The Will to Disbelieve - Atheism as Wish Fulfillment

Few things are as vital to understand about man as the two complementary truths that he is both created in the image of God and he is fallen.[1] The first ensures that the existence of God is something man cannot not know; the second that some men will nevertheless deny they know it.

The image of God in man is the basis for what Calvin refers to as a sensus divinitatis. “There is,” he says, “within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.”[2]

He observes further,

To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty… Since, therefore, men one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker, they are condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honor him and to consecrate their lives to his will.[3]

Furthermore, this “awareness of divinity” is inescapable.

That there is some God, is naturally inborn in all, and is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow… [I]t is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget.[4]

How, then, are we to account for the fact that many people—some of them very intelligent and well-educated—deny his existence? This is one of the effects of the fall. In his fallen state, man all too eagerly looks for reasons to disbelieve. As Calvin says, “Many strive with every nerve to this end.”[5]

One man who did this was the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872). He wrote two influential books critical of religion in general and Christianity in particular.[6] Feuerbach attributed the “source of religion” to “the feeling of dependence in man.”[7] Man’s weakness and vulnerability in a dark and dangerous world leave him wishing for the existence of a benevolent, superior power—a deity who can come to his aid. The wish spawns the belief; but in the end “religion is [only] a dream of the human mind.”[8] He says, “To believe, means to imagine that something exists which does not exist… God himself is nothing but the essence of man’s imagination.”[9]

The essence of faith…is the idea that that which man wishes actually is: he wishes to be immortal, therefore he is immortal; he wishes for the existence of a being who can do everything which is impossible to Nature and reason, therefore such a being exists.[10]

God… satisfies our wishes, our emotional wants; he is himself the realized wish of the heart, the wish exalted to the certainty of its fulfillment, of its reality.[11]

Because man can never “get beyond his true nature,” his imagined deity looks a great deal like himself. “He in truth only images and projects himself,” except larger, stronger, and wiser.[12] He explains further, “Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity [i.e., as an objectively existing deity], and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself.”[13]

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) picked up these ideas and popularized them for a 20th century audience. To the extent that people today are familiar with the ideas of projection and wish fulfillment, they have likely heard them in connection with psychoanalytic theory which Freud first developed. Feuerbach was a formative influence on Freud, who described him as “the man whom I revere and admire most among all philosophers.”[14] He famously argued that belief in God originates in a childlike longing for an all-provident, protective father. Man does not believe in God because such a being exists, but because he wishes for such a being to exist. “Religious ideas,” he says, “are illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind.”[15] The strength of these religious ideas derives from the strength of the wishes that spawn them—wishes that arise largely through fear of danger.

We know already that the terrifying effect of infantile helplessness aroused the need for protection—protection through love—which the father relieved, and that the discovery that this helplessness would continue through the whole of life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father—but this time a more powerful one.[16]

This more powerful father is God. When we were helpless children, we looked to our earthly fathers to protect us and provide for us. When we grew up, we came to realize that there were other, even greater dangers than ever we knew as children. As a result, we feel a profound sense of vulnerability and helplessness. We find ourselves wishing for the existence of a “benevolent rule of divine providence [to] allay our anxiety in face of life’s dangers, the establishment of a moral world [to] ensure the fulfilment of the demands of justice…and the prolongation of earthly existence by a future life.”[17] Belief that a being exists who guarantees these things arises from the wish that such a being exists. Hence, he calls the belief a “wish-fulfilment.”[18]

A significant problem with this view, however, is that whatever may be true of other deities, the God of the Bible isn’t the sort one would expect people to invent. He is powerful, yes, and loving. He’s capable of meeting our needs and defending us from danger, and love leads him to do so. But he’s also a rather demanding deity. He insists we obey him. He prohibits us from indiscriminately gratifying our desires. He requires us to deny ourselves by curbing our biological urges, even in some cases the urge to preserve our lives.[19] He commands us to make sacrifices for the good of others. What’s more, he threatens those who violate his commandments with fearful punishments. He’s not the kind of deity one might wish to exist. If he was wholly imaginary, why not imagine him to be a bit more lenient; a god who is untroubled by how we choose to live?

It is difficult for me to resist the notion that the truth is just the opposite of what Feuerbach, Freud, and friends suggest. Might it not be the case that atheism is itself a kind of wish fulfillment? Perhaps it is not believers but unbelievers who are guilty of projecting their wishes onto reality.[20] And why would they wish for such a thing, a godless universe? To feel justified in doing whatever they want to do without fear of a divine, “No!”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) argued that to properly understand a worldview it’s necessary to ask of its proponents, “What morality do they aim at?” He understood that morality is frequently not the consequence of, but the underlying motive for, a philosopher adopting or developing a given worldview.

The moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown. Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself, “What morality do they (or does he) aim at?”[21]

Frequently, the morality in question is sexual morality. In his book Ends and Means, Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) explained the appeal of atheism (which he referred to as a philosophy of meaninglessness) in just these terms. He is worth quoting at length:

I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption.[22]

No philosophy is completely disinterested. The pure love of truth is always mingled to some extent with the need, consciously or unconsciously felt by even the noblest and the most intelligent philosophers, to justify a given form of personal or social behavior… The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.[23]

He goes on to explain that above all “the philosophy of meaninglessness” was used to “justify a political and erotic revolt,” with particular emphasis on the later.

For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever. Similar tactics had been adopted during the eighteenth century and for the same reasons. From the popular novelists of the period…we learn that the chief reason for being ‘philosophical’ was that one might be free from prejudices—above all prejudices of a sexual nature… The desire to justify a certain sexual looseness played a part in the popularization of meaninglessness…[24]

What is this but atheism as wish fulfillment, licentiousness seeking philosophical justification?

More recently, Thomas Nagel, in a chapter entitled “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion,” described his aversion to the thought of a cosmic authority figure.

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind. Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning and design as fundamental features of the world.[25]

Here, I think, we get to the heart of the issue. Nagel fears the existence of a “cosmic authority” figure. And he suspects that many others share this fear. I suspect he’s right. We want what we want when we want it, and we don’t want anyone to tell us “no,” least of all someone whose authority is beyond appeal.

C. S. Lewis, in Surprised by Joy, confessed that this was no small obstacle that stood in his way to believing in God.

What mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If its picture were true then no sort of “treaty with reality” could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost depth of one’s soul (nay, there lest of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance. And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, “This is my business and mine only.”

He goes on to say, “I may have been guilty of wishful thinking. Almost certainly I was. The materialist conception would not have seemed so immensely probable to me if it had not favored at least one of my wishes.”[26]

Jesus provides insight into this with a saying recorded in the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel. “My teaching,” he says, “is not my own, but his who sent me. If anyone is willing to do his will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”[27] Here our Lord indicates that willingness or unwillingness to obey God plays a vital role in faith and unbelief.

Atheists like to charge Christianity with being intellectually untenable, absurd on the grounds of reason and logic; only those who have deeply felt psychological needs believe in him, despite the irrationality of it. But unbelief is less a matter of the intellect than of the will and has its own psychological motives. Resistance to divine authority is a primal instinct of our fallen human nature, despite the “awareness of divinity” within us and “those insignia [without] whereby he shows his glory to us, whenever and wherever we cast our gaze.”[28] Paul speaks of people who know God but who nevertheless “suppress the truth” about him. They fabricate deities more to their liking (Rom. 1:18-25). Some prefer to acknowledge no deity whatsoever (Ps. 10:4). Both are foolish enterprises (Isa. 44:9-20; Ps. 14:1).

What a puzzle and contradiction man is, created in the image of God, and for God, but fallen and rebellious and wishing he did not exist.

[1] See for example, Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6; and Gen. 3; Eccles. 7:29; Romans 5:12
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.3.1
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid 1.3.3; see also 1.4.4, “Yet that seed remains which can in no wise be uprooted: that there is some sort of divinity…a sense of divinity is by nature engraven on human hearts.”
[5] Ibid
[6] The Essence of Christianity (1841) and The Essence of Religion (1846)
[7] The Essence of Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004), p. 1
[8] The Essence of Christianity, Kindle Location 114
[9] The Essence of Religion, p. 69 (emphasis in the original)
[10] The Essence of Christianity, Kindle Location 2615
[11] Ibid, Kindle Location 2480
[12] The Essence of Christianity, Kindle Location 476
[13] The Essence of Christianity, Kindle Location 806
[14] Cyril, Levitt, Sigmund Freud's intensive reading of Ludwig Feuerbach (2012) Psyche 66, pp. 433-455
[15] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (1927), Kindle Locations 522-524
[16] Ibid, Kindle Locations 524-526
[17] Ibid, Kindle Locations 526-528
[18] Ibid, Kindle Location 529
[19] For example, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 16:25)
[20] Not to mention projecting their habit of projection onto believers!
[21] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997), p. 4
[22] Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2012), p. 312
[23] Ibid, p. 315
[24] Ends and Means, p. 316, 317
[25] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 130-131
[26] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York, NY:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), p. 172
[27] John 7:16b-17 (my translation)
[28] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.5.1


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