and the relations between them, about other people and what they are thinking and feeling, about what the future will be like, about right and wrong, about what is necessary and impossible, and about God himself.

These faculties are aimed at the truth in the sense that their purpose or function is to furnish us with true belief. And like any other instruments or organs, they can work either well or ill; they can function properly or malfunction. A wart or a tumour does not function properly, but nor does it malfunction (although it might be by virtue of malfunction that the tumour is present). That is because it has no function or purpose. But an organ – such as your heart, liver or pancreas – does have a function, and does either work properly or malfunction. And the same goes for cognitive faculties or capacities: they too can function well or badly. Further, we ordinarily take it for granted that when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, when they are not subject to dysfunction or malfunction, then for the most part the beliefs they produce are at least close to the truth. There is, we might say, a presumption of reliability for properly functioning faculties; we are inclined (rightly or wrongly) to take it that properly functioning cognitive faculties for the most part deliver true belief. No doubt there will be mistakes and disagreements, and we may be inclined to scepticism about certain special areas of belief – political beliefs, for example, as well as beliefs formed at the very limits of our ability, as in cosmology and subatomic physics – but the bulk of the everyday beliefs delivered by our rational faculties, so we think, are true.

But when our cognitive faculties malfunction, they do not fulfil their purpose of furnishing us with true belief – or if they do, it is by accident. Insanity is an extreme case of malfunction of the rational faculties. But there are more subtle ways in which irrational or non-rational beliefs can be formed in us. First, there are belief-forming mechanisms that are not aimed at the formation of true belief, but at the formation of belief with some other property – contributing to survival, perhaps, or peace of mind or psychological comfort. Someone with a lethal disease may believe their chances of recovery much higher than the statistics in their possession warrant; their so believing itself improves their chances of recovery. The function of the process producing this belief is not that of furnishing true beliefs, but beliefs that make it more likely that the believer will recover. A person may be blinded (as we say) by ambition, failing to see that a certain course of action is wrong or stupid, even though it is obvious to everyone else. Our idea is that the inordinately ambitious person fails to recognize something they would otherwise recognize; the normal functioning of some aspect of their cognitive powers is inhibited or overridden or impeded by that excessive ambition. You may be blinded also by fear, lust, anger, pride, grief, social pressure, and even loyalty, continuing to believe in the honesty of your friend long after an objective look at the evidence would have dictated a reluctant change of mind.

So there are at least three ways in which a belief can fail to be a proper deliverance of our rational faculties: it may be produced by malfunctioning faculties, or it may be produced by cognitive processes aimed at something other than the truth, or the proper function of rational faculties can be impeded and overridden by lust, mother love, ambition, greed, grief, fear, low self-esteem and other emotional conditions. And here we come to the heart of Freud’s objection: when Freud says that theistic belief is irrational, his basic idea is that belief of this sort is not produced by the unimpeded proper function of belief-producing processes whose purpose it is to furnish us with true belief. This means that the presumption of reliability attaching to properly functioning cognitive faculties does not apply to the processes that yield belief in God. The idea is that theistic belief has a source distinct from those of our faculties that are aimed at the truth – or, if such belief does somehow issue from those truth-aimed faculties, their operation, in producing such belief, is impeded by other factors. It is therefore irrational; and it is also irrational in the further sense that it is inconsistent with rational belief. For this reason the presumption of reliability does not attach to religious belief.

Marx’s views differ from Freud’s here in an interesting way. Marx (§3) thinks that religion arises from cognitive malfunction: ‘Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produce religion, a perverted world consciousness, because they are a perverted world’ (Marx and Engels [1844] 1964: 41–2; original italics). So Marx’s idea, fundamentally, is that religious belief is produced by malfunctioning cognitive faculties – malfunctioning in response to social and political malfunction. Freud, on the other hand, thinks theistic belief is an illusion in his special sense of a cognitive mechanism that is aimed, not at the truth, but at psychological wellbeing. But illusions have their functions; they may serve important ends (such as the end Freud thinks religious belief does serve). When our cognitive faculties produce illusions, therefore, they are not necessarily malfunctioning. So Marx thinks theistic belief is the product of malfunctioning cognitive faculties, whereas Freud thinks it is the product of cognitive processes not aimed at the truth. They concur in thinking that theistic belief is irrational in the double sense that it is not produced by unimpeded properly functioning cognitive faculties aimed at the truth, and it runs counter to the deliverances of our rational powers. As Freud puts it, religious belief is ‘patently infantile’, and ‘foreign to reality’.

Citing this article:
Plantinga, Alvin. Freud and Marx. Religion and epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K080-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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