A.C. Graying, in The God Argument, the Case Against Religion and for Humanism, claims that religious belief is really just wish fulfillment. The book accepts the premise that many atheists and agnostics assume, which is that people believe in God for psychological reasons. I would add that people believe for emotional reasons as well, but generalizations usually belie a different truth.
The wishful thinking premise is a common assumption and is often used to undermine the basis of faith. But does it really support the point it boasts of making: that faith is the product of wishful thinking?
No doubt he is right that some people are drawn to faith in God for psychological reasons. Religion can be a crutch that people lean on, as he claims. The idea of a crutch, in this context, carries the connotation that people should stand on their own two feet and not need faith for support.
We don’t need to dwell long on this charge because ultimately it isn’t relevant.
But, first let’s explore this line just a bit. A person with a broken leg needs a crutch to get around. The crutch is useful until the leg is healed. After that it isn’t necessary. Is that what faith is? Something that helps us get around until we don’t need it anymore?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people may view faith this way, perhaps without realizing it. People often turn to God when they are in trouble, suffer illness or have some catastrophe in their lives. Sometimes, these same people throw off their new found religion when the difficulty passes.
But that certainly isn’t true of all persons of faith. That’s the problem with assumptions and generalizations. They don’t apply universally. They might not even apply in the majority of cases.
I am reminded of the words of Jesus: that many people will say, “Lord! Lord!”; but the Father will say, “I never knew you.”
A better example of a “true believer” is the apostle who, when commanded to renounce his faith, chooses to remain faithful and is martyred for it. We have seen that example play out in the modern world in the Middle East where ISIS followers attempt to require captives to renounce Christianity and to proclaim, “Allahu akbar!” (God is the greatest) and Mohammed is his messenger!” Many have been beheaded, burned, drowned or even crucified for refusing to renounce Jesus.
The true believer is called and often resists initially. The call of God carries with it the responsibility to be faithful to God. Jesus described what it means to have faith in God when he said that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him.
Jesus said that he and the Father are one. If we follow him, we are following God.
While, there are certainly verses in Scripture alluding to the comfort, peace and joy that can be found in God, the context of those verses is often overlooked. The peace, comfort and joy of God often comes in the midst of great difficulty and sorrow and, usually, in spite of it.
It’s worth pointing out that, if faith in God produces peace, comfort and joy, there might just be something to it. Especially, when that peace, comfort and joy is experienced in circumstances that would not normally produce that response.
Before moving on to the ultimate point, let’s think about what people like Grayling are suggesting. They are insinuating that faith has no firm anchor in reality because faith is the product of our own wishful thinking. Whether faith is the product of wishful thinking is not relevant to whether God exists. God exists (or doesn’t exist) whether we wish Him to exist or not.
I might believe that airplanes are carried magically across the sky by hoards of tiny invisible bats, contrary to all the laws of lift and thrust etc. I would be completely unreasonable in my belief structure but that doesn’t mean that airplanes don’t exist!
A person may do the math wrong but still get the right answer. Likewise, a person who understands the math, but get the wrong answer in spite of understanding how to get the answer.
Wishful thinking cuts both ways.
The desire for freedom in the human heart is a strong one, so strong that men will die for it. We live in a world in which we celebrate individual rights and freedoms. The thrust of our modern society and culture is to throw off moral and religious norms and to forge new ones that exalt individual rights and freedom.
In that context, modern man is not inclined toward a God, who C.S. Lewis called the Cosmic Interferor. Richard Dawkins calls the theory of evolution the “greatest achievement of mankind” because it allowed us to dispense with the notion that we need God. This accomplishment of which Dawkins spoke most highly serves the desire for freedom, including freedom from religion and freedom from the interference of a deity in our personal and collective lives.
For the modern atheist, discarding the crutch and throwing off the shackles of superstition and religious obligation is the ultimate freedom. It is the evidence of the upward evolution of man from many gods and superstitions, to one God to the point where we no longer need any god. We can stand on our own two feet and determine our own course. As Richard Dawkins says,
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
As with the assumption that faith is the product of wishful thinking, the celebration of man throwing off the shackles of belief in God is part of the narrative of the advancement of man, overcoming psychological weakness as we evolve into more rational beings.
Never mind that the assertion that we are all atheists is positively meaningless. Just maybe, the idea that we don’t need God is simply, itself, the product of wishful thinking.
The idea that there is no God to interfere with our freedom to do what we want may be as much the product of wishful thinking as the idea that there is a God. Many people don’t want to accept the consequences and impositions that flow from the existence of a Supreme Being who made us and, therefore, might expect something from us.
We no longer live in fear as our forefathers did. We know much more than they did, so we don’t fear the unknown. Our discoveries have assured us that nature works according to laws that we can count on.
We live in great comfort, with many conveniences, entertainment and other pleasurable distractions. Food and necessities are abundant in western society. We are overcoming illness, making the world a safer place and are on the verge of controlling our environment to ensure the existence of human kind indefinitely.
We have less reason to want God. In fact, as long as we are getting along well on our own, we decidedly don’t want God interfering in our lives. We don’t need the crutch, but is that all faith is?
These realities can be seen in the lives of people like C.S. Lewis, who coined the phrase, Cosmic Interferor. Lewis admitted that his naturalism and unbelief resulted more from his desire to be left alone than any rational thought. His journey into atheism was influenced by the death of his mother and the great disappointment, grief and anger that she died on God’s watch, if indeed God existed. He didn’t want God to exist.
We see in Lewis, not only the wishful thinking that God does not exist, but also a psychological and emotional impetus that propelled C.S. Lewis in the direction of atheism. Indeed, Lewis is not alone in experiencing these psychological and emotional factors that underpinned his atheism. Paul Vitz wrote a book on the subject, examining the lives of many famous atheists.
The book is not scientific evidence. It’s based on anecdotes and speculation, but anecdotal evidence can be informative and speculation is not necessarily wrong.
Consider Kristen Powers, Fox News’ Highly Reluctant Jesus Follower. She lived a “pretty wonderful” life as an atheist filled with opportunity, good conversation and privilege”. When her boyfriend asked her if she believed in Jesus, her “stomach sank” and she “started to panic”. She was “creeped out” by Christians and Christianity. She was “shocked and repelled” by the church her boyfriend attended, and the idea that God was everywhere she found to be “terrifying” and “unwelcome”.
In her view, Christians were “just imagining things that made them feel good”. She considered Christians who attended Bible to be “weirdos and zealots”, and she didn’t want to be associated with them. She felt “horror” at the prospect of becoming a Christian, but she felt pursued by God “whether I liked it or not”.
Francis Collins is another example of a reluctant conversion. He is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and was a self-described atheist. Like most modern atheists, he didn’t see why he needed any God at all. He concluded, “this stuff about religion and faith was a carryover from an earlier, irrational time, and now that science had begun to figure out how things really work, we didn’t need it any more.” He equated faith with superstition.
He describes his intellectual journey to the precipice of faith as if he very much feared going any further, yet he felt compelled by the evidence to keep going.
I didn’t want this conclusion. I was very happy with the idea that God didn’t exist, and had no interest in me. And yet at the same time, I could not turn away. I had to keep turning those pages. I had to keep trying to understand this. I had to see where it led. But I still didn’t want to make that decision to believe.
He resisted any commitment to faith for about a year after coming to the conclusion that the evidence led him to the point where faith seemed to be the only rational step to take. He described his thinking and feeling as follows:
“[T]here was also this sense of deep discomfort. Even in my rudimentary way, I had a sense that if you’re going to accept the existence of God, at some level you have to give up control, and you can’t just do what you want to because it feels good. And I liked very much being in control….
“So I would not say I was an ecstatic convert. I was very much, as Lewis was, a bit dejected about the whole thing.”
So what does this all mean? The assumption that faith is the product of wishful thinking is not well-taken. It may describe some people of faith, but it doesn’t describe everyone. It doesn’t describe well the people I have mentioned.
It also doesn’t fit the profile of the people Jesus called to follow him. Jesus called people to follow him into a world of self-denial and painful crosses – hardly the object of wishful thinking.
Some very intellectual thinkers who have been candid about their atheism became Christians in spite of their reluctance because Christianity is where the evidence led them. Their wishful thinking would have left them atheists.
In conclusion, then, the atheist adage about believing in one less god might be more aptly restated. For atheists, any god is one too many gods.
 Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Vitz turns the tables on the normal psychological charge of religious belief as a “crutch” to meet emotional needs. Vitz argues that such a view is a double-edged sword that can also be used to explain atheists’ unbelief. He studies such militant atheists as Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, and others. He concludes that atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree caused by the psychological needs of its advocates, usually related to defective father figures. (From The Most Reluctant Convert: C.S. Lewis’s Journey to Faith))
Some additional food for thought: