The Psychology of Belief

The following blog is an essay taken from Richard’s newest book titled, Reflections on the Existence of God. It is now available and is receiving very favorable reviews.

“This book is an essential primer for all who seek to effectively engage the skeptical culture in which we live.”

— CHRIS HODGES, Founding and Senior Pastor, Church of the Highlands

“Richard blends a lifetime of spiritual exploration with disciplined intelligence to help us come to grips with the undeniable truth of Christ. The book is approachable, meaningful and clear.”

—ANDREW WESTMORELAND, President, Samford University

Over the years, there has been a great deal discussed and written about the existence of God and why you should or should not believe in Him. Many different arguments have been made, and all types of evidence considered. But what about psychological reasons for believing in God or not believing in Him?

One of the first people to consider this was Sigmund Freud. In the early 1900s he came out with the thesis that religion, particularly Christianity, was simply the projection of a human’s needs. It is the fulfillment of deep-seated wishes.

If belief in God is rooted in deep-seated wishes, then God is nothing more than an illusion. Freud writes in his book Future of Illusions:

“We shall tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and was a benevolent providence and if there were a moral order in the universe and an afterlife, but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.”

Freud saw the God of the Bible as merely a projection of powerful wishes and inner needs. He writes, “…religious ideas, which are given out as teachings…are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Freud admits that this theory originated with German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, but he was the one who was best known for promoting it.

So many people believe that faith in God is nothing more than a human invention that meets a human need.

Therefore, R.C. Sproul counters by asking why would those who invent God, particularly those who wrote the Bible, create a God who demands holiness from His people and whose holiness was more terrifying than the forces of nature? You would think they would instead create a more loving, docile, grandfatherly figure who was there to protect and comfort them.

On the other hand, is it possible that God exists and it is the atheist who lives with the illusion and the false ideas? Could there be psychological reasons that cause people to disbelieve in God? This section will address this question and will provide several valid reasons why people do not want God in their lives and therefore choose to disbelieve in Him.

To gain some insight into the psychology of belief, consider C.S. Lewis. As a skeptic, he was quite surprised that his very intelligent friend J.R.R. Tolkien believed not only in God but Jesus as the Son of God. As Lewis began his spiritual search, he continued to gain new insights that were clearly in conflict with his current atheistic beliefs. He then became acutely aware of something that was happening to him. His intellect was taking him in a direction that his heart did not want to go. His mind was being drawn to that which he recognized to be true, but his heart was resistant. He later realized he was attracted to atheism because of the moral freedom it provided. He saw Jesus as someone who wanted to interfere with his life.

I read recently how Charles Darwin grew up believing in God, and that most people assume he rejected God when he developed his theory of natural selection. However, Darwin himself concedes that he lost his faith because of the Christian doctrine of hell. Others believe he also abandoned his belief in God when his ten-year-old daughter, Annie, passed away. Those close to him also sensed that Darwin was angry with God. Many people see disbelief as a way to get revenge toward Him.

Finally, in the essays to follow, I will refer to the research of Dr. Paul Vitz a number of times. Vitz, a psychologist, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan and his PhD at Stanford University. He spent his career teaching at New York University. He was an atheist until his late 30s and today is considered an expert in the psychology of atheism.

Vitz says that atheists often develop their beliefs because of non-rational psychological reasons, not because of investigation of the evidence and coming to a sound rational conclusion. So, I think out of intellectual integrity every atheist should ask themselves, “How did I come to the conclusion that God does not exist? Did I truly investigate and examine the evidence, and then conclude there was no God?”

Vitz also says that the human heart is truly difficult to understand and fathom. It is hard to understand its deceptiveness. We need to better understand ourselves and our motives. In the essays in this section we will seek to understand the psychological barriers of believing in God.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.