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Longings and Needs as Reasons for Belief in God

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.”[1] 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.”[2]  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.”[3] 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.”[4]  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.[5]

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.[6]  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:

  1. Humans have an indefinite and intense craving for true happiness.
  2. Only faith in God satisfies this craving.
  3. If only faith in God satisfies this craving, then we are justified in having it.
  4. 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.”[7]  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.”[8]

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.”[9]  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.[10]

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.”[11]


[1] Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 298.

[4] Matthew Alper, The “God” Part of the Brain (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2006), 92-3, 207-24.

[5] Justin L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004).

[6] Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] Cited in Williams, Existential Reasons, 50.

[9] C.S.Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 6-7.

[10]Ibid., 7.

[11] Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.

19 Responses to “Longings and Needs as Reasons for Belief in God”

  1. I’d also point out that Freud was wrong in just about everything he believed / theorized about human psychology. So if someone is arguing against God based on Freud’s views, perhaps they should go back and study psychology a bit more along with their theology.

  2. Interesting article. I believe there is so much evidence for the existence of God. God is transcendent but also immanent in existence, He is present in our heart beats and our movements and our thoughts. God is the reason for all these things. In the same way as an apple tree grows through the power of God, so does a human being move and think through divine activity. We are not separate from God as so many Christians believe – we have not ‘fallen’ away from God – God is everywhere. Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet…

  3. And yet perhaps Freud with Jung have somewhat possessed some modern (so-called) people like no others, since even Plato did in his time? The Freudian slip mentality is simply such a part of moderns now! As we are all subconscious beings, even as Christians. Though of course we are fallen every inch!

  4. Paul,

    Another great post.

    It is heartening to see apologetics beginning to bridge the gap between human intellect and human emotion. For too long, it seems, traditional apologetics has targeted only the former and ignored the latter.

    The only problem is that now I have another book on my Amazon wishlist.

  5. I agree that physiological findings associated with religious experience does not invalide the object to which religious experience is targetted. For example, because there are physiological findings associated with fear, doesn’t mean that fears are all fake and causes of fear are all invalid. On the contrary, fear is a necessary adaptive response and confers a survival advantage. Likewise, religious experience is just as necessary and vital to our survival in eternity :D.

    I think the challenge of neurotheology for me, is this: it’s proven that, with certain natural and artificial hallucinogens and certain trauma (referring to physical brain damage), one may become profoundly religious. So, say this happened in someone who shortly after confessed his faith in Christ, does that validate, or invalidate his faith? and is he saved?

  6. Hi, Cliff. I thought you might appreciate seeing this! I intended to send you the link but got swamped with other things.

    Francis, on your question, I would encourage you to read the superb book *The Spiritual Brain* which argues against the idea that we are strictly material beings that are naturalistically pre-programmed to do what our brains “tell” us to do. While we (our souls/selves) are certainly bound up with the physical, and while there is a correlation between the physical and the soulish, the soul cannot be reduced to the physical (e.g., consider the book *Brain Lock*, which reveals how the brain’s neural pathways of OCD patients literally change because of the exertion of the will in establishing new behavior and thought patterns). You may also want to check out my essay on religion and the brain here: http://www.equip.org/articles/does-religion-originate-in-the-brain- .

    Leslie, nice to hear from you again. Glad you liked this piece—and that you’ll be picking up Cliff’s excellent book!

    Fr. Robert–good point about our subconscious. I utilize the subconscious/conscious distinction when explaining the coherence of the Incarnation. Yet I would also agree with Eric that Freud got a lot wrong!

    Steve, I concur that we live in a God-saturated universe. As the hymnwriter Maltbie Babcock expressed in “This Is My Father’s World,” “He speaks to me everywhere.”

    Thanks for all of your comments.

  7. Genius and well said!
    I try not to be judgemental but sometimes I can’t help but feel annoyed at the fact that atheists do all the closeminded things which they normally accuse Christians of doing.
    I also feel this is kind of off topic, but I can’t help but feel very negative feelings towards psychology and say something whenever it is mentioned now, because modern psychology is reeking with communism. (Psychology was introduced to America by German psychologists in the 30s as Stalin and Hitler were rising to the height of their power. Go figure)

  8. Dear Michael,

    You say “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.” ”

    Interestingly, Andrew Newberg in his radiology studies of the brain used a Tibetan Monk as his main test subject. Why is that important? Well, Newberg’s findings only validate what researches have already found regarding “alpha brain state” or state of meditation (Eastern style-mindless). Of course this is prevalent in every “religion” ie:Yoga (Hinduism), Zen meditation (Buddhism), Transcendental meditation (New Age), Contemplative Spirituality (mysticism, ie:Desert Fathers). The only exception that rejects Eastern style meditation/spiritism is Orthodox Christianity because God specifically forbids it [Lev. 19:31, Deut. 18:9-14].

    It seems that we can be led astray anytime we desire more in our earthly experience, rather than relying on the sure Word of God.

    Kept only by His grace, charisse

  9. Indeed there is a big difference between Christian and biblical so-called “mysticism”, which is a real spirituality, verses a non-Christian and biblical reality. We can see this biblical and spiritual mysticism especially in St. Paul! Here is a verse I love to quote:

    “But we have this treasure (Thesauros, Gk) in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves.” (2 Cor. 4:7)

    Indeed this “thesauros” or treasure denotes a place of safe keeping, it is of course used metaphorically of the heart. Which is the place where God Himself has deposited “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” (2 Cor.4:6-7) of course again this is the place of the Gospel and the Word or the “kerygma” (message) of God. As it is given by God “deposited” in the earthen vessel of the believers heart & mind. And this comes by God’s grace & power! But yes, where we put our heart and mind does matter! But in reality, it is God’s to give and “deposit”, and in some sense the believer and recipient is always passive here…”not from ourselves”.

  10. Hi Paul,
    You mentioned how we can exert our will to alter our brain’s neural pathways, but what if the exercise of our will itself is a physical process in our brains that can be affected by environmental factors such as blood-sugar level, chronic alcoholism, and Alzheimer’s disease?
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2011/11/07/how-willpower-works/XlOvEG4FipvZ8vM8VUNBpK/story.html
    Doesn’t that tend to support those who argue that humans are strictly physical beings?
    Phil
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dysexecutive_syndrome

  11. Hello, Phil. Good question. I agree that there is an intricate connection between body and soul; what affects my body (e.g., a pain in my foot) also affects what goes on in my soul (e.g., my attention becomes focused on that and I become distracted about other matters—-and of course this applies to Alzheimer’s, strokes, and other bodily conditions). However, the reverse is also true: I intend something (to go to the store or to raise my hand), and my body (generally) cooperates. It’s not an either-or; both are the case. The soulish/mental cannot be reduced to the spiritual. This is the point of *The Spiritual Brain*, *Brain Lock*, and (in part) my essay (which I mentioned above). Correlation does not mean reduction. Have a look at my essay and see what you think: http://www.equip.org/articles/does-religion-originate-in-the-brain- .

  12. Phil McCheddar March 22, 2012 at 4:53 am

    Thanks Paul for your essay on religion and the brain, which I read before writing my previous comment. As an OCD patient I am familiar with Jeffrey Schwarz’ book “Brain Lock”. It’s my understanding that he says the particular part of the brain responsible for making executive decisions and exerting willpower (the prefrontal cortex) can gradually rewire other parts of the brain, including the amygdala, which feels fear and triggers a behavioural response. So he says that one part of the brain can modify another part of the brain in the long run. Intentions, inhibitions, decisions (and maybe consciousness too) are located in the prefrontal cortex and have a physical basis – the psychic element of a man’s thoughts is merely a product of the physcial element. Some philosophers believe that consciousness has a physcial basis and that it is theoretically possible to build a machine or computer that could experience consciousness, assuming scientists could construct a network of electrical circuits that is sufficiently complex like the human brain (eg. see David Chalmers’ paper called A Computational Foundation for the Study of Cognition).

    I heard that in the Soviet era some Christians in the USSR were hospitalised on the grounds that religion was a form of madness and they were injected with psychotropic drugs which resulted in some formerly steadfast believers denying and renouncing the Lord Jesus.

  13. Hi Phil,

    “Intentions, inhibitions, decisions (and maybe consciousness too) are located in the prefrontal cortex and have a physical basis – the psychic element of a man’s thoughts is merely a product of the physcial element.”

    Do you really believe that decisions are located in a part of the brain? It seems to me that human beings make decisions, not brains. I am not my brain.

    Best wishes, Steven

  14. I am a Traducian, I can blame it on my inheritance! For good or better! And of course good things come from the Irish…Saints, Scholars & Kings! ;)

  15. *Or was that for better or worse? lol

  16. Phil McCheddar March 27, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Hi Steven,

    Thank you for making me question what I really believe. What I wrote doesn’t sound an attractive idea or a biblical concept. The point I think I was (clumsily) making is that psychologists have observed that a particular part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is instrumental in decision-making. It seems to me that Paul’s argument is that the human psyche makes a decision which then activates the prefrontal cortex in the brain in order to implement a physcial action in your muscles. But I don’t see how we can state that as a self-evident truth when discussing this with ‘cognitive science of religion researchers’ who don’t share our biblical perspective about the spirit/soul and body. Might they argue that activity in the prefrontal cortex precedes and generates a person’s consciousness of making a decision?

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