“ONE OF THE most familiar criticisms of Christianity is that it offers consolation to life’s losers,” writes Alister McGrath in his book
. 1 Believers are often caricatured as being somewhat weak and naïve—the kind of people who need their faith as a “crutch” just to get them through life. In new atheist literature, this depiction is often contrasted with the image of a hardier intellectual atheist who has no need for such infantile, yet comforting, nonsense.
This type of portrayal may resonate with some, but does it really make sense? 2
From the outset it is helpful to define what we mean by a “crutch.” In a medical setting, the word obviously means an implement used by people for support when they are injured. The analogy implies, therefore, that those who need one are somehow deficient or wounded. In a sense, it is fairly obvious that the most vulnerable might need support, but as the agnostic John Humphrys points out, “Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible.” 3 As this suggests, it is not so much a question of whether you have one, but it is more of a question of what your particular crutch is. This is an important point to make, as people rely on all kinds of things for their comfort or self-esteem, ranging from material possessions, money, food, and aesthetics to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and sex. Rather than being viewed as signs of weakness, many of these are even considered to be relatively normal in society, provided they don’t turn into the more destructive behaviors associated with strong addiction.
Nevertheless, many of these only offer a short-term release from the struggles of life and they sometimes only cover up deeper problems that a person might be suffering from. To suggest, therefore, that atheists are somehow stronger than believers is to deny the darker side of humanity, which is only too apparent if we look at the world around us. As McGrath explains:
“[I]f you have a broken leg, you need a crutch. If you’re ill you need medicine. That’s just the way things are. The Christian understanding of human nature is that we are damaged, wounded and disabled by sin. That’s just the way things are.” 4
Moreover, Augustine of Hippo compared the church to a hospital, because it is full of wounded and ill people in the process of being healed. 5 As is the case with any illness, this treatment cannot begin, however, until someone has admitted they are sick or need help. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that religious belief does have an advantageous effect on both mental and physical health. Andrew Sims, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, writes that a “huge volume of research” confirms this, making it “one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally.” 6 In a culture that often seems to exalt health, well-being, and happiness above other things, this would seem to render religious belief very appealing both to the weak and the strong in society.
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