Belief in God: Is it just wishful thinking?

Sorted Magazine
Sorted Magazine
The September-October edition of Sorted Magazine is available to buy now.

Have you ever heard something like the following?

“You only believe in God because you want someone to be there. You want your life to have meaning and purpose, you want the comfort of knowing someone is in control of it all. In short, your faith is simply a psychological crutch.”

This common objection against faith in God seeks to argue that many people only believe because they want to believe in God. That is, they do not believe on grounds of good reason. Belief in God, the argument goes, typically comes about as a result of experiencing pain, or worry, or heartache – something negative – to which the person responds by choosing to believe in God to make things better.

It was the psychologist Sigmund Freud who described that religion was a man-made system of belief invented to cope with the, “crushingly superior force of nature.”

The believer is described as projecting a view of God, in much the same way, perhaps, that a child believes that good fairies are protecting them whilst they sleep from all the nasty goblins and things under the bed. It is a belief that one believes to be true in order to feel better.

Recently I found myself at a talk listening to A. C. Grayling, the celebrated philosopher and one of the so-called New Atheists whose recent book The God Argument seeks to counter faith in religion with an optimistic view of humanism.

One of the arguments more heavily pushed by Grayling in that talk was this one of ‘wish fulfilment’. In fact, at a few points Grayling actually likened the argument for the existence of God as akin to an argument for the existence of fairies at the end of the garden.

What Does This Argument Really Prove?

Grayling was offering this argument in support of the idea that there is no God. But wait just a minute. What is the argument actually saying? It may be laid out like this:

  • Many people believe in God for psychological reasons
  • These psychological reasons aren’t reasonable
  • Without good reasons for God it’s unreasonable to say that God exists
  • Therefore God doesn’t exist

However there is a huge jump from premise two to premise three! Since when did how anyone believes in anything amount to any sort of evidence for/against that very thing?

Let me offer an analogy. 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!

It’s entirely possible to do the sums wrong and end up with the right answer.

For And Against

Additionally, this same argument may be deployed against those who don’t believe in God. Could we not say that non-belief in God could just be wish-fulfilment also? That is, that you don’t want someone to be there, someone to say what is right and what is wrong, someone that might interfere with you life? You don’t want there to be a higher power so you believe and live in such a way that say there isn’t?

Listen to Thomas Nagel, another philosopher, here sharing his thoughts candidly on the matter of belief in God.

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

The fact of the matter is that how someone believes in God does not speak to the reasonableness of the existence of God. There are many reasonable cases to be made for God, including the historical accounts of Jesus, the evidence of the Resurrection, the arguments from design and from morality, and so on.

Dismissing the existence of God, as Grayling would like to do, because of how some choose to believe in God just does not make for a compelling case. Further more, on closer inspection the argument scuttles itself by the very fact that this argument is not reasonable.

This article appeared in the September-October edition of Sorted Magazine.