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Is God Just a Human Invention?

Think Christianly: Is God Just a Human Invention?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is God Just a Human Invention?

A lot of people believe in God—like billions. Religion is all over the place and growing. So why are humans so religious? Well, there is no shortage of explanations for belief in God. Our intention in this article is to walk through some of the most common reasons skeptics think God is a human invention and see if they sufficiently show that belief in God has been rendered unreasonable, or if the reason that so many people believe in God is best explained by the fact that he actually does exist. First, however, we need to address a common misunderstanding about approaching the question of God.

Many times it is assumed that the one who believes in God—the theist—bears a special burden of proof when it comes to arguing for God's existence. In other words, in the absence of evidence for God's existence, one should presume that God doesn't exist; this is the famous "presumption of atheism." However, both "God does not exist" and "God exists" are claims to knowledge that are either true or false. Both viewpoints require justification or evidence. The New Atheists don't get a free pass; they must make the case for their worldview too. Yet all of the theories we will discuss in this chapter explicitly or implicitly draw on the presumption of atheism.

If there is a default position, then it is "I don't know if there is a God" (agnosticism), not "there is no God" (atheism).* So why don't we just retreat to the default position of not knowing? Knowledge, as the only firm foundation on which to build a life, is always preferable and should be pursued—especially on questions as important as this. Agnosticism can be a virtue for a season of exploration, because we definitely want to avoid being gullible. But as Yann Martel wrote in Life of Pi, "Doubt is useful for a while. . . . But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation." Moreover, with tongue in cheek, it has been observed that being an agnostic (Greek word) sounds much more sophisticated than being an ignoramus (Latin word), yet both mean not to know. Saying that one is an "ignoramus with respect to the question of God" just doesn't carry the same punch.

In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud wrote that religious beliefs are "illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection—for protection through love—which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life." In short, we project the existence of God based on a human need for him. Is this hypothesis unanswerable as Hitchens claims in this chapter's epigraph? We think not for the following reasons.

First, it begs the question against God. Freud's argument is, essentially, since we know that God doesn't exist, what are psychological explanations of this belief? His argument assumes from the outset that no object of belief exists. This is the presumption of atheism that we discussed above. The New Atheists commonly approach the God question in the same way: "Since God doesn't exist—and we know this, along with every other sane person in the world—why do so many people still believe?"

We have evidence for God's existence (e.g., arguments from origins, design, morality, etc.) and know that God is far from dead in the academy (see chapter 1). In fact, many world-class philosophers and scientists are Christians and are publishing at the highest levels. Yet, as one looks through the bibliographies of the New Atheists, it quickly becomes obvious that they are not interacting with the most sophisticated defenders of Christianity.

Second, another assumption made by those who employ Freud's projection theory is that having beliefs that bring us comfort means that those beliefs are false. But this does not follow logically. Philosophers of religion Paul Copan and Paul Moser observe that "a belief that brings comfort and solace should not be considered necessarily false. We find comfort in human relationships, and this is perfectly normal, reasonable, and healthy, at least in routine cases. It would be implausible to presume that our finding comfort in something is automatically cognitively defective or otherwise wrong."

Third, part of the rhetorical force of Freud's projection theory cited by Hitchens is the perceived connection between God being an illusion and Freud's rigorous psychoanalysis. Actually, this connection is what's illusory. Emeritus professor of psychology at New York University and former atheist Paul Vitz writes, "Nowhere did Freud publish a psychoanalysis of the belief in God based on clinical evidence provided by a believing patient," and further that "Freud's general projection theory is an interpretation of religion that stands on its own, unsupported by psychoanalytic theory of clinical evidence."* In other words, there is no psychological basis for his conclusions because he never performed psychoanalysis on people who actually believed in God....

For the rest of this book excerpt and in a video interview with my coauthor Sean McDowell, see

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've bought the book and started with the chapter--Is God just a human invention. Thank you for the work.

C.Hitchens has a hypothesis you don't cover that I believe must be addressed. He postulates some early humans in every place recognizing the power that comes with religious rites (e.g. burial) who then organized local cults with priest, rites, rules, etc. Religions formed symbiotic relationships with rulers for increased authority.

Christians can be sure that this did happen in many cases. He would anticipate our answer: Yes, but ours was different.

On the analogy of Christian entrepreneurs starting up little congregations all the time because they can, I think we need to answer this one. Is there a place in your book or elsewhere I can go for ideas?

October 28, 2010 at 4:13 PM  

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