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I. The F&M Complaint

As we have seen, atheologians (those who argue against Christian belief) have often claimed that Christian belief is irrational; so far, we have failed to find a sensible version of this claim. But perhaps we can make progress by exploring the animadversions on Christian belief proposed by Freud, Marx, and the whole cadre of their nineteenth- and twentieth-century followers.152152   Of course, it wasn’t only Christian belief that drew their fire: Freud and Marx were equal-opportunity animadverters, attacking religion generally and without discrimination. We could also examine here Nietzsche’s similar complaint: that religion originates in slave morality, in the ressentiment of the oppressed. As Nietzsche sees it, Christianity both fosters and arises from a sort of sniveling, cowardly, servile, evasive, duplicitous, and all-around contemptible sort of character, which is at the same time envious, self-righteous, and full of hate disguised as charitable kindness. (Not a pretty picture.) I’ve chosen not to consider Nietzsche for two reasons: first, he really has little to add to what Marx and Freud say; second, he is harder to take seriously. He writes with a fine coruscating brilliance, his outrageous rhetoric is sometimes entertaining, and no doubt much of the extravagance is meant as overstatement to make a point. Taken overall, however, the violence and exaggeration seem pathological; for a candidate for the sober truth, we shall certainly have to look elsewhere.153153   I don’t mean for a moment to dispute Merold Westphal’s contention (in Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism [Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1993]) that Christians have something to learn from Nietzsche (as from Freud and Marx). Of course they do, but the same lessons can be learned at a much subtler level from, for example, the Bible—where, as Westphal points out, Nietzsche’s criticisms, insofar as they are on the mark, are anticipated. Taken as a serious account of the origin of Christianity, however, Nietzsche’s intemperate scoldings can’t really be seen as a serious contribution to the subject.


Now Freud, Marx, and their many epigoni (and anticipators) criticize religious belief; they purport to find something wrong with it; they are ‘masters of suspicion’ and (at any rate in their own view) unmask it. And in examining their critical comments on religious belief, I think we can finally locate a proper de jure question: one that is distinct from the de facto question, is such that the answer is nontrivial, and is relevant in the sense that a negative answer to it would be a serious point against Christian belief. The first order of business, therefore, is to try to get clear as to what the Freud-Marx critical project (‘the F&M complaint’, as I shall call it) really is.

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