There have been numerous objections raised against Christianity over the centuries. There may be 20 or so major standard objections raised, covering a variety of issues. One quite common complaint is that Christianity – or religion in general – is nothing more than an emotional or psychological crutch. Weak people, so the argument goes, need such beliefs to help them cope, to help them get by in life.
These critics claim that real people do not need religion – only the weak, feeble and insecure need such support. They say the idea of God is simply an invention to help people cope with life, and that the very notion of God is therefore simply a human projection.
There have been many people who have made such objections. A number of philosophers for example have run various versions of this objection. Four modern thinkers – all of whom lived pretty much in the same period – come to mind here: Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. These prominent and influential intellects were atheists, and all agreed that religion is really just a crutch, a human response to a human need.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), was a German philosopher who argued that religion is just a way humans cope with their psychological needs. Religion is simply a projection, a human construction. We invent God and religion in order to help us cope with life and its many sorrows. Thus God is merely a human invention, designed to help us find comfort and security in a frightening world.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) agreed with Feuerbach, but took his ideas even further. He agreed that God is simply a human projection, but he subsumed religious belief to his overriding thesis: the importance of socio-economic conditions.
Marx famously said that religion was the opiate of the people. It is like a drug, numbing the pain of the people’s injustice and oppression. Religion keeps people contented with their miserable situation, since they know that a better life awaits them. Religion is all pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye stuff, used by the capitalist oppressors to keep the workers in chains. When these economic conditions are changed, religion will simply fade away. Thus the birth of socialism would spell the death of religion.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is of course famous for his remarks about the death of God. In some respects his approach was merely that of practical observation: the idea of God was disappearing from modern life, and we must live with that reality.
Modern man has killed off God, and we must be prepared to live with the consequences. Here Nietzsche is at least honest: if there is no God, then anything goes. Morality, for example, is merely the “herd-instinct of the individual”. Moral truths, like religious beliefs, are merely ways we can cope with the world.
Indeed, following Darwin, he accepted the survival of the fittest, and stressed that the ubermensch would crush the weak. He hated Christianity for not allowing nature to take its proper course, and argued instead for the “will to power”.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the famous father of psychoanalysis, argued that religion is just an illusion. Freud said this about the origins of religion: people are afraid of the awesome power and destructive forces of nature, so the god postulate was invented to help tame nature and help people cope. The impersonal forces of nature are personalised and brought under control – we say there are personal spirits in the wind, the storms, etc. These animistic spirit-powers led eventually to monotheism.
Thus religious ideas are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind”. God is really nothing more than a childhood neurosis. Religion is mere wish fulfillment: we wish religion to be true, when in fact there is no God.
The Christian Response
OK, so how is one to respond to such accusations? Is belief in God simply what these critics claim it to be? Six general responses can be given here. They do not specifically challenge every remark made by the four atheists above, but offer a general reply to these oft-heard charges.
First, religion can indeed be a crutch for some believers. Some people of faith may use their particular religion merely as a crutch of some sort. But many believers do not see God as merely some kind of divine comforter or cosmic security blanket.
And the fact that some may use religion as a crutch of course does not determine whether God actually exists or not, or whether a particular religion – such as Christianity – is in fact true. Those questions still need to be argued for on their own merits (see point three).
Moreover, nonbelievers also can use crutches on a regular basis. These can take the form of drugs or alcohol, or fantasy worlds (soap operas, virtual worlds, games, reality TV, etc.), or any number of things. So it is not just believers who may use crutches. We can all have props or crutches that we lean on – some more heavily than others. If it is not God or religion, it can be numerous other things, such as materialism, or hedonism, or narcissism, etc.
The real question to ask is, can your crutch really hold you? Christians believe that many people depend on things which are not at all trustworthy, and that Jesus came to kick these false props and crutches away.
Second, even if we were to accept this general thesis, we would still have to say more. If a person is actually lame, then a crutch is a very handy thing to possess indeed. If a person cannot walk, is crippled or is injured, then he very much does need a crutch.
The Biblical picture of the human condition presents just such a view. We are all spiritually crippled. We are all damaged by sin. So we desperately need help, and that help lies beyond ourselves. If it weren’t for God breaking into our world and helping us out, we would all be lost, and forever lame and crippled. Christianity is the cure to our diseases. In that case, what is wrong with some comfort and solace, or some supernatural help?
Third, even if all people have psychological needs that are helped by religion, that does not disprove the existence of God. Marx and Freud and Co. simply assume the nonexistence of God and then make their case about religion being a human construct. The arguments for God’s existence still have to be dealt with, regardless of why certain people may believe the way they do.
Fourth, and related to point three, the motivation for a belief is a separate issue from the truth of that belief. Regardless of why people are religious, we still need to ask whether a certain religious belief is true or not. Even if some people simply use religion as some psychological crutch, the question still needs to be asked whether in fact their religious beliefs are true or not.
Fifth, these sorts of claims (religion or belief in God is nothing but…) are problematic, because all “nothing-but” claims are problematic. They basically assume what they want to prove. Thus they are self-defeating claims. How does Feuerbach or Freud know that God is nothing but the projection of human imagination and longing?
No one has that much knowledge to be able to make these sorts of assertions. Indeed, what hard evidence can they present for these claims? What sort of evidence would even come close to proving these assertions?
Finally, the real question about Christianity is not a psychological one, but an historical one. Did Jesus exist? What did he teach? What did he do? Did he really rise from the dead? These are the questions any serious inquirer must deal with.
People may have wrong or faulty reasons for believing in anything. And the game can be turned on its head. Maybe atheism is simply a projection, or an example of wish-fulfillment. As Alister McGrath puts it, “if belief in God was a response to a human longing for security, might it not also be argued that atheism was a response to the human desire for autonomy?”
Thus atheism might just as well be an illusion, the result of what one wishes for. But if atheists reject that line of reasoning, then they are required to reject its mirror image, that religion is an illusion and the result of wishful thinking.
Thus for all their bluff and bluster, atheists who resort to these accusations certainly are not making much of a case. But for those who couldn’t be bothered with doing some critical thinking, they might seem like plausible objections. But that is simply not the case. More will be needed to disprove Christianity than these rather lame challenges.