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Is faith just a prop for the weak-minded?

Dr Andy Bannister targets a familiar argument that simply doesn't stack up ...

Dr Andy Bannister targets a familiar argument that simply doesn’t stack up …

A friend once caught a taxi one Sunday morning after church. Seeing her Bible, the driver sneered dismissively. “Religion is just a psychological crutch,” he said, “something for weak-minded people who lack the self-reliance to take responsibility for their own lives. People believe in God because it makes them feel good.”

Realising he’d probably blown any chance of a tip, he attempted to recover with: “What’s a nice girl like you need religion for anyway?”

Psychology is everywhere. We’re told it can explain everything from what we do in the bedroom to our religious preferences: psychology can explain sects as well as sex. The claim is not a new one, however: it goes back to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Freud believed religion arises when we project our fears into the sky (especially the fear of death) and invent God to give us comfort in the face of our mortality.

But a question arises: why is it only humans who think so much about death, or who need existential consolation? Penguins don’t sit around pondering philosophical questions, writing depressing poetry, or watching endless Woody Allen movies. If atheism is true and evolution the only game in town, how has it produced creatures so magnificently odd as us, wired to look for purpose and hope when none exists?

Or maybe that longing deep within us actually points somewhere: what is it that has “set eternity in the hearts of mankind?”

A further problem for the atheist claim that people believe in God because it makes them feel good is that how we feel has little or no bearing on whether something exists. Thoughts of ice cream, mountain views and miniature roller-skating elephants all make me feel happy. Thoughts of death, line-dancing, and the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal all make me feel anxious and upset.

But those feelings alone don’t tell you which items on my lists actually exist.

Ultimately, there’s only one good reason to believe either Christianity or atheism. And that’s if one of them is true. Conversely, there are plenty of bad reasons. One bad reason is described by atheist Thomas Nagel when he writes: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God … It’s that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God!"

On one level I respect Nagel’s honesty: he has worked out if Christianity is true, there would be some life-changing implications. And he’s right: the Christian faith is far less about belief and more about commitment. Which leads to one last ring of truth about Christianity: its incredible personal cost.

You see, were I inventing a religion to suit my psychology, I have a hunch what I’d invent: a distant god who never interferes; easily kept moral commands (eg “don’t eat too much chocolate”, “don’t dry your socks in a toaster”). Oh, and the freedom to do what I want, when I want, with whomever I want.

And, of course, a low-entry-condition heaven, full of wine, women and song.

By contrast, what do we have in Christianity? A religion that demands our heart, mind and soul.

“Take up your cross and follow me,” says Jesus. “Take up my what?” Either the first Christians sorely needed a couple of advertising executives and a social media guru on staff, or else the sheer difficulty, the way that Christianity cuts against our ingrained psychological tendency to orbit gyroscopically around our own ego, tells us something profound.

If Christianity is true, it is the story of how God, in Jesus, offers us transformative forgiveness, infinite joy, and everlasting peace – but it will cost us something: the price is our autonomy and our pride.

And so I say to my atheist friends: by all means, reject Christianity because you have examined the evidence and concluded it is false. But don’t walk away because you are rebelling at a deeper level and merely hiding behind the fig leaf of bad arguments.

For if your self-deceit runs that deep, I suggest you need something more potent than even the most skilled of psychologists can offer you.    

  • Dr Andy Bannister is the Canadian Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), and is the author of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments). Find out more
  • RZIM have also produced the popular Short Answers to Big Questions video series, including “If God appeared to me, I’d believe in him” and “Is religion just a psychological crutch?” at along with lots of other great resources.

Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) 130.

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