Sigmund Freud (1859-1939), the father of psychoanalysis, formally developed the psychological theory that human beings invented God out of desire to find security in the midst of a fearful natural world.1
In his book The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud developed the theory that human beings face a frightening world full of natural calamities and, ultimately, the terrifying fear of death itself. Therefore just as a child looks to his father for comfort and solace during frightening times so adults do the same thing with regard to God. Out of fear and a desire to be protected human beings project a belief in an imaginary cosmic father figure (God).
Freud viewed religious beliefs as lacking any rational foundation, so the concept of God is merely an illusion arising from human wishful thinking. He identified belief in God as an “infantile neurosis” (a disorder of the mind) because the adult refuses to mature.
Freud thought that the mature person would embrace a more rational perspective on reality and cast off the illusions of religion. However, he was pessimistic about the prospect of most people overcoming their infantile state of mind. In a similar vein, outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins has called religious beliefs a “mental virus” that resulted from a genetic defect in human evolution.
Freud’s Worldview Though Dawkins views religion as the world’s most pernicious force, Freud saw benefits from religion and even admitted that his theory about how belief in God originated cannot be proved. In fact, he apparently believed that the truth or falsity of religious claims could not be rationally verified, though he presumed them to be unreliable and false. He also granted that his theory of religion was not derived from clinical evidence. Scholars have asserted that Freud embraced a strictly naturalistic worldview without a careful evaluation of the rational arguments for grounding faith that religious thinkers offered over the centuries.
Critiquing Freud’s Wishful Thinking Theory
Freud’s projection of a cosmic father theory to explain religion is weak and open to many valid criticisms, including these five:2
Freud’s theory commits the genetic fallacy. It confuses the supposed ‘origin’ of belief in God with its epistemological warrant (justifying reasons). In other words, the crucial question is not how the belief originated, but rather whether the belief is true or has a rational basis. Additionally, even if belief in God had come about through human fear (a doubtful assumption), plenty of arguments still offer logical justification for a rational belief in God.
The God of the Bible is not necessarily the kind of God one would want to project. While God is loving and gracious, he is also perfectly holy, just, and wrathful (Isaiah 6:3; Psalm 89:14; Romans 1:18). A person could certainly find a tamer deity to invent.
What people want and desire by nature sometimes does exist. C. S. Lewis’s “argument from desire”3 reasons thusly: The intrinsic needs of human beings (e.g., hunger, thirst, sexual desire) are fulfilled by extrinsic realities (food, drink, sexual intercourse). Since the vast majority of human beings have an intrinsic need to experience transcendence, there is likely an extrinsic transcendent reality (God) to fulfill this need. Rather than committing the wishful thinking fallacy, Lewis’s argument may be viewed as a type of inference to the best explanation about human nature.
Freud’s theory, rather than refuting the objective existence of God, may instead identify a reasonable explanation for how God naturally reveals himself to human beings. The Bible uniquely speaks of God as a loving Father. In fact, Jesus Christ spoke of God as Abba, literally meaning “daddy” (Mark 14:36). It seems natural that people would reason analogically from their earthly father to their heavenly Father. None of the other world religions focus upon God as a loving, caring Father who can be intimately known.
Freud’s theory can be turned on its head and used to critique atheism. New York University psychologist Paul Vitz sets forth in his book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, that atheists are more likely candidates for projection than religious believers. He argues that many atheists seem to have rejected God (a projective denial) because they have suffered from either weak, abusive, or absent fathers. Vitz presents biographical evidence that the major atheists from the Enlightenment to modern times (including Hume, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell, and Sartre) had either weak, abusive, or absent fathers. He also shows that most of the major theists over the same period (including Pascal, Berkeley, Wilberforce, Newman, Chesterton, and Barth) by contrast had loving, nurturing fathers. The argument is that if a child has no father or has a troubled relationship with his father then it is difficult to transfer trust to a heavenly Father (God).
Psychological attempts to explain away belief in God as illusion seem logically weak and lack authentic explanatory power. While Christian theological beliefs involve the human psyche, the truth and reality of the faith itself rests not upon wishful, but on objective thinking.
- For an evaluation of Freud’s theory of religion, see “Freud and Religious Belief,” in William L. Rowe, Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1993), 103-14; and John A. Hutchison, Living Options in World Philosophy (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1977), 92-112.
- For thoughtful Christian critiques of the projection theory, see J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 228-31; and Paul Copan, That’s Just Your Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 110-17.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 120.