Isn’t God a placebo?

by Ben Nasmith

Consider the skeptical claim that “religion only serves to provide an empty hope that helps us manage our fears.”[1]  God is a placebo.  This all too common sentiment deserves a careful response, if only because of its proven rhetorical power to both discourage believers and bolster unbelievers against belief.  Naturally as Christian I agree that most religions offer false hope.  However, I do believe that Christianity offers a true hope.  I further believe this hope allays fear.  How then do I interact with this claim?

Perhaps the most charitable way to interpret this claim is provided by Alvin Plantinga in his book Warranted Christian Belief.  Plantinga attributes a similar claim to Freud and Marx.  According to Freud, belief in God is the result of wishful thinking.[2]  Rather than forming Christian beliefs using reason, one forms them under a ‘wish-fulfillment’ mechanism.  This mechanism serves to help one cope with the world by producing false—yet psychologically helpful—religious beliefs.[3] So for Freud, Christian beliefs come from the wrong cognitive mechanism—wish-fulfillment rather than reason.  That makes them irrational.

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According to Marx, belief in God “is a result of cognitive dysfunction, of a lack of mental and emotional health.”[4]  Who’s to blame for this dysfunction according to Marx?  Society!  (No surprise there.)  A third popular version is that religious beliefs have an evolutionary origin.  Perhaps belief in God simply increases individual fitness or herd survivability.  Of course, there’s no (non-theistic) reason to think that these fitness-conferring beliefs are true.[5]

In summary, the skeptical claim amounts to declaring religious beliefs irrational by virtue of origin.  Faith beliefs fail to meet the minimum criterion for rationality—production by “cognitive faculties that are functioning properly and aimed at the truth.”[6]

Here’s where the rhetorical power is evident.  There is no logical reason to think that an irrational belief is false.  Neither is there a reason to think that it is true.  Nevertheless Freud supposes that once “we see that religious belief takes its origin in wishful thinking, we will presumably no longer find it attractive.”[7]  Accordingly, if Christian belief is irrational we might as well abandon it (even if it turns out to be true)…

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Isn’t God a placebo? | Cognitive Resonance


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