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: Continue Reading →