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III. The F&M Complaint Again
Now we are ready to return to the F&M complaint. What we see is a clear if surprising connection between the topic of warrrant and the F&M complaint: the latter is really the claim that theistic belief lacks warrant. According to Freud, theistic belief is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, but the process that produces it—wishful thinking—does not have the production of true belief as its purpose; it is aimed, instead, at something like enabling us to carry on in the grim and threatening world in which we find ourselves. Therefore, theistic belief does not meet the third condition of warrant; as a result, the presumption of reliability that goes with warranted beliefs does not apply to it. Theistic belief is no more respectable, epistemically speaking, than propositions selected entirely at random. Suppose I have a random generator of English declarative sentences (sentences that express propositions); it randomly chooses one of a stockpile of a million sentences and their negations, flashing its selection on a big screen. I use the machine, recommending the resulting proposition to you for belief. You quite properly demur, pointing out that there isn’t the slightest reason to think the belief in question true. Theistic belief, thinks Freud, has no better epistemic credentials, for the believer, than the propositions expressed by those sentences would have for someone for whom they have no source of warrant in addition to their appearing on the screen. It is baseless superstition.
Still further, Freud thinks, once we see that theistic and religious belief has its origin in wishful thinking, we will also see that it is very probably false. There is no good argument from this fact about its origin to the conclusion that it is false; nor is it that someone who recognizes its origin in wishful thinking will simply see that it is false. It is rather just that people of sense who know something about how the world works will take it to be probably false. They will take the same attitude toward theistic and Christian belief that they take toward the stories in Greek or Aztec or Persian mythology: we can’t really prove that these stories are false, but their chances of being true are pretty slim. So the proper intellectual attitude toward these beliefs isn’t merely agnosticism; it is that the beliefs in question are unwarranted and furthermore are very probably false.
Marx’s views are similar. He thinks first that theistic and religious belief is produced by cognitive faculties that are not functioning properly. Those faculties are, to the extent that they produce such belief, dysfunctional; the dysfunction is due to a sort of perversion in social structure, a sort of social malfunction. Religious belief therefore doesn’t meet the first condition of warrant; it is therefore without warrant, and an intellectually healthy person will reject it. Further, Marx also thinks that a person whose cognitive faculties are functioning properly and who knows what was known by the middle of the nineteenth century will see that materialism is very probably true, in which case Christian and theistic belief is very likely false. So he would join Freud in the contention that Christian and theistic belief is without warrant, a baseless superstition, and very probably false.
We could see the matter slightly differently. Perhaps the problem with religious belief, according to Marx, is not that it is produced by malfunctioning faculties, but rather that capitalist society constitutes a hostile environment for the operation of human cognitive faculties; then the problem would be the second condition rather than the first. Still another possibility: perhaps the production of theistic or religious belief is like a damage-control mechanism. When people are subjected to the nasty conditions of capitalism, they come to believe these tales of a God and another world as a means of coping with their otherwise intolerable situation. Then Marx’s view would be more like Freud’s, and religious belief could be seen as an illusion in the Freudian sense. There would remain the following difference. According to Freud, the inclination to form religious belief arises out of our nature and is therefore to be expected, no matter what the social structure. According to this version of Marx, however, religious belief is a response to the very special social circumstances of misery and injustice generated by capitalist society, so that there need be no inclination toward it among people in a society that doesn’t display that or a similar perversion. Of course Marx actually says little about religion, not enough to make it possible to distinguish one of these possibilities as the one he had in mind.
The F&M complaint, therefore, is that theistic belief and religious belief in general lack warrant. So say Freud and Marx—but are they right? In the next chapter, we shall turn to a model for the possession of warrant by Christian belief. Model in hand, we shall then evaluate the F&M complaint.
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