Is Believing in God a Psychological Crutch?
Whether you're an atheist or someone who wonders if there just might be something more to Christianity, I hope that at least some of the thoughts offered here will help you see what the Christian faith has to say amid all the complexity of life.
Taken from Is Believing in God Irrational? by Amy Orr-Ewing. Used with permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.
It was strange walking down a hospital corridor with a growing sense of foreboding, getting closer to the consultant’s office and wondering what he would say. I was fifteen years old and had the afternoon off school to receive the results from the operation I had undergone the week before. A mole on my leg had begun to turn dark, and my doctor had decided to remove it as a precaution. My mother and I entered the office together and sat down. The consultant leaned over the desk and said, “I’m afraid it’s cancer.” Those words still echo in my head now as I write them; the shock, the fear, the bewildering emotions rushed through my body from head to toe. He went on to explain that it was, in fact, a borderline case of melanoma and that they would need to do a further operation to make absolutely sure that I was in the clear. But those stark words “it’s cancer” stayed with me. What was life all about? What was it for? Was there a purpose for my life? Was my life over? Well, as you have probably guessed, I survived. My life was not yet over; it was to last more than fifteen years. Through the experience of the cancer, I encountered a God who is near us in suffering, a God who makes his presence known. I remember lying in my bed, shaking with fear and calling out to God, who then tangibly filled my bedroom and lifted the fear and blackness from my chest.
As Psalm 30:1-3 says, I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. O Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me. O Lord, you brought me up from the grave; you spared me from going down into the pit.
As life has gone on, friends have died suddenly, members of my community in London have been on the receiving end of horrific violence, and the questions of the human heart have kept on coming year after year as I have traveled and met people of different ages, backgrounds and nationalities. I have found that many people have questions about Christian experience. These questions can be genuine objections to Christianity or things that trouble Christians in the back of their minds. During my journey of talking to the many people who have asked me all the questions in this book, I’ve discovered that finding answers is a real challenge because the questions do not just touch on intellectual ideas but are undergirded by emotional realities and the pain of life.
The issues examined in this book have all emerged during conversations in the course of the last couple of years. Is God real? Is it possible to know anything—let alone to know him? Why do bad things happen to people who worship this God? What about the spiritual experiences of other faiths? All these questions and more have come out of real-life situations, so whether you are an atheist or someone who wonders if there just might be something more to Christianity than you first thought, I hope that, as you read this book, at least some of the thoughts offered here will help you to see what the Christian faith has to say amid all the pain, confusion and complexity of life.
"Your Relationship with God Is Just a Psychological Crutch!"
Has anyone ever told you that your faith is a “crutch”? I remember getting into a black taxi outside a central London church. The cabbie took one look at my Bible and launched into his opinion of Christianity. He explained to me with pity and pathos that belief in God is a crutch for weak, pathetic people who don’t have the strength to take responsibility for their own lives. When he finished his lengthy thesis, he looked at me in the mirror as if expecting my response. When I answered, “Thank you very much,” with just a hint of irony, he blustered on, likely hoping to increase the diminishing likelihood of a tip with, “Well, I’m just saying it for your own good. A girl like you doesn’t need religion!”
This idea that Christian faith is a psychological crutch for needy people is a pervasive one. At its root are a number of assumptions. The first is that God is merely a psychological projection. He doesn’t actually exist, not in any real sense; he exists only in the minds of his followers. In fact, the thinking goes, these minds have created him out of their own need. That could be a need for a father figure or a need to give significance to existence by believing in a God who created the world. Where does this idea come from—this concept of God as a creation or projection of human minds that is propounded by so many? Its most famous proponent was the thinker Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a movement that popularized the theory that unconscious motives control much human behavior. His theories and his treatment of patients were controversial in nineteenth-century Vienna and remain hotly debated today. His research was wide ranging and complex, but for our purposes we examine in particular his commitment to the notion of God as entirely a projection of the human mind.
God as Psychological Projection
Though a Jew, Freud was an atheist for most of his life. He went through a brief period of “wavering” on the issue of God in his university days—during which time he wrote to a friend, “The bad part of it, especially for me, lies in the fact that science of all things seems to demand the existence of a God”(1)—yet he emerged from his studies without religious conviction. Freud’s peers, and many authors of the time, were immersed in scientific materialism, and he remained a strident atheist.
Another factor may have been the appalling anti-Semitism that swept through his native and culturally Roman Catholic Austria. In the light of his experiences of the weakness of Christianity at repelling such vitriol, one writer comments, “One can understand Freud’s motivation to discredit and destroy what he called the ‘religious Weltanschauung (worldview)’ and why he referred to religion as ‘the enemy.’”(2)
In arguing against the existence of God, Freud believed that an individual’s perspective on what God is like sprung from his or her experience of their own father. When people grow up and find themselves alone in the world they cannot go on looking to human parents for security but must find some other more ultimate source of security and end up positing a God to fill this role. He argued that it is this human need to rise above the vulnerability and frailty of adult existence that leads to us positing the existence of some higher power or God: “When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father.”(3)
From this perspective, God is merely a creation of the human mind, a projection emanating from human need and desire rather than a distinct reality or being that exists independently of the human mind. Freud’s notion of God acting as an idealized father figure for humans, providing a cushion from the harshness of the real world and a comforting friend in the midst of life’s troubles, reduces God to a human construct. Indeed, for Freud, God is made in humanity’s own image and is the “ultimate wish-fulfillment”; God does not actually exist but is merely the creation of humanity’s imagination and desire for a loving father figure.(4)
How might a Christian respond to this? Can God really be explained away so easily by one aspect of psychology? Of course, the most obvious point to make in response is that this argument about projection cuts both ways. After all, isn’t it equally possible to say that Freud and other atheists deny the existence of God out of a need to escape from a father figure, or to argue that the nonexistence of God springs from a deep seated desire for no father figure to exist?
Clearly this doesn’t prove that God is real, but it does help us see that Freud’s arguments cannot prove that God does not exist, while at the same time helping us tackle the question of projection. After all, dismissing God as a psychological projection while claiming neutrality in our own psyche is disingenuous at best and cannot be an adequate basis for rejecting God. This is rather like the mother who sees her child swearing and is so overcome with fury that she ends up swearing at her child while telling him off. When her child asks about this inconsistency, she replies, “Don’t do what I do, do what I say!” We may well cringe inwardly when we hear something like this in a supermarket or airplane, but trying to do away with God as if he were a psychological projection is actually rather similar. The protagonist is saying that you as a Christian are subject to psychological factors but I, the skeptic, am not.
It also becomes quickly apparent that a Freudian belief in God as a human projection cannot provide us with an explanation for the Christian faith of converts who would rather not believe but find themselves compelled by evidence. I have known many people who have started out as strongly convinced nonbelievers but have found that when they looked at real evidence of God and began to read the Bible, they found themselves convinced—almost against their will—that it is actually true and real. It is then that a decision must be made: will I now respond to what I believe is true, or will I sweep it under the carpet?
Alister McGrath writes, Back in the 1960s, we were told that religion was fading away, to be replaced by a secular world. For some of us that sounded like a great thing. I was an atheist back in the late 1960s, and remember looking forward to the demise of religion with a certain grim pleasure. I had grown up in Northern Ireland, and had known religious tensions and violence at first hand. . . . The future was bright and godless. . . . I started out as an atheist, who went on to become a Christian. I had originally intended to spend my life in scientific research, but found that my discovery of Christianity led me to study its history and ideas in greater depth. I gained my doctorate in molecular biophysics while working in the Oxford laboratories of Sir George Radda, but then gave up active scientific research to study theology.(5)
In fact, we may go further than nullifying this argument that God is a projection of the mind by turning it on its head and suggesting that a desire for a God who can fulfill our needs and provide moral order exists precisely because human beings have been designed and created to desire them. The man floating on a raft at sea is unbearably thirsty, but he won’t just get a drink of water simply by being thirsty. But the very existence of his thirst does show that a way for his desire to be satisfied actually exists: fresh water. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.”(6)
Lewis is an interesting case here because he was a contemporary of Freud and an atheist himself into his thirties. He famously described his unhappiness before turning to Christ as resulting from “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”(7) Lewis described this desire as “Joy,” and he spoke of finding it for himself when he surrendered to God: “To be united with that Life in the eternal Sonship of Christ is . . . the only thing worth a moment’s consideration.”(8)
He argued that the inborn longing one feels as a human being is a desire for a relationship with the Creator God and that the very presence of this desire within us suggests the existence of God. While Freud believed that human desire could be fulfilled in the ordinary run of life, Lewis argued that “earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care . . . never to mistake them [earthly pleasures] for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.”(9)
For the Christian it is a relationship with God that brings humans this genuine fulfillment. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal put it beautifully: There once was in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace. This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, because the infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself.(10)
St. Augustine famously said of God, “Thou movest us to delight in praising You; for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You.”(11) And Woody Allen mused on this from the opposite perspective when he said as an atheist analyzing life, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”(12)
And so we have seen that God cannot be dispensed with as if he were a mere psychological projection without atheism being equally treated as the same. But more than that, the desire for God, rather than undermining his existence, points to its reality. After all, if human beings are created by God in his image as the Bible teaches, shouldn’t we expect a divine fingerprint and the possibility of relationship between creature and Creator? However, ultimately for the Christian the important question is not whether I have a psychological need for a father figure or a desire for a father figure not to exist. Rather, the question is about what actually exists: is God really there? The way to come to any conclusions about that is to investigate the evidence for his existence.(13)
So we have observed that the first assumption in the statement “Your relationship with God is just a psychological crutch!” is that God is merely a psychological projection. The second assumption that we encounter is that, because belief in God provides the faithful with a crutch, it is somehow suspect.
God as Talisman
The skeptic implies that since the believer finds protection from the cruelty and evil of the world, the idea of God is like a talisman, an irrational superstition. Freud makes the same point: “religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature.”(14) Humans need to find comfort and meaning in the midst of the pain of life as well as a guide for how to live, and they look to God for this. The religious believer views the evolution of morality within human societies as moral absolutes revealed and upheld by God. This belief in absolutes then provides an unreal but comforting refuge in a dark world, so that the individual can feel safe in his or her own status before God and secure in the knowledge that evildoers will be punished.
Freud argues against what he sees as an unreal supernatural power who arbitrarily imposes moral standards on humans. For him, God exists only inside the human mind and has been imagined into existence at the whim of carnal desires. He writes, “We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence, and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is the very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”(15)
Later he states, Since it is an awkward task to separate what God himself has demanded from what can be traced to the authority of an all-powerful parliament or a high judiciary, it would be an undoubted advantage if we were to leave God out altogether and honestly admit the purely human origin of all the regulations and precepts of civilization.(16)
One writer comments: “Humans, now educated and enlightened by science, begin to grow out of their childlike belief in God and recognize morals as man-made rules put into place for their own benefit. . . . Freud believed that as education increased and scientific research continued, humans would slowly stop believing in God and begin to recognize that God was simply an expression of their wishes.”(17) But if belief in God makes sense of the world and provides a positive moral framework that helps people to live constructively, that in itself is not a reason to disbelieve in him.
Similarly, if relationship with God enables the believer to find healing, wholeness and comfort in the midst of their human suffering, we should not be surprised. After all, clearly, if God is real it will have a massive impact on life and on the experience of life.
Only for the Weak and Inferior
The third assumption is that people who make use of this “crutch” of relationship with God, and find it practical, meaningful and effective, must be weak or inferior. This is a rather strange idea, since surely it makes sense to access real sources of support and relationship that are there for us. This reminds me of the story of a man who had been given a suitcase filled with money. He was told that if he could successfully give away this money, he would receive the same amount again for himself. The only condition was that each banknote had to go to a different person. So he thought to himself, This will be easy. I’m going to be rich! He ran out into the nearest shopping street, opened his suitcase and started shouting, “Roll up, roll up— free money—absolutely no catch. Come and take it. Most people passed straight by, not even looking at him. A few slowed their pace but thought better of it. One woman stopped and asked, “What’s the catch? What are you going to try to get out of me?” “Absolutely nothing,” the man replied. “It really is free money. Please take it.” “No, I don’t think so,” she said, and walked off. A very small proportion of the shoppers on that day took the free money. They were so suspicious as to be convinced that no deal could really be that simple and easy. The money really was free, with no strings attached, and the logical thing to do was to accept it.
In the same way, if a God of love does exist, the rational thing to do is to accept his love, to come to know him. Entering into that kind of a relationship will have a positive effect, but that does not make the person weaker or somehow inferior to anyone else. In contrast to the implication that those who need God are somehow inferior specimens of the human race is the Christian belief that there is an essential equality within humanity— all humans are precious beings who have been made in the image of God. At the same time, all humans are sinful and equally in need of God.
Freud did not really take issue with this idea of human fallibility; in fact, he believed in the reality of shame and guilt. Yet in his closed universe, with no ultimate authority, he struggled to deal with good and evil. As a consequence, he looked to the ideal of education as the solution. People must be taught that ethical behavior is in their own best interest, he stated; once they became well educated, they would naturally behave ethically.
But can we really be sure that education in and of itself necessarily produces goodness? As one scholar notes, “Freud wrote this in 1927 before the Nazi rise in educated Germany.”(18) Yet even before that—as far back as 1913—Freud confessed to a friend, “That psychoanalysis has not made the analysts themselves better, nobler, or of stronger character remains a disappointment to me.”(19) The idea that Christianity is a crutch for weak people assumes that God is a human invention, that he is a psychological projection. We have seen that this argument cuts both ways as it could equally be argued that atheism is a psychological phenomenon and so it is nullified as a reasonable basis for rejecting God. The idea also assumes that belief in God provides people with a “crutch” and should be regarded with suspicion. Here we saw that something working ought not be a reason for rejecting it. On the contrary, if God does exist, we should surely expect his existence to have a real palpable impact on our lives. As C. S. Lewis put it, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.”(20) To enter into a relationship with God is a logical response if he actually exists and reveals himself to people. It is only if he is not real that we ought to be worried about the “crutch” he provides.And finally, we saw that we do not necessarily need to be weaker than or inferior to others if we accept God’s offer of relationship and become Christians. In fact, it is the logical, reasonable response if God himself is real.
1. Letter from Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein, April 11, 1875 pep-web.org/document.php?id=zbk.029.0109a> or /2001/departments/pages/a0000588.html>.
2. Armand Nicholi, The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York: Free Press, 2002), pp. 21-22.
3. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. Peter Gay (New York: Norton,1961), p. 30.
4. Ibid., p. 21.
5. Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2007), pp. 8-10.
6. Nicholi, Question of God, p. 46.
7. Ibid., p. 82.
8. C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 155.
9. Ibid., p. 47.
10. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 45.
11. Augustine, Confessions (book 1) /110101.htm>, accessed January 11, 2008.
12. The Quotations Page , accessed January 11, 2008. However, atheists like Simon Blackburn wouldclaim that beauty lies within the atheist worldview.
13. I would suggest examining cosmological, ontological, moral, historicaland personal arguments for the existence of God.
14. Freud, Future of an Illusion, p. 26.
15. Ibid., p. 42.
16. Ibid., p. 53.
17. Kristin Rupert, “Freud and Lewis: Signs of the Supernatural,” accessed online at on August 6, 2008.
18. Nicholi, Question of God, p. 72.
19. Freud, Future of an Illusion, p. 35.
20. C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt,1992), p. 73.