Explaining Away Religion

Those who dislike God and religion are stuck with the fact that the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has been, and is, religious. So how does an atheist explain the widespread presence of religious belief? All sorts of schemes have been offered to account for this.

Theories include the idea of religious “memes” as postulated by Dawkins, the evolutionary account of religion, as postulated by Dennett and others, and so on. Other views have sought to argue that religion is merely a crutch, and that God is simply a projection of human needs and longings.

Thus Christianity is viewed as simply an emotional or psychological crutch. Weak people need such beliefs to help them cope, to help them get by in life. Marx for example said that religion was the opiate of the masses. It is like a drug, and keeps them contented with their oppression in this life, knowing a better life awaits them. It is all just ‘pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye’.

Freud also tried to find naturalistic explanations for the origins of religion. He argued that 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.

Freud could speak about religion as representing “the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity”. The infantile craving for parental love and security drives us to posit an illusory divine father figure. Others, like Nietzsche and Feuerbach, said similar things. Religion is just a way humans cope with their psychological needs. Religious beliefs satisfy deep psychological needs.

Feuerbach famously sought to argue that what we refer to as God is simply the aspirations of human projection. God is simply a “dream of the human mind”. He also said that “theology is nothing else than anthropology – the knowledge of God nothing else than a knowledge of man”.

So how does one respond to such accusations? A number of points can be made. Firstly, it is true that religious beliefs satisfy deep psychological needs. But religious beliefs do far more than this. And even if they do not meet various needs, it still must be determined whether such beliefs are in fact true.

Even if people have psychological needs that are helped by religion, that does not disprove the existence of God. Marx, Freud and Co simply assume the nonexistence of God and then make their case. That does not make for a convincing argument.

And not all religious beliefs are comforting or reassuring. Some can be challenging or repulsive (eg, the doctrine of God’s wrath upon sin). The sort of God depicted in Scripture is little like the sort of God people might wish for or long for.

Would people normally desire the sort of God Jesus depicted? He told people that they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Paul could speak about putting our sinful desires to death, and glorying in the cross.

Also, it is true that religion can be a crutch for some believers. But nonbelievers also use crutches, whether it be drugs, or alcohol, or fantasy worlds (soap operas, virtual reality games), and so on. We all have props or crutches that we lean on (materialism, hedonism, narcissism, etc). Jesus comes to kick these false props and crutches away. Thus the “psychological motive” argument cuts both ways.

The real question to ask is can your crutch hold you? If you are lame, a crutch is a very handy thing indeed. If you cannot walk, or are crippled or injured, then you very much do need a crutch. The biblical view is that we are all spiritually crippled. We are all damaged by sin. So we 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 in dire straits. Christianity is the cure to our damaged condition.

Moreover, these sorts of arguments commit the genetic fallacy. The genesis or motivation for a belief is a separate issue from the truth of that belief. The truth or falsity of religious beliefs are not determined by their origins. Regardless of why people are religious, we still need to ask whether a certain religious belief is true or not.

As to the various projection theories, they can cut both ways. Maybe the belief in no God is a projection as well. Atheism could also be an illusion, simply the result of human wishing and longing. 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?”

Or as C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis argue, “If believers sometimes show a deep psychological need to believe in God, nonbelievers sometimes show an equally deep psychological need to reject any authority over them and to assert themselves as their own lords and masters.” If religion can be explained away by sociological or psychological means, then so too can atheism and unbelief.

While many things may not exist which we wish for, it does not follow that something does not exist simply because we strongly wish for it. And as noted, if God is merely the result of wish fulfillment, the God of the Bible is hardly likely to be the sort of God most people would wish for.

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 real sorts of issues that must be decided upon.

The truth is, people may have wrong or faulty reasons for believing in anything. But the various objections about the psychological and social reasons for religious belief seem to offer little reason to dismiss religion so readily. The misotheists will have to come up with more persuasive arguments than these I am afraid.

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17 Replies to “Explaining Away Religion”

  1. See also Is Belief in God a case of Christian wish fulfillment? by apologist Lita Cosner. She reminds us of the C.S. Lewis’ term for this fallacy: Bulverism:

    “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age [1941, when Lewis wrote] will thrust you to the wall.”

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  2. Good reasoning Bill. Finally, as you say, the historical evidence for Jesus is what matters. Jesus showed us and told us what God is really like. I think it was C.S. Lewis who wrote that Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, a legend or the Lord. It is a faith response to say, Jesus Christ is Lord.
    Graham Lawn

  3. It is so easy to ridicule a belief if one does not believe in the belief. So no credit to the likes of Dawkins who appeal to the already non-believers, the atheists. Bill, I like the reasoning you put forth against the argument of the atheists. You may wish to consider coming out with booklets to debunk their cheap shots and enlighten the readers about true Christianity. These booklets can be circulated as an evengelical tool. Likewise, booklets on other issues you are passionate about would be a great vehicle to enlighten the many people whose only source of knowledge is the public media which more often are biased.
    Richard Chieng

  4. Well written Bill you put it across simply and forcefully.

    Isn’t it interesting that atheists so frequently trot out arguments that undercut their own points at least as well as they undercut the points of those they seek to attack, and yet they seem uniformly oblivious to this fact.

    You mentioned meme’s at the start of your piece. I actually had a conversation with Susan Blackmore on the idea of Meme’s and she didn’t seem to understand that using them as a club against religion causes at least as many problems for all knowledge as they do for knowledge of religious truth claims.

    With Sue, she didn’t seem able to grasp the idea that if it is possible for any particular meme to be believed without regard to their truth value and even inspite of evidence against the truth of it, then all meme’s could suffer from this weakness and there is no way to tell the actually true ones from the seemingly true ones, and if evidence could be used, then it works as well for religious as well as naturalistic meme’s. She didn’t seem to get this idea, though it seems pretty self evident to me.

    The same is true with the other psychological motivations your noted above.

    I guess one of the things I find really interesting about these sorts of attacks on religion, and Christianity in particular is that it so completely misses the mark. I find it reassuring that this really is the best they are able to come up with. If they had a good argument they wouldn’t need to keep trotting out this sort of mindless drivel.

    Jason Rennie

  5. That crutch on which I lean when my spiritual health is in need of support and which helps me to limp along when my faith is weak, is that Old Wooden Cross on which my Saviour died to forgive my sins and to give me eternal life.

    Patti Smith

  6. Thanks Jason

    Yes quite right. If there is a God gene or meme, then surely there is an atheist gene or meme. In which case both camps are determined to believe what they do, and therefore we should all just shut up, and end the debate. If I was hardwired to believe, even if it is a “mis-firing” as Dawkins claims, then he also was hardwired to have his beliefs. In such a scheme rationality and evidence then really don’t count for anything. We are all simply products of our genetic or memetic environment. I actually don’t have enough faith to believe such silly notions.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Good suggestion about the little booklets, Richard Chieng. I’m all for it, but Bill would need support. How about we all chip in if Bill is interested, and make this happen? This is an opportunity for us to invest in the Kingdom. How about it Bill??
    Eddie Sim

  8. Thanks Richard and Eddie

    Very kind of you. I could be tempted in this regard, although I am aware of hundreds of great books on Christian apologetics which are already available, and would be far superior to anything I can produce. But yes, from time to time I think I should put some of my own writings into book form. So maybe we can work together toward that end. I will keep you posted. Thanks again.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. I’d be interested in helping with the booklet or resouce idea as well if people are keen. I’d post my email, but Bill seems to frown on that. Though you can post it if you like 🙂

    Jason Rennie

  10. Thanks Jason

    But not posting personal email addresses on this public website is simply a matter of concern for your privacy and protection. Trust me, you really don’t want to get all the hate mail, death threats, etc., which I get on a regular basis!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Bill,

    Do I have your permission to forward this post onto an atheism blog I read occasionally? It might provoke some discussion.

    Ross McPhee

  12. Thanks Ross

    It will certainly provoke some discussion. But then what? If you are happy to debate those who attack it there, fine. The truth is, I am already far busy enough here, without having to fight on other fronts! I really don’t need the extra work thanks! So if you can somehow manage it that you and the atheists do your thing without me being further inundated, then go for it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. Bill thanks for this great post, it would be ideal for teaching clear thinking.
    Stan Fishley

  14. In answer to the Atheists the Children of the wicked one (not those who have been temporarily duped)

    In Mathew 13:37 Jesus clarifies this completely and in applicable modern terms.

    He that Sows the good seed is the Son of Man.
    The field is The World.
    The Good seed are the children of The Kingdom.
    But the tares are the children of The Wicked One
    The Enemy that sowed them is The Devil.
    The harvest is the end of The World.
    And the reapers are The Angels.
    As the Tares are gathered and burned in the Fire.
    So shall it be in the end of This World.

    The Son of Man shall send forth all his angels
    And they shall gather out of his Kingdom all things that offend and those which work iniquity.
    And they shall be cast into a furnace of fire and there shall be Great Tribulation,Wailing & Torment.
    Then Shall the righteous shine forth as the Sun in the Kingdom of their Father.
    Whoever hath ears to hear, Let him Hear.

    We hate so much the evil that is spreading it’s web throughout this world and we rail against it almost to the point of saying what’s the use.

    But we must continue to sow the good seed, for the many trapped beneath the Tare’s who cannot see the light.

    Tribulation = a state of great distress and oppression. Latin tribulation tribulatio. from Tribulum a board used for threshing???

    We must hold fast.

    Dennis Newland

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