The following article is taken from Mr. Jim Pierce’s presentation at the Wyoming District’s Tell the Good News About Jesus Convocation held on January 31, 2014 through February 1, 2014. This is part four of his speech, “What the Atheist Can Know About God.” (Each article of this series may be found at this link.)
The Objection from Wish Fulfillment
We now come to the second objection raised by the strong atheist in their effort to show why it is not likely God exists and that is belief in God is mere wish fulfillment.
In his book God: A Critical Enquiry, Antony Flew cites Sigmund Freud who wrote in his The Future of an Illusion that the “’incontrovertible lack of authenticity [of] (sic) religious ideas’ inclined Freud to fix his ‘attention on [their] (sic) psychical origin’”(1). Freud believes that there is no “authenticity” to “religious ideas” other than their “psychical origin.” What does that mean? Freud goes on to suggest that “religious ideas,” such as the belief in God, are all “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wish of mankind” (2). Freud further explains that the basis of belief in “religious ideas” is “an illusion when wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation…. The secret of their strength is the strength of these wishes” (3).
What Flew is arguing is that the existence of God is a figment of the human imagination. As humans we wish that there is a God, and so there is! That is, in our minds only.
The late atheist Christopher Hitchens takes the wish fulfillment objection to another level. Hitchens writes in his, The Portable Atheist, “Religion was our first attempt at philosophy… [which] cater to our inborn stupidity, and our willingness to be persuaded against all the evidence that we are indeed the center of the universe and everything is arranged with us in mind” (4).
Hitchens’ point is essentially the same as Flews’, but blunter. According to Hitchens our wish fulfillment is really that we who believe in God do so out of our inborn stupidity. The strong desire to believe in God is really just some primitive ignorance kicking around in the human genome. Religion is bad philosophy speaking to our inbred ignorance!
Much more is at work in the quotations I provide from Flew and Hitchens. Aside from their obvious point that belief in God is a figment of our imaginations arising from a psychological need of some sort, what is implicit in their remarks is we need to invent God so as to make sense of the universe, and so we create a God fiction to derive order out of an otherwise chaotic world. We believe in God, because we desire structure. Sounds like a bad Dr. Phil show to me!
The point of the wish fulfillment objection is not merely to be insulting. Instead, the strong atheist is arguing that the theist does not know through practical knowledge that there is a God of any sort. He is arguing that theists can’t look around ourselves and find God, since God is not a member of the physical universe of human experience. Instead, God is a fanciful idea we humans create in order to make sense of a cold, material, universe which if we scrape beyond the surface of immediate sensory experience, we find is highly chaotic and pervaded by randomness. This chaos we perceive has to be ordered for our survival and so what we did early on in human history was to create an ontological list with rankings and at the top of the list is the grandest of all beings, God. This we apparently did for a strong desire of comfort when confronted by a chaotic world.
At the end of the day, the strong atheist concludes that the human desire to make sense of it all, our strong wish that God exists and is in control, is an irrational belief which can’t provide justificatory grounds for knowledge. Theists are merely rubbing on a rabbit’s foot for cosmic luck!
Response to the Wish Fulfillment Objection
Perhaps you have already noticed what is common to all these objections to God’s existence by the strong atheist? What we are encountering is skepticism very similar to the empirical skepticism of David Hume. Remember the claim made earlier when discussing empirical skepticism? If one is going to make a claim that the world is caused by God, then we should expect to find God sized effects such that they plainly require a supernatural cause for their explanation. Instead, argues the strong atheist, we don’t find anything in the world that is extraordinary and what we do find is explainable by appeal to nature itself.
What the strong atheist wants the theist to believe is theism is an irrational belief having no demonstrable basis in reality. In other words, we have no knowledge of God at all.
I have several objections to the wish fulfillment view. Frankly, it is difficult to take this objection, and its accompanied explanations as to why we Christians are so “wishful” seriously. Using the atheist’s weak verification principle against him, I want to ask where the testable evidence is connecting the theist’s belief and justifications for such belief to mere wish fulfillment? Where are the case studies demonstrating this supposed fact? Neither Hitchens nor Flew produced these case studies.
Perhaps a more salient point in response to the wish fulfillment assertion is in asking the atheist why anyone would want to wish there existed a being telling them that they are in trouble with Him and they will be punished unless they repent? I think we have a better example of wish fulfillment with Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy. In both cases we aren’t judged by a law telling us we are sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy.
Ultimately what is wrong with the wish fulfillment objection is that it fails the strong atheist’s own criteria of what counts as a meaningful assertion. You will recall from earlier that the strong atheist wants us to believe that for any proposition to assert something meaningful, it must be verifiable at least in principle. However, it is certainly arguable that human desires or longings are private affairs; therefore, they aren’t verifiable by empirical means. For example, how do we go about demonstrating that I actually love my wife? Is longingly staring into her eyes sufficient evidence rising to the rigors of the scientific method? The problem is that while I can report that I love my wife, there is no way to empirically determine that I have such a mental state, other than through my own reporting of it to anyone willing to listen. Observing my behavior, such as holding her hand or longingly staring into her eyes, doesn’t by itself demonstrate the sort of love I do in fact have for her.
The point here is that the assertion by the Strong Atheist, ala Freud, regards private mental states which are not verifiable. The objection from wish fulfillment doesn’t survive the atheist’s own requirement that all statements must be verifiable in order to be meaningful. Ultimately, their claim collapses under the weight of their own principle of skepticism.
In the next installment of this series I discuss the strong atheist’s third objection: the Problem of Evil.
1) Flew, Antony. (1988) God: A Critical Enquiry, p. 5, Open Court Publishing)
4) Hitchens, Christopher (2007). The Portable Atheist, p. xvii. Da Capo Press.