Is religion a psychological crutch?

Andy, is Christianity a psychological crutch? 

You know I hear that question, that objection, Alan, from atheists quite frequently and I guess it runs like this: you know religion is merely a comfort blanket, a psychological crutch for people are just too weak to deal with the difficulties of life and and thus Christians believe in God, not because it’s true but because it’s comforting, it’s soothing to believe there’s a beneficent being up there in the sky, that there’s life after death and and so on. It’s a very kind of sneering way of dismissing religious belief without even looking at it. 

The problem of course for atheism is you can take the psychological crutch argument and you can spin it 180 degrees. After all, if there is no God then maybe religion IS a psychological crutch. But if there IS a God then maybe it’s atheism that’s the psychological crutch. Maybe my atheist friends are actually profoundly uncomfortable by the idea that they can’t live lives of unfettered hedonism. That maybe that after they die they will face the judge of the universe who will hold them to account for their life and so terrifying that my atheist friends find this but the best thing they’ve come up with is to just pretend there isn’t a god and thus the argument cuts the other way. In fact as my friend John Lennox of Oxford University once remarked he said, You know atheists sometimes like to say that religion is a belief for people who are afraid of the dark, well maybe atheism as a belief for people are afraid of the light. 

An what that little sort of one-liner gets us to is that psychological arguments don’t tell us whether something is true. How I feel about something, how you feel about something, doesn’t tell us if it exists. I mean I love the idea – I find the idea of ice cream extremely engaging, I’m drawn to the belief in strong cappuccinos. I also love the idea of miniature roller skating dragons, but only two of those things actually exist and one doesn’t how I feel about it doesn’t tell you which are real and which isn’t and when it comes to atheism and Christianity, I think there’s only one good reason to be an atheist there’s only one good reason to be a Christian and that’s if it’s actually true which brings us out of the realm of psychology and into the realm of evidence, we actually need to examine the evidence. 

And when it comes to evidence even on the psychological level a couple of things interest me in this whole discussion before we get into all the massive arguments from science and philosophy and history that we’ve covered in Short Answers. One of the things around psychology that interests me that I’d say to my atheist friends is – isn’t it interesting that psychologically human beings are wired for belief in God, uniquely among all the creatures in creation I mean squirrels don’t sit around having sort of theological discussions. You know rabbits don’t have existential crises other than where the next carrot is coming from. But human beings have invested so much time and effort and energy and exploring and thinking about engaging with the big questions of life, that tells me we do seem to be designed that way and as the great Christian writer Augustine once put it he said it does seem to be the case that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. We do seem to be wired for connection with the divine and it’d be very weird if there was nothing out there to connect to.

But the other issue that I think the psychological argument raises for me is the fact that if Christianity were just a psychological crutch, i.e., just something we designed for ourselves because it was comforting you know I don’t know about you I’d have done a much better job quite frankly because Christianity is tough. Jesus calls us, he says take take up your cross and follow me. Christianity demands self-sacrifice laying aside ourselves and putting God first and others first. And if I was designing a religion that suited me I’d come up with lots of easy rules like you can lie in on Sunday morning, you can eat as much chocolate as you like you can do what you like, with who you like, whenever you like. I would not have come up with something as radical and as and as counter to the self as take up your cross and follow me. 

And so yes Christianity offers tremendous benefits to us. It offers us forgiveness, it offers us peace with God, it offers us hope and identity and all of those things but at great personal cost. But of course the reason Christianity can demand that cost is because Jesus paid that great cost to make all of that possible. But that’s not a psychological claim. That claim about Jesus is a historical claim and the only way to know whether it’s true is to examine the evidence. And then having examined the evidence if, as an atheist you begin to realize actually there’s a horrible chance this may actually be true. If you then turn and walk away – well that’s you who has a psychological problem and it’s probably one that even the greatest psychiatrists can’t personally help you with.