Is God Just a Psychological Crutch for the Weak?

By Paul Copan

Have you ever met nasty skeptics or hostile atheists who seem to have a chip on their shoulder? Have you considered that maybe something’s gone deeply wrong in their family, often because of a failed (or missing) father figure?

I recently came across one such person. Having grown up in an ultra-legalistic “Christian” home, this person’s parents were involved in professional ministry. But his father committed adultery and, as a result, brought alienation, hostility, and humiliation to the entire family.

In a debate with an atheist, Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland told the audience: “If you’re an atheist, I’ll bet you a steak dinner that you’ve had authority issues with a father figure.”

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 Ronald K. Tacelli, another Christian philosopher friend (Boston College), told me of his encounters with particularly cranky, mean-spirited atheists. He made the same connection: “They’ve got family issues.”

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

PSYCHOLOGIZING THE BELIEVER

We are familiar with the common challenge to believers that God is nothing more than a made-up or projected idea — an infantile illusion, a pathetic flight from reality to help us through life’s hardships and cruelties. Rather than humans made in God’s image, skeptics claim humans have made God in their image. Atheist philosopher Peter Railton refers to the gods “to whom we have given life.”2

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) asserts“Religion is the dream of the human mind.”

This notion inspired Karl Marx to call religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the opiate of the people.”

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Likewise, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud followed Feuerbach’s line of reasoning, connecting humanity’s religious impulse with subconscious desires. God is the product of such “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.”The poem Invictus (meaning “unconquered”) by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) captures the spirit of these psychologizers of religion: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Believers, say skeptics, transfer personal responsibility to a made-up deity rather than being masters of their fate and captains of their souls. (Perhaps one could call such a projection “Captain Crutch.”)

PROBLEMS WITH THE CRUTCH ARGUMENT

What is the flaw in this argument? There are number of problems and concerns.

First, Freud himself acknowledged that his “psychoanalysis” of religion had no supporting clinical evidence.

 In 1927, Freud confessed to Oskar Pfister — an early psychoanalyst and believing Protestant pastor — that his perspectives on religious projection “are my personal views.”6 Freud had very little psychoanalytic experience with genuine religious believers and published no analysis of believers based on clinical evidence. 7

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