The Language of God: Joy and Wishful Thinking

The Language of God, Chapter 2

By B.J. Marshall

Collins continues on his theme of the universal search for the divine with an argument from emotions. He cites his beloved C.S. Lewis, who describes this in his book Surprised by Joy. Lewis relates how this search, this intense longing, is triggered by moments of joy, which he describes as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (p.35). After reading this line several times, I still have no idea what this is supposed to mean. I desire something because I want to see a certain state of affairs come to fruition; to be continually thwarted, to have that desire permanently unsatisfied – indeed, unsatisfiable – would seem to me to be amazingly depressing. As a simple example, I desire to donate to secular charities because I want to ease the suffering of others. If I had this desire, but no one was willing to help me and I was not able to achieve this goal myself, I would feel very sad to know that there was nothing I – or anyone – could do to ease the suffering of others. I certainly wouldn’t think “Gee, this unsatisfied desire is the best thing ever – way better than all other desires I’ve ever satisfied!!”

Anyway, back to this longing business that Collins sees as so important to transcending the natural realm. He relates a few examples, ranging from gazing through a telescope to hearing emotionally powerful descants in Christmas songs. But his understanding of emotion doesn’t run too deeply: “as an atheist graduate student, I surprised myself by experiencing this same sense of awe and longing…” (p.36). Really? Surprised? Reading Collins’ surprise at feeling the very natural senses of awe and longing, it made me wonder what other emotions surprised Collins during his stint as a atheist whose views were so “robust” that they completely shattered at the simple question of an elderly woman. I can picture Collins thinking to himself, “Wow. I really love my girlfriend, but how can that be since I am an atheist?” or “Huh – I find this comedian very funny, but I didn’t think atheists could feel this sort of mirth!” Oh, but Collins pieces it all together at the end. You see, when he experienced the emotions prompted by the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Eroica following the terrorist attacks at the 1972 Olympics, “for a few moments, I was lifted out of my materialist worldview into an indescribable spiritual dimension” (p.36). See, atheists? The reason you get surprised at your emotions is because they transcend you into another realm.

Sadly, this reminded me of an e-mail conversation I had with my Catholic priest. I came out to my family and closest friends as an atheist last year, and I stopped attending church. I e-mailed my priest asking him what he thought the best argument for God was. If you had ever heard his sermons, you would know him to be very intellectual, well-read, and eloquent. I was expecting some reply from him along the lines of what Plantinga might say about warranted belief or W.L.Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument. Instead, here is the response I got:

“I don’t think arguments really do it for me. Our training was in Neo-Scholasticism and the Aristotelian arguments. Far be it for me to second guess St. Thomas Aquinas, but for me the flashpoint is pure and simple—LOVE. If there is love there is God. And I’ve experienced love.”

I have a difficult time expressing how incredibly disappointed I was in that response. It’s only marginally better than a wise friend who told me that he had doubts about God but came to faith through Pascal’s Wager.

So Collins wonders what we are to make of these experiences. He posits that, if it’s anything like the Moral Law, maybe these emotions are signposts pointing to something larger than us. He asserts that the atheist view is that we are not to trust these longings as indications of the supernatural, and that ascribing those to God is really just “wishful thinking, inventing an answer because we want it to be true” (p.37). I agree that emotions do not point to the supernatural, but I would not say it’s just wishful thinking. In fact, I’d say it’s a lack of thinking. Collins, from whom I get the impression he simply thinks humans are uncapable of wonderful emotions without God to anchor them, is content to just punt to God; otherwise, why would he have been surprised at his emotions? But, Collins tries to back up his point by citing Freud, in whose writings this “wishful thinking” view reached its widest audience.

Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, published in 1927, interpreted all religious beliefs as illusions or wishful thinking based on childhood dependency. 1927 is a long time ago – Collins couldn’t find anything more current than this? Now, clearly, this does not apply to all religions but only the major monotheistic religions. Freud’s Totem and Taboo, which Collins quotes, mentions how our view of God and our relationship with God stem from our biological fathers. Funny, then, how I completely believe my biological father exists and that any semblance of a spiritual father does not.

Now, Collins states that he does not agree with the wish-fulfillment idea, but his reasons are arguably equally absurd. Going back to C.S. Lewis, Collins explains that, if wish-fulfillment were true, we would get a very different kind of God than the one we find in the Bible. Instead of “benevolent coddling and indulgence” (yeah, because my father was all the time coddling and spoiling me, wasn’t yours?), we find a God who requires us to hold to the Moral Law, throwing in our faces the possibility of being eternally separated from the Law’s Author. I agree that we wouldn’t find a coddling and indulgent god in the Bible. Rather, we’d find one that condones slavery, genocide, rape, murder, and human sacrifice (unless you’re Abraham, in which case God says “PSYCH!!” at the last minute). I also see a god who requires us to uphold the Amoral Law – if anything arbitrarily goes because God says so, that seems amoral to me.

Collins then does something I thought was interesting: attempt to use logic. “If one allows the possibility that God is something humans might wish for, does that rule out the possibility that God is real? Absolutely not. The fact that I have wished for a loving wife does not now make her imaginary. The fact that the farmer wished for rain does not make him question the reality of the subsequent downpour” (p.38). He tries to extend the argument: Why would a desire exist if there were no means by which one could obtain that desire? He gives some examples. A baby feels hunger; well, there is food. A duck wants to swim; well, there is water. Sure, wanting a wife does not make the wife you have imaginary, but it says nothing about whether you’d ever get a wife in the first place. Would my casting bones or stirring tea leaves make me question the reality of a subsequent downpour? No – it is possible to arrive at a truthful conclusion by completely wrong means. As far as desires existing without means of obtaining them: Who, when they were a kid and saw The Never-Ending Story, did not want their own Luck Dragon? I read the DragonLance Chronicles when I was in junior high school, and I distinctly remember wanting to be a wizard. My commute to and from work kind of sucks: I strongly desire the ability to teleport.

Collins wonders why we seem to have a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled. First, I flatly deny that any such void exists. Second, granting for a moment that such a void exists, it seems pretty obvious that any size hole can be filled in with an amorphous concept. Given all the different attributes assigned to God from all different religions, I’m sure anyone who wanted to could find a God to fit any deficit they thought they had.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • A’Llyn

    There is definitely a teleporter-shaped void in my soul some days.

  • EScholes

    Why would a desire exist if there were no means by which one could obtain that desire?

    This doesn’t make sense. I desire flight (of the superman kind, not the running away from an evangelical kind). Perhaps, Dr. Collins will tell me the means to achieve this desire.

  • Hendy

    Sigh… this stuff is so frustrating. It feels like the kind of logic employed by those with literally next to non-existent imaginations. People huff and then ask things like, “Well why do you think we desire happiness, then??” or “Well how would you improve the Bible??” or “How in the world could god remove some evil without violating free will, silly??”

    On the other hand, I at least wonder if those like Collins or Lewis are at least more honest. They don’t try (well, I guess Collins does actually) and muddle up reasons for belief in hard evidence. They use some sort of odd, emotional-based logician’s tricks to get to the man in the sky.

    At least after trying to study the evidence for the last 8 months I think that defenses for god of this sort more accurately describe why people really believe.

    Or perhaps hardly anyone really knows why they believe and everything is an afterthought?

  • Lynet

    Going back to C.S. Lewis, Collins explains that, if wish-fulfillment were true, we would get a very different kind of God than the one we find in the Bible. Instead of “benevolent coddling and indulgence” . . . we find a God who requires us to hold to the Moral Law, throwing in our faces the possibility of being eternally separated from the Law’s Author.

    This is an interesting point; I’d disagree with it for several reasons. Firstly, Christians sometimes underestimate the extent to which people want there to be some sort of morality, hence their low view of atheists, who they assume must wish to behave badly if they don’t believe in consequences for their actions. The truth is, most people care about others, and would prefer to live in a society where people have some shared moral values that help them to work together. That’s not a consequence of religion, and indeed it applies to atheists as much as to anyone else.

    Notwithstanding the fact that Francis Collins claims, here, that humans desire permission to do whatever they want, he has in fact earlier used the human desire for a Moral Law to make belief in God sound like a good idea. Indeed, if earlier summaries are correct, then he believes that no such desire could exist without God. But in that case, he has still, really, already conceded that “permission for humans to do whatever we want” isn’t really what most humans desire.

    Finally, I’d like to point out that the Christian religion, in many of its forms, actually gets the best of both worlds. That “eternal separation from the Law’s Author” that we’re supposed to be afraid of is reserved only for those who don’t believe. Convenient, huh? The result is that believers get to feel superior to those they believe will be damned, while at the same time being perfectly sure that no such fate will await them. And if you’ve done something bad, don’t worry, just repent! This is hardly as uncomfortable a belief as Collins seems to be implying that it is.

    [Disclaimer: I haven't read Collins, just this rebuttal]

  • BJ

    Eternal separation from an almighty author I don’t think exists in the first place seems to me like a choice between six doughnuts or half a dozen doughnuts. Tough call.

  • jane hay

    Although I consider 9/10ths of what Freud wrote to be nonsense, he did come close on this one. When I look at all the true-believers I know, the one uniting characteristic is that they want a Sky-Parent, who will take care of everything so they don’t have to even think about it. A parent tells a child that it is forbidden from doing something and usually does not come up with a reason, or says “Because I said so!”. We do not expect a toddler or a 4-year-old to understand the reasoning behind the rule not to run out into the street. Toddlers and dogs automatically think a driver can see them and will stop, while an adult knows better. As people grow up, they are supposed to take over these functions for themselves, but certain personalities just can’t let go. They want the comfort of not having to think, to worry about what is going to happen next, or to come up with some kind of plan or action. “It’s in g-d’s hands”. “Allah’s will” “Kismet” or, as one Xtian said when I sent her an email about global warming, “G-d will always take care of me and my family. I’m not going to worry about that [liberal nonsense]!” It relieves anxiety, I guess. However, most of the fundies I know and work with are also the most depressed, dysfunctional and stressed out people I ever met. Most of the mainstream religious and atheists I know are functional, confident and laid back. So, I guess the fundie life strategy doesn’t work so well?

  • jack

    Collins wonders why we seem to have a “God-shaped vacuum” in our hearts and minds unless it is meant to be filled. First, I flatly deny that any such void exists. Second, granting for a moment that such a void exists, it seems pretty obvious that any size hole can be filled in with an amorphous concept.

    I think the hole does exist, but some people never stumble into it, and those who do end up filling it with very different — and, yes, amorphous — things, depending on which religious traditions are popular in their local culture.

    [warning, shameless plug:] I’m working on a book that tries to explain what that hole is and where it comes from. Most religious folks describe it — or the thing that fills it — as an “emotional sense of God’s presence”. Many, many books contain descriptions of such experiences, and biologist Alister Hardy devoted his later years to collecting and studying such descriptions. Hardy, who was a believer, argued that this innate longing for contact with the divine evolved in humans through natural selection. His reasoning was a bit confused, since he never explained, to my satisfaction anyway, how such longings and their mystical fulfillment increase reproductive success.

    There’s another possibility, which is that the “God-shaped hole” is a by-product of something else, something completely unrelated to God, something that really does increase reproductive success. That’s where I’m heading with my book. Unlike Hardy and Collins, I don’t see it as God’s clever way to establish communication with his beloved creation.

  • paradoctor

    An “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”? Such a desire is called an “addiction”. It’s how casinos make their money.

  • Tacroy

    “… Far be it for me to second guess St. Thomas Aquinas, but for me the flashpoint is pure and simple—LOVE. If there is love there is God. And I’ve experienced love.”

    He needs to follow that logic back even further:

    If there is cake, there is love. And I’ve experienced cake.

    So: cake, therefore the specifically Catholic interpretation of the Judeo-Christian God. It works!

  • TEP

    Now, Collins states that he does not agree with the wish-fulfillment idea, but his reasons are arguably equally absurd. Going back to C.S. Lewis, Collins explains that, if wish-fulfillment were true, we would get a very different kind of God than the one we find in the Bible.

    Not if you consider the historical context in which the Bible was written. The ancient Israelites were xenophobic, genocidal nationalists. What sort of god would such people wish for? One that approves of wars of aggression and genocide, one that promises them victory and conquest, and one that shares their opinions and prejudices. The god of the Bible is exactly the sort of god that such people would wish for.

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    Tacroy, I’m sorry. The cake is a lie

  • Scotlyn

    I agree with Jane Hay. Recognition of the fact that there is no “divine” parent is the surest pathway I know to growing up and assuming adult responsibility for your life, your neighbourhood, and your world.

    Cafeeine – was *The cake is a lie* meant to be a link?

  • Valhar2000

    A baby feels hunger; well, there is food. A duck wants to swim; well, there is water.

    What about the Star Wars fan-boys who want to have a light saber, or to use The Force? What about the Mass Effect fan-boys who want to marry Tali’Zorah? What about the Dragon Age fan-girls who are in love with Alistair? All those things are purely and entirely imaginary, and yet people desire them.

  • keddaw

    An “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction”?

    Masochism.

    Jack was almost right with his view of this as addiction, but it is the gambling addicts unconscious desire to lose that is being fulfilled while his conscious desire to win is being thwarted. An amazing feeling when you lose more than you can afford that is zen-like, numb and hollow. I hope none of you ever experience it but it is incredible.

  • http://rejistania.wordpress.com Rejistania

    This comment about desires and the means to obtain them was hurtful. I had (and still have) the desire that my visual impairment is cured. However, it is not possible and if the same thing happened a century earlier, I’d probably be completely blind. So, yeah, this is not a myth related wish but I do lack the means to reach it.

  • Jeff

    Going back to C.S. Lewis, Collins explains that, if wish-fulfillment were true, we would get a very different kind of God than the one we find in the Bible. Instead of “benevolent coddling and indulgence” (yeah, because my father was all the time coddling and spoiling me, wasn’t yours?), we find a God who requires us to hold to the Moral Law, throwing in our faces the possibility of being eternally separated from the Law’s Author.

    They always leave projection out of the equation. They’re some of the least introspective people in the world.

  • Ritchie

    Lol @ Cafeeine. Scotlyn – ‘The cake is a lie’ has become a bit of a humourous cult expression:

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=the+cake+is+a+lie

    But back to the OP, I realise I’m probably being dumb, but isn’t Freud arguing AGAINST Collins’ position? I’ve not read either Collins or the relevant work from Freud, so I’m obviously going wrong somewhere, but from the OP I get the impression Freud’s point is that religious intuitions are merely projections of our paternal bonds. It is an explanation (one that even today should not be dismissed lightly) which accounts for our God-focussed felings. Isn’t that devastating to Collins?

    On a releted note, I’m currently reading the excellent The Origins of Virtue, which theorises tht human brains evolved to excel at social interaction. We read social exchange into everything – even with inanimate objects. How many times have you shouted at faulty machinery, for example? This all stems from our social brains demanding social exchange from the world – that good/bad fortune is metted out to us according to what we deserve, and an intuition that life/the world is a sentient force to bargain with. The book itself is not focussed on religion, but it is easy to see what a short step it is from this argument to accounting for the origins of religion.

  • BJ

    @Rejistania: Collins asks why a desire would exist if there were no means by which one could obtain that desire. Your visual impairment is a perfect refutation of his point.

    I don’t know what comment you are referring to, but please let me apologize for anything I posted that was hurtful.

  • jack

    Ritchie,

    isn’t Freud arguing AGAINST Collins’ position?

    Yes, very much so. Freud was an atheist. I think BJ meant that Collins cites Freud as evidence for his (Collins’) assertion that we atheists dismiss religious longings as mere wishful thinking, so that he can then (ostensibly) tear down the wishful thinking objection.

  • BJ Marshall

    Jack got my position correct.

  • Ritchie

    Oh right. Yes, that does make more sense…

  • Scotlyn

    Ritchie, thanks – that all makes sense now…That “the cake is a lie” could be yet another alternative outcome for Pascal’s wager does not seem to have occurred to some folk…

  • Richard P.

    Wahoo!! Looking forward to it.


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