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Many critics of religious faith appear to operate on the basis of what might be termed “the presumption of atheism.” That is, they take their own lack of belief as the default position, demanding that theists provide evidence to justify faith in God—or even absolutely prove God’s existence—while recognizing no equivalent obligation to demonstrate the truth of their own denial.
But it isn’t obvious that—or why—the proposition “There is no God,” as opposed to “There is a God,” should be the default setting. It isn’t apparent that believers bear the “burden of proof.” It isn’t clear that, in the absence of conclusive evidence that persuades even the most recalcitrant one way or the other, the question whether God exists must be resolved in the negative.
For one thing, the vast majority of humankind, historically and still today, accepts the existence of the divine (even if differing on the details). Religious experiences and transcendent intuitions are widely distributed around the globe; those who flatly deny their reality are a recent and still rather small minority, not a dominant majority that is somehow entitled to dictate that its view is the default position on such questions.
If there is any default position to be had on this important matter, it might arguably be agnosticism, not knowing one way or another. But ignorance as to whether God exists or not, whether there is or is not an overall purpose to life, is not an optimal place to be. Moreover, it is doubtful, practically speaking, that one can actually live a religiously agnostic life.
The popular “I’m spiritual but not religious” mantra seems dubious: On the whole, an agnostic will either live as if he or she believes or else live functionally as an atheist. “Splitting the difference” with respect to attendance at worship services or with regard to prayer—that is, neither attending nor not attending, neither praying nor not praying—is difficult to imagine. Not to decide is, in a very real way, to decide. Some resolution of the matter, whether deliberate or by sheer drift, seems unavoidable.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, took a decisive and quite black-and-white position on the issue. He was a vocal atheist from the time he was young. In his 1927 book “The Future of an Illusion”—one of the latest of the many works he wrote against religious faith—the “illusion” to which he referred was, of course, religion. Freud believed that religious beliefs represent an infantile wish-fulfillment fantasy, akin to neurosis.
“As we already know,” he wrote, “the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection—for protection through love—which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life.”
In other words, Freud contended, we project our need for a benevolent father figure onto the universe and, thereby, come up with the idea of God.
The late Christopher Hitchens regarded Freud’s proposal as irrefutable, despite the fact that Freud—who was a thorough-going atheist long before his development of psychoanalysis—presented little or no evidence in support of it and, notoriously, based his entire psychoanalytic theory on his clinical work with mentally ill and emotionally disturbed patients (which is to say, it seems, with few if any healthy people and few if any religious believers). “Freud,” Hitchens declared, “made the obvious point that religion suffered from an incurable deficiency: it was too clearly derived from our own desire to escape from or survive death. The critique of wish-thinking is strong and unanswerable.”
At this point, someone versed in the history of world religions might observe that several such religions have, and have had, little if anything to say about human survival of death and have placed little if any emphasis on a benevolent divine father-figure. Sigmund Freud’s atheism, and that of Christopher Hitchens, was a bit naïve and provincial. They were taking aim, basically, at the Judaism and Christianity that they knew from the communities in which they grew up. There is, though, no question that their critique is targeted at the kind of religious faith that is most familiar to readers of this column.
Does their critique really hit its target? I don’t think it succeeds. And not only, as I’ve already observed, because of their failure to cite actual evidence in its support.
For one thing, it rests on the presumption of atheism that I’ve also already mentioned. Freud (like Hitchens) assumes as a given that there is no God. That leaves him only the task of explaining how the mistake of believing in God arose. And his suggestion is just one among many: Others have suggested, for instance, that it emerged from a hyperactive human tendency to detect “agents” or “personalities.” Long ago, it is said, that tendency conferred an evolutionary advantage on those among our ancestors who were quickest to recognize predators in the jungle or to identify enemies on the savannah. Now, it causes us to see faces in the clouds.
Others have hypothesized that it bonded societies together and helped them to prevail over rival groups that lacked such unity. One author even suggested a few decades back that religion came into existence about three thousand years ago, when (he says) modern human consciousness developed; one hemisphere of the bicameral human brain began to receive “revelation” from the other half of the brain and ascribed it to “gods.”
All of these theories (and many others) assume that God is an illusion requiring an explanation. But there are sufficiently many arguments for the existence of God—including, beyond personal religious experiences, such things as the ontological argument of St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas’s “Five Ways,” cosmological and design arguments, formal arguments from religious experience and morality and human self-awareness, historical arguments, and so forth—that it seems arbitrary and even a bit arrogant to simply presume, as a default setting, that there is no God.
Moreover, Freud’s assumption that belief in God must be false because it’s potentially comforting seems to be, itself, obviously mistaken. Hearth and home, loving families, comfort foods, warm blankets, nostalgic tunes—such things are genuinely real. We don’t simply imagine them. The world offers good things, not only bad things. Honesty admits the existence of both, not only of the latter.
C. S. Lewis famously contended that the existence of desires can be viewed as evidence that the objects of those desires actually exist—whether or not we will really attain them. “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger—well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men 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. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”
Please notice that Lewis is not arguing that the existence of desires guarantees their gratification in every case. A lost explorer desperately searching for water in the desert may well die before he reaches the oasis. A drowning man may, in fact, not reach the surface in time for a saving gasp of air. The lovelorn shepherd may not win the maiden. But maidens, oxygen, and water really do exist.
Another objection that can be raised against the theory proposed by Sigmund Freud and endorsed by Christopher Hitchens, that God is merely a projected father-figure, is that much the same might just as easily and with equal justice be asserted as an explanation for atheists’ rejection of God. Might such atheists, at least in some cases, be simply projecting their own unhappy childhoods onto the cosmos? Perhaps they’re seeking to escape authority, to attain the freedom to do whatever they want without the burden of obligations or the constraints of morality?
Paul Vitz, for many years a professor of psychology at New York University, published a book back in 1999 under the title “Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism,” in which he argued that the sword of Freud’s theory of religion—and, in particular, the notion of the so-called “Oedipus complex”—can easily cut both ways. Having examined a representative list of prominent atheists or religious skeptics—including Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Voltaire, H. G. Wells, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Bertrand Russell, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Mao Zedong, and Sigmund Freud himself—Vitz found a surprisingly consistent pattern of weak, absent, abusive, despised, or prematurely dead fathers. In that light, he wrote, one might easily view atheism as “an illusion caused by the Oedipal desire to kill the father (God) and replace him with oneself.” In fact, he argued in “Faith of the Fatherless,” vocal or intense atheism tends to be “generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates.”
Personally, I’m not interested in reducing every instance of atheism to some sort of psychopathology or childhood personality defect. But it seems fair to warn against the equal and opposite wish of some atheists to explain theistic belief away on analogous grounds.
Sigmund Freud believed that religious faith is a mental illness that should be eliminated. And Freud’s modern fellow atheist Richard Dawkins agrees: “When one person suffers from a delusion,” he has written, “it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.” “Faith,” he declared in “The Selfish Gene” (1976), “seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” “It is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness,” concurs Sam Harris in his 2004 bestseller “The End of Faith,” “than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.” Dawkins has even repeatedly suggested that raising children within a religious tradition is the equivalent of child abuse—or worse. “It has become necessary to know the enemy,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in his 2007 bestseller “God is Not Great,” and to prepare to fight it.”
By contrast, in his 2004 book “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” the American experimental psychologist Justin Barrett suggests that “belief in God is an almost inevitable consequence of the kind of minds we have.” It is neither an illness, a neurosis, nor a defect. “Belief in gods generally and God particularly arises through the natural, ordinary operation of human minds in natural, ordinary environments. . . . The design of our minds leads us to believe.” And Barrett is perfectly fine with that. He himself is a believer.
For a brief essay on Paul Vitz, see “‘Faith of the Fatherless’? (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2020/01/faith-of-the-fatherless.html). For a comparison of the effects on themselves of the religious views of C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud, see https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2019/08/question-is-religious-faith-a-mental-illness.html.