When former pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura became Governor of Minnesota (a miracle in itself), he famously said that religion is a crutch. Belief in God is for weak-minded people who need to toughen up.

His comment actually reflected a major argument against the existence of God made most popular by the father of modern psychology himself, Sigmund Freud.

Freud basically said that God is just an illusion, an illusion which we create in our minds to meet a deep psychological need. As human beings, we are vulnerable to all kinds of forces outside of our control: forces of nature, stronger people who can do us harm, injustice, rejection, illness, futility, meaninglessness, and especially death. So, according to Freud, we create the idea of God—in particular, a loving, fatherly God capable of giving us eternal life—as a psychological defense mechanism to compensate for these vulnerabilities. This gives us great comfort in the face of life’s harsh realities which otherwise might overwhelm us.

Thus, God is just a projection of our minds, a figment of our imagination.

Some even claim to have identified the source of this illusion, the so-called “God gene.”

However, Freud’s point was that this infantile illusion ends up handicapping us. It’s pathological, preventing us from achieving psychological maturity. In other words, it keeps us from becoming fully functioning, thriving and liberated human beings.

Freud’s prescription? Essentially the same as Ventura’s: grow up! To be psychologically healthy and whole, we need to abandon this illusion. We need to toughen up, to face reality and deal with the cards we’re dealt.

In fact, Freud thought that as the human race became more educated, we would naturally outgrow this need for God. That as we became more sophisticated, more aware, more liberated by the insights of modern science and psychology, we would gladly shed this primitive superstition.

This hasn’t happened, however. Even as the world is modernizing, the numbers of those who believe hasn’t declined. They’re actually on the rise. It seems that this need for God is built-in.

So what justifies concluding that this “crutch,” this deep-seated human need for God, is only an illusion? It could just as easily be evidence that God exists: if there is a God who created us for Himself, then it makes perfect sense that we would feel this need. It could just as well be placed there by God to draw us to Himself.

If we have a “God-gene,” it might be by design.

I know, this is a completely unsatisfying result—it’s a toss-up whether God exists or not. Is there anything that can tip the scale? Actually, two things.

First, what comfort? As any serious believer can attest, belief in God is not always a source of comfort! Yes, in the face of injustice, suffering, meaninglessness and death, many times it does yield a hope, peace, and even joy that this world can’t give. But many other times it demands tremendous sacrifice. To believe that there is a personal God who loves you, is also to acknowledge His profound claim over your life. As in any relationship, you must give yourself over to the Other. And in the case of the Absolute Other, this means giving all of yourself, your entire will.

But, for those who truly feel their need for God, it goes much deeper. It means radical dependence, a complete letting go, giving up control over your life. The whole “lose your life to gain your life” thing. Most of us would not view this complete loss of control as a comfort at all. Instead, we find it terrifying, painful, and at times, crushing. It actually leaves you feeling more vulnerable, raw, and fragile, at least until you can finally yield control, which is usually a life-long process.

So, no. Belief in God doesn’t always give you the warm fuzzies in the face of life’s terrors. It often propels you head-long into them!

Freud claimed that the God we project exists to fulfill all our deep-rooted desires for a gentle, fatherly figure. However, in many ways, God inspires fear and dread among believers, often causing them to feel the weight of His judgment. This is not the kind of God one makes up to conquer fear. It is very unlikely we would have created the illusion of this kind of (at times) dreadful and demanding God as some kind of psychological defense mechanism.

Second, I recently came across an intriguing study that was done on a group of people making an Ignatian retreat. Ignatian retreats involve prolonged periods of silence. This solitude affords participants the opportunity to focus intently on their relationship with God. As a result, many report very pleasant and/or intense experiences of “communing” with him, which, in turn, results in a heightened sense of well-being. The study revealed that retreatants usually showed significant increases in levels of dopamine, which is to be expected since dopamine is normally correlated with a sense of well-being.

More and more, studies like this one are showing similar results. There seems to be a strong correlation between faith in God and a deep sense of peace and happiness. There also seems to be a strong correlation between faith in God and physical and mental health. Those who believe in God, specifically, a personal God who cares for them, tend to live longer, have better health, experience less anxiety and depression, are more psychologically “functional” and report being “happier” than average.

A little over a decade ago, Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi studied Harvard students who had some kind of conversion to religious belief. The results were published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Using the metrics of modern psychology, he found that they were significantly more functional after their conversion than before.

Freud would have predicted the opposite.

A 2002 University of Pennsylvania study analyzed close to seven hundred other peer-reviewed studies on the relationship between religious faith, particularly in a personal God, with physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. Overwhelmingly, these studies showed that belief is associated with better health, a deeper sense of well-being, fewer pathologies and destructive behaviors, greater achievement and satisfaction in life, and longer life span.

All this research suggests that a relationship with God produces a significant improvement in quality of life and a profound sense of well-being; which is exactly what you’d expect if this is what we are really made for!

Even during his life, Freud lamented the fact that those holding a religious belief demonstrated higher gratification. He lamented this not only because it contradicted his theory that belief in God is pathological, and thus leads to less gratification, but also, as he frankly admitted, he could never bring himself to believe in God and experience this gratification for himself.

There is much, much more to say about how this in-built need for God, otherwise known as our “transcendent longing,” points to the existence of God.

Another post for another time.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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