Is God just an imaginary father figure? Sigmund Freud, CS Lewis and the question of wish-fulfillment

“You’re only a Christian because you’re afraid of death!” “You only believe in God because you need a magical sky daddy figure to make you feel better about yourself!” Have you ever heard accusations like these before? If you’ve been on the internet for very long, then I’m sure you have. Skeptics often accuse believers of wishful thinking.

For example, here’s the late Christopher Hitchens: “Freud made the obvious point that religion suffered from one 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.”

To give you a better idea of what Hitchens is referring to here’s the father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud. Regarding religious beliefs, Freud wrote they’re mere “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind…As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need 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, the Freudian analysis suggests that God doesn’t exist as something “out there,” beyond and independent of us, but rather as the product of the brain. If true, this implies that we’re not made in God’s image. Instead, we made God after our own image.

But why should we think that belief in God is the product of wish-fulfillment? Here are seven big problems with this argument:

1. Saying that God is the product of wish-fulfillment is question begging.

The Freudian is basically saying that since we know that God doesn’t exist, let’s find the psychological explanations for faith. They assume from the start that no object of belief really exists. Well then, that’s not much of an argument now, is it?

2. Comforting beliefs aren’t automatically false beliefs.

As Christian philosopher Paul Copan points out, “a belief that brings comfort and solace should not be considered necessarily false. We find comfort in human relationships, and this is perfectly normal, reasonable, and healthy, at least in routine cases. It would be implausible to presume that our finding comfort in something is automatically cognitively defective or otherwise wrong.”

Copan is dead-on here. We all have comforting thoughts, we don’t automatically view them as suspicious. It would be weird to say you only believe in your family because that belief gives you the warm and fuzzies. The skeptic might say “that’s dumb. I’ve seen and experienced my family”. Right. But how do they know they’re not advanced aliens pretending to be your family? These tricky aliens could be gathering data to torture you with later. The point is that we could get hyper-skeptical about all kinds of comforting beliefs.

3. Is Christianity really all that comforting?

Yes, in Christianity, God is portrayed as a loving Father. You can’t read the Parable of the Prodigal Son or Psalm 23 and not feel better about life. The Bible says that God loves us and promises us eternal life. But is Christian theology really all just warm and fuzzy feelings? Jesus also says things like:

  • “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
  • “Fear him who has the power to cast into hell.” (Luke 12:5)
  • “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
  • “Let the dead bury their own dead, you go preach the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 8:22)
  • “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)

I could go on. At face value, there does not seem to be anything about any of these words that is an example of wish-fulfillment. That Christianity has denounced a gospel of “easy-believism” since the time of Jude’s epistle serves as evidence that the God of the Bible isn’t just a grandfatherly deity whose sole purpose is to make people feel good. That might be the god of some modern people, but that ain’t Jesus.

4. Is belief in God really all that comforting?

You could argue that atheism itself is evidence that God is not the product of wish-fulfillment. Here’s philosopher Alvin Plantinga: “Many people thoroughly dislike the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient being monitoring their every activity, privy to their every thought and passing judgment on all they do or think. Others dislike the lack of human autonomy consequent upon there being a Someone by comparison with whom we are dust and ashes, and to whom we owe worship and obedience.”

Philosopher Thomas Nagel is an example of one of those atheists. In a moment of candor, Nagel wrote: “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 that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Now that’s a rather telling admission. Non-believers are not exempt from psychological reasons for disbelief. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. That brings me to my next point.

5. The Freudian argument commits the fallacy of Bulverism.

Bulverism is an odd-sounding logical fallacy coined by C.S. Lewis. Per Lewis, Bulverism is to “assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error.” The Bulverist assumes a speaker’s argument is invalid or false and then explains why the speaker came to make that mistake, attacking the person or the person’s motive. It’s a version of the ad hominem fallacy and boy do we see it in modern politics today. Here’s Lewis on how Freud’s analysis of religion commits this fallacy:

The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes…Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] is a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source…Now, this is obviously great fun, but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it.

There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology…The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it to invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.”

In other words, if all thoughts are psychologically tainted, then the thought that ‘all thoughts are psychologically tainted’ is also tainted. Why should we take that tainted thought seriously? Why are religious beliefs tainted, but Freudianism gets a free pass?

Lewis’s maxim when it comes to Bulverism is that “you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.”

6. The accusation of wish-fulfillment cuts both ways.

We saw this earlier with Nagel’s admission. Lewis again drops the hammer on the Freudian critique:

“There are of course people in our own day to whom the whole situation seems altered by the doctrine of the concealed wish. They will admit that men, otherwise apparently rational, have been deceived by the arguments for religion. But they will say that they have been deceived first by their own desires and produced the arguments afterward as a rationalization: that these arguments have never been intrinsically even plausible, but have seemed so because they were secretly weighted by our wishes.

Now I do not doubt that this sort of thing happens in thinking about religion as in thinking about other things, but as a general explanation of religious assent, it seems to me quite useless. On that issue, our wishes may favor either side or both. The assumption that every man would be pleased, and nothing but pleased, if only he could conclude that Christianity is true, appears to me to be simply preposterous.

If Freud is right about the Oedipus complex, the universal pressure of the wish that God should not exist must be enormous, and atheism must be an admirable gratification to one of our strongest suppressed impulses. This argument, in fact, could be used on the theistic side. But I have no intention of so using it. It will not really help either party. It is fatally ambivalent. Men wish on both sides: and again, there is fear-fulfillment as well as wish-fulfillment, and hypochondriac temperaments will always tend to think true what they most wish to be false.

Thus instead of the one predicament on which our opponents sometimes concentrate there are in fact four. A man may be a Christian because he wants Christianity to be true. He may be an atheist because he wants atheism to be true. He may be an atheist because he wants Christianity to be true. He may be a Christian because he wants atheism to be true. Surely these possibilities cancel one another out? They may be of some use in analyzing a particular instance of belief or disbelief, where we know the case history, but as a general explanation of either, they will not help us. I do not think they overthrow the view that there is evidence both for and against the Christian propositions which fully rational minds, working honestly, can assess differently.”

7. Finally, isn’t it possible the idea that humans invented God to meet their desires is backward?

Couldn’t it be that the reason humans desire God is that there is a God who satisfies that longing need? Since I’m on a roll with the C.S. Lewis quotes, I’ll finish off with one more: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A dolphin 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.”

Here’s the bottom line: Without God, could there be human minds to desire anything at all? And if there is a God, wouldn’t he put some desire in us for us to find him? That’s not to say we can’t have conflicting desires — sin is fun! Autonomy is desirable, too. But the punchline is this: We’re not going to get anywhere psychoanalyzing each other. Eventually, the skeptic and the believer need to evaluate their own worldview by looking at the evidence. But the wishful thinking critique, contra Hitchens, is neither strong nor unanswerable.

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