March 19, 2014

Wish Fulfillment and Christianity

Joe Boot tackles the myth that Christianity is an anesthetic to help people soothe away their troubles and temporarily escape reality. Instead, he shows how its objective is to highlight and expose the root of our common problem [sin] and then to remove and overcome it through Jesus Christ.

 A common objection to our faith in contemporary Western society is that Christianity is essentially divorced from real life and concerned only with a future imaginary world resulting from human wish fulfilment. It is thus seen as neither practical nor of ‘real-time’ usefulness. For many a secularist, the Christian faith may be of some limited interest to those concerned with spiritual artefacts, ancient beliefs and mystical traditions, but it is not about real life, nor does it address the problems of today. The Bible is falsely yet consistently thought of as a compilation of unreliable history, sage poetic musings and a great deal of mythology. As a result, too many hastily assume that carefully looking at its message would be a waste of time and an exercise in studied irrelevance. Moreover, isn’t the Bible a moribund and draconian set of hateful moral teachings, restrictive and old-fashioned? Given all this, how can its message possibly be relevant to us in the Western world, with all our sophistication and technological advancement? Yet in my experience, many who strongly object to the Christian faith as mere wish fulfilment have never even read one of the gospels in the New Testament. 

Some of today’s public intellectuals will reluctantly concede that this ‘delusional’ Christianity at least has some psychological and physiological benefit. Indeed, some of its moral teachings about, say, monogamy, can be shown to be healthy and rewarding as a lifestyle choice – this, they say, may be true of religion in general. An authentic personal spirituality may be useful in order to get you through life’s problems and can aid a quick recovery from illness, they tell us. Religious devotion gives people a little relief from the anxiety of life, in a similar way to what golf or tennis, yoga or meditation, can do – they are all valid forms of escapism. Hence, the Christian faith may be tolerated to a degree and is not problematic, so long as believers keep their faith to themselves and regard it as a purely private matter. However, any attempt at propagating one’s own existential religious perspective as the ‘truth’ is a gross violation of the contemporary and unquestioned doctrine of equal ‘tolerance’ for all views – although some views are naturally less tolerable than others! 

Then there are those who push the ‘wish fulfilment’ theory of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, even further. This view has been increasingly popularised by Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others. These people and their devotees claim to think of Christianity as a dangerous, even evil form of self-delusion, which is at best a psychological crutch for those unwilling to face life in all its stark reality. In other words, Christianity does for the intellectually weak what intoxication and drug use does for others. It provides an artificial atmosphere to give temporary escape from life, so that you can forget your troubles and feel comforted. 

Atheist fundamentalist Dawkins, in his notorious book The God Delusion, makes a lame attempt at re-popularising the atheistic argument for the non-existence of God offered by anti-religious German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He argued (in 1841) that God had been invented or dreamed up by human beings to give intellectual and spiritual consolation. Karl Marx equally held that people need this God delusion because of their economic and social alienation – thus, a socialist revolution would naturally put an end to religion. How did that one work out? Sigmund Freud famously located the source of the “God Delusion” in the human longing for a stable father figure – an infantile wish fulfilment we would shed as we grew up beyond such illusions. Yet, it appears most of the human race has still not grown up. Oxford professor and author of The Dawkins Delusion, Alister McGrath, in addressing the mocking notion that belief in God is like belief in a teapot orbiting the sun, summarises these similar arguments in the following way:


There is no God.

But lots of people believe in God. Why?

Because they want consolation.

So they project or objectify their longings, and call this God.

So this non-existent God is simply the projection of human longings.[1]

But obviously this kind of argument can cut both ways:

There is a God. 

Some people don’t believe in God. Why? 

Because they are afraid of being accountable to a supreme judge after death. 

So they project this wish onto reality and call it atheism (no God). 


These sorts of arguments have limited logical (though some rhetorical) force, so another form of argument is increasingly popular – again used by the likes of Dawkins. Belief in God is conveniently written off as a by-product of evolution, a ‘mystical gene’ if you will.  The religious presupposition of the argument is naturalism, and so a naturalistic explanation must be given for belief in God. The argument therefore presupposes its own conclusions, but without showing how the theistic account of reality fails. In other words, it is purely arbitrary. Dawkins has argued that religion (not distinguished from belief in God, so what are we to do with non-theistic faiths?) is an accidental by-product (epiphenomenon) or “misfiring of something useful.” But how is this consistent with his view of a universe without design or purpose; without a design plan, characterised in his own words as manifesting “blind pitiless indifference”? McGrath rightly asks:

How can Dawkins speak of religion as something ‘accidental,’ when his understanding of the evolutionary process precludes any theoretical framework that allows him to suggest that some outcomes are ‘intentional’ and others ‘accidental’…? for Darwinism, everything is accidental. Things may have the appearance of design – but this appearance of design or intentionality arises from random developments.[2]

The atheist worldview propounded by the likes of Dawkins which seeks to make overarching sense of everything in terms of chemistry and biology has a hard time accounting for the very notions of “misfiring” and “intentionality” (purpose), never mind providing rationally-grounded arguments against the existence of God. Simply asserting that ‘brain modules,’ and thus brain activity, are a possible cause of religion hardly refutes the existence of God – after all, brain activity is a necessary condition of all human experience and behaviour, even that of Dawkins. It is simply impossible for the scientific method to validate or refute the idea of God’s existence.

It is difficult to see then how the idea that belief in God is ‘wish fulfilment’ is even psychologically valid, for although cognitive bias is a fundamental of human psychology, it is not primarily manifested in believing what we would like to be true, but rather in simply maintaining the status quo of beliefs – holding on to something for the value of its preserving a perspective, rather than destabilising one’s thinking. For example, I might earnestly believe that so and so is a trustworthy man because I want to retain confidence in his party and policies, even if the evidence of his character is overwhelmingly against him – that is wishful thinking. On the other hand, I might wish to have a giant yacht and second home in California, but that doesn’t mean I believe those things to be true. I can wish for many things (the ideas of which might be appealing) without deluding myself that I possess them – that the yacht, for instance, is now parked in my garage!

People don’t put their faith in Christ the way some people might wish to have a villa in Spain. Neither do people come to believe in God and his son Jesus Christ to conserve a belief they already held. Coming to believe something means you didn’t hold that view before. No, belief and trust in God is altogether different from political conviction or daydreams about foreign holidays.

The reality is that the actual objective of the Christian message is not to help people soothe away their troubles and temporarily escape reality, but to highlight and expose the root of our common problem, and then to remove and overcome it. In the Bible, the solution to our individual and corporate problems in the real world is found in the historical person of Jesus Christ. His life, teaching, death, resurrection and historical impact certainly warrant more serious attention than the tired and empty ‘wish fulfilment’ arguments of modern sophists, who wish to maintain the status quo of their moral hostility to God and his law. Anyone taking the time to examine the message of the Bible will quickly discover how false these misunderstandings of the Christian faith really are. The Christian message is no anaesthetic to dull the ache of human existence – there has never been a more realistic confrontation with reality than the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.


[1] Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion [London: SPCK, 2007], 28.

[2] McGrath, Dawkins Delusion, 30.

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