We’re familiar with the famous atheist psychologist Sigmund Freud, who claimed that human beings fabricate a father figure to get us through life’s difficulties. In his Future of an Illusion, Freud viewed religion as weak-minded and pathetic: “Religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature.” Religious beliefs are thus “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind…the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fears of the dangers of life.” Before Freud, Karl Marx had said that religion was like a drug—the opiate of the masses—and completely out of touch with reality.
More recently, this kind of anti-theistic argument has taken a new turn. Cognitive science of religion researchers have observed that the brain’s activity is heightened when people—whether Buddhists or Christians, say—are in the middle of an intense religious experience. Some refer to this as “neurotheology.” For some, this appears to be evidence against God’s existence. Anthropologist Pascal Boyer believes the latest “scientific” developments reveal that our “central metaphysical urge” stands at the root of all religion—that humans have evolved to the point that they tend toward “superstition, myth and faith, or a special emotion that only religion provides.” Another writer Matthew Alper considers humans to be religious animals whose brains are hard-wired for “God,” though no God exists. The “spiritual” is really “scientific.” God is nothing more than heightened brain function.
What’s the flaw in both the psychological and biological claims? First, they commit the genetic fallacy—saying that a view is true or false because of how it happens to originate: You may have had a mean second grade math teacher, but that doesn’t mean that what she taught you (2+2=4) is false. Likewise, to say that God doesn’t exist because of how humans come to believe in God doesn’t follow logically. Nor does it follow logically that because of increased brain activity during one’s religious experience, God doesn’t exist.
Second, these claims ignore the rationality of belief in God. We can ask: are there reasons independent of human longings and needs for taking God’s existence seriously? After all, the universe began to exist a finite time ago and is amazingly finely-tuned, even if people come to believe in God out of a deep sense of need. We could add to this list the existence of rationality, consciousness, and beauty, moral duties, human rights, and so on.
Third, what’s inherently wrong with seeking comfort and security? We don’t denigrate people for appreciating family, friends, and hot soup on a cold day. These are good things. So it’s hard to see any clear argument here.
Fourth, we can turn these anti-theistic arguments on their head: If God exists, then it wouldn’t be strange that we’ve been made to relate to him and to find comfort and security in him. And, correspondingly, it would make sense that we’ve been biologically hard-wired to believe in God. God is actually making it easier for us to believe in him, as CSR researcher Justin Barrett has argued.
This final point gets important reinforcement in philosopher Clifford Williams’ excellent and accessible book Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith. I highly recommend it. Williams argues that we are right to emphasize existential human longings and needs, not simply “reason” or “evidence,” as traditionally understood. Indeed, it is easy for Christian apologists to overstress “reason” and underemphasize “need.” Yet both are important and are part of a holistic gospel message; both are factors in unbelievers coming to faith. According to Williams, need is a “triggering condition.” So no wonder the Jesus’ words reach the very depths of our being when he calls himself the bread of life (Jn. 6:35); when he promises to give “water of life” so that we will never thirst again (Jn. 4:10; 7:38); when he tells those who are weary and burdened that, if they come to him, he will give them rest for their souls (Mt. 11:28-30); when he claims he has come to give the fullest life possible (Jn. 10:10).
Furthermore, as C.S. Lewis argued, it would seem strange that we would have hunger or thirst if no food or water were around to satisfy it. Likewise, it would seem legitimate to consider our deepest inner needs as well. What if our deepest needs actually point to an ultimate source of satisfaction beyond the this-worldly? In the spirit of the philosopher Blaise Pascal (famed proponent of the “wager argument” for belief in God), Clifford Williams lays out the argument this way:
- Humans have an indefinite and intense craving for true happiness.
- Only faith in God satisfies this craving.
- If only faith in God satisfies this craving, then we are justified in having it.
- Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.
While not arguing that the Christian faith is true, this “existential” argument asserts that faith in God is justified or legitimate to have since “it brings about the satisfaction of the indefinite and intense craving mentioned in the first premise.” We have been created with certain crucial needs, and it makes sense God alone would be capable of fulfilling them.
Consider the following existential needs, emotions, and longings that point us in a transcendent direction.
Security and Significance: We are made in God’s image, which means we are made to connect with God at the most fundamental level—in terms of security and significance. We find security in relationship (ultimately, connecting with God) and significance in purpose (ultimately, living for God’s kingdom priorities). There is indeed something powerful in Freud’s claim that we long for a loving heavenly Father, and it is tragic that Freud himself had no loving father-figure on earth to parallel and model a transcendent One.
Fear of Death and Longing for Immortality: Humans universally fear death, and there is something in us that seeks for immortality. Humans are often investing in something that will outlive them so that they can be remembered or “immortalized.” Beyond this, many humans long for something beyond the mundane and sometimes miserable lives they live on earth; there must be something more! The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote about a poor dying factory girl in her book North and South: “I think if this should be the end of all, and if all I have been born for is just to work my heart and life away in this [dreary] place….I think, if this life is the end, and that there is no God to wipe away all tears from all eyes, I could go mad.”
Longing for Justice: Why do we want to see the good guys win and evil conquered? If we’ve read or seen The Lord of the Rings, we intuitively side with the Fellowship of the Ring; we are pulling for them to defeat evil forces that threaten to overwhelm all that is good in Middle Earth. It would be a perversion to see evil finally prevail. The problem of evil raises questions like “Why do the wicked prosper?” or “Why does God seem silent in the face of evil?” Yet such questions cannot ignore a postmortem existence in which wickedness is judged and love for God and others is rewarded.
Awe: When we look at the ocean, the starry heavens above, or a snow-capped mountain range like the Rockies or Himalayas, we are filled with awe and wonder. What is it that produced the ocean, the stars, or the mountains? Is their Fashioner not worthy of greater awe and wonder? Throughout our lives, we have experiences of joy and awe that are “not enough.” They somehow point us beyond themselves to a more ultimate experience. C.S. Lewis wrote of “a desire for something that has never actually happened.” However enjoyable our earthly experiences are, we’re never fully satisfied. We yearn for something more—something beyond. As Lewis argued, we can’t find transcendence and ultimacy in books or music:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
Our earthly enjoyments and awe-inspiring moments aren’t ends in themselves. Our sense of wanting “something more” can point us to something awe-inspiring and fulfilling no earthly thing can satisfy. They remind us of Augustine’s famous statement in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”
 Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 30.
 Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 298.
 Matthew Alper, The “God” Part of the Brain (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2006), 92-3, 207-24.
 Justin L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004).
 Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).
 Ibid., 54.
 Cited in Williams, Existential Reasons, 50.
 C.S.Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 6-7.
 Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.