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Alvin Plantinga Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

“On Freud’s view, religion (and here we are thinking especially of theistic religions) is an illusion, in his technical sense. This sense is not such as to entail the falsehood of religious belief, although in fact Freud thinks there is no such person as God. Still, illusions have their uses and indeed their functions. The function or purpose of religious belief is really to enable believers to carry on in this cold and hostile or at any rate indiðerent world in which we find ourselves. The idea is that theistic belief arises from a psychological mechanism Freud calls ‘wish-fulfillment’; the wish in this case is father, not to the deed, but to the belief. Nature rises up against us, cold, pitiless, implacable, blind to our needs and desires. She delivers hurt, fear, pain; and in the end she demands our death. Paralyzed 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. The alternative would be to sink into depression, stupor, paralysis; and finally death.

This illusion enables us to carry on and survive: perhaps we could put it by saying that it contributes to our fitness. Is this Freudian claim incompatible with Christian belief? Could I accept Christian belief and also accept Freud’s explanation or account of it? Well, maybe. For it is at least possible that God gets us to be aware of him by way of a mechanism like wish-fulfillment. According to Augustine, ‘Our hearts are restless till they rest in you, O God.’ But then it might be that the way God induces awareness of himself in us is through a process of wish-fulfillment: we want so much to be in God’s presence, we want so very much to feel his love, to know that we are loved by the first being of the universe, that we simply come to believe this. I don’t say that is in fact the way things go; I say only that it is possible and not incompatible with Christian belief.

But there is more to Freud’s account than just that we come to believe in God by way of wish-fulfillment. If that were all he thinks there would be no reason to call theistic belief an illusion. What more does Freud say here? The more he says, and that which makes Christian belief an illusion, is that wish-fulfillment isn’t reality oriented, as we might say. We human beings display a large number of belief-producing processes or faculties or mechanisms. There is perception, memory, a priori intuition, credulity, induction, and much else. We ordinarily think these faculties or processes are aimed at the production of true belief: that is what they are for, and that is their purpose or function. There are some cognitive processes, however, that are not aimed at the production of true belief, but at some other desideratum. Someone may remember a painful experience as less painful than it actually was. According to John 16:21, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.’ You may continue to believe in your friend’s honesty long after evidence and cool, objective judgment would have dictated a reluctant change of mind. I may believe that I will recover from a dread disease much more strongly than is warranted by the statistics of which I am aware. William James’ climber in the Alps, faced with a life or death situation, believed more strongly than his evidence warranted that he could leap the crevasse.

In all of these cases, there is no cognitive dysfunction or failure to function properly; but the processes in question don’t seem to have as their functions the production of true beliefs. Rather, they produce beliefs that are useful in the context in one way or another. And exactly this is the way things stand with Freud’s explanation: an essential part of his account of theistic belief is that it is not produced by truth-aimed cognitive processes, but by a process with a different sort of function. At this point the Christian or any serious theist will disagree with him: the serious theist will think that God has created us in such a way that we come to know him; and the function of the cognitive processes, whatever they are, that produce belief in God in us is to provide us with true belief. So, even if she agrees with Freud that theistic belief arises from wish-fulfillment, she will think that this particular instance of wish-fulfillment is truth-aimed; it is God’s way of getting us to see that he is in fact present and in fact cares for us. At this point she will have to disagree with Freud.

Something similar goes for [David Sloan] Wilson. He holds that the purpose or function of Christianity generally is to enhance fitness; a group with a religion of that sort will do well in competition with groups without any such religion (or anything similar). And, specifically religious belief plays a particular role here. The role of such belief is not to reflect reality, he says, but to play a part in the production of what religion produces. As he says: ‘our challenge is to interpret the concept of God and his relationship with people as an elaborate belief system designed to motivate the behaviors listed… ’ In a very interesting passage he proposes that religious belief isn’t reality oriented but, unlike Freud, goes on to defend it. The passage is worth quoting in full:

In the first place, much religious belief is not detached from reality… Rather, it is intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world—an awesome achievement when we appreciate the com- plexity that is required to become connected in this practical sense. It is true that many religious beliefs are false as literal description of the real world, but this merely forces us to recognize two forms of realism: a factual realism based on literal correspondence and a practical realism based on behavioral adaptiveness.

In the second place, much religious belief does not represent a form of mental weakness but rather the healthy functioning of the biologically and culturally well-adapted mind… Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought. Evolutionary biologists should be especially quick to grasp this point because they appreciate that the well-adapted mind is ultimately an organ of survival and reproduction…factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors.

This account of religion, then, is like Freud’s in that, like Freud, Wilson sees the cognitive processes that produce religious belief as not aimed at the production of true belief, but at belief that is adaptive by way of motivating those behaviors. Religious belief in general and Christian belief in particular is produced by belief-producing processes that are aimed, not at the production of true belief, but at the production of belief that will motivate those adaptive behaviors. And here someone who accepts Christian belief will be forced to demur, just as with Freud. For, if Christian belief is in fact true as, naturally enough, the Christian will think, it will be produced in us by cognitive processes that God has designed with the end in view of enabling us to see the truth of ‘the great things of the Gospel’ (as Jonathan Edwards calls them). She will no doubt think that these processes essentially involve what Calvin calls ‘the internal witness (or testimony) of the Holy Spirit’ and what Aquinas calls ‘the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit’. And, of course, these processes will then be truth-aimed: they are aimed at enabling us to form these true beliefs about what God has done and about the way of salvation. So there is indeed a conflict between Wilson’s theory of religion and Christian belief.”


From philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s essay “Games Scientists Play,” as published in the book The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion. Given its density and complexity, it’s tough to find a self-contained passage from this essay that’s small enough to post here. The one above is about as simple — though still as good — as it gets.

Some of the modes of reasoning developed by Plantinga here were cited by Anthony Flew in his stunning book There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. And it’s not surprising; Plantinga’s control of language is unmatched, his reasoning and writing of the utmost quality and clarity. This chapter, while heavy, is an extremely rewarding read, particularly for people with interests in evolutionary psychology, philosophy of religion, or both.

If you normally dispense with a page of reading in about a minute, prepare to devote three times that amount per page of “Games Scientists Play”. It’s incredibly dense — a marsh of layered philosophies clouded by a fog of facts — but once you’ve slogged through, you will not only have surfaced to a higher perspective, but will also have thoroughly exercised your mind.

I began reading this during my lunch break this afternoon, and got through about four pages by the time I had finished my sandwich. I took up parsing the rest on the bus home tonight, and am about finished now, as I plan to continue reading into the early morning.

This stuff is about as arcane and complex as I can go into religious philosophy, and it has taken me a good amount of work to even reach this point. Early on I learned from my Dad that one’s understanding of a thing may be measured by how well you can explain that thing to others; and while I probably couldn’t condense Plantinga’s thesis here, I think I’d probably get close in a ten minute conversation.

Buy the book. But I’ve uploaded a PDF of this chapter in case you’d rather read more before picking up your own copy.