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Abstract

Religion is a dream, a fantasy-picture which expresses man’s situation and at the same time provides a fantasy-gratification of man’s wish to overcome that situation. … In religion man recognizes his helplessness, his dependence, and he seeks to overcome it by calling in the aid of the imagination. Sacrifice and prayer thus stand at the very centre of religion and reveal to us its essential character and aim … ‘the prayer pregnant with sorrow, the prayer of disconsolate love, the prayer which expresses the power of the heart that crushes man to the ground, the prayer which begins in despair and ends in rapture’.1
D. Z. Phillips (ed.), Can Religion be Explained Away?
Houndmills and London: Macmillan, 1997. 49-65.
RELIGION AS A PRODUCT OF PROJECTION
Lars Hertzberg
Religion is a dream, a fantasy-picture which expresses man's situation and at the
same time provides a fantasy-gratification of man's wish to overcome that
situation. ... In religion man recognizes his helplessness, his dependence, and he
seeks to overcome it by calling in the aid of the imagination. Sacrifice and prayer
thus stand at the very centre of religion and reveal to us its essential character and
aim ... 'the prayer pregnant with sorrow, the prayer of disconsolate love, the prayer
which expresses the power of the heart that crushes man to the ground, the prayer
which begins in despair and ends in rapture'.1
This passage comes from a presentation of Ludwig Feuerbach's view of religion by the late
Eugene Kamenka.
Though Feuerbach's name has come to be linked to the view of religion as a
projection of human fears or wishes, he was far from alone in expressing it. Thus, Bertrand
Russell wrote:
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of
the unknown, and partly ... the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother
who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the
    The Philosophy of Ludwig
Feuerbach
 !!"#""$%&%'! 
(
whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.2
Indeed, notions like this could be said to have become part of conventional 'wisdom', to have
passed into what might be termed the folk psychology of religion.
In this essay, I shall make an attempt to find out whether we can make sense of
these notions. My discussion has two parts. In Part I, I try to get clear about what is involved
in the claim that a person is guilty of wishful thinking. In Part II, I shall take a look at some of
the ways in which religious belief enganges with our fears and wishes.
I
1. In the The Periodic Table, Primo Levi recounts the following incident: a chemist by
profession, he had, as a prisoner at Auschwitz, been put to work in a chemistry lab. Years
later, he happens to get into contact with the civilian chemist who had been overseeing the
work. The German confesses his guilt about the Nazi crimes, but it is obvious that his picture
of the concentration camps and of his own role in connection with them is much too rosy.
Among other things, he claims to remember having had discussions about scientific problems
and the evil of the times with Levi. Levi comments: 'Not only did I not remember any such
conversations (and my memory of that period ... is excellent), but against the background of
disintegration, mutual distrust, and mortal weariness, the mere supposition of them was
totally outside reality, and could only be explained by a very naive ex post facto wishful
thinking.'3
( )%%  $$ Why I am not a Christian
*%+,-"./
 %"  0" The Periodic Table 1-  2%
How are we to understand Levi's comment? Part of what is involved here, of
course, is that the way in which the German chemist remembered the situation was one that,
for someone in his position, would have made those memories less painful and easier to live
with. (I take it to be obvious that Levi is the one to trust in this connection.) Furthermore, it is
claimed that this fact is precisely what made him remember things the way he did; his wish
that that was the way they were is offered in explanation of the belief.
One wants to ask: how is it that false convictions are brought about by our wishes?
Is there a peculiar mechanism at work here, rather like that by which a person dying from
thirst may come to hallucinate a drink? In other words, are we here up against a psychological
phenomenon that can only be measured and recorded but cannot be made out to be
intelligible? If so, are we not at the mercy of our wishes and what they will do to our ability to
understand the world?
We obviously would not accuse someone of hallucinating the way we may accuse
a person of wishful thinking. Wishful thinking seems to be a measure of character, a
weakness. At the same time, paradoxically, wishful thoughts are not something we decide to
have. They may be an object of guilt, but not of remorse. Thus, apparently, they occupy a
somewhat puzzling middle ground between things we do and things that happen to us.4
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5
2. What makes wishful thinking seem intractable may in part be a way of thinking about
belief that is prevalent within the analytic tradition in philosophy. The 'belief that p' is regarded
as an unambiguous way of being related to the proposition p, the prime mark of which is a
willingness to assent to the assertion 'p'. A belief, on this view, comes to appear almost like a
solid item that may be acquired, possessed and lost (as seen for instance in the facile way in
which in doing philosophy we tend to speak about a person's 'beliefs' in the plural). A
consequence of this is that we are discouraged from considering the fact that in attributing a
belief to someone, we may in different contexts have a variety of things in mind.
Thus, I may attribute a belief to someone on the basis of what she tells me, or then
again, because of the way she obviously feels about the matter, or because of the measures
she undertakes or fails to undertake in relation to it. Some beliefs may exist only, say, in the
context of a dinner conversation or a Gallup poll, while other beliefs are put to the test in the
hurly-burly of life. In such cases there may well be divergences between our various relations
to the matter at hand: thus, our actions may belie our words, or both may belie our feelings,
etc. As for the question what someone 'really believes', in such a case, it seems to have no
clear sense outside of a specific context in which it arises.
As an illustration of this, a veteran of the Normandie invasion, in a recent memoir,
said that regardless of the odds, he and all the combat-bound GIs he knew believed that each
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.
of them individually would be the one to survive.5 The soldiers' confidence in their survival, I
take it, consisted primarily in what they were inclined to say about their chances, perhaps in
their noting that they did not feel a fear proportionate to the danger, or in a refusal to dwell on
the prospect of getting killed.
In the case of some, this might be considered an aspect of their courage, in that of
others, it may have been due to a naive confidence in their own invulnerability, to an inability
to imagine what was about to happen, or to indifference bred of exhaustion and
disillusionment, etc. How we should think about a case would depend on the other things the
person did: say, someone who faces battle with confidence may yet write a letter to his wife to
be delivered in the event of his death, he may draw up a will, etc. (In his case, there seems to
be a case for saying both that he really believed he might be killed and that he didn't really
believe he might.) Someone else may just go into battle recklessly, maybe neglecting basic
precautions. In the latter case but not, I think, in the former, we might be prepared to speak
about wishful thinking.
3. Emphasis on the propositional content of believing also leads us to ignore the importance
of what surrounds the manifestations of belief. Those manifestations only have the
significance they have in the stream of life. In the case of the German chemist what is crucial
is not his having imagined the discussions in question. As far as those were concerned, he
might have simply got Levi mixed up with someone else, a natural enough mistake to make
after more than twenty years. As Levi emphasizes, what was important was rather the kind of
relation the German chemist had to have to those past events in order to imagine that such an
encounter would even have been possible. This must have meant that he had at the time
completely failed to take in the reality of the concentration camp which he, a civilian,
occasionally visited in order to inspect work at the chemistry lab (Levi had reflected to
. >""%$?%@AA )! @NYRB?7
55
/
himself at the time: 'Er hat keine Ahnung'). It also meant that, later on, he must have shut his
ears to everything written or said about it, or at least he must carefully have avoided actively
learning more about the camps. What made a him a wishful thinker, then, I would suggest,
was not the single lapse of memory in his own favour, but a failure to face up to (to come to
terms with) his country's past and his own role in it.
Compare the situation of the German chemist to the response of someone who first
began hearing rumours about the extermination of Jews, say, some time in 1944. We could
very well imagine her refusing to believe them, classifying them with the stories about 'Hun
soldiers' killing infants or resorting to cannibalism during World War I. And she might back
up her disbelief by saying things like, 'Human beings can't be that evil' or maybe even 'God
wouldn't permit it'. Are we to consider her a wishful thinker, as compared, say, with someone
in a similar position who was ready to lend credence to the rumours rightaway? Is the latter
reaction necessarily more admirable? Suppose the one who believes the story is a German-
hater or a cynic, maybe someone who is always prepared to believe the worst of his fellow-
man, to dish out gossip at every opportunity, etc.
The matter is certainly not to be resolved by inquiring into the mechanisms by
which these diverging attitudes were caused. I find it doubtful whether the notion of such an
inquiry makes any sense. In the present case, both, we may take it, shared the wish that the
rumours should turn out to be false. What seems to be central however is the person's relation
to the rumour. It would make all the difference, say, if the disbeliever was someone in Britain
or the U.S. who was upset by the nationalist fervour and Germanophobia set off by the war,
or if, on the other hand, she was a German citizen, maybe even a supporter of Hitler. In the
latter case, perhaps it would be thought that she had a duty to inquire further into the matter,
and that what kept her from doing so had to be her fear that what she would discover might
force her to give up everything she believed in, or to recognize her complicity in what was
being done. In this case we should probably consider her guilty of wishful thinking. The other
case would be much less clear.
4. Imagine a group of people trying to make up their mind about some past occurrence, or
about the likely outcome of some project, or about the real motives of someone they all know
well, etc. If the issue matters to them, each one of those who take part in the discussion will
have a stake in the matter, of one sort or another. It may be a matter of defending one's own
honour or someone else's. Loyalties or commitments, whether personal, collective or
intellectual may be at stake. Issues of shame or guilt on the speaker's behalf or that of others
may arise. Again, the speaker may find his reputation for good judgment subject to challenge.
We all have our idées fixes, our axes to grind, our sore points and blind spots, etc.
These are the rocks and currents among which real argument takes place. And it is
by having taken part in such discussions that we gradually form an idea of what will count as
good sense or responsible thought in matters of this or that sort. (By contrast, the 'ideal
conversations' imagined by Apel and Habermas, if I have understood them correctly, seem to
have something unreal about them, since they presuppose no commitments stronger than a
commitment to the truth as such. But where, one would like to ask, could truth get its import-
ance except from the matters at issue? Someone who cares for nothing more than he cares for
the truth, I would argue, cannot care very much for the truth.)
The notion of 'how it really is' (or was) has a crucial role in such argument: that of
the contested borderline we are trying to settle. What each of us carries away from an
argument may not be the same; however, it will mainly be determined by the way she
perceives the moral economy of the confrontation: by what she takes to be the stakes involved
for each participant and what she makes of their character: is A someone who would be ready
to lie to gain his point, can B really be so blind where these matters are concerned, is C too
timid to speak his mind, is D incapable of admitting any error, is E unable to stand unpleasant
truths, etc? In the context of issues like these, testing the likelihood of what is claimed against
4
judgments of character and vice versa, one's view of what will constitute responsible thought
in the matter will gradually take shape. And it is in this type of context that the notion of
wishful thinking has a role.
The object of wishful thinking may be the things we reckon with or remember,
uncertain information, the way we read other people's behaviour and expect them to read
ours: it consists in our rejecting things that reflect unfavourably on ourselves or on those we
identify with, or prospects that seem menacing, frightening to contemplate or even just
inconvenient, as well as in our embracing the contraries of these.
'Wishful thinking' does not refer to a specific weakness that an individual may
display to varying degrees, but rather is a way in which various flaws of character will
manifest themselves in the judgments he makes: say, lack of courage, failure to face up to
one's guilt or shame, immaturity, love of comfort.
II
5. Let us now consider the idea that religion is to be understood as a product of wishful
thinking. For those who view religion in this light, the view is obviously closely linked to faith
in science and in the progress it will bring. According to Feuerbach, as presented by
Kamenka,
Religion ... is an attempt to work over reality into something satisfactory to man.
But it does so in fantasy, because man is not yet ready, not yet powerful enough or
knowledgeable enough, to do it in reality. When man does become knowledgeable
or powerful enough, religion withers away and dies; its place is taken by politics
and technology as the expression of firmly-centred human wishes ...6
And Russell writes:
Science can help us get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so
many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us,
no longer to look round for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the
sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place
to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches have made it.7
This response to religion is undoubtedly itself supposed to be an expression of the
scientific attitude. What is being put forward here at last, so it is argued, is a scientific
understanding of religious faith. Viewed in that light, however, it has a rather curious aspect.
For one thing, the hopes expressed in these scenarios themselves have a very distinct flavour
of wishful thinking. Indeed, the term seems much better suited to them than to many forms of
religious faith, as I shall argue.
Also, the claim that wishful thinking could account for the origin and persistence
of religious life-forms, if regarded as a scientific hypothesis, leaves a great deal to be wished.
/ !"5
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
For one thing, its sweep is breath-taking, since it apparently claims to span all the different
forms of religious life in all human cultures over the entire history of humankind. It also
seems to presuppose that the conditions contributing to the formation of religious life-forms
are identical to those accounting for its continued existence. And it neglects the impossibility
of advancing beyond the merest speculation where such an issue as the origins of religion is
concerned.
Quite apart from this, as I have suggested, when we claim that someone is guilty
of (or a victim of) wishful thinking, the claim is not based on the prior identification of some
peculiar mechanism by which the belief came into existence. Rather, it expresses our attitude
towards her belief in the context of her life.8 But this means that the very idea of trying to
decide by means of scientific observation whether religion is a form of wishful thinking is
misconceived. For someone to conclude that it is can only be understood as an expression of
his attitude towards religion, as a claim that is connected with the place religion holds in his
own life.9
If Feuerbach's and Russell's claims are regarded as the expression of a 'scientific
attitude', then, we should be clear that this phrase is being used in a rather peculiar sense here:
the attitude in question is not that of the spirit of inquiry, but rather that of being in harness
against religion. 'Science' is here used as the name of a world-view locked in deadly combat
4 6" - %"""$!9%$$"
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 !"$
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$'%-" "%''"""$

with its competitor, 'the religious world-view'.10 The idea seems to be that we have to get
things like religion out of the way before we can start being scientific about things (somewhat
in the spirit of killing people for the sake of peace).
6. Calling religion a projection of our wishes, then, is a way of distancing oneself from a
religious form of life. Religion is seen as grounded in a weakness from which one considers
oneself to be free. What gives this idea its appeal? I want to suggest that it comes from a
confused way of thinking about the ways in which religious belief may be bound up with
human hopes, fears and wishes.
Thus, consider the wish for 'a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all
your troubles and disputes' that Russell speaks about. Suppose we try to take this idea
seriously: what would be involved in such a wish? In an actual case, there are of course a
variety of ways in which an elder brother may make a difference. First of all, he may, as it
were, be of practical assistance, e.g. by giving you advice on how to make up with your
girlfriend, or by lending you money to tide you over until next week's allowance, and, if he's
strong enough, by giving the boy next door a sound thrashing so he'll stop pestering you.
Obviously, though, there may be some troubles and disputes he will not be able to
   !     -%@$!"!@ $ !'
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"7 " 7 !$   "$$ $! $   B %! @$
$''% !    +%"$" !$7  
"%%7" % "$"%"$$"7
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B %! "$$-"  %" %%
"$$%! %"0$!"!
(
sort out for you in one of these ways. (Some of these will belong to the contingencies of life
while others are part of the human predicament: say, the fact that we shall all die, that we are
at the mercy of blind fate, etc.11) However, in that case too he may make a difference, for he
may console you, say, by getting you to look at matters in a different light, by assuring you
that you'll get over the shame of defeat, or simply by being around so you may feel that you're
not alone: there's somebody there who knows how you feel and whom you can talk to. Here
the difference he made would not concern the object of your grief or worry so much as your
relation to that object.
In which of these ways are we supposed to think about the believer's wish for a
God, according to Russell? One gets the impression that Russell neglected to ask himself this
question. Anyway, it might be argued that only the latter kind of wish has anything to do with
genuine faith. We turn to God to find spiritual guidance, to learn to bear the burdens of life,
not to avert them. To think about God as making a practical difference is a vulgarization of
religion; it is to commit what D. Z. Phillips has called the naturalistic fallacy in religion. 'The
believer cannot expect one thing rather than another -- in the world of events. The events do
not constitute evidence for the goodness of God, since the essence of the believer's belief in
divine goodness consists precisely in the fact that the meaning of life does not depend on how
it goes.'12
  6 "$  #" !% -  $ '
%!"C" % ! % $$$$ -  %
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"$$% -70%!'7%-;%$
(  EF ""$The Concept of PrayerA9%)$"

However, it is not necessarily clear how we are to draw the line between the kind
of belief that commits this fallacy and other kinds of religious belief. Obviously, it would be a
misunderstanding to think about reliance on divine intervention as an alternative to other
methods of making inferences or bringing about results. Thus, if one of the staff officers
involved in planning the landings in Normandie had said that there was no need to undertake
contingency plans to be implemented in the case of bad weather since he had taken the
precaution of praying for the weather to be good, his fellow officers (whether religious or not)
would probably take this as a joke, or alternatively conclude that he had taken leave of his
senses. This is not a way in which we are sometimes tempted to misuse religious language;
rather, this remark would simply not be intelligible in the context. A child learning to use
religious language would be told that such things cannot be said.13
However, there are other ways in which religious faith may be bound up with
secular beliefs. Thus, someone may tell us he was confident that God would let his business
venture succeed, or someone rescued from a ship wrecked in a storm in which many others
perished may tell us he had been confident all along that God did not want him to die. Divine
intervention is not here regarded as an alternative to other methods. Thus, the businessman's
)!-4; #""$%(
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"%!$ % $-  " " "!=!"7
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% "
5
faith may not keep him from working hard to ensure the success of his firm, and the
shipwrecked man may have struggled with all his might to stay afloat until help arrived.
Are we to say that such responses lie outside religion? I am not at all clear what
one is to say in such a case. The obvious objection to these expressions of faith is to say that
they are self-centred in a way that is in conflict with the very essence of, say, the Christian
faith. Still, one can easily imagine that the lives from which they grow are devoutly religious
in other respects. In fact, the businessman's confidence might make him reject various shady
deals that belonged to the regular practice of his trade, telling his associates 'God will
provide'.14 And the man rescued in the storm might refuse to get onto the life-boat until all the
others were safely on it.
Considerations like these could make someone say that these men's confidence
was really spiritual acceptance in disguise, and that they were simply inept at expressing their
faith. One can easily imagine cases in which this would be so, cases in which they would
respond affirmatively to questions like, 'Aren't you really trying to say that you were ready to
accept whatever happened, that you were placing your fate in the hands of the Almighty?'
It might also be thought that the real test of faith in such a case would be a person's
reaction to things going badly. If after going bankrupt the businessman were to say, 'So there
isn't a God after all' and to turn his back on the religious life for good, this would certainly
seem to show that his faith had been shallow. On the other hand, misfortune might bring on a
religious crisis, one that resulted in his coming to think that his earlier faith had been
immature and self-centred. This would not necessarily lead us to conclude that his prior faith
was not genuine.
5   " $""G!! "$-! 
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!$ "  ' !!$   "" -"$ 7 within
%""
.
Concerning the loss of faith in the face of adversity, Gareth Moore writes, 'the
same kind of suffering that can make people lose their faith in God can also give birth to it in
others. This happens particularly, not just when people have a difficult time, but when
everything around them, their whole life, collapses: they lose everything in a business failure,
they suffer a heart-breaking bereavement, they are thrown into a concentration camp... And
yet, in spite of it all ... they manage to carry on, even though everything they had previously
relied on for support had gone. It is here that language about God, which has before been
available but unused ... may suddenly gain a hold.'15 Here we may want to ask whether the
experiences leading to the rejection or discovery of God are to be regarded as internally
related to faith itself. Are we to say that the faith of the fortunate is a different matter than that
of the unfortunate?16
Furthermore, suppose the confidence and the disappointment are not self-centred
the way they are in this example. Imagine, for instance, a devout believer who rejects the
reports about the Holocaust because he is confident that God would not let it happen, and
.  *%H% Believing in God: A Philosophical
Essay"'% B%44
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%%
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when forced to accept the facts reacts by crying out in despair, 'So there isn't a God after all'.
Are we to say that responses like these do not belong to a religious life? Could one not call his
loss of faith an expression of religious feeling, as against that of someone who stops
worshiping because he discovers he no longer has a need for God?
I believe the bewilderment we may feel in the face of such issues comes from the
mistaken idea that it is somehow the task of philosophy to resolve them: that it is the job of the
philosopher of religion to identify the criteria by which it is to be decided whether a person's
faith is genuine or not. Of course the philosopher has no such authority. Taking a stand on the
genuineness of someone's faith is part of the religious life, not a philosophical preliminary to
it.17 Nor do we have to decide which responses are to be considered genuinely religious
before we can do philosophy of religion. The task of the philosophy of religion is simply to
take note of religious uses of language and to clear up misunderstandings that may appear in
connection with them by pointing to the ways in which they are similar to, or differ from,
other uses of language.
What is important for our present purposes is simply the realization that
questioning the depth or genuineness of one's own faith or that of one's fellow believers may
be a part of certain forms of religious life. Thus, it may be an important part of the way
believers think about their faith that they will occasionally search their hearts in order to
decide, for instance, whether what they harbour is true love and genuine acceptance or simply
a self-centred confidence that things will turn out their way. It belongs to the philosophical
task of giving an overview of religious phenomena to take note of the existence of such
questions, though not to give guidelines on the way they are to be answered.
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Now, to the extent that there is, in religious life, an element which consists in the
questioning of one's wishes, this part of it cannot at the same time be regarded as an
expression of those wishes. Hence wishes of this sort cannot account for the existence of
religious belief, since that means that they would be taken to have given rise to a system of
thought in which those very wishes are disallowed. To this extent at least, the idea that
religion might be a form of wishful thinking is confused.
7. Let us now consider the other kind of wish: not the wish for a God who may arrange things
to one's own liking, but the wish for a God who will help one find the right attitude to events.
The attitude sought for may be expressed in various ways: one may wish for the strength to
accept what happens, for the courage to go on living, or for the ability to retain one's faith in
the meaning of life in the face of failure, humiliation, emptiness, suffering or loss.
Now it should be clear that such wishes may have a secular motive: they may
simply be a wish to be rid of the pain or the anguish. Thus, someone might envy her friend's
peace of mind and wish that she could share her faith in God so that she too could find peace.
The 'right attitude' here is simply the attitude that will put an end to the anguish.18
However, it should be clear that the idea that 'the right attitude' to events is the one
that lets me get rid of the anguish is not a religious idea. To think along these lines would
mean that what is central is one's faith in God, whereas to the true believer it is God who is
central. Someone who takes up this attitude has no need for God, she is simply deceiving
herself about her faith. What she hopes her faith in God will give her (she does not really hope
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that God will give her anything) might alternatively be got by taking up yoga or eating a pill.
Someone may, of course, find true faith after seeking it merely as a means to
release. One mark of this might be that she felt gratitude for her former anguish, thinking of it
as God's way of helping her find him. In other words, the anguish itself would take on a
religious siginificance for her. In the other case, however, if the woman's anguish were to
subside for some other reason, she might turn her back on the religious life, might even feel
relieved. The anguish would be external to her faith. She would not, for instance, think about
it as a message the meaning of which it was incumbent on her to understand (except perhaps
metaphorically, in a psychiatric sense).
At this point, a clarification may be needed. It will perhaps be thought that I have
just violated my own strictures against taking a stand on the genuineness of faith in saying
that someone who longs for faith as a means to release is deceiving herself, and in contrasting
this with actual faith. However, the situation here is different. What I am trying to argue now
is that certain ways of thinking about faith are confused. The claim I wish to make is that
there are cases in which, if someone were made aware of certain aspects of their own
religious attitude, if she were made to ask certain questions about it and were to answer them
honestly, she would no longer wish to call her attitude belief in God. The point, accordingly, is
inextricably ad hominem. But in this respect it is no different from philosophical argument in
general.
8. In the context of wishes of this kind, then, the idea that religion is a form of wishful
thinking would amount to the claim that it always involves a form of self-deception. There are
no genuine instances of religious belief, we simply find a number of anguished people
clutching at straws, mesmerizing themselves into a frame of mind which helps them keep
their anguish at bay. The continued existence of religious life-forms is solely made possible by
the fact that religious believers keep from asking themselves certain questions.

Now, what plausibility this notion may have depends entirely on accepting a
radically narrowed-down conception of religious life. Peace of mind, release from anguish,
though they may be important forms of religious response are not the only or the most
essential expressions of belief in God. What will constitute 'the right attitude to events' cannot
be laid down once and for all. It is something that the individual believer may have to work
out for herself, or in consultation with her priest or rabbi, etc. Though in some forms of
religion peace of mind is considered a sign that one has found the answer sought for, this is
not necessarily so.
Indeed, some of the things a believer may find to be demanded of her are things
that fill her with grief or horror. She may feel it her duty to sacrifice what she loves the most,
to withdraw into a convent, to face hardship and humiliation, even martyrdom as a missionary
worker, etc. The priest Brand, in Ibsen's play with that title, finds that what God demands is
that he should not forsake his congregation even though his only chance of saving the life of
his consumptive son would be to move with him to a warmer region. We may feel horror at
the determination with which he accepts, and forces his wife to accept, the death of their
beloved child. (Though we should note that he at one point expresses a faith that God in his
goodness will not let it come to that.) It is hard to imagine anyone wishing to be in his
position, especially as a way of avoiding anguish and despair.
It would be pure sophistry to suggest that his son's life was the price he was
willing to pay for religious solace. Perhaps one could even express his predicament by saying
that in some sense he wished that the God who made these demands on him did not exist. Yet
I would contend that we find no difficulty in recognizing his attitude as one of the forms that
religious life may take.
The discussion in this section could perhaps be summed up by saying that 'the
right attitude' (in the sense relevant to religion) is not to be seen as something to be achieved
by means of faith; rather the wish for the right attitude is itself an expression of faith.
(
Conclusion
To regard religious belief as a product of wishful thinking is to regard it as a form of thought
about matters of human life which is irresponsible in the sense of expressing a refusal to face
up to the reality of those matters. On this view, it either takes the form of imagining that there
is a Supreme Being able and willing to stave off ill fortune, or of conjuring up a faith that will
help us sustain the strains of human existence.
Both forms of thought will probably be found among people who would describe
themselves as religious believers. Even if this is so, however, there are important elements of
religious belief that could not be regarded as products of wishful thinking: first, there is,
within religion, a criticism of self-centred faith in God as a protector against misfortune; and
second, actual religious faith is not reducible to a preoccupation with one's own peace of
mind.
Religious faith is a way of being concerned with matters of human life. The issue,
in other words, is not to be resolved by saying that in religion we are merely concerned with
other-worldly things. However, it is not an irresponsible way of being concerned with those
matters, but rather a way of thinking about them in which the limit between responsible and
irresponsible thought is drawn differently than in secular thought. The specific way in which it
is drawn, however, depends on the particular religious tradition from within which one is
speaking.
Åbo Akademi University
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Bertrand Russell Routledge, £9.99, pp 208 ISBN 0 415 07918 7 In 1969, at the age of 17, and after eight schooners of lager and a night of murderous vomiting to celebrate my final matriculation exam, I left my home in rural New South Wales and moved to a university hall of residence in the parental Gomorrah of Sydney. In the room opposite me was an earnest man from Hong Kong, 10 years my senior, who late at night would tap on my door to invite me to play chess and drink jasmine tea. He was studying for a PhD on the mathematical philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz, and his room was full of books with titles that both frightened and excited …
The Concept of Prayer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), pp. 101ff. The quotation is from p
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