Christianity & Suspicion: Alvin Plantinga on Marx, Freud & Warranted Christian Belief

In my last post we saw how C.S. Lewis responded to Sigmund Freud’s suggestion that religious belief is purely the result of sublimation. Today we will look at how Alvin Plantinga responds to the “school of suspicion,” specifically Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s attack upon the rationality of religious belief. Plantinga, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College, has probably been the most consequential figure in the philosophy of religion in the last fifty years.

From the 1960’s through the early 2000’s Alvin Plantinga’s work was aimed at showing Christian belief to be properly basic, i.e., to be the sort of belief that one can rationally hold without having to have a philosophical argument to support it.[1] Examples of such properly basic beliefs would be my belief that my name is David, my belief that there is an external world, my belief that I ate two slices of banana bread for breakfast, my belief that 2 and 2 make 4, and such like. For Plantinga, the question is this: Can one rationally believe in Christianity even if one does not have a bunch of snazzy philosophical arguments for the truth of Christianity? Or must one have a good argument if one wants to be a rational believer?

In his book Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000) he begins by beating the philosophical bushes in search of what he considers to be a viable de jure question.[2]  The de jure question is simply this: “[Is] it rational, reasonable, justifiable, warranted to accept Christian belief…?  Or is there something epistemically unacceptable in so doing, something foolish, or silly, or foolhardy, or stupid, or unjustified, or unreasonable, or in some other way epistemically deplorable?”[3]  He sees the de jure question as being one of the main questions leveled at believers by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment atheologians.  After rejecting what he calls classical foundationalism, classical deontologism, and evidentialism for failing to specify a de jure objection that is neither vague nor self-referentially incoherent and that does not unduly rule out beliefs that we consider reasonable (e.g., my belief that I had banana bread for breakfast, or that I was born in Raleigh) he arrives at what he calls “the Freud-and-Marx complaint.”

Freud thought that religious beliefs were illusions.  “…[We] call a belief an illusion,” writes Freud, “when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.”[4]  To say that a belief is an illusion in the Freudian sense is not necessarily to claim that it is false (no matter what “illusion” connotes).[5]  Hence, Freud describes the status of religious beliefs as follows:

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…. [The] benevolent rule of 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[6]

Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939

Furthermore, Freud writes, “Of the reality value of most [religious beliefs] we cannot judge; just as they cannot be proved, so they cannot be refuted.”[7]  To summarize, to hold religious beliefs is to throw verification to the wind in order to indulge in wishful thinking.  What is more, religious beliefs are not only unverified, but many are unverifiable, says Freud.  Thus it is difficult to see how one might be justified in holding them.

Marx criticized religion in a similar way.  Plantinga writes, “Marx suggests that religion arises from perverted world consciousness—perverted from a correct, or right, or natural condition.  Religion involves a cognitive dysfunction, a disorder or perversion that is apparently brought about, somehow, by an unhealthy and perverted social order.”[8]  Marx took it for granted that “man makes religion; religion does not make man.”[9]  But why, asks Marx, does man make religion?

Man is the human world, the state, society.  This state, this society, produce religion which is an inverted world consciousness, because they are an inverted world….
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness.  The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions.  The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.[10]

Plantinga notes that there are several ways of understanding Marx’s critique.[11]  Perhaps Marx thought religious believers to be cognitively deficient, somehow, in themselves.  Religious belief is just the result of a lack of cognitive fiber, or is symptomatic a sort of congenital birth defect.  Or, on the other hand, perhaps it is that capitalist society—with its vast economic inequalities, the alienation of the rank-and-file from their day-in-day out labor, and the sheer grind of post-industrial existence—is a hostile cognitive environment, one which causes otherwise mentally healthy persons to form false beliefs just in order to cope.  The second of the two interpretations seems to square better with Marx’s writings.

Karl Marx, 1818-1883

Plantinga points out that the major difference between Freud and Marx is that “Freud doesn’t necessarily think religious belief is produced by cognitive faculties that are malfunctioning.  Religious belief—specifically belief in God—is, indeed, produced by wish-fulfillment; it is the product of illusion; still, illusion and wish-fulfillment have their functions.”[12]  The functions of illusion and wish-fulfillment are namely that of helping us to muddle through in this cold, cruel world.  Marx, on the other hand, sees religious belief as “produced by disordered cognitive processes….”[13]  What these two  masters of suspicion have in common, however, is that they both believe that “religious belief is produced by cognitive processes whose function is not that of producing true beliefs, but rather that of producing beliefs conducive to psychological well-being.”[14]

Here at last, Plantinga believes, is the viable de jure question, for which atheologians have been groping since the Enlightenment.  The idea is basically that, given the epistemic environment in which we find ourselves, if one’s cognitive faculties were functioning properly and aimed at forming true beliefs, one would not form religious beliefs.  Thus, for those poor benighted souls who, living in the same epistemic environment, find themselves having such beliefs, it can only be the result of some sort of cognitive dysfunction.  “[When] F&M say that Christian belief, or theistic belief, or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational,” writes Plantinga, “the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties.”[15]

But then, it must be asked what are our rational cognitive faculties?  Plantinga notes that “going all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, it has been assumed that there are intellectual or cognitive or rational powers or faculties, or (possibly) virtues: for example, perception and memory.”[16]  He continues:

These faculties and processes are the instruments or organs, as we might put it, whereby we come to have knowledge.  They are aimed at the truth in the sense that their purpose or function is to furnish us with true belief.[17]  Like any other instruments or organs, they can work properly or improperly; they can function well or malfunction.[18]

He, following Thomas Reid, lists some of these faculties as: reason (taken narrowly as a priori thinking), perception, memory, introspection, induction, sympathy (“whereby we come to be aware of what other people are thinking, feeling and believing”[19]), testimony or credulity, and perhaps even a moral sense.[20]

John Calvin, 1509-1564

So the F&M complaint seems to be that religious belief is the result of cognitive faculties that are aimed at truth but that are malfunctioning for one reason or another, or of cognitive faculties aimed at something other than the truth (e.g., wish-fulfillment).  However, as I have already said, Plantinga wants to show that theistic and Christian belief is properly basic.  That is to say, theistic and Christian beliefs are among the deliverances of properly functioning cognitive faculties.  Plantinga points out:

[There] could well be truth-aimed faculties in addition to the ones mentioned so far.  Similarly a believer in God might think that there is such a thing as Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, a natural, inborn sense of God, or of divinity, that is the origin and source of the world’s religions; perhaps there is also such a thing as the inward invitation or instigation of the Holy Spirit…whereby the believer comes to accept the central truths of the Christian faith.[21]

These items have been part of Christian teaching for millennia and became central in Reformation and post-Reformation Christian theology.  If Christianity is true, then these are real truth-aimed rational faculties, and belief in God and Christianity are amongst the proper deliverances of reason (taken broadly as right reason).

Thus, it becomes clear that Freud and Marx can only complain that Christian belief is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties by presupposing the falsehood of Christianity.  “So,” Plantinga writes, “the de jure question we have finally found is not, after all, really independent of the de facto question; to answer the former, we must answer the latter.”[22]  The dependence of the de jure question (and the F&M complaint) upon the de facto question shows “that a successful atheological objection will have to be to the truth of theism, not to its rationality, justification, intellectual respectability, rational justification, or whatever.  Atheologians who wish to attack theistic belief will have to restrict themselves to objections like the argument from evil, the claim that theism is incoherent, or the idea that in some other way there is strong evidence against theistic belief.”[23]  But it is precisely concerning the de facto question that Freud and Marx (and Nietzsche for that matter) write so precious little, and even less worth taking seriously.  They are in the business of giving alternative accounts of how religious belief might have arisen or how religious beliefs might come to be held, but this does not actually constitute an argument against the truth of religious beliefs.  The F&M complaint is not the same thing as what we find in, say, J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism or Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  Thus, according to Plantinga, the school of suspicion fails to give a serious atheological objection to Christian belief.

On Monday we will see why philosopher Merold Westphal thinks Christians should read Marx, Nietzsche and Freud for Lent….


[1] See especially his God and Other Minds (Cornell, 1967), Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993), Warrant: The Current Debate (Oxford, 1993), and Faith and Rationality edited with Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame, 1983)

[2] Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 81-107

[3] Ibid, p. 3

[4] Freud, The Future of an Illusion, p. 40

[5] “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.  In this respect they come near to psychiatric delusions.  But they differ from them, too, apart from the more complicated structure of delusions.  In the case of delusions, we emphasize as essential their being in contradiction with reality.  Illusions need not necessarily be false—that is to say, unrealizable or in contradiction to reality.”  Ibid, p. 39.

[6] Ibid, p. 38

[7] Ibid, p. 40

[8] Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 141

[9] Marx, “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the Right: Introduction,” p. 53

[10] Ibid, pp. 53-54

[11] Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, pp. 162-163

[12] Ibid, p. 142

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, p. 151

[16] Ibid, p. 146

[17] Some evolutionarily minded persons might object that our cognitive faculties are not really aimed at anything.  They do not have a purpose or function, but have come to be simply as the result of chance + matter + time and persist only because they have some sort of survival value.  To speak of aiming, purpose and function for cognitive faculties, is to smuggle in some sort of teleology.  However, Plantinga takes note of this objection (on p. 154) and tries to qualify his language of design, aiming, purpose and function in such a way as to make it acceptable to clear-headed atheistic evolutionists.  But it may fairly be asked, if atheistic evolutionists do not believe that our cognitive faculties are aimed at forming true beliefs, then what is the likelihood that they should develop so as to form mostly true beliefs?  Plantinga thinks this probability to be very low and that belief in the reliability of our cognitive faculties for finding truth provides a defeater for atheism.  He argues this thesis in his “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” to which I refer you:

[18] Ibid, p. 155

[19] Ibid, p. 147

[20] Ibid, pp. 146-148

[21] Ibid, p. 148

[22] Ibid, p. 191

[23] Ibid


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