Open Journal of Philosophy
2011. Vol.1, No.1, 11-15
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ojpp.2011.11002
A Critique of Recent Criticisms of Freud on Religious Belief
Thomas W. Smythe
Department of Engl ish, North Car olina Central Univer sity, Dur ham, USA.
Received July 1st, 2011; revised J uly 20th, 2011; accepted July 25th, 2011.
The paper is a critique of recent criticisms of Sigmund Freud’s theory that religion is based on wishful thinking.
The criticisms made by authors such as Alvin Plantinga, John Hick, William P. Alston, William Rowe, and
Merol Wes tp hal are c riti call y examin ed. I defen d Freud ’s c ritiqu e of reli gion a s a sati sfacti on of our deep est de-
sires for a heavenly father showing inductively that those desires render religious belief as unlikely to be true.
Keywords: Wish Fulfillment, Unconscious Desires , Psychoana lysi s, Illusion
Sigmund Freud famously attacked religious beliefs of all re-
ligions as forms of wish fulfillment. Religious beliefs are moti-
vated by the wish to have a father figure in heaven to take care
of us, and to protect us, just like an earthly father who protects
us from harm and punishes us to keep us in line. I think that
Freud, unlike careful, painstaking analytical philosophers today,
directed a variety of salvos against religion. He was like a
gunman shooting from the hip hoping that some of his shots
would hit the target even though he realized some of his shots
would miss. Freud was convinced that religion was somehow
an illusion, and that it harmed human beings more than it bene-
fits them. I tend to agree. I will develop some Freudian themes I
think are plausible arguments against the truth of religious be-
liefs while ignoring much of what Freud says on the subject.
I do not intend to rehash Freud’s theories against religious
belief, since such expositions are more than amply provided in
the literature (Palmer, 1997). Instead, I will concentrate on
rebutting some of the critiques of Freudian arguments given by
philosophers of religion of late. I do not profess to cover all of
the criticisms in the literature.
A basic place to start is with Freud’s assertion that religious
belief is a fulfillment of our deepest wishes, therefore wishful
thinking. Alvin Plantinga takes issue with Freud here by alleg-
ing that Freud fails to provide any evidence for this assertion.
Plantinga argues that it is dubious that theistic belief arises
from wishes because many people dislike the idea of a God
monitoring their every thought, and judging them. Others like
being autonomous and dislike the unfriendly comparison to a
greater being that we must obey and worship. The obvious
reply to this is that Plantinga is hardly describing the believer,
and that such preferences do not seem to be incompatible with
wishing there was a God on the part of theists. Plantinga is
hardly describing a typical unthinking, uncritical believer.
Plantinga then asks where the evidence is for Freud’s
claim that theistic belief is wishful thinking. People do not
report having such wishes. (Does Plantinga think we should
take a poll of believers? People surely do express their wishes
in prayer and other exhortations to gods. Why should they be
required to “report” them?) Plantinga then points out, correctly,
that Freud postulates unconscious mechanisms that are respon-
sible for such beliefs that are unreachable from first-person
self-knowledge of one’s beliefs. It is true that Freud famously
thought that most people do not know all the reasons why they
believe what they believe, and this has been borne out in recent
psychology. Freud himself demonstrated this fact in his early
work with subjects who were hypnotized. Religion is a lot like
hypnotism. Plantinga goes on to say
“How woul d Freud…establish that th e mechanisms whereb y
human beings come to believe in God…is not aimed at truth?…
Freud offers no arguments or reasons at all…he simply takes it
for granted that there is no God…then casts about for some
kind of explanation of this…mistaken belief. Freud’s… criti-
cism really depends on his atheism: it isn’t an independent
criticism at all, and it won’t…have any force on anyone who
doesn’t share that atheism” (Plantinga, 2000: p. 198).
A better point here is that Freud has an entire theory of the
origin of religious belief. Philosophers of science have often
pointed out that hypotheses can rarely be confirmed or discon-
firmed in isolation, or one at a time. Theories are bunches of
propositions, assumptions, or statements that are not subject to
decisive falsification in isolation (Hempel, 1966). In light of
this, I think Freud’s theory of religious belief should be evalu-
ated as a whol e, and not as a single assertion .
Another consideration is that there is evidence in the litera-
ture by ardent theists who admit that religious beliefs are influ-
enced by our wishes. Richard Taylor, for instance, begins his
treatment of arguments for the existence of God by saying
“Belief in the gods seems to have its roots in human desires
and fears, particularly those associated with self-preservation.
Like all other creatures, human beings have a profound will to
live, which is mainly what gives one’s existence mean-
ing…Human beings are capable of the full and terrible realiza-
tion of their own inevitable decay…It is probably partly in re-
sponse to fear that human beings turn to the gods, as those be-
ings of such po wer that they can overturn this verdict of nature
This seems to provid e evidence and reason for thinki ng that
T. W. SMYTHE
Freud is on to something in his theory about the roots or origins
of theistic belief. Further evidence comes from sources on
which religious belief is based. Faith is compatible with evi-
dence and reason, but it is also compatible with no reasons or
evidence. Faith without reasons or evidence is like hoping or
wishing by the very concept of faith. If I have faith that my
daughter will live to see her 80th birthday, that amounts to hop-
ing or wishing that it be so. Freud was aware of how we use
religious language. Many philosophers of religion point out that
religious belief is based on hope (Pojman, 2003).
There is further reason for supposing revelation, or revealed
truths, on which the various and sundry holy books are based,
has a great amount of wish fulfillment in it. This is not the
place for an epistemological investigation of revelation as a
source of information about God, but it can be pointed out that
the alleged reliability of revelation as a source of knowledge is
extremely dubious and fraught with controversy.
Although it is controversial, many philosophers and scien-
tists have argued that the Bible and the Koran are filled with
contradictions and inconsistencies, scientifically false pro-
nouncements, immoral precepts, and confusions. The literature
on this by philosophers and scientists is vast (Smythe, 2008;
Burr, 1987). There is good and sufficient reason to believe the
revelations on which the Bible is based are hopes and wishes.
Revelation, I believe, is not, never was, and never will be a
reliable source of knowledge or truth.
Consider, for example, the book by Richard Swinburne on
revelation. He is constantly saying that both humans wrote the
Bible, and that God is the ultimate author. For instance, he says
“God inspired the human authors to see things which had quite
a lot of truth in them; but what they wrote down, taken on its
own, had quite a lot of falsity too. However, what they wrote
down was ambiguous in the sense that a fuller context could
give it a different meaning from what it would have been on its
own. God did provide a later context…to express statements
which were literally true (Swinburne, 1992: p. 197).” He also
says whatever is clearly false is to be taken as metaphorical.
The advocate of revelation as a source of truth clearly has his
hands full, and it is just as clear that the burden of proof is on
the theist. Swinburne continually cites the fact, that in the end,
“the church” decides what is true in revelation, and what is
metaphorical. Two pages later, with respect to the role of
women in the chu rch, Swinburne says some “passages must b e
regarded as ones…not fully open to divine inspiration and
so..false.” Or they could be historically true (but not now), or
metaphorical (Swinburne, 1992: p. 199). My assertion that
revelation is not a source of knowledge or reliable truths is
quite plausible in the light of such glaring ambivalance. The
burden is clearly on the believers, and there is precious little
reason to believe that any enlightenment is ever going to be
forthcoming. To think “the church” will ever have “the right
interpretation of scripture” with the help of God is itself wishful
thinking. Even if, per impossible, the church did reach such a
consensus, it would not necessarily be by revelation. It would
be plausible to regard su ch a consensus as a p ower struggle, and
Rachel B. Blass has noted that although Freud spoke of re-
ligion as an illusion, he was very much concerned with the truth
value of religious beliefs. Freud distinguished between delu-
sions and illusions. An example of a delusion is our thinking
there are snakes in the room, which is false. An example of an
illusion is a young woman who believes she will someday
marry a prince and be happy forever. She could marry a prince,
but it is unlikely. The belief in the second coming is on a par
with that. Freud said that religious belief is illusory (Blass,
Based on the foregoing we can give the following argument
against the truth of religious belief:
1) Religious beliefs tend to be based on wishful thinking.
2) Wishful thinking is not conducive to true belief.
3) Therefore, religious belief is not conducive to true belief.
The argument is deductively valid via hypothetical syllogism.
I think the first premise has good evidence from the foregoing
considerations. The second premise is part of the concept of
wishful thinking. There is good reason to believe that wishing
something is the case has little or nothing to do with whether it
is the case. Hence, the argument is a deductively sound argu-
ment. Religious belief is like astrology and reading tea leaves.
I will now treat some more critiques of Freud’s theory. Some
philosophers accuse Freud of committing some sort of genetic
fallacy. Here is a popular passage from the philosopher of re-
ligion John Hick:
Perhaps the most interesting comment to be made upon
Freud’s theory is that in his work he may have uncovered one
of the mechani sms by which God creat es an id ea of the deity in
the human mind. For if the relation of a human father to his
children is, as the Judaic-Christian tradition teaches, analogous
to God’s relationship to humanity, it is not surprising that hu-
man beings should think of God as their heavenly Father and
should come to know God through the infant’s experience of
utter dependence and the growing child’s experience of being
loved, cared for, and disciplined within a family. Clearly, to the
mind that is not committed in advance to a naturalistic explana-
tion there may be a religious as well as a naturalistic interpreta-
tion of the psychological facts.
Again, then, it seems that the verdict must be “not
proven”; …the Freudian theory of religion may be true but has
not been shown to be so (Hick, 1990: p. 35).
Many other philosophers of religion have pointed out that
Freud ’s acco unt of th e psycho lo gical o rigi ns o f religio us beli efs
are logically compatible with theistic belief, and that it has not
been “proven” otherwise. Plantinga says “Perhaps God has
designed us to know that he is present and loves us by way of
creating us with strong desires for him, a desire that leads to the
belief that he is in fact there (Plantinga, 2000: p. 198).”
William P. Alston says that Freudian theory hardly shows
that “no rational grounds could be produced” for theistic belief,
and that Freudian theory is not “logicall y incompatib le with th e
truth, justifiability, and value of traditional religion (Alston,
I reply that such consi derations fail to appr eciate the force of
the Freudian theory of religion. If every scientific theory had to
meet the standards of producing truth so that no other theory or
alternative that was logically incompatible with it could possi-
bly be true, then there would be no science. Science is not in
the business of producing theories for which alternative expla-
nation s are logically impo ssible. These philo sophers are sett ing
too high a bar for Freudian explanations of religion; a standard
they would never dream of setting for any normal scientific
theory. This is why claims that Freud and others have not
T. W. SMYTHE 13
“proven” that religious beliefs are false have to be taken with a
grain o f salt. What woul d coun t as a “proo f”? Woul d th ere have
to be a universal consensus? If so, practically no theory has
ever been proven. Do we need a deductively sound argument in
order to “prove” something? If so, we have given one above.
Here is another one.
1) If God existed, people would not be so mediocre and ig-
2) Most human beings are mediocre and ignorant.
3) Therefore, God does not exist.
The argument is a straightforward application of modus tol-
lens, thus is deductively valid. The second premise is based on
sound observation. The first premise is plausible. If God cre-
ated us in his image with free will so we would seek him, and
choose to obey him then why do most people refuse to do so?
There are plenty of people with pathological tendencies they
cannot control, and the church calls us all “sinners” by our very
nature. If the first premise is plausible, and we think it is, then
this is a deductively sound argument. Without going into
Freudian theory, we can say that the mediocrity and ignorance
of most human beings is a Freudian theme. Here is one
quote:”…it would be more remarkable still if our wretched,
ignorant and downtrodden ancestors had succeeded in solving
all the difficult riddles of the universe (Freud, 1961: p. 53).” I
submit that Freud had a low opinion of human beings, and that
this kind of argument is in keeping with his views.
Adolf Grunbaum, a savant commentator on Freud, has pro-
vided another deductive argument that he says reconstructs the
logical framework or argument Freud is likely to defend.
1) All archaic, evidentially ill-supported illusions are very
2) Anyone’s belief in theism is an archaic, evidentially
3) Therefore, anyone’s belief in theism is very probably false
Grunbaum remarks that the argument is deductively valid,
and that the first premise is justified because “the methods of
the scientific enterprise…are the only means of choosing theo-
retical beliefs that allow observational evidence to override,
sooner or later, the appeal to wish-fulfillment.” The second
premise “see ms to be the weak lin k.” But Grunbau m conclud es
his paper by saying: “Still, we can allow that all cases of belief
in God may perhaps be inspired by conspicuous favoritism for
consoling beliefs over ominous ones, combined with any re-
pressed wishes…” (Grunbaum, 2003: p. 121) So, I take Grun-
baum to be an ally by endorsing Freud.
I turn now to another feature of the Bible that Freudian the-
ory illuminates for us. The fear of the Holy Father is like the
small child’s fear of its father, and Freud’s conception of the
death wish. The God of the Old Testament is threatening to kill
people, and actually killing them, on almost every other page.
This is true of Revelations as well. Fortunately for us, Freud
contends that such a monster as the God of the Old Testament
is an illusion, thus unlikely to exist. The Koran is full of similar
passages. God punishes us and rewards us just like an earthly
father in the holy texts of various religions. I think Freud gives
a good account of why this i s the case.
I am leaving out a lot of Freudian theory. The Oedipal Com-
plex account of the origin of theistic belief is controversial.
Freud’s contention that religion is the obsessional neurosis of
mankind is also being left out here (Alston, 2003). However, I
do believe that Freud’s contention that believers often regress
to the condition of a helpless child who is afraid of the forces of
nature, and seeks the love of, and fears their father, has a sig-
nificant role to play in the etiology of religious belief. I do think
this t akes the form of an uncon scio us wish for a heavenl y father.
I want to make it clear that wishful thinking is not the only
cause of religious belief, nor do we think Freud is committed to
that. There is reason to think that what people believe has to do
in large part with their accu lturation, such as their paren ts, their
peers, their teachers, the churches, the media, politics, and the
like. Wish fulfillment is compatible with these sources, and
I do not claim the Freud gives us “the” explanation of reli-
gious belief, or a “complete” account. Nor would we call it a
“partial” account. I hold that Freud gives a good explanation of
theistic belief that is more likely to be true than not. That he has
not “proven” theism is false, or produced a consensus, is rather
platitudinous. No one else has either. By induction, such a
knock down, undisputable demonstration is impossible. But I
think Freud has given us reason to believe that theism probably
I do not think that Freud has given both necessary and suffi-
cient causal conditions for religious belief. It is arguable that
such an achievement is impossible in the social sciences. Cau-
sation is a difficult topic in philosophy. I think Freud’s view is
more like the claim that smoking causes lung cancer. It is a
kind of statistical or probabilistic causation. It is more likely to
be true than not. Pointing out that it is logically compatible with
theism cuts very little ice. Logical compatibility with a theory
by itself is not a reliable indicator of truth.
Many philosophers of religion are fond of pointing out that
Freud does not address the theistic arguments for the existence
of God, such as the ontological, cosmological, and design ar-
guments. It is true that he does not try to refute the traditional
arguments. However, we think that Freud’s views do have a
bearing on them. If Freud is right that religious belief is wishful
thin king, then t here is good reason to be highly skept ical of any
traditional attempts to prove the existence of God. They are
likely to be attempts to rationalize what theists already wish to
be true. Since anyone who has studied philosophy of religion
knows that all the traditional proofs are highly controversial
and often vexed, we have additional reason to be skeptical.
Attempts to show there is life after death, or the immortality
of the soul, are equally suspicious. The fact that we fear death,
and have a longing for existence beyond the grave, is additional
reason to regard attempts to show we survive our deaths as
wishful t hi nking. The con cep tion of heaven as a p lace where all
our wants are satisfied is arguably a desire for a second child-
hood and a return to the mother’s womb, where all our needs
The philosopher William R. Rowe, in his writings on Freud
and religion, says it is important to distinguish between the
causation of a belief and the justification of belief. Rowe con-
tends that religious believers who follow Freud’s line of think-
ing can agree that it is “unlikely” that religious beliefs are true,
but can hold that “this is not sufficient reason for rejecting
those beliefs.” Freud, Rowe says, has not “shown” that no one
has good grounds for those beliefs, only that many who accept
them do not. Freud’s arguments are “not compelling (Rowe,
T. W. SMYTHE
2001: p. 120) .”
Here again I would like to know what philosophers of relig-
ion would find compelling short of absolute Cartesian logical
certainty. Freud “shows” that theistic beliefs are “unlikely” to
be true, and that is sufficient in our eyes to “show” they are
illusions in the probable sense of “show.” (Can we “show”
smoking causes lung cancer?)
The burden of proof rests solely with the theist. Faith, reli-
gious traditions, revelation, and religious authority have been
called into serious question. Freud is saying we want to believe
in God, and that is our only justification for doing so. THAT is
an argument that our belief has no justification other than it is
wha t we wi s h we r e t rue.
I shall now treat in some detail a reply to Freud in a book by
Westphal attempts to defend the religious believer against
‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’ that appears to offer a reply to
Freud (Westphal, 1993). I will comment on it.
Westphal speaks of Freud’s scientism, which I take to be the
view that all and only scientific inquiry can reveal what is real,
or what exists. Westphal rightly points out that rejection of this
kind of view was later borne out in the philosophical literature
on Logical Empiricism in the 20th century. Such scientism, as
defined above is untenable. I do not think Freud needs this as-
sumption, which he clearly makes, to achieve his criticisms of
religion (Freud, 1961). What Westphal neglects in Freud is that
Freud realized that religion and science are in constant conflict.
Freud says “in the long run nothing can withstand reason and
experience and the contradiction which religion offers to both is
all too palpable (Freud, 1961: p. 69).” I find this to be true, and
a sound part of Freud’s foray.
Westphal argues that Freud only succeeds in raising suspi-
cion or doubts about religious beliefs, but that his arguments do
not show that religious belief distorts reality. He points out that
Freud’s failure to make good the thesis of “obsessional neurosis
as a pathological counterpart to the formation of religion” thus
making”religion as a universal obsessional neurosis.” I grant
that Freud has not made good his hypothesis about religion
being the obsessional neurosis of mankind, and that Westphal’s
criticisms on this topic are well taken.
Westphal points out the difficulties Freud has in Totem and
Taboo in his speculations about the cultural and historical ori-
gins of religion. I grant this to Westphal as well. I think that
Westphal is successful in criticizing Freud in failing to show
that religious belief is a distortion using these hypotheses.
However, what Westphal calls the suspicion of doubt that Freud
raises is sufficient to make it likely that religious belief is, in
fact, a distortion because it is only consoling. Pointing out that
many people believe in God because they yearn for a benevo-
lent guardian who watches over them, and provides them with
rewards for good conduct, and punishments for misconduct, is
exactly the kind of point that tends to undermine religious be-
liefs. If religious belief is based on illusion, then there is some
good reason to believe it is probably a distortion of reality as
I agree with Westphal and others that the wish fulfillment
critique by Freud does not entail the falsity of religious beliefs.
It is quite compatible with there being such a benevolent deity.
What it does explain is the origin of religious belief in such a
way that does not require that God exists. This undermines any
temptation to think that the existence of widespread belief in
God is an incontestable reason, or a good reason, to think there
is a God. Freud’s psychological explanation leaves us free to
seek reasons for denying there is any such being, and renders
the exist ence of such a b eing unlikel y. Unlike Westp hal, I th ink
the wish fulfillment hypothesis itself is reason to believe that
religious belief is false. Westphal muddies the waters by de-
manding that Freud show that religious beliefs are “distor-
tions.” Freud argues that they are illusions, and probably false.
Westphal is making unreasonable demands for Freud.
Westphal seems to think that the wish fulfillment hypothesis
needs to be supplemented by the hypothesis that religious be-
liefs are “the disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes (West-
phal, 1993).” I do not think that Freud needs to bring in his
controversial theory of repression into the picture at all in order
to show that religious beliefs are improbable, and likely to be
Westphal does have an interesting argument against Freud
that I believe is a better argument than he gives himself credit
for. It is a form of tit for tat or a tu quoque against Freud.
Westphal argues, very interestingly, that Freud is telling us we
think it would be very nice if there were a heavenly father to
take care of us. Westphal then says
But th ere are very powerful forces at work within u s t hat lead
us in exactly the opposite direction. God…would be a power
we would envy and an authority we would resent: Wouldn’t it
be nice…if there were no God. We could be in charge without
any unsolicited divine interference, …Freud calls attention to
both these forces both biographically and theoretically. When
he interpreted his own dreams in the years following his fa-
ther’s death, he discovered a powerful resentment and hatred of
his father. And his theory of the Oedipus complex insists that
the phenomenon is virtually universal, portraying parents as
resented rivals of children, whose death wishes towards their
parents are one of the first texts of psychic life to be censored
and therefore rendered unconscious (Westphal, 1993: p. 68).
Freud’s belief that there is no God is an equally infantile
(Oedipal) wish fulfillment superimposed on adolescent rebel-
lion against authority.
I think this is an ingenious argument. Westphal may have
uncovered a reason for Freud’s rejection of the father figure.
But, and this is important, this is, again, logically compatible
with th ere being n o higher father. Freud coul d be pleased by the
outcome because o f his own rebellious view on authority with-
out that in the least undermining his rejection of religious be-
liefs. What the objection does is explain his zeal in pursuing
anti-religious themes in his work.
Freud was no doubt someone who was motivated to be open
to arguments against God’s existence because of his own per-
sonal psychology. Suppose this were a general condition
amongst people. If so, it would be difficult to understand why
disbelief is not cheerfully accepted by a wider section of hu-
mankind. Westphal’s psychological explanation is wholly
compatible with Freud’s being right about religious belief, and
its unlikelihood of being true.
It seems Westphal sets the bar too high for Freud by requir-
ing that all aspects of his theory about religious belief be true.
Westphal does show that a lot of the theory is problematic at
best. I think a partial acceptance of Freud’s writings on religion
effectively undermines religious belief.
T. W. SMYTHE 15
Let me clarify what I am claiming in this paper. It is gener-
ally agreed that Freud was an atheist. He thought there is no
god, and thought there remains a puzzle about why people be-
lieve. There is no similar puzzle about why people believe in
the moon or Mars. I think Freud is saying: There is no god, and
this is why people believe that there is. I can give a naturalistic
explanation of that phenomenon. In that sense Freud’s citing
wish fulfillment is a sensible part of his overall view. This is
strongl y supported b y the fact that what is b elieved in thi s case
is the sort of thing human beings are likely to wish for—a
strong father figure who is able to control the bad and the good
that happens to us. We do not have a similar motive for believ-
ing in, say, UFOs. Given this, I maintain that his account is
more likely to be true.
Why then do people challenge Freud? Westphal, Plantinga,
Hick, Alsto n , an d Taylor see m to b e attacki ng t hat id ea b ecause
it does no more than assume that there is no god. But wish ful-
fillment is logically compatible with the existence of God. I am
maintaining that Freud’s account casts a damaging blemish on
the usual arguments for th e existence o f God that are so fraught
with controversy. If Freud is right, and I think he is, it is more
likely that there is no God, or heavenly father. Freud gives us
good reason to doubt the claims of theists who opt for the exis-
tence of a personal, heavenly father. It does not follow that
religion is not important, or that spirituality is not an inescap-
able part of human life (Compte-Sponville, 2007). But the per-
sonal father image conception of God in Western religions is
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