Belief in God: It’s Just Wishful Thinking

“You only believe in God because you want someone to be there. You want your life to have meaning and purpose, you want the comfort of knowing someone is in control of it all. In short, your faith is simply a psychological crutch.”

Have you come across some form of this argument? This common objection against faith in God seeks to argue that many people only believe because they want to believe. That is, they do not believe on grounds of good reason. Belief in God, the argument goes, typically occurs as a result of experiencing pain, or worry, or heartache – something negative – to which the person responds by choosing to believe in God to make things better.

This person is described as projecting a view of God, in much the same way, perhaps, that a child believes that good fairies are protecting them whilst they sleep from all the nasty goblins and things under the bed. It is a belief that one believes to be true in order to feel better.

The God Argument by A. C. Grayling
The God Argument by A. C. Grayling

I was at a recent talk in Oxford listening to A. C. Grayling, the celebrated philosopher and one of the so-called New Atheists, whose recent book The God Argument seeks to counter faith in religion with an optimistic view of humanism.

One of the more heavily pushed arguments from Grayling that evening was this one of ‘wish fulfilment’. Grayling actually likened the argument for the existence of God as akin to an argument for fairies at the end of the garden (a topic Sarah Abbey deals with well here).

What Does This Argument Really Prove?

Grayling was offering this argument in support of the idea that there is no God. But wait just a minute. What is the argument actually saying? It may be laid out like this:

  • Many people believe in God for psychological reasons
  • These psychological reasons aren’t reasonable
  • Without good reasons for God it’s unreasonable to say that God exists
  • Therefore God doesn’t exist

However there is a huge jump from premise two to premise three! Since when did how anyone believe in anything amount to any sort of evidence for/against that very thing?!

Let me liken it to this: I might believe that airplanes are carried magically across the sky by hoards of tiny invisible bats, contrary to all the laws of lift and thrust etc. I would be completely unreasonable in my belief structure but that doesn’t mean that airplanes don’t exist!

It’s entirely possible to do the sums wrong and end up with the right answer.

For and Against

Additionally, this same argument may be used against the non-believer. Could we not say that non-belief in God could just be wish-fulfilment also? That is, that you don’t want someone to be there, someone to say what is right and what is wrong, someone that might interfere with you life? You don’t want there to be a higher power so you believe and live in such a way that say there isn’t?

The fact of the matter is that how someone believes in God does not speak to the reasonableness of the existence of God. There are many reasonable cases to be made for God, including the evidence for the Resurrection, the detailed eyewitness accounts of Jesus, the argument from morality, and the historical case for Jesus to name but a few that we have covered.

Dismissing the existence of God because of how some choose to believe in God does not make for a compelling case, and further more scuttles itself by the very fact that this argument is not reasonable.

What about you? Have you come across this sort of argument? If so, do you find that there is merit to it or not? What has your response been to those who employ this argument? Leave us a comment below.

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  • Phil Benson

    What I find frustrating about the ‘New Atheists’ is the assumption that, as a Christian, I’m stupid, or if not stupid, I’ve not thought very carefully about my faith. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, and you’re a reasonably thoughtful sort of person, then you’ll have had doubts. If you’re still a Christian then you’ll have wrestled with those doubts and come up with an answer that can satisfy that doubt: probably by a lot of thought and prayer.

  • Stephen Edwards

    This argument is nothing new, as I recall, Don Cupitt argued similarly quite some time ago. Hardly a “New” atheism then? But I think we need to be careful how we approach such arguments and that we are not suckered into a position where we find it necessary to constantly justify the “reasonableness” of God because the existence of God is not the real deal (James 2:19ff) what is important is an encounter with the risen Christ.

    That there may or may not be a divine other, an unmoved mover, a root and ground of being is, as far as our well being, our living, and our eternal future is concerned by and by; because unless that divine other has acted and indeed does act on our behalf, unless God is involved to our betterment then we might as well be atheists and a theistic argument for the reasonableness of his existence counts for nothing.

    Further, that something may be reasonable doesn’t necessarily make it so. There are plenty of examples in nature of things which are not necessarily reasonable but are still true (bumble bees flying for example). Reasonableness is, I would argue, culturally determined, that is what is reasonable to one people at one time in history may not be so to another or to the same people at a different time or setting.

    Therefore whilst we cannot ignore these anti-christian polemicists we must not let them distract us from our true course which is proclamation of the message of hope to be found in the resurrection of Jesus and the power of God to change lives today.

  • I hear you Phil. I find it’s all too easy to put people into boxes – both people of religious belief and those without. It’s so important to get to know someone, to understand their position, to try to relate. For the Christian, we’re interested in the person over and above the argument.

  • Hi Stephen. Thanks for the points! I think what tends to differentiate the ‘new atheists’ from all the other atheists is the amount of zeal that they display in their anti-religion stance. But as you say, the arguments are hardly nothing new.

    I’m not sure I totally agree with your statement that reasonableness is “culturally determined” but I think I see what you’re getting at. What I would agree with is that we shouldn’t get caught up in reason, logic etc. alone, but that we should point people to Jesus.

    It just so happens that the person of Jesus, through his death and resurrection, also happens to make much sense of the world and He is both a true and reasonable answer to the questions being asked!

  • deborah alexander

    Resistance to god in general, christianity in particular is almost always moral than intelluctual. The other day when i told my hindu friend that all of us are sinners in need of forgiveness, she was askiing me on what and whose standard, i call everyone a sinner. People who are reasonable in other ways become very unresonable when they see the questions raised against their way of life

  • debbie_94510

    I suppose that an infant desperately wanting and needing its mother is just displaying wishful thinking, as we all know that infants’ mothers are never there for them. Atheism is for total morons.

  • Good point Deborah – there are emotional, spiritual, psychological reasons etc. Christianity is much more – but not less – than an intellectual position.

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  • al

    Stop living your lives through fairy tales !

    You are all trying to believe something that was produced 2000yrs ago !

    people then had such a different view on things that our brains these days cant comprehend.

    Even up to 400 years ago we burnt ‘witches’,come on people its 2013,all this crap is well disproved..its all produced by frightened people who,made up stories and didnt understand even what dreams were.Lets all dispell religion to the distant past and realise there is no ‘God’ of any persuasion..follow science everyone..and understand that when your dead,’YOU’RE DEAD !,and deal with it

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  • Hi Al,

    I’d be interested in seeing some of those sources you mention that show Christianity is “well disproved”.

    Christianity has much evidence to offer, that, when stacked up against other belief systems comes out on top.

    Happy to start a conversation based on following the evidence. I’m just as keen not to be fooled by fairy tales as I think you are.

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  • Adrian Morgan

    Your opening argument is flawed. Your conclusion should be that your magical bats don’t exist not your aeroplane.

  • Brian Pierson

    Nice long-winded argument from ignorance, muddled with appeals to modernity and appeals to ridicule.

  • I’m not sure I see this Adrian. When we’re talking about positing the existence of God we need to talk about all the arguments for the existence of God, rather than focus solely on, and take apart the reasons that some people have for believing in God.

    The object in question – in the example the aeroplane – is what we’re focussing on, not the belief mechanisms – in this case the bats.

    Arguing against the existence of God citing poor belief structures is sloppy and cheap. There are much better conversations to be had 🙂

  • Martin Peter Clarke

    Acknowledge that they are perfectly reasonable in that assumption Phil. We are to count all as more worthy than ourselves. We have no right to be frustrated with ‘them’. It’s not their fault. Our answers are for us, not for them.

  • Martin Peter Clarke

    Jonathan, arguing for it in the face of Oncherca volvulus boring children’s eyes out from the inside is … offensive.

  • Martin Peter Clarke

    Like Einstein. Hawking. Fry.

  • Martin Peter Clarke

    And rightfully so. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

  • Hi Martin. Not sure I understand how your comment directly relates to the question in hand. It appears to me more on the lines of an objection to the existence of God based on the suffering (and perhaps apparent meaningless suffering) in the world which we’ve looked at a little bit in other blogs.

  • Martin Peter Clarke

    I can’t not believe in God Jonathan. Despite the utterly contingent suffering epitomized by the evolution of Onchocerca volvulus. I don’t believe in Him due to apologetics which ALWAYS play to a draw. To overcome the relative simplicity of the materialist synthesis with the more complex un-parsimonious antithesis of theism requires not just a draw. It requires overwhelming evidence. There is no such thing and therefore never will be. Unless God steps in to creation again. And not ‘just’ felt in my heart. Apologetics are for the converted, post-hoc. They can’t possibly convince anyone, win the game of rhetorical tennis.

    I have not yet encountered any apologetic for the horrors of existence apart from God’s answer to Job: ‘Have you seen the hippo?’. In other words, don’t worry about it. I’m on it. Trust me. And just in case we didn’t hear that, He came as a bloke and said it again. Without the hippo. And with just be kind regardless.
    There is no explanation for why God cannot intervene beyond the circumstances of the incarnation, but He obviously can’t. If He could make dust love without its children getting their eyes bored inside out, He would. He can’t. Creation hurts everyone involved. It is therefore worth it. For everyone. All will be well for all despite the helpless horror of it all.

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  • Kilroy

    I grew up Catholic but now I feel indifferent from it.
    I feel like there’s more than just God. There’s different dimensions. But how can I prove what I see is real., like how can the people who claim to seen miracles real. I’m confused. My friend says always proof it..
    But it’s like I can’t. He says we came from apes. I don’t believe it. Cause there’s a missing link they have yet to discover. And can’t. Ugh. I’m all over the place


  • Hi Kilroy. I think with all decisions in life, it’s best to base them on some evidence. The larger the decision, the larger the amount of evidence ought to be.

    With Christianity, there are many claims – historical, existential, moral etc. – that can and should be investigated to see if they hold up to scrutiny.

    The heart of the Christian faith shows a man, claiming to be God, who died 2,000ish years ago outside a Middle Eastern city, and then came back to life. This might be a good starting point for enquiry! If this is demonstrably false, then Christianity can be rejected and we can move on to other areas of thought. If this is true, or if the evidence appears in favour of it, then this changes everything.

    We’ve written on ‘The Facts of the Resurrection’ in a 4-part series here: