Atheism’s Psychological Fallacy

Atheism’s Psychological Fallacy December 31, 2023

Art by Fszalai.

One need not spend much time in discourse with atheists before one encounters the claim that belief in God is a wish-fulfilling fantasy. The premise underpinning the claim is relatively simple. Faith is a psychological response by those who cannot deal with the harsh realities of life. The roots of this claim can, for the most part, be traced to two men, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. 

In this paper, I will summarize the positions of these two men, and I will argue that both positions are fallacious. 

Karl Marx was a Prussian (German) born revolutionary, sociologist, historian, economist, and, some may argue, philosopher. He is most well-known for co-authoring The Communist Manifesto. Heavily influenced by Friedrich Hegel’s dialectic philosophy, Marx’s view on religion was more about economics (with a bit of psychology mixed in) than philosophy. For Marx, religion and faith served two fundamental purposes. The first was an “opiate,” by which the masses dealt with suffering and injustice. The second purpose served by religion was to protect the ruling class by distracting people from the actual cause of their unhappiness, the political system. 

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian-born neurologist and psychiatrist. The founder of psychoanalysis, Freud had an influence that extended far beyond the psychiatrist’s couch. His views affected various aspects of culture, from sexuality to literature; Freud was (and remains) highly influential. 

Freud’s position on religion informs much of what modern atheists believe. Without delving too deeply into the realm of psychology, Freud reduced the concept of God to “an exalted father figure.” (Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo. Good Press, 2019).

Anyone attempting to refute these two arguments (though they are very similar) experiences an immediate problem. Neither Marx nor Freud provide any philosophical or scientific evidence to support their claims. Essentially, the arguments of Marx and Freud are complex opinions. Since a logical refutation of an argument requires showing a false premise or a non sequitur, one is tempted to borrow a statement from another atheist, Christopher Hitchens, and state, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Such a response is uncharitable, however, so I will endeavor to address each of the arguments in turn.

As indicated earlier, Marx viewed religion as a kind of coping mechanism whereby people dealt with the suffering and injustice that is inherent in life. For Marx, the solution to life’s difficulties is found in improving the political and material aspects of life. While there is some merit to seeking to improve the material and political conditions of people, such a philosophy fails to take into account an integrated understanding of human beings. Humans are not just social animals that require food and shelter but also ensouled beings that require spiritual nourishment. 

Evidence of this fact is seen in the stories of those with wealth and power who remained unhappy – and even suicidal. Lest one be unconvinced by anecdotal evidence, a study published in the American Psychological Association indicated a direct correlation between materialism and depression and anxiety. (“What Psychology Says About Materialism and the Holidays.” Kevin Knox, Ph.D.).

Where Marx believed religion to have been caused by less than stellar economic and political conditions, Freud claimed that faith in God is caused by psychological neurosis. 

As with most atheists, Freud’s arguments are inconsistent and even ill-conceived. I say inconsistent because Freud never seems to settle on one particular cause for faith in God. At times, Freud argues that God is a conceptualizing of a universal father figure. At other times, Freud suggests that religion is an effort to comprehend the various forces of nature. Finally, Freud concedes that religion does contain truth but that the truth is historical, not metaphysical.

I want to conclude by showing why I think the arguments presented by Marx and Freud are fundamentally flawed. In light of the lack of evidence, it is tempting to project the claims of Marx and Freud back onto them. That is to argue that atheism is itself a wish-fulfilling fantasy where its adherents seek to avoid the ontological and moral implications of the existence of God. To do so, however, does not in itself refute the arguments set forth by Marx or Freud.

I want to contend, however, that there are at least two arguments that act to refute Marx and Freud. The first is to point out that both commit the psychologist’s fallacy. In following William James, this fallacy occurs when one assumes that their subjective interpretation of something represents the objective nature of that thing. The problem with the claims of Marx and Freud is that they assume that what they think (subjectively) is true in reality (objectively). This leads both men to assume that their assumptions are objectively true. A proposition’s objective truth or falsity is independent of subjective thoughts or feelings. Put another way, some things are true whether one believes it or not.

Not surprisingly, this assumption appears to cause both Marx and Freud to ignore the objective arguments for the existence of God and the need for religion (e.g., Aquinas’ Five Ways). Because Marx and Freud begin with the belief that God does not exist, they concern themselves with discovering why people have faith. However, the presupposition that God does not exist is not supported by argumentation or evidence. This fact is not lost on the emeritus professor of psychology at New York University, Paul Vitz. “Nowhere did Freud publish a psychoanalysis of the belief in God based on clinical evidence provided by a believing patient. . . . Freud’s general projection theory is an interpretation of religion that stands on its own, unsupported by psychoanalytic theory of clinical evidence.” (Vitz, Paul C. Faith of the Fatherless. Ignatius Press, 2013.)

In order for either Marx or Freud to validly offer their arguments, they must first prove that God does not exist. Only then can they offer reasons why people believe in God. Of course, neither Marx nor Freud attempted to make such an argument.

The second point I want to posit is directed against the claim that religion provides an “opiate” to comfort people. A brief understanding of what belief in God entails for Christians quickly debunks such a position. To have faith in God requires Catholics to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow God. To deny oneself requires one to subordinate one’s desires to reason. Taking up one’s cross and following God includes making God the center of one’s life and being prepared to die for one’s faith. (See Mark 8:34). So much then for faith providing comfort.

In this essay, I have briefly summarized the positions of two renowned atheists, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. I have also argued that the arguments put forth by both are faulty and fail to militate against organized religion or faith in God.

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