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:

Atlas Shrugged: The Hippocratic Oath
Atlas Shrugged: The Post-Scarcity Economy
Atlas Shrugged: Natural Capital
Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
About Adam Lee

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