Sunday, 20 September 2009

Is God merely a psychological crutch for the weak?

I've been giving some thinking over recent months to the above question. My post on Robbie Williams' latest song, Bodies, shows that the question regarding whether or not God is a psychological crutch is alive and well. Here are a few of my thoughts:

The presupposition behind the question: that there is widespread internal desire for the spiritual. This is true. A 2005 worldwide survey placed belief in the spiritual realm at 90%. Popular culture also attests to this fact. Sam Sparro's 2008 grammy nominated song Black and Gold, for instance, is about the seemingly innate longing for God.

The charge: God is merely a psychological crutch. People like Sam Sparro – and perhaps you – so desire ‘something bigger than them’ that they project these desires onto a big screen and call it ‘God’. Theorists from Marx to Freud have argued that, in some way, God is merely a figment of the imagination, a kind of wish-fulfilment.

The psychological crutch is a well-documented phenomenon, in academia and in popular culture. The Tom Hanks film Castaway depicts psychological crutches that help Hanks' character Noland to survive under extreme pressure: the most famous being Wilson, the volleyball that Noland turns into his confidante and friend. Richard Dawkins, when examining the Pacific cargo cults - a religious system very obviously rooting from psychological need - claims that all religious belief evolves in this manner. We desire certain things, and so we conjure up spiritual entities – God or gods – in whom we place hope in to bring us what we need.

Taking on the argument

1. The charge that belief in God is a product of wish-fulfilment for believers can be countered by the charge that unbelief might be a product of wish-fulfilment for unbelievers. Arguments that don’t rest upon objective evidence can cut both ways. If one group attributes the other’s view to emotion or sociology or psychological need, then the other only needs to reply in kind. Non-belief in God could, itself, be a form of wish-fulfilment.

For example, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hypothesised that belief in the existence of God as "merely a projection of a childish wish for the protection of the father.” But this statement can be turned around. As the psychologist Philip Witz has recently written, Freud had a very bad relationship with his own father. Whereas religious belief might be rendered merely a childish need for a father figure, the non-belief of others such Freud could be characterised as a form of adolescent rebellion against the father-figure of God.

Moreover, CS Lewis showed that there is a psychological dynamic of ‘fear fulfillment’: in other words, that people have reasons to wish God non-existence as well as his existence. According to Freud’s own theory of universal subconsciousness, a person would seem to have at least as plausible a psychological basis for wanting to do away with a Father in heaven as wanting to believe in him.

2. Not all forms of belief in God or gods can be lumped together. Richard Dawkins writes: ‘I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead, I shall define the God Hypothesis as this: there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual human evolution’. It sounds fair enough – that Dawkins wants to somehow remain politically correct and attack everyone’s gods!

But there's a flaw in this argument: just because some belief in God can be shown to be psychological doesn’t mean that all belief in God is psychological. No doubt some forms of religious belief are merely psychological, but it is logically fallacious to say that therefore all belief in God is merely psychology. Dawkins’ view assumes (without any argument) that all religions have the same basic core components, which can all be explained as projections of psychological crutches. All gods, and hence all religions, are simply projections of human desires. But there are differences between religions – crucially including how God is made known and is knowable.

3. Christian belief in God is not primarily founded in human experience, but in God's own revelation of himself. The Christian writer Gresham Machen wrote, 'The only God about whom I feel concerned is one who has objective existence, an existence independent of man. But if there be such a really and independently existent Being, it seems extremely unlikely that there can be any knowledge of Him unless He chooses to reveal Himself.' This is where Christianity differs to every other religion and philosophy. Whereas, for whatever reason – psychological factors or an inbuilt desire to want to know God – other religions are about humanity trying to find God, Christianity is about God coming to find humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that the way of knowing what God is like is not internal, but based upon revelation in human space and time.

An alternative perspective on spiritual desire

The Bible endorses the idea that each of us has a desire for God, and with it a primal longer for fulfilment and significance. We feel that without God we’re incomplete. But, according to the Bible, this feeling of incompleteness is no crutch or hope for an imaginary friend. Rather, it teaches is that humans are not accidents, but that we were created in the image and the likeness of God. As relational creatures made in the likeness of a relational Creator, it’s not at all surprising that we want to relate to God. We long for God because we have been created to relate to him. As one Bible verse puts it, ‘God has set eternity in the hearts of men.’

CS Lewis put it like this: “A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, then; is such a thing as water. People feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” Lewis is saying that our universal instinct for purpose and meaning is a strong evidence that God exists. It’s as if there is an inbuilt honing device in each of us that draws us beyond the physical.

God has designed us to want to know him, and we can only understand our creatureliness when we understand the Creator. In fact, we are truly human – we live as we were created to live – when we live in relationship with the God that made us. It’s something that Jesus won for us through his death on the cross, that we might be reconciled to God, start a relationship with him and therefore experience true humanity.

Please don’t dismiss this out of hand – dismissing it like that could be a psychological crutch – a fear fulfilment. Will you look into the evidence objectively for yourself?


Mark Leong said...

Good stuff! Especially like the Lewis quote :-)

Thought you might be interested to read Piper's response to the question "Isn't Christianity a crutch for people who can't make it on their own?"

Anonymous said...

An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

Karim - Positive thinking

Chris said...

well put, Pete. Have you been reading Nichol, the question of God? Depending on your audience, you might find these quotes helpful.

Thomas Nagel, NY philosopher, in his book, The Last Word (1997)
I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally, hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that

Czeslaw Milosz, Polish Nobel prizewinner for literature, writing from his experience under communism comments on the bitter irony of Marx's words:
“a true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death: the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice & murders we are not going to be judged”

peterdray said...

Mark: thanks for passing by. Piper is right: we need a crutch, but God is far more than merely a psychological crutch.

Chris: I'd come across the Nagel quote but not the one by Milosz. Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on belief .It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Creating Power

Anonymous said...

People who think God is a crutch obviously don't know much about being a christian.

It is harder to be a christian in this world than not, as all we get from every angle is criticism. It is easier in this 'christian' country to be a buddhist or a muslim, as everyone is so worried about being pc they will bend over backwards to make them feel welcome. If you mention that you are a christian, then you are shot down in flames.

All that tells me is that christianity must be right, as the god of this world (satan) only wants people to follow religion that will not lead them to salvation.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, if you are living with a broken leg (metaphorically or physically) then you certainly need a crutch. And all of us at some point have need of a crutch in life. The thing that is amazing with being a Christian is that God's grace allows us access to this crutch so freely which is so undeserved.

Anonymous said...

This question is very intresting and maybe i would have believed what you where saying before I became christian. Uno being a christian isnt just this security in the mind an (imaginary friend) when you let god into your life you feel whole in your heart mind and soul. everysingle person is searching for something on this earth which is missing even when your a millionare you still feel empty even when you have a family there is still something missing havnt you ever thought of why people keep on trying to get the next phone the next thing in fashion, because we are all on a search for something. tell me do u feel completley full in your life. it doesnt mean that life is all daisys and buttercups, but you know you need nothing else. you are complete and its the way we find god a friend of mine died and met god while he was in coma, god told him this isnt your time and you need to follow me. then he woke in hospital and ever since then he has been a christian i have so many stories like this. and are all these people weak? No not at all. I could even say that christians are the strongest people in the world the things we put up with from judgement people christians are being murdered for being a christian this faith is more than a crutch, we are doing it for a reason not to feel good about ourselfs and feel loved but to help people come to god. do u believe in ghosts? No/Yes why do so manyy people believe in that but dont believe in anything else spirituall.. advicee to you if you read in the bible revelations it is all predicting what is happening right now in this world when it was written thousands of years ago.! even If you dont believe in god. do research on why you dont believe in him read the bible. I think that is probley what i would do before i made desision because its a massive decision.