All in the Mind?

Since the inception of psychology it has been popular to debunk certain beliefs as being merely the result of psychological and socio-biological conditioning. In fact, today in some circles it is popular to (attempt to) undermine all beliefs in this manner. Of course it is ridiculous to believe that all beliefs can be discredited in this way. If they can, then that would apply to this belief too!

But it is nevertheless popular to say that religious beliefs can be debunked this way. Freud in particular argued that God is a psychological projection, merely a product of our minds. He pointed out that despite the advances of civilised society, of science and technology, certain elements of nature still haven't (and probably never will) come under our control. Death and natural disasters are obvious examples. Freud thought that put together these and other factors result in a sense of despair and powerlessness. This leads us to desire for something more. We 'project&apos a cosmic father figure who can protect us from the ravages of nature, and compensate us with an afterlife.

Belief in God provides the comfort which we want. This is why we believe in Him, He is a 'psychological projection', and religion is all in the mind. This is Freud's argument. It seems fairly persuasive. But there are several problems. Allow me to point out just two.

First, the argument can be reversed. Mightn't it be the case that some people believe that God doesn't exist because they desire that He shouldn't exist? If Freud can argue that belief in God is the projection of the desire for a cosmic father figure, then can't we argue that disbelief is a form of projective denial? Might atheism result from a desire to 'kill the father figure'? The psychologist Paul Vitz has pointed out that many famous atheists had poor or absent fathers, or had a poor relationship with their fathers. Freud saw his father as weak, since he did nothing to oppose the blatant anti-Semitism that was directed at him. Ludwig Feuerbach's father left the family for another woman while Ludwig was just 13. American atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hear once attempted to kill her father with a 10-inch butcher knife! Bertrand Russell's father died when Bertrand was only 4 years old. The same is true of Nietzsche and his father. Sartre's father died before Sartre was born. Camus was only a year old when he lost his father. I ask the reader to be honest here. Doesn't it seem plausible that the atheism of these great intellectuals was linked with the problems they had with their fathers? It certainly does to me! But this means that the argument is complete, and it is at least as conclusive as Freud's argument. It follows, then, that if Freud's argument shows anything at all, it doesn't show much.

Secondly, the desire for God can be used as a starting point for arguing that there really is a God. One Christian writer said that, "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

In other words, certain desires act as signs, pointing towards the object which would fulfil them. Not all desires are like this. Some desires amount to nothing more than a wish. Others are much more deep seated, and make up part of our very humanity, our 'human-ness'. They might be labelled 'natural' or 'innate' desires. Again I ask the reader to approach this with honesty. Isn't the desire for God, for something more than just this world, more than a mere wish? Doesn't this desire go to the very core of our being? Isn't such desire part of what it is to be human?

The Psalmist (Psalm 42v1-2) writes, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." It seems to me that we have such a desire. It may have become a cliche, and even a platitude, that the richest and most famous people are often the most unhappy. But platitudes, if they really are such, have at least the virtue of being true. But if it is true that you can have everything the world has to offer and still be desperately unhappy, then what is it that we are really looking for? It must be something that the world itself cannot offer, something beyond this world. But this alone doesn't prove that there is something beyond this world. What we need is the additional thought that whatever we have a natural desire for must exist in reality: that all natural desires have a correlating object of desire. Could it be true that nature has given us a desire which reality cannot satisfy? If it were, this would be a world in which desires and satisfactions didn't match up. If all innate desires have a correlating object of desire, God must exist. And if this is denied, the universe is rendered absurd. Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes the same point: "Of course, one who wants to refuse to admit the conclusion at all costs will deny the premise - at the cost of a meaningful universe, a universe in which desires and satisfactions match. In other words, God can be avoided. All we need to do is embrace the 'vanity of vanities' instead. It is a fools bargain, of course: everything is exchanged for nothing - a trade [that no-one should be] fool enough to make."

Augustine put the point well when he wrote, "You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You."