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Bad Atheist Arguments: “Religion is a Psychological Crutch”

Bad Atheist Arguments: “Religion is a Psychological Crutch” July 26, 2021

In today’s thrilling episode, our hero is tandem jumping out of an airplane. Things are exhilarating at first but then become terrifying when it’s clear that his partner, the experienced jumper, isn’t wearing a parachute and is planning on breaking their fall by landing on a haystack. He says that parachutes might make you feel good because you’re afraid of death or you remember them fondly from your childhood, but “just because something makes you feel good, it doesn’t make it true, does it?”

This continues our review of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister (part 1), which critiques a number of atheist arguments.

Aim for that haystack!

Bannister connects his story to Freud’s theory that God is simply a heavenly version of our earthly father who’ll make sure that we safely get through this scary world, and Bannister admits his own frequent reflections on mortality. (Which reminds me of apologist William Lane Craig, whose own childhood anxiety about death seems to have set him on his path as an apologist.)

Let me quickly agree with Bannister’s point: just because you want something to be true is no evidence that it is. What’s strange though is hearing this from him. He imagines that it’s the atheists who have the problem with wishful thinking? He has this issue backwards for the entire chapter. It’s so backwards, in fact, that I use a quote from him to close this post.

He touches on C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire: thirst and hunger exist, so we know that there’s water and food, and a desire for God exists, so we know that there’s a God. (I dismiss that argument here.) The best that can be said about Lewis’s argument is that it isn’t quite as fanciful as the Ontological Argument.

He anticipates one obvious rebuttal. We all agree that water and food exist, but we don’t agree that God exists. He responds by handwaving that we don’t sense anything directly. The mind can be deceived or wrong. In an extreme case, you could be a brain in a jar.

After casting doubt on our knowledge of mundane things, he oddly thinks he’s laid the foundation from which to argue that we can know about God. “There is a wealth of evidence that you can engage with to explore that question, ranging from philosophical and scientific arguments, to moral and ethical arguments, to arguments from literature and history, as well as those from personal experience.” And (again) he gives us none of it, saying that this isn’t that book.

A bold claim backed by no evidence? You get zero points.

Could Christianity be invented?

He next considers the idea that Christianity was invented. “If Christianity were mere wish-fulfilment, just a psychological projection, then those who dreamt it up had pretty impoverished imaginations.” He sketches out the more comfortable religion he would invent: a distant god who didn’t interfere, relaxed moral standards, freedom, and easy entry requirements to an awesome heaven. But being a good Christian is really hard. Conclusion: Christianity wasn’t invented.

I know of no one who says that it was. In the set of religions with no god(s) behind them, there’s a big difference between a religion deliberately invented (Bannister’s proposal here) and a religion that was manmade. Myth and legend are manmade, but they aren’t deliberately invented.

Only Christians use this “Atheists insist that religion was invented” straw man. Note also that ordinary human morality constrains hedonism, too, so Christianity is just one more path that puts constraints on our lives.

And let me push back on his characterization of Christianity as a burdensome religion. I never read about a Christian who says, “Y’know, same-sex marriage doesn’t affect me a bit. In fact, I’m delighted by the idea that homosexuals can get married and that society supports that. But my hands are tied—my understanding of the Bible makes clear that this is wrong.” On the contrary, God always seems to conveniently agree with their moral position that the other guy is wrong. There are exceptions, but the God that Christians believe in is often a projection of themselves. Because the Bible is so ambiguous, the Christian hydra has morphed into tens of thousands of denominations, and Christians get to choose the God that fits best.

Bannister agrees: “If you are religious, a sure sign that you’ve [created your own God] is that the God you claim to believe in spends most of his time benevolently blessing all of your own prejudices, desires, and ambitions.” Perhaps atheists aren’t the group he should worry about.

I can’t resist adding the wisdom of third-century church father Tertullian: “The Son of God died: it is wholly believable because it is absurd; he was buried and rose again, which is certain because it is impossible.”

They couldn’t have made up this stuff, so therefore it’s true? Sorry—I need more evidence than that.

Tough love time!

Bannister quotes atheist Aldus Huxley to illustrate the problem with a flexible approach to reality: “We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.” Bannister expands on this: “Other atheists who have reflected carefully on their motives have similarly admitted that their atheism is not so much rational as emotional.

Huxley doesn’t speak for me. My rejection of Christianity is (to the best of my ability) entirely rational, and I’ve never heard anyone say that they pick and choose facts to cobble together a worldview they want.

No, let me correct that: I see Christians doing that a lot. It’s just that I never hear that from atheists.

Bannister next brings up atheists who say that they’re open minded enough that a compelling miracle would make them believe. “Really? Forgive me, but I think I need to call your bluff. . . . You see, belief isn’t really what God is looking for. As the New Testament itself memorably puts it: ‘Even the demons believe—and shudder!’” He wants to know if these atheists then just say, “Huh—so God exists. Who knew?” and proceed with life, or would they surrender to God and commit their lives to following him?

But where’s the bluff? Bannister is correct that belief in and commitment to God are very different things. Why should servitude to God automatically follow from belief? The Old Testament makes clear that God is a nasty piece of work (more here and here)—why serve that? And he moves past an important declaration from those imaginary atheists. What more can he ask of atheists than a commitment to follow the evidence?

We leave this argument with Bannister’s taunts following us: “But don’t walk away because you are rebelling at a deeper level and merely hiding behind the fig leaf of bad arguments.”

You flatter yourself. Don’t tell me that the atheists have bad arguments when you’ve got no arguments! Give me some plausible frikkin’ arguments and then we can decide if I’m rebelling.

See also: I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You

To be continued. 

What you feel about God doesn’t
answer the question of whether there is a God.
— Andy Bannister,
The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/4/17.)

Image from Greg Palmer (license CC BY-SA 2.0)

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