Is God Just an Idea?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/20/2013

Some charge that God is an imaginary “cosmic father” invented for our emotional protection, created in our image to comfort us, a phantom to fill the hollow places. But two things are wrong with this claim.

Recently someone suggested to me that God was not a reality, just a comforting idea in my mind, an emotional crutch, wishful thinking.

German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to suggest that God was nothing more than a psychological projection. Religion to him was a universal neurosis. Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche all picked up that same theme.

Is God just an imaginary “cosmic father” invented for our emotional protection, created in our image to comfort us, a phantom to fill the hollow places?

Any challenge put this way is beset with problems. Is it fair to simply dismiss theism because belief in God happens to fulfill emotional needs? Is there a real connection between our psychological state of mind and the truthfulness of our ideas?

The Genetic Fallacy

First, this salvo is fired at the wrong target. Does it follow that since I want God to exist, therefore He doesn’t exist, that since I draw comfort from believing He cares for me, therefore He can’t care for me? This is crooked logic.

How does what we wish to be true influence what actually is true? One can no more disprove God by citing the emotional advantages of belief than he can prove God exists because of emotional motivations for denial. Put simply, psychological motivations give you information about the one who believes, but they tell you nothing about the truth of his beliefs.

This is a form of the genetic fallacy in reasoning, faulting an idea solely based on its origin. In this case, the offending source of belief is allegedly psychological, making this challenge an example of the psychogenic fallacy.

You can’t refute an idea by showing—even correctly—the psychological reasons a person happens to believe it. Why? Because psychological motivations have nothing to do with whether a belief is true or not. That evidence must come from other sources.

People have all kinds of twisted motivations to believe things that actually turn out to be true. Others have noble motivations to believe things that are false. Framing the issue this way gets us nowhere in either direction.

Someone says that Christians just want a father figure. I say, “Maybe we do and maybe we don’t, but what does that have to do with whether God exists or not?” I could be wrong in my belief that God is a protective father, and the critic could be wrong in thinking God is a mere psychological projection. Assessing our psychological condition, however, isn’t going to get either of us any closer to the truth.

C.S. Lewis explains why this approach fails:

“Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is ‘wishful thinking.’ You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself.... If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at arithmetic...but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely mathematical grounds.... In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong” (emphasis in the original). [Lewis, Clive Staples, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 272-3.]

Lewis shows that our initial question—Does God exist?—must be answered with reasons first, not dismissed with misleading talk about motives.

Reasons, Not Desires

Suppose I make note of the apparent order and design of the universe, for example, and conclude that some intelligent Being is responsible for them. How could you refute me? There’s only one way: address the merit of the reasons themselves.

It does no more good to say one loves the idea or hates the idea than it does to dismiss one’s conclusion because he has heartburn. Reasons cannot be chased away by desires, motivations, or upset stomachs.

If there are good reasons to believe in God that are not dependent on my emotional condition, then assessing my psychological condition misses the mark entirely. One can never answer the question, “Is God just and idea?” by looking at motivations. Any refutation of God must address my reasons, not my desires.

The question of motivation only enters in as a psychological curiosity once the hard work of refutation has been done. Give me convincing arguments that God doesn’t exist before you ask why I’d believe in such a fantasy.

Many detractors, though, are simply not up to the effort of careful thought. It’s easier, instead, to ignore the arguments and fault the feelings. In this kind of intellectual bullying, “refutation is no necessary part of argument,” Lewis points out.

“Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.” [Lewis, Clive Staples, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 272-3.]

Variations on the Theme

This same theme pops up in many different contexts.

For example, some say, “You only believe in Christianity because you were raised in Western culture.” This remark misses the real issue. It may be true that my culture has influenced my beliefs, but this fact cannot make those beliefs themselves true or false. First, establish that the religious views of Western culture are wrong, then ask why so many would be inclined to believe them. Cultural factors can be significant, but only as they touch the motive of my belief, not its truthfulness.

This error happens all the time in political discourse. A recent newspaper article on banning affirmative action had this subheading: “National Group Says Board Is Motivated by Politics.” But what does motivation have to do with the merits of affirmative action?

Still another variation of the genetic fallacy surfaces in the abortion controversy. If the pro-lifer is male, he’s liable to be dismissed with, “You’re a man.” Some seem to think that gender makes a difference in this debate. However, since arguments have neither testicles nor ovaries, the observation hardly seems relevant. An argument is either a good one or a bad one. The sex of the person voicing it makes no difference. Note, by the way, that the Blackmun court of Roe v. Wade fame was comprised of nine men, no women.

Yes, a pro-lifer might be a man. He might also be uncaring, unloving, and insensitive to the plight of women. He might have a host of other unspecified character flaws, as some claim. But none of these factors bears on the question of whether it’s moral to take the life of an innocent, unborn human being or not. That issue must be decided on other grounds.

Once in a while it is helpful to look at psychological motivation, but only in special situations. Sometimes a thing is believed to be true simply because it’s widely held. Lots of people believe it, so it must be true—or reject it as unpopular, so it must be false.

Certain appeals to general consensus have merit. There may be universal truths that everyone seems to be directly aware of, a collective wisdom reflected in popular beliefs. Usually, though, it’s fair to ask if there is some other explanation for the agreement.

Here the psychological angle does some work, offering an alternate explanation why widely held views might receive popular support. Once again, though, this only identifies the range of possible explanations, inviting us to consider other alternatives. More work needs to be done before a conclusion can be drawn.

Inventing Non-God

There’s a second problem with the view that dismisses God because people have emotional reasons to believe in Him. Let’s turn the question “Is God just a idea?” on its edge for a moment. As C.S. Lewis puts it, let’s “play the game the other way around.” Is atheism a reality, or is atheism just an idea, an emotional crutch, wishful thinking? The ax cuts both ways.

Perhaps atheists are rejecting God because they’ve had bad relationships with their fathers. Instead of inventing God, have atheists invented non-God? Have they invented atheism to escape some of the frightening implications of God’s existence? Think about it.

People of all cultures, from the most primitive to the most advanced, believe in God. There’s more than just psychology here; there’s a reason. They don’t have to work themselves into belief. Quite the contrary, it’s a natural conclusion based on the observed order of the world, more like an effortless response than a contrivance. Even Helen Keller—blind, deaf, and mute—knew of God without being taught.

Most people, when left to their own wits, see beyond the visible to what’s behind it and what explains it. Even atheistic naturalists posit “Mother Nature.” Why would they use this particular phrase? They use it because it seems like someone is there—assembling, building, organizing, designing.

Atheism, not belief in God, is the real anomaly—the response that’s unnatural, forced, and artificial. Disbelief, not belief, takes the real effort. It’s almost as if man has to talk himself out of believing in God; he has to engage in mental gymnastics to dissuade himself of the obvious.

Why would anyone do that when the evidence is so apparent? The motive, I think, is obvious (and here is where the question of psychological motivation has its proper place). If we can somehow convince ourselves God doesn’t exist, then He won’t be cramping our style on Saturday night or keeping us off the beach on Sunday morning. When it comes to our own lives, we don’t like riding shotgun; we want to hold the reins.

God in Man’s Image?

Maybe we made a trade-off, some might suggest. By creating a god who makes demands we surrendered a little autonomy, but we received meaning, significance, and security (or at least the illusion of it) in the swap. But then there’s a different problem.

If we were to invent a god, what would he be like? If we fashioned a god of our choosing, would we create a god like the one in the Bible? A god formed by human hands would mirror human sensibilities and human proclivities. He would think and act, more or less, like we do. As our invention, his morality would reflect our desires. When we erred, he’d cluck his disapproval and then dismiss our frailties with an affectionate kids-will-be-kids shrug. After all, nobody’s perfect. And this is the kind of god many religions seem to produce. Not Christianity, though.

The curious thing about the God of the Bible is how unlike us He is. His wisdom confuses us; His purity frightens us. He makes moral demands we can’t live up to, then threatens retribution if we don’t obey. Instead of being at our beck and call, He defies manipulation. In His economy, the weak and humble prevail and the last become first.

Is the Christian God just an idea? Did we invent Him? Could we invent Him? Is He the kind of god we would create if left to our own devices? Or have we seen the true God and trembled—closed our eyes, hid our faces, and turned our backs?