Great class today. Our topic was “Is God Just a Human Invention?” Here is a video of the slides I used to present:
I’ve pasted the slide notes below (so you can watch the video and read the notes).
Additionally I handed out a small article called “Rubber Crutches”. That and our note taking form and our discussion questions are pasted below.
Thanks for attending and we’ll see you next week!
Notes that go with each slide:
Today the question we’ll be examining is, “Is God Just a Human Invention?” Are we just deceived into believing in God because this belief makes us feel comforted?
The title of this talk is based on the title of an excellent book of the same title by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow. I would highly recommend the book (hold up book). As you can see, it attempts to answer this question and 17 other questions raised by the new atheists.
So, as usual, as we examine this objection, we will first take a look at what the skeptics and atheists say about this….
First, one of the New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens said “Freud made the obvious point that religion suffered from an incurable deficiency: it was too clearly derived from our own desire to escape from or survive death. The critique of wish-thinking is strong and unanswerable.”
Former governor of Minnesota, and skeptic, Jesse Ventura said “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”
Likewise, Larry Flynt (a publisher who produces sexually graphic videos and magazines, most notably Hustler) says “There’s nothing good I can say about it [religion]. People use it as a crutch.”
American media mogul Ted Turner, founder of the Cable News Network more popularly known as CNN, said “Christianity is a religion for losers!”
In 1843, Karl Marx penned his denunciatory statement on religion that it is the “opiate of the masses”
So, as we’ll see, there are various theories atheists and skeptics advance to try to explain the phenomenon of religious belief…
There are 5 prominent theories that we’ll be covering. Each of these theories attempts to explain why people continue to believe in God. They are:
- Projection Theory
- Opiate of the Masses
- The God Gene
- Richard Dawkins – Memes (and Religion is a Virus of the Mind) theories
- Natural Selection
The first theory we’ll discuss, advanced by Sigmund Freud is the theory of projection.
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who founded the practice of psychoanalysis, a system espousing the theory that unconscious motives dictate much of human behavior. Though championing atheism, Freud admitted that the truth of religion could not be disproved and that religious faith has provided comfort for untold numbers of people through history. However, Freud thought the concept of God was illusionary.
In one of his religious works, The Future of an Illusion, he wrote, “They [believers] give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves.” As to the motivation for creating such illusions,
Freud believed two basic things about this: Number 1) people of faith create a god because (click) they have strong wishes and hopes within them that act as comfort against the harshness of life; number 2) The idea of God (click) comes from the need for an idyllic father figure that replaces either a non-existent or imperfect real father (who doesn’t have one of those???). Speaking of the supposed wish-fulfillment factor in religion, Freud wrote,
“They [religious beliefs] are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. We call belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation and in doing so we disregard its relation to reality….”
For Freud, God was nothing more than a psychological projection that served to shield an individual from a reality he does not want to face and cannot cope with on his own.
What are the problems with Freud’s theory of projection?
It begs the question against God… Freud’s argument is essentially “Since we know God doesn’t exist, what are the psychological explanations of this belief?” His argument assumes from the outset that no object of belief actually exists, which is fallacious, committing the fallacy of Begging the Question.
As a reminder, the fallacy of begging the question is committed when a person merely assumes what he or she is attempting to prove or when the premise of an argument actually depends upon its conclusion.
So, this approach of assuming there is no God is clearly invalid. We actually do have evidence for God’s existence (for example arguments from cosmology, biology, morality, etc.) and that evidence must be dealt with.
As C.S. Lewis said “You must first show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong.” I think this is a powerful response that can be used to defeat any of these objections and theories we are examining today.
The second assumption made by the projection theory is that having beliefs that bring us comfort means that those beliefs are false. But, this does not follow logically.
Philosopher of religion Paul Copan observes that “a belief that brings comfort and solace should not be considered necessarily false. We find comfort in human relationships, and this is perfectly normal, reasonable and healthy. It would be implausible to presume that our finding comfort in something is automatically defective or otherwise wrong.”
The 3rd problem with the projection theory is that it “cuts both ways”. If it can be argued that humans created God out of a need for security or a father figure,
then it can just as easily be argued that atheism is a response to the human desire for the freedom to do whatever one wants without moral constraints or obligations. As the poem Invictus boldly proclaimed, “I am the master of my fate – I am the captain of my soul”
Perhaps atheists don’t want a God to exist because they would then be morally accountable to a deity?
Or maybe atheists had particularly tragic relationships with their own fathers growing up, projected that on God and then spent most of their adult lives trying to kill a “Divine Father Figure”?
Finally, the 4th problem with projection – Perhaps the idea that humans invented God to meet their desires is precisely backward. Perhaps the reason humans have a desire for the divine is because something or someone exists that will satisfy that desire?
C.S. Lewis powerfully articulates this point “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.
A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food.
A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.
Men feel sexual desire: well there is such a thing as sex.
If I find in myself a desire, which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” What a profound (and true) statement!
The 2nd of the 5 reasons why atheists theorize that people believe in God is that “religion is the opiate of the masses”. This is related to the prior theory of projection, but since it is so popularly quoted by atheists, I decided to call it out separately. In 1843, Karl Marx penned this famous statement on religion. Marx’s contention was that religion gives people artificial, illusory happiness—like opium does to a drug addict—and freeing people from that unrealistic illusion was part of building a better society.
Critics such as Marx have charged that religion is an invention designed for people incapable of coping with life’s pressures. Some critics respond that they don’t need this type of emotional comfort, as though that fact falsifies Christianity.
Such individuals often claim to be “stronger” because they’re brave enough to face life without a “crutch.” However, to imply non-religious people don’t need a crutch is misleading. Dependence on drugs, alcohol, tobacco, sex, money, power, other people, and material possessions demonstrates people’s need for a crutch. Atheism—the belief that there is no God—can become a crutch for those addicted to a lifestyle contrary to God’s standards of morality.
However, rather than being weak, Christians are strong—not because they depend on themselves, but because they depend on Jesus. Everyone needs assistance. The question everyone has to answer is, what will you lean on? Christianity provides what atheism or other religions never can: spiritual fulfillment, peace, and forgiveness. I’m going to give you all a short article by Greg Koukl that discusses the idea that Christianity is crutch. (Hand out “rubber crutch” paper) Oddly enough, in this piece, he does not reject the idea that Christianity is a crutch, but rather makes the case that we all need a crutch and challenges each person to consider whether their crutch can actually hold them up.
The 3rd of the 5 reasons atheists and skeptics use to explain belief in God is “the God Gene”. Some in the field of neuroscience are advancing the idea that belief in God is caused by the “God Gene”. Dean Hamer, American geneticist and author, wrote a 2004 book titled “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes”
In this book, Hamer explains the impact of genetics on belief in God. The specific gene in question, is VMAT. The author, claims that this gene accounts for the spirituality that emerges in some people but not others.
So, what’s wrong with this theory of the God Gene?
Firstly, the author himself admits his title is overstated. In a later interview, he said there “probably is no single gene”… Admissions after the fact like this are rarely ever publicized sufficiently to correct public misconceptions.
Additionally, none of Hamer’s work was subjected to peer review by other geneticists or published in any scientific journals. And the study on which the book was based, was never repeated.
Human Genome project director, Francis Collins, responded to this theory by saying, very bluntly, “There is no gene for spirituality”
Finally, the last problem with the “God Gene” theory is that Neuroscience can’t prove that religious belief is nothing more than a by-product of brain states or chemistry. The mind or soul is clearly correlated with certain brain states or chemistry,
but the mind or soul is not identical or reducible to them. This is a great challenge to the “materialistic worldview”. Materialists claim that the mind reduces to the brain – that there really is no such thing as the mind or consciousness. However, they face major difficulties with this view. Here are what a few of the experts say about the mind-brain connection and consciousness…
David Chalmers, an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist specializing in the area of philosophy of mind, says “No explanation given wholly on physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience.”
And Jerry Fodor, author of “In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind ”, says We don’t know… how a brain (or anything else that is physical) could manage to be a locus of conscious experience. This …is, surely, among the ultimate metaphysical mysteries; don’t bet on anyone ever solving it.
Alan Wallace, author of “The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness”, says “if mental phenomena are in fact nothing more than emergent properties and functions of the brain, their relation to the brain is fundamentally unlike every other emergent property and function in nature.”
The 4th reason atheists advance to explain belief in God is something called “Memes”. This view is put forth by Richard Dawkins, who suggests our beliefs arise from these “memes”, which are described as discrete memorable units, like catchphrases and slogans. Additionally Dawkins is a strong proponent of the idea that religious beliefs are, what he calls, “viruses of the mind”.
But Alister McGrath responds in the book Dawkins’s God (Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life), “If all ideas are memes or the effects of memes, Dawkins is left in the decidedly uncomfortable position of having to accept that his own ideas must be recognized as the effects of memes.”
If ideas arising from memes are unreliable, then not only religion, but also materialism, science and reason are undermined. On the other hand, if scientific ideas arising from memes can still be true, why can’t the same be said for belief in God?
Now we’ll cover some additional problems with memes and the “viruses of the mind” theory.
Unlike Genes (and genetics), there is no scientific evidence that memes actually exist. Dawkins reveals as much. He says, “We don’t know what memes are made of or where they reside. Memes have not yet found their ‘Watson and Crick’ [co-discoverers of DNA]; they even lack their Mendel [the founder of the science of genetics]”
Are we to conclude that there is a “meme for belief in memes”? Alister McGrath observes, “The meme concept then dies the slow death of self-referentiality, in that, if taken seriously, the idea explains itself as much as anything else.”
Let’s briefly return to the notion that religion is a virus of the mind. This certainly gives a negative impression – that belief in God is a dangerous idea… But, the question is, “how does one decide what is a dangerous idea and what is a beneficial idea?” And “Why are the ideas that Dawkins dislikes (e.g., religion or God) viruses of the mind, but others like Darwinian evolution are pure, safe and beneficial?”
All these ideas would have infectiously leaped from mind to mind. All would function as memes in his view. It seems wholly arbitrary and subjective to prefer one set of beliefs and condemn another. Each and every argument that Dawkins advances for his idea of ‘God as virus of the mind’ can be countered by proposing the opposite – that ‘atheism is a virus of the mind’. Both ideas are equally unsubstantiated and meaningless.
The 5th and final theory we’ll be covering today on why atheists and skeptics think that belief in God persists is the idea that it is a by-product of natural selection.
Some scientists turn to the emerging field of evolutionary psychology to explain the roots of religion. Perhaps humans were hardwired to believe in God by the process of natural selection (they say)? Maybe this belief was for human survival (they theorize)? Many experiments strongly suggest that “human minds come into the world with all sorts of ‘software’ both preinstalled and booted up” and that “some of this software manifests itself right from birth, while other bits of it become operative at specific times in human development.
Michael J. Murray, quoted in the book “Contending with Christianity’s Critics”, says “We have a mental tool that makes us think there are agents around when we detect certain sounds (bumps in the night), (click for next image) motions (rustling in the bushes), or (click for next image) configurations (crop circles) in nature.
This “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device”, as it’s called, (or “HADD”) causes humans
to hypothesize invisible agents that, for example, control the forces of nature.
And this disposes us to belief in the supernatural
“ROBIN HENIG writes in Darwin’s God,
“Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm…Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. (click) If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead…. What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic.”
So, what’s wrong with the idea of natural selection and “agent detection” accounting for our belief in God? For one thing, this notion makes the assumption that God doesn’t actually exist – another example of “Begging the Question”. But if God does exist it is reasonable to think that He has designed humans to form these beliefs
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
So, it needs to be pointed out that this “agent detection” feature of humans could be resulting from the fact that God actually exists and that He has designed humans to form these kinds of beliefs.
Blaise Pascal once famously said that “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man”… So, this idea that our “hyperactive agency detection” was put there by our Creator, rather than simply evolved due to it having a “survival advantage”, is certainly reasonable.
This reminds me of a fallacy. For those of you who went through the fallacies material with me last year, you may remember the formal fallacy “Affirming the Consequent”. Here is one example that makes it clear what this fallacy is:
If it is snowing, then it must be cold outside.
It is cold outside.
Therefore, it must be snowing.
But clearly just because it is cold outside does not necessarily mean that it must be snowing, right? So, this argument is invalid.
In the same way, you could substitute the “Natural Selection” argument in there:
If natural selection is the reason for belief in God, then belief in God must have had a survival advantage
Belief in God can be shown to have a survival advantage
Therefore Natural Selection is the reason for belief in God
But, just because you can demonstrate reasons that belief in God confers a survival advantage, doesn’t mean that God does not exist. Theists (those who believe in God) would also expect that belief in God would result in human flourishing. So, in this way, the argument is shown to be fallacious.
If belief in God is hardwired, there are 2 possible explanations:
- Blind process of natural selection produces religious belief over time as a by-product with some selective advantage
- An Intelligent Mind designed humanity to naturally believe God exists.
So, its critical to ask the question, “What is the evidence for God?” and “Which view is more reasonable?”
So, let’s recap where we’ve been – we’ve covered a lot of material here.
The charge coming from the skeptics and atheists is that “God is Just a Human Invention”. They try to support their case with several theories which we’ve examined here today…
Here are the theories we’ve covered:
- (click) Projection Theory (which was advanced by (click) … Freud) – the theory that God was created by man to comfort him against the harshness of life and to create a father figure
- (the related) (click) Opiate of the Masses (which was put forth by (click) … Karl Marx) – The theory that religion was created by man to give people “artificial happiness”, similar to taking opiumn.
- (click) The God Gene (which was written about by (click) … Dean Hamer) – the theory that some of us are just genetically hardwired to believe in God
- (click) Memes / Virus of the Mind theories (proposed by (click) … Richard Dawkins) – the theory that our beliefs arise from “Memes”, which are memorable catchphrases and slogans, and he also proposed that religion is a dangerous idea that is transmitted from mind to mind like a virus.
- (click) Natural Selection (which comes out of the field of (click) … evolutionary psychology) – the idea that belief in God gave humans an evolutionary advantage because we can detect invisible agents controlling things.
We’ve analyzed each of these theories, examining the ways in which they all fall short, failing to defeat the idea that God is simply a human invention.
I certainly hope that you will now find yourself to be more equipped to answer this objection – that you would feel confident knowing that the faith you hold is not mere wish fulfillment and that those who make that charge, impugn their own ideas in the same breath – they saw off the branch their sitting on.
Now do you have any thoughts you want to share with me or would like to comment on the material we’ve covered?
Everyone has a crutch. Will yours hold you up?
When people ask me, “Isn’t Christ just a crutch?” I have a simple reply. I tell them, “You’re right. Christ is a crutch. But you’ve asked the wrong question.”
No one makes fun of a lame person who uses a crutch. So the real question is, “Am I lame; am I crippled?” because crippled people need crutches.
The fact is, everybody leans on something. As a Christian I lean on Jesus, because He’s a crutch that can hold me. What about you?
When I was a kid and someone told a dumb joke, we’d say, “That’s as funny as a rubber crutch.” The point is “rubber crutches” aren’t funny. As it turns out, though, a lot of people are leaning on rubber crutches.
The real question is not whether you have a crutch or not. Everybody does. The real question is, “Can your crutch hold you?”
What’s your fancy? What is it that makes your life work for you? A relationship? A secure job? Your bank account? Your health? Power? All of those are rubber crutches.
If whatever you’re depending on for security and significance can be here today and gone tomorrow, then you’re in trouble. You’re leaning on a rubber crutch. And that’s not funny.
Yes, Christians lean on Christ. Call it a crutch if you want, but our crutch can hold us.
One person put it this way: A Christian is one who has come to the end of his rope. He admits his deep need. He knows he’s crippled in many ways, and needs help. When you finally come to your senses and realize you’re deeply crippled and dying, Christ isn’t “just” a crutch—He’s an iron lung.
Is God Just a Human Invention?
Purpose of the message:
Naturalistic / Atheist Theories Regarding Belief in God:
- P___________________________ T_________________________
- O_____________________ of the M___________________
- The G____________ G__________________
- M____________s and V______________ of the M_______________
- N____________________ S_________________________
- Do you see a common theme running through all these naturalistic theories about belief in God?
- What is projection theory and why does it fail to defeat belief in God as rational?
- What is the difference between “correlation” and “causation”? How is that relevant to these theories?
- What is a “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” and why is it relevant to this topic?
- Have you heard of any of these theories prior to this? If so, were any of them compelling?
- Christians get accused of making “God of the Gaps” arguments (what we don’t yet understand, we attribute to God). What line of reasoning do skeptics and atheist continually seem to resort to? What is their “god”?
- How can these theories and arguments be turned around and used to explain atheist’s disbelief in God?