Warranted Christian Belief
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D. How Shall We Understand the F&M Complaint?

Now the F&M (Freud-and-Marx) complaint is, naturally enough, a complaint, a (negative) criticism of religious belief, including Christian belief. But the general project under which the efforts of Freud and Marx fall is that of giving naturalistic explanations of religious belief, explanations that don’t involve the truth of the beliefs in question or the truth of any other supernaturalistic beliefs or hypotheses. Many (in addition to those cited above) have joined them in this effort, and by now there is quite a variety of naturalistic explanations of religious belief.171171   See, for example, J. Samuel Preus, Explaining Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987). But of course giving a naturalistic account of a kind of belief isn’t automatically a criticism of that kind of belief.

Consider a priori belief, belief in such propositions as the laws of logic, perhaps, or the basic truths of arithmetic, or the proposition that if all cats are animals, and Maynard is a cat, then Maynard is an animal. Perhaps it is possible to give a ‘naturalistic’ account of our knowledge of these truths: an account, that is, that stands in the same relation to them as a naturalistic account of religious belief stands to it. Such an account would not invoke the truth of these a priori beliefs as part of the explanation; it would proceed instead by outlining certain salient features of the causal genesis or antecedents of these beliefs, perhaps pointing to events of some kind in the nervous system. The existence of a causal explanation, of this sort, of a priori belief would not show or tend to show that such beliefs are unreliable.

The same would go for religious belief. To show that there are natural processes that produce religious belief does nothing, so far, to discredit it; perhaps God designed us in such a way that it is by virtue of those processes that we come to have knowledge of him. Suppose it could be demonstrated that a certain kind of complex neural stimulation could produce theistic belief. This would have no tendency to discredit religious belief—just as memory is not discredited by the fact that one can produce memory beliefs by stimulating the right part of the brain. Clearly, it is possible both that there is an explanation in terms of natural processes of religious belief (perhaps a brain physiological account of what happens when someone holds religious beliefs), and that these beliefs have a perfectly respectable epistemic status.

If we are to have a criticism of religion by way of a naturalistic explanation, what we need is something that in some way discredits religious belief, casts doubt on it, shows that it is not epistemically respectable—in a word, shows that there is something wrong with it. And the criticism, of course, is that religious belief (including Christian belief) is irrational. But irrational in just what way? What exactly is wrong with religious belief, according to the F&M complaint? How, exactly, shall we understand the F&M complaint?

First, an assumption underlying it. 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. Joining the computer craze, we might say that these faculties have inputs and outputs; their outputs are beliefs. It is these processes that produce in us the myriad beliefs we hold. These faculties are also 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 or total cognitive design whose purpose it is to produce beliefs in us. Their overall 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 a surprisingly large area to deliver beliefs of 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 God.

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. Like any other instruments or organs, they can work properly or improperly; they can function well or malfunction. A wart or a tumor doesn’t either malfunction (although it might be by virtue of malfunction in some system that the tumor is present) or function properly: it doesn’t have a function or purpose. But an organ—your heart, for example, or 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 ill. The condition in which they function really badly is insanity; of course there are much milder, less intrusive forms of cognitive malfunction.

Now among these faculties one of the most important is reason. Taken narrowly, reason is the faculty or power whereby we form a priori beliefs, beliefs that are prior to experience or, better, independent, in some way, of experience.172172   See my Warrant and Proper Function (hereafter WPF), chapter 6. These beliefs include what in chapter 4 we called the deliverances of reason: first of all, simple truths of arithmetic and logic, such as 2 + 1 = 3 and if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. They also include such beliefs as that nothing can be red all over and also green all over and that to be a person you must at least be potentially capable of forming beliefs and having ends or aims. Still further, they include more controversial items, such as the belief that there are properties, states of affairs, propositions, and other abstract objects, and the belief that no object has a property in a possible world in which it doesn’t exist. (So I say, anyway; there are those who disagree.) The deliverances of reason also include beliefs that obviously follow from deliverances of reason.173173   But see above, chapter 4, p. 114. And still further, reason is the power or capacity whereby we see or detect logical relationships among propositions.

There are other faculties or rational powers that have as their purpose the production of true beliefs in us;174174   For more detail, see WPF, chapters 3–9. for example, there are perception and memory, which, along with reason, constitute the standard package of chapter 4. Further, there are introspection, by which I learn such things about myself as that I am appeared to a certain way, and believe this or that; induction, whereby (in a way that defies explicit statement) we come to expect the future to be like the past in certain respects, thereby being able to learn from experience;175175   See WPF, pp. 122ff. and Thomas Reid’s sympathy, whereby we come to be aware of what other people are thinking, feeling, and believing. Still further, there is testimony or credulity, whereby we learn from others, by believing what they tell us. By sympathy I learn that you are telling me that your name is Archibald; for me to believe you, however, something further is required. (Thus by perception, I see that you are in such and such a bodily state; by sympathy, I learn that you are claiming that your name is Archibald; and by testimony, I believe you.)

The Enlightenment looked askance at testimony and tradition; Locke saw them as a preeminent source of error. The Enlightenment idea is that perhaps we start by learning from others—our parents, for example. Properly mature and independent adults, however, will have passed beyond all that and believe what they do on the basis of the evidence. But this is a mistake; you can’t know so much as your name or what city you live in without relying on testimony. (Will you produce your birth certificate for the first, or consult a handy map for the second? In each case you are of course relying on testimony.) As Thomas Reid puts it:

I believed by instinct whatever they [my “parents and tutors”] told me, long before I had the idea of a lie, or a thought of the possibility of their deceiving me. Afterwards, upon reflection, I found they had acted like fair and honest people, who wished me well. I found that, if I had not believed what they told me, before I could give a reason for my belief, I had to this day been little better than a changeling. And although this natural credulity hath sometimes occasioned my being imposed upon by deceivers, yet it hath been of infinite advantage to me upon the whole; therefore, I consider it as another good gift of Nature.176176   Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, in Thomas Reid’s Inquiry and Essays, ed. R. Beanblossom and K. Lehrer (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), VI, 5, pp. 281–82; see also WPF, pp. 77ff.

In addition to the cognitive powers or rational faculties mentioned so far there may be others that are more controversial. For example, we seem to have a moral sense: certain kinds of behavior and certain kinds of character seem wrong, bad, to be avoided; others seem right, good, fitting, to be promoted. It is obviously wrong (all else being equal) to hurt young children or to refuse to care for your aging parents; perhaps we see this by way of a sort of moral sense. (It is no doubt because this moral sense can malfunction, or atrophy, that inability to tell right from wrong is a legal defense.) My point here is not to argue that indeed there is a moral sense, although I believe that there is, but rather to note that 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,177177   See below, chapter 6. 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 (to anticipate chapter 8) whereby the believer comes to accept the central truths of the Christian faith.

As we have seen, these rational faculties can function either properly or improperly. 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 true, or close to the truth. If your perceptual faculties are functioning properly, what you think you see is probably what you do see. (If you are suffering from delirium tremens, all bets are off.) 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. Of course there will be mistakes and disagreements, and we may be inclined to skepticism about various areas of belief: political beliefs, for example, as well as beliefs formed at the limits of our ability, as in particle physics and cosmology; but the bulk of the everyday beliefs delivered by our rational faculties, so we think, are true. At any rate, the deliverances of our rational faculties, taken broadly, comprise our best bet for achieving truth.

Returning finally to the F&M complaint, it’s clear that it has to do with the deliverances of our rational faculties. Freud and Marx acquiesce in the presumption of reliability; they assume (as do we all) that when our rational faculties are functioning properly and are used properly, then for the most part their deliverances are true, or at any rate close to the truth. Of course, as we saw, it is possible for cognitive faculties to function well or ill. The insane beliefs of Descartes’s madmen178178   Above, p. 133. were due to cognitive malfunction of some sort. There are more subtle ways, however, in which nonrational or irrational beliefs can be formed in us. First of all, there are belief-forming processes or mechanisms that are aimed, not at the formation of true belief, but at the formation of belief with some other property—the property of contributing to survival, perhaps, or to peace of mind or psychological well-being in this sometimes dangerous and threatening world of ours.179179   See WPF, pp. 11ff. Those with a lethal disease may believe their chances for recovery much higher than the statistics in their possession would warrant; again, the function of the relevant process would not be that of furnishing true beliefs but of furnishing beliefs that make it more likely that the believer will recover. A mountaineer whose survival depends on his ability to leap a crevasse may form an extremely optimistic estimate of his powers as a long-jumper; it is more likely that he will be able to leap the crevasse (or at least give it a try) if he thinks he can than if he thinks he can’t. Most of us form estimates of our intelligence, wisdom, and moral fiber that are considerably higher than an objective estimate would warrant; no doubt 90 percent of us think ourselves well above average along these lines.180180   I can’t resist repeating (from WPF, p. 12) a couple of passages from Locke:
   Would it not be an insufferable thing for a learned professor, and that which his scarlet would blush at, to have his authority of forty years standing wrought out of hard rock Greek and Latin, with no small expence of time and candle, and confirmed by general tradition, and a reverent beard, in an instant overturned by an upstart novelist? Can any one expect that he should be made to confess, that what he taught his scholars thirty years ago, was all errour and mistake; and that he sold them hard words and ignorance at a very dear rate? (An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. A. D. Woozley [New York: World Publishing, 1963], IV, xx, 11)


   Let never so much probability land on one side of a covetous man’s reasoning, and money on the other, it is easy to foresee which will outweigh. Tell a man, passionately in love, that he is jilted; bring a score of witnesses of the falsehood of his mistress, ‘tis ten to one but three kind words of hers, shall invalidate all their testimonies . . . and though men cannot always openly gain-say, or resist the force of manifest probabilities, that make against them; yet yield they not to the argument. (Ibid., IV, xx, 12)

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, here, is that inordinately ambitious people fail 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 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. You can also be blinded by covetousness, love, fear, lust, anger, pride, grief, social pressure, and a thousand other things. In polemic, it is common to attack someone’s views by claiming that the denial of what they think is patently obvious (i.e., such that any right-thinking, properly functioning person can immediately see that it is so); we then attribute their opposing this obvious truth either to dishonesty (they don’t really believe what they say; after all, who could?) or to their being blinded by something or other—maybe a reluctance to change, an aversion to new ideas, personal ambition, sexism, racism, or homophobia. Thus according to Judith Plaskow, “If the Rabbinical Assembly Law Committee cannot see that it is reflecting and supporting a long history of religious homophobia (Jewish and otherwise), then it is either willfully blind or patently dishonest.”181181   “Burning in Hell, Conservative Movement Style,” Tikkun (May-June 1993), pp. 49–50. Recall in this connection Don Cupitt’s charge that those who claim to accept “theological realism” (i.e., those who claim to believe that there really is such a person as God) are “hypocrites or psychotics”—the former, presumably, if they merely claim to be theological realists, and the latter if they really are. In a similar vein, Richard Dawkins insists (in a recent review in the New York Times), “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”182182   New York Times, April 9, 1989, sec. 7, p. 34. Daniel Dennett goes Dawkins one (or two) better, claiming that one who so much as harbors doubts about evolution is “inexcusably ignorant” (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995], p. 46)—thus displaying both ignorance and wrongdoing. Dawkins apparently thinks the truth of evolution is utterly clear and obvious to anyone who is not unduly ignorant, is not too stupid to follow the arguments, and is sane (i.e., with rational faculties that are functioning properly); it is therefore obvious that all who aren’t just (wickedly) lying through their teeth would have to admit that they believe in evolution. What are appealed to in all these cases are mechanisms that can override or cancel what our rational faculties would ordinarily deliver, substituting a belief that is either contrary to what unimpeded rational faculties would deliver, or at any rate distinct from what reason would deliver.

What we see, therefore, is that 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, by cognitive processes aimed at something other than the truth, or by faculties whose function has been impeded and overridden by lust, ambition, greed, selfishness, grief, fear, low self-esteem, and other emotional conditions.183183   This last (perhaps we can call it ‘impedance’) is not strictly a case of malfunction, but for present purposes I shall include it under malfunction. Accordingly, a belief can fail to be a proper deliverance of our rational faculties by way of malfunction and by way of being produced by a process that is not aimed at the production of true belief.

And here we come to the heart of the F&M objection: when F&M say that Christian belief, or theistic belief, or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational, the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties. It is not produced by properly functioning truth-aimed cognitive faculties or processes. It is not produced by belief-producing processes that are free of dysfunction and whose purpose it is to furnish us with true belief. And this means that the presumption of the reliability of properly functioning cognitive faculties does not apply to the processes that yield belief in God or Christian belief more broadly. The fundamental idea is that religious belief has a source distinct from those of our faculties that are aimed at the truth. Alternatively, if religious belief does somehow issue from those truth-aimed faculties, their operation, when they function in such a way as to produce religious belief, is overridden and impeded by something else: a need for security, or for feeling important in the whole scheme of things, or for psychological comfort in the face of this pitiless, intimidating, and implacable world we face.

Just what sort of deviation from the norm does religious belief present? Here Freud and Marx seem to diverge. Although Marx has relatively little to say about religion, there is of course that famous passage I quoted above (pp. 140–41); he seems to hold that what our rational faculties teach us (when they are unimpeded by that cognitive dysfunction produced by a perverted social order) is that there is no God and no religious meaning to life. There is no Father in Heaven to turn to and no prospect of anything, after death, but dissolution. The fundamental idea is that religious belief is irrational in a double sense: first, it is a product of cognitive faculties that are malfunctioning in response to social and political disorder; second, what these faculties produce when malfunctioning in this way is contrary to the deliverances of our rational faculties—that is, contrary to what they deliver when they function properly. For Freud, too, the main point is that theistic and religious belief, or theistic belief insofar as it is religious, does not arise from the proper function of truth-aimed cognitive processes or faculties, but rather from wishful thinking.184184   Freud thinks of reason as the aggregate of those faculties (and he thinks of them as the ones involved in the pursuit of science); his idea, furthermore, is that reason taken this way is the only means we have for achieving the truth. Displaying that touching confidence in science characteristic of the Enlightenment, Freud assumes that scientific reason will enable us to achieve the truth in areas where for centuries we wandered in darkness; more modestly, perhaps reason so taken gives us our best shot at the truth. Ironically enough, there is excellent reason to doubt that Freud’s characteristic contributions themselves constitute science in any sensible sense; see Adolf Grünbaum’s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). This is the force of Freud’s claim that religious belief is an illusion. Of course, illusions have their functions, and a place in the human cognitive design plan; they may serve important ends, such as the end Freud thinks religious belief serves. Nevertheless, such cognitive processes as wishful thinking are not aimed at the production of true beliefs. Beliefs produced by wishful thinking are therefore irrational or nonrational in the sense that they are not produced by our rational faculties; they are not produced by truth-aimed cognitive processes. Like Marx, however, Freud thinks religious belief is also irrational in a stronger sense. Such belief runs contrary to the deliverances of our rational powers; they are “patently infantile” and “foreign to reality.”

The F&M criticism, then, is that religious belief is not produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly and aimed at the truth. And this, I think, leads us finally to a viable de jure question. Those who raise this question are not interested first of all in the truth of Christian belief: their claim is that there is something wrong with believing it. Christian belief may be true, and it may be false; but at any rate it is irrational to accept it. They are best construed, I think, as complaining that Christian belief is not produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly and aimed at the truth. Now what this suggests (at least to anyone who has taken a look at the first two volumes in this series) is warrant. Freud and Marx, from the perspective of those volumes, are really complaining that theistic belief and religious belief generally lack warrant. And the de jure criticism, so it seems to me, is best construed as the claim that Christian belief, whether true or false, is at any rate without warrant.

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