When life is tough, we all have our coping mechanisms. Some are based in reality, like friendships, and some are not, like drowning our sorrows in alcohol.
For some atheists, religion, and in particular belief in God, is one of those coping mechanisms that isn’t based in reality. Rather, it’s mere wish fulfillment.
This view gets a lot of traction from Sigmund Freud, the nineteenth-century founder of psychoanalysis. In his book The Future of an Illusion, Freud writes:
[Religious beliefs are] illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection—for protection through love—which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life.
For Freud, God is nothing but an invention of our imagination that we conjure because of our desire for protection from the dangers of life. Religious beliefs, therefore, and in particular belief in God, is seen as nothing but a human coping mechanism.
So how do we respond?
First, Freud’s explanation is merely an assertion. He doesn’t offer evidence for his claims. Former atheist and emeritus professor of psychology at New York University Paul Vitz writes:
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.
Since Freud’s theory is an assertion without evidence, one response is simply to negate the assertion: “belief in God is not a construct of the imagination.” Sometimes the only response an assertion requires is another assertion. If Freud’s not interested in giving evidence for his belief, then he can’t demand that we give evidence for ours.
But we don’t have to content ourselves with just contradicting Freud’s objection. We can go farther, in a few different ways, to show that it has no persuasive force.
Consider that Freud assumes there’s no rational grounding for belief in God. The need for a psychological explanation for belief in God would arise only if there were no rational grounds to believe.
But theists throughout the centuries have provided a number of philosophical arguments to establish rational grounds for belief in God (e.g., the fine-tuning argument) and certain knowledge that God exists (e.g., Aquinas’s Five Ways). These arguments have persuaded many to give up their atheism.
Perhaps there are some believers who would fall under Freud’s explanation. But that doesn’t mean that all belief in God is an ungrounded construct of the imagination.
There’s another assumption the argument makes that we could challenge—namely, we should reject religion because it brings us comfort. But why should comfort be the reason to reject religion? How ridiculous would it be to reject every idea that brings us comfort—because it brings comfort? Atheists don’t do that. No one does.
A third response is that this sort of objection cuts both ways. Perhaps it’s true that fear of death, a desire for justice, and a desire to see our lives as having meaning and purpose leads us to believe in a god who made us for eternal life and will reward and punish us based on our deeds. But isn’t it also true that a desire to be free from moral constraints and the oversight of a transcendent God could lead us to think there is no God, and that we’re just clever animals that devise purpose and meaning for our own lives? Perhaps people reject God because they don’t take comfort in the idea of a cosmic judge punishing them for acting against an objective moral law. If the fear of death could explain belief in God, then the fear of punishment could explain the choice not to believe in God. It cuts both ways.
This idea of fear of punishment leads to yet another way we can respond to this sort of objection. Notice that the objection asserts that belief in God is a construct of the imagination in order to lessen our anxieties about the problems of life and bring comfort against the fear of death.
But the person who makes this argument fails to consider that most religions demand unpleasant beliefs and practices. Traditional monotheistic religions deem eternal damnation in hell an essential element of their belief systems. Catholicism demands fasting and abstinence. Christians are supposed to be willing to lose everything, even their life, rather than deny Jesus. Are we to think religious people believe and do these things to bring themselves comfort? Not likely.
Finally, as shown in arguments for God’s existence from the desire for happiness, we can say Freud and the atheists who follow him got it backwards. The desire for God is evidence for God’s existence, not against it.
By nature, we have a craving for infinite goodness. This craving is manifest when we don’t experience the perfect happiness we thought we’d get from goods in this life, like money, fame, and power. Our dissatisfaction with the limitations of these goods reveals that we desire a good that won’t leave us wanting—that’s not limited. That’s infinite goodness.
Now, if nature does nothing in vain, then it follows that there must exist a corresponding satisfaction for that desire—namely, God.
Therefore, rather than our desire for an all-good God explaining why we think God exists, it’s the infinite good, or God, that explains why we desire God. He’s the one who plants the desire for the infinite good within our hearts in order to draw us to himself (Catechism of the Catholic Church 27).
Freud may have missed the mark on the “wish” part of his wish-fulfillment theory, but he hit the bullseye on the “fulfillment” part. God is not just some “wish” our wounded hearts make up—but he certainly does fulfill all of our deepest, most natural desires. As St. Augustine said in reference to God, “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”