Is God Just a Psychological Crutch for the Weak?
by Paul Copan
Have you ever met nasty skeptics or hostile atheists who seem to have a chip on their shoulder? Have you considered that maybe something’s gone deeply wrong in their family, often because of a failed (or missing) father figure?
I recently came across one such person. Having grown up in an ultra-legalistic “Christian” home, this person’s parents were involved in professional ministry. But his father committed adultery and, as a result, brought alienation, hostility, and humiliation to the entire family.
In a debate with an atheist, Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland told the audience: “If you’re an atheist, I’ll bet you a steak dinner that you’ve had authority issues with a father figure.”1 Ronald K. Tacelli, another Christian philosopher friend (Boston College), told me of his encounters with particularly cranky, mean-spirited atheists. He made the same connection: “They’ve got family issues.”
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Psychologizing the Believer
We are familiar with the common challenge to believers that God is nothing more than a made-up or projected idea — an infantile illusion, a pathetic flight from reality to help us through life’s hardships and cruelties. Rather than humans made in God’s image, skeptics claim humans have made God in their image. Atheist philosopher Peter Railton refers to the gods “to whom we have given life.”2
The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) asserts, “Religion is the dream of the human mind.”3 This notion inspired Karl Marx to call religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opiate of the people.”4 Likewise, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud followed Feuerbach’s line of reasoning, connecting humanity’s religious impulse with subconscious desires. God is the product of such “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. … the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fears of the dangers of life.”5
The poem Invictus (meaning “unconquered”) by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) captures the spirit of these psychologizers of religion: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Believers, say skeptics, transfer personal responsibility to a made-up deity rather than being masters of their fate and captains of their souls. (Perhaps one could call such a projection “Captain Crutch.”)
Problems with the Crutch Argument
What is the flaw in this argument? There are number of problems and concerns.
First, Freud himself acknowledged that his “psychoanalysis” of religion had no supporting clinical evidence. In 1927, Freud confessed to Oskar Pfister — an early psychoanalyst and believing Protestant pastor — that his perspectives on religious projection “are my personal views.”6 Freud had very little psychoanalytic experience with genuine religious believers and published no analysis of believers based on clinical evidence.7
Second, this argument commits the genetic fallacy, which is the error of attributing truth or falsehood to a belief based on its origin or genesis. Just because you learned math from a cranky elementary school teacher, it does not follow that what she taught you (2+2=4) must be false. Or just because a mathematical nitwit luckily happens upon the correct answer to an intricate math problem, we cannot conclude the answer must be incorrect. When the skeptic uses the genetic fallacy against the believer, this turns out to be a kind of insult — an ad hominem (“against the man”) argument; it attacks the person and ignores the argument.
Even if all believers in God held their views for inferior or nonrational reasons, this still does nothing to disprove God’s existence. It may only reflect that one’s beliefs are not properly founded, but not necessarily false.
Third, we need to distinguish between the rationality of belief and the psychology of belief. The psychology of belief (how people come to believe in God) is a distinct question from the rationality of belief (why there are good reasons to believe in God). We can offer good reasons for God’s existence (from the universe’s beginning or astonishing fine-tuning, from consciousness and beauty, from historical arguments for Jesus’ resurrection). To discover whether or not God exists, we should not look at people’s motives, but rather discern what good reasons there are for believing or not.
Fourth, it is odd and arbitrary to claim that whatever brings comfort and solace is false.What is not to like about your favorite soup or a cup of tea on a cold day? We talk about comfort foods like spaghetti, lasagna, or pizza — meals we can count on to hit the spot every time. Clearly there is nothing wrong with such enjoyments. Food and shelter are comforting, and healthy families bring security and solace, but this hardly makes food, shelter, and family illegitimate. And why assume a belief must be wrong if it happens to be comforting?
Fifth, the incurably religious nature of human beings could just as likely indicate a divinely placed void that only God can fill. Here we can turn the crutch idea on its head. If we have been made to enjoy God and find refuge and security in relationship to Him, then we should not be surprised that God himself placed this religious impulse within us — that God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). In this case, such a longing is a pointer to the transcendent. As St. Augustine expressed it: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.” This longing turns out to be a support of theism, not an argument against it.
In a future essay, I will address the related question of whether humans are biologically hard-wired to believe in God simply because it enhances survival. For now, let me say: simply becausenatural processes contribute to religious belief does not disprove God’s existence. In fact, our being hard-wired for believing in God makes sense if God has designed us to make it easier to believe in Him. These sorts of processes enable us to come to know God personally, and we’re at our cognitive best when our faculties direct us toward true belief in God.8 So it is possible that (a) a personal God exists who has made humans to relate to Him, that (b) natural processes partly contribute to the formation of religious belief, and (c) belief in God is intellectually on-track, with the mind properly functioning according to the divine design plan.9
In light of the third point above (on the distinction between psychology and rationality), we should distinguish between the biology of belief and the rationality of belief. God’s existence is a separate issue from biological or psychological factors, but God can engineer the world to include these factors to make belief in Him easier.
Sixth, a comforting father figure, while unique to the biblical faith, is not at the heart of the other world religions. Jesus’ teaching uniquely introducing God as Abba(a Jewish title for one’s father, used by children even into adulthood) — the believer’s personal Father.10 We do not find such an intimate, personal term for the Ultimate Reality in the other great world religions; many Eastern religions see “It” as abstract and impersonal.
Furthermore, why make up a God who is triune — Father, Son, and Spirit? And why invent an uncontrollable, messy Deity who sets limits on our impulses and self-centeredness and will even judge us? This is unlike the all-too-human, flawed gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome. Like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, the biblical God is good, but He is not safe.
Seventh, the attempt to psychologize believers applies more readily to the hardened atheist.It is interesting that while atheists and skeptics often psychoanalyze the religious believer, they regularly fail to psychoanalyze their own rejection of God. Why are believers subject to such scrutiny and not atheists? Remember another feature of Freud’s psychoanalysis — namely, an underlying resentment that desires to kill the father figure.
Why presume atheism is the rational, psychologically sound, and default position while theism is somehow psychologically deficient? New York University psychology professor Paul Vitz turns the tables on such thinking. He essentially says, “Let’s look into the lives of leading atheists and skeptics in the past. What do they have in common?” The result is interesting: virtually all of these leading figures lacked a positive fatherly role model — or had no father at all.11
Let’s look at some of them.
- Voltaire(1694–1778): This biting critic of religion, though not an atheist, strongly rejected his father and rejected his birth name of FranÃ§ois-Marie Arouet.
- David Hume(1711–76): The father of this Scottish skeptic died when Hume was only 2 years old. Hume’s biographers mention no relatives or family friends who could have served as father figures.
- Baron d’Holbach(1723–89): This French atheist became an orphan at age 13 and lived with his uncle.
- Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72): At age 13, his father left his family and took up living with another woman in a different town.
- Karl Marx(1818–83): Marx’s father, a Jew, converted to being a Lutheran under pressure — not out of any religious conviction. Marx, therefore, did not respect his father.
- Friedrich Nietzsche(1844–1900): He was 4 when he lost his father.
- Sigmund Freud(1856–1939): His father, Jacob, was a great disappointment to him; his father was passive and weak. Freud also mentioned that his father was a sexual pervert and that his children suffered for it.
- Bertrand Russell(1872–1970): His father died when he was 4.
- Albert Camus(1913–60): His father died when he was 1 year old, and in his autobiographical novel The First Man, his father is the central figure preoccupation of his work.
- Jean-Paul Sartre(1905–80): The famous existentialist’s father died before he was born.12
- Madeleine Murray-O’Hair (1919–95): She hated her father and even tried to kill him with a butcher knife.
- We could throw in a few more prominent contemporary atheists not mentioned by Vitz with similar childhood challenges:
- Daniel Dennett (1942–): His father died when he was 5 years of age and had little influence on Dennett.13
- Christopher Hitchens (1949–): His father (“the Commander”) was a good man, according to Hitchens, but he and Hitchens “didn’t hold much converse.” Once having “a respectful distance,” their relationship took on a “definite coolness” with an “occasional thaw.” Hitchens adds: “I am rather barren of paternal recollections.”14
- Richard Dawkins (1941–): Though encouraged by his parents to study science, he mentions being molested as a child — no insignificant event, though Dawkins dismisses it as merely embarrassing.15
Moreover, Vitz’s study notes how many prominent theists in the past — such as Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer — have had in common a loving, caring father in their lives.16
So the skeptic’s father-figure projection argument to disprove God’s existence commits the genetic fallacy. To make matters worse for the hard-core skeptic or atheist, the most prominent spokespersons for atheism and skepticism have carried around a lot of psychological baggage themselves.
We should consider the merits of arguments for and against God’s existence without dismissing arguments based on this or that person’s motives. However, Vitz reminds us that psychological factors (such as wholesome, pleasant childhood memories versus painful ones) may indeed have a bearing on how a person comes to believe or disbelieve;these subconscious factors are not irrelevant and may prove to be psychological roadblocks to belief. They can make trusting in God difficult since those intended to be closest to us have become unworthy of our trust or are no longer present.
When people tell me they have difficulty trusting in God (even if they have good reasons for believing in God and would like to believe), I ask about their family background, particularly the father relationship. In my experience, the typical response is, “How did you know?” or “You are right.” In this case, the security of a loving Christian community can play a significant role in helping restore that ability to trust the ever-loving Father. His trustworthiness is especially evident in Christ’s loving and giving himself for us (John 3:16).
The Argument From Desire
We can work these considerations into an argument from desire — one C.S. Lewis made famous. Our deepest needs and longings point us to a transcendent God who can ultimately fulfill them. Lewis speaks of “a desire for something that has never actually happened.”17 Humans have all kinds of desires — for sexual satisfaction, athletic success, exotic vacations, gourmet meals. But however enjoyable these experiences are, we are not fully satisfied by them. We yearn for something more — something beyond, something ultimate.
Lewis writes of seeking fulfillment in literature and music: “The books or the music in which we thought we located beauty will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.”18
Our earthly enjoyments are not ends in themselves. Our unfulfilled desires can point us to Someone no earthly thing can satisfy. They point us to another realm, which we can begin to experience now in part, but one day in full, unshielded presence of God — our glorious and loving Father.
1. J.P. Moreland (with Clancy Martin), “Does the Christian God Exist?” (October 2006). Available at: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3780702651936909797#. Accessed 11 October 2011.
2. Peter Railton, “Some Questions About the Justification of Morality,” Philosophical Perspectives 6 (1992): 45 (my emphasis).
3. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), xxxix.
4. K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3: Introduction to a Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right, by Karl Marx (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975).
5. Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 30.
6. Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister, Psychoanalysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister, ed. H. Meng and E. French, trans. E. Mosbacher (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 117.
7. Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 8,9.
8. Alvin Plantinga makes this point in Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). See also Justin Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2004).
9. See Plantinga’s discussion on this and other issues related to this Freudian claim in Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 135–63).
10. James D.G. Dunn, “Prayer,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. I. Howard Marshall, et al. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 619.
11. Vitz, “The Psychology of Atheism,” Truth 1 (1985): 29–36. See also Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless; also from Faith of the Fatherless, 17–57.
12. Sartre apparently did become a believer in God before he died, however. See National Review, 11 June 1982, 677.
13. Roger Bingham, “The Science Studio with Daniel Dennett.” Available at: http://thesciencenetwork.org/media/videos/29/Transcript.pdf. Accessed 11 October 2011.
14. Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir, Large Print Edition (New York: Twelve/Hachette, 2010), 64,67,21,69.
15. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2008), 316.
16. See Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless.
17. C.S.Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 6,7.
18. Ibid., 7.