Is religion the refuge of the weak? Friedrich Nietzsche thought so. Is faith a crutch or an opioid that makes life tolerable but is in itself an illusion? That is what Karl Marx concluded.
While both Nietzsche and Marx were avowed atheists, the question of whether organized religion – in this case, Catholicism – exists as a coping mechanism is worth examining.
The concepts underlying the conclusions of Nietzsche and Marx are relatively straightforward. Human beings are fragile creatures who experience and witness a significant amount of suffering and death. In order to make this suffering and death, including our own inevitable death, meaningful, humans have created God, an afterlife, and religion as a kind of coping mechanism. The view of religion as man-made has been echoed by the “new atheists,” such as Christopher Hitchens.
We can credit (or debit, as the case may be) Sigmund Freud for summarizing and advancing the view that religion is a man-made coping mechanism. Freud argued that belief in God was essentially a wish-fulfilling fantasy. Interestingly, Freud thought that religion once served the purpose of inculcating certain moral principles as well as restraining human beings’ natural (and violent) impulses.
To refute the claims that religion is a man-made coping mechanism, it is necessary to show that at least some religions – specifically Catholicism – are of divine origin. It may also be beneficial to address the error inherent in those who argue that Catholicism is man-made.
The first step in showing that Catholicism is of divine origin is to prove the existence of God. Such proofs are philosophical in nature and have been discussed in previous works. (See Does God Exist? Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways).
While proving the existence of God is a philosophical endeavor, arguing that Jesus is God is predicated on a combination of historical data and faith. The evidence that Jesus existed as a historical person is overwhelming and is accepted by all but the most dogmatic atheists. I refer the reader to the work of Lawrence Mykytiuk, Emeritus Professor of Library Science and former Associate Professor of History at Purdue University (Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible).
The biblical record supporting the Catholic claim that Jesus is God can be summed up like this. Jesus of Nazareth claimed that He was God. Jesus asserted that He would prove that He is God by rising from the dead. Jesus was murdered by the Romans and hanged on a cross. He was pronounced dead by the Romans and placed in the tomb of a follower. Roman soldiers guarded the tomb. Three days later, that tomb was empty. Finally, the risen Jesus was seen by a large number of witnesses.
This is to say nothing of the miracles worked by Jesus and witnessed by many or the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah that Jesus fulfilled.
Having sought to establish the existence of God and that God became incarnate in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, it is left to show that God – in the Person of Jesus – established the Catholic Church. This is done most succinctly by referencing a somewhat famous verse, Matthew 16:18, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
The verse requires some explanation. As is often the case when God sends an individual on a mission, He changes the person’s name. In this case, Simon’s name is changed to Peter. There is a play on words here. Peter in Greek means “rock.” When this is understood, it becomes clear that Peter is the “rock” Jesus built His Church on. Peter becomes the first Pope.
If it is true that God exists, that Jesus is God incarnate, and that Jesus created the Catholic Church, it is also false that the Catholic religion is a man-made coping mechanism. This is not intended to deny people’s importance in Catholicism. If faith is the proper human response to God revealing Himself to mankind, then Catholicism is the “working out” or “practicing” of that faith. Said differently, Divine Revelation engenders faith, and faith creates organized religion. True faith leads to Catholicism. Understood in that light, Catholicism is the proper worship of God as understood in light of Divine Revelation.
Nevertheless, Catholicism would not exist without God revealing Himself to human beings, most completely in the Person of Jesus Christ. Moreover, it is God, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, Who sustains the Catholic Church. Finally, it is only because God is working in and through the Church that the sacraments of the Church can be efficacious.
In a sense, the arguments of Nietzsche, Marx, and in particular, Freud are backward. Rather than being an artificial and man-made construct, Catholicism is divinely created. Instead of concluding that human beings invented God and created Catholicism, it is God Who has created human beings who then offer proper worship through Catholicism.
It seems that the error of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud was to mistake objective arguments and psychological motives. For example, Freud thought people believed in God because they feared a universe without a “father figure.” Whether that is true or not is independent of the objective and logical arguments for the existence of God. Said differently, the objective existence of something is not contingent on what people believe or feel about that thing.
In this paper, I have endeavored to explore the claim that the Catholic faith is man-made and that belief in God is born of a psychological desire. If I have succeeded at all, I hope to have shown that Catholicism’s roots transcend the human realm and that it is God Himself Who is the founder of the faith. Finally, I have suggested that the existence of God is predicated upon objective arguments that are entirely independent of any psychological element or motive.