Truth + Tolerance
Issues of pluralism and postmodernism
Is Christianity a Psychological Crutch?
- Daniel Rodger is a former Atheist who currently works in the Anaesthetic department of a large London Hospital. He is the author of the Apologetics blog the Failed Atheist. View all resources by Daniel Rodger
“Christianity is just a psychological crutch!” This is one of a group of common accusations framed against Christianity, which is why it is so important to examine and distinguish if there's any truth in it. Is Christianity just a crutch for the weak, unintelligent and scared, or is it far more than that?
One of the most popular proponents of this hypothesis was Sigmund Freud, the renowned Austrian Psychiatrist who had this to say about religious beliefs:
They are illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind... As we already know; the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father.... Thus the benevolent rule of divine providence allays our fear of the dangers of life. 
Freud is accusing Christianity of being the result of a deep-seated desire for the loving protection from a heavenly father figure, a form of wish fulfilment as it were. Is this simplistic assertion true or does the Biblical account of what Jesus did for us on the cross actually provide a way for us to get right with our creator? I will seek to demonstrate just some of the flaws with this sort of reasoning and in some sense make a defence of the historical and life changing claims of Jesus.
1. If we understand Freud's analysis correctly, we should see that religions that were practised prior to Christianity would strongly emphasise God as a benevolent father figure. However, it is Christianity that is distinct among the world's religions in this practice. In the many religions of the early Mediterranean and Middle-East this is simply not the case. Surely if this was a deep-seated desire within the human heart, one would have expected it to be expressed frequently throughout early religious history, yet historical data demonstrates that such an assertion is false.
2. In fact this argument can be easily turned around. Surely if Christians only believe in God because they want it to be true, couldn't the equally fallacious assertion be made that Atheists only believe no God exists because they don't want to believe in God? There are some good reasons to wish God doesn't exist, for example there is then no accountability for the way you live your life (I'm not accusing all Atheists of living immorally, just stating that philosophically and theologically there is no justification for not doing so), no judgement after death, no hell, the freedom to live exactly how you wish and to make your own rules.
What is it that makes sceptics proudly assume that they are the only ones who are impenetrable to tricks of the mind and other psychological factors? The assumption is that the person who is asserting that God is just a human construct is claiming that they are in a position to give an objective evaluation free from being affected by psychological factors themselves, whilst for the rest of us psychology determines our beliefs.
3. The idea that Christians create a Father like God to comfort themselves is perhaps plausible, but an equally strong case could be made that ends with the opposite conclusion. Perhaps it is, in fact, the Atheists who are the ones who reject God upon merely psychological factors that occurred during their childhood. Isn't it interesting that some of the most renowned Atheists, including Nietzsche, Feuerbach, H.G. Wells and Freud himself, had terrible relationships with their earthly fathers . Perhaps they projected their anger against their earthly father against their heavenly father. It is just as valid an argument as the one framed against Christians. This is obviously not the case with every Atheist and I wouldn't be silly enough to make such a claim but I hope that you are starting to see that such an argument cuts both ways.
4. The Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel had this to say:
“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 that there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.” 
For many, as Nagel explains, it is not simply a question of evidence but the hope that no God exists so he can do what he wants, and not what God may want him to. Everyone has presuppositions, things we already believe, that we use to interpret new experiences or information; sometimes it is our presuppositions that stop us from following a path that will take us out of our comfort zone. We must remember that we all have presuppositions, even Atheists who claim to be among the elite who somehow always manage to see everything objectively and without biases.
5. This leads to an equally challenging question. If Christians were just looking for a God who would simply function as a crutch to make life easier to bear, why come up with a God who is holy and just, a God who finds many of our desires and thoughts to be immoral? Shouldn’t that be the last sort of God we would want to make up if we just wanted a crutch to get through life? Wouldn’t we want a God who just nods at all our behaviour and desires? I certainly would have. If I was making up a God before I was a Christian, he would have been the very opposite of the God I’ve just described. He would have let me get up to all sorts! Why come up with a God who is impossible to please by our good works and effort? Freud's conclusion simply doesn't follow logically from his assertions.
6. What about people who were once hostile to Christianity? There is a large number of people who were once unbelievers, some of whom were once very hostile to the message of Jesus. However, they have investigated the claims of Christianity and discovered that they were true. Speaking of my own experience, I was brought up in a secular non-religious household and would have considered myself an Atheist until I was 20. Yet it was by investigating for myself whilst trying to prove someone wrong that I realised you didn't have to leave your brain at the door to be a Christian, and instead discovered that it was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. So for many with my experience the crutch hypothesis falls short, as I really was enjoying my life, doing what I wanted with no need for a crutch. I just realised I could no longer sweep Jesus under the carpet!
7. Also, the fact that God cares for and values the weak in no sense demonstrates that Christianity is only for those who have discovered the futility of a world without God or for those who get into a position where they acknowledge that only God can help them. The fact that many people, who the world may consider weak or marginalised, have been helped by Christianity, doesn’t mean that it is only for such people. There are many persons both past and present who have come to believe that Christianity is intellectually fulfilling. These include the well known scholar C.S. Lewis and many of today's most renowned philosophers at many of the world’s top universities such as Dallas Willard, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Douglas Geivett, Stephen T. Davis, J.P Moreland and many more. Although this in itself doesn’t present an argument, it does demonstrate that Christianity is more than simply a crutch for the weak but can also function as a sound basis for understanding and interpreting the world we live in.
8. Why would you follow something that you know would make life harder for yourself? If a belief system is said to be a psychological crutch then we would expect it to help you in your day-to-day life and in at least some sense make life a little easier to function and cope with. So how exactly does Christianity fair in such an assessment? From the very start we observe that Jesus' earliest followers, known as his disciples, were mostly murdered for preaching Jesus' atoning death on the cross and his resurrection. Consider the following list:
James, son of Zebedee – Beheaded (Acts 12:1-2)
Thomas – Murdered in India
Simon the Canaanite – Crucified
Simon Peter – Crucified in Rome
Mark – Burned alive
Bartholomew – Beaten, crucified and beheaded
Andrew – Crucified - the actual place is not definite although Archaia is the most likely
Matthew – Speared to death
Philip – Stoned then crucified 
Some details do differ depending on which records are used. However, there is little doubt that all of the above and many more were killed for preaching the Gospel. Even taking into account slight differences in regards to the exact fate of some or the location, the above list demonstrates that following Jesus in the first century was a dangerous path to follow, as for many today it still is.
Then we see that Jesus himself was whipped, beaten and crucified for what he taught. Christians for almost 300 hundred years after Jesus’ resurrection were a persecuted and suffering people, and even today tens of millions of people around the world continue to suffer and die for simply believing and following Jesus' message. A message that asks you to deny yourself, and take up your cross daily (meaning picking up the cross to die as Jesus did), not to gather vast amounts of earthly possessions, to live humbly, to forgive and pray for your enemies, to acknowledge that you have disobeyed God and are in need of a saviour, simply does not function as a crutch to get through life! The claim that Christianity is a crutch would then only really serve as a reason for the minority of Christians who live in the West, not the vast majority elsewhere. If anything, it generally makes life much more difficult and actually demonstrates that Christians are willing to follow the truth regardless of how difficult it may be. Are you?
The idea that belief in God is a crutch begins with the assumption that God doesn’t exist and is a human invention. No reason is offered for this; it is just an assumption forming a false conclusion from an unfounded premise. However as I pointed out in my second point, the argument from wish-fulfilment cuts both ways and is equally valid when applied to the reasons for unbelief, which means that it fails to meet the standards of a reasonable argument for rejecting God.
The fact that Christianity has many positive outcomes shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss it. Whether it helps those who are poor or wealthy, educated or uneducated, this shouldn't be the means of determining whether it is true or false. If God does exist and does actually love and care for us, then surely it is logical that this would have a serious impact on our lives. Belief in God neither makes us weaker or inferior individuals but is in reality a logical response to what God has done for us through Jesus on the cross. Many Atheists would have you believe that only idiots turn to Jesus. However it's simply not just a case of the intellect – consider Peter and Christopher Hitchens, both of whom are highly intelligent yet one is a faithful follower of Jesus and the other an outspoken anti-religious Atheist.
The final question for us really is what explanation of the world best accounts for the world we encounter? Is it a loving God who stepped down from heaven to demonstrate his love for us in history or the randomness and guideless processes of a universe without God?
Richard Dawkins has this to say about the world:
"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." .
The truth of the matter is that Jesus never offered a crutch, only a cross; it wasn't a call to be a better person with high self-esteem or a plan to help us scrape through our existence. It was a call to acknowledge that the forgiveness we all seek is to be found in him by following him onto the cross. I've pointed out several reasons that I hope demonstrate that such an objection against Christianity simply isn't a warranted position to hold. It’s because Christianity is true that it has something to offer every person in every circumstance, regardless of their background or intellectual capabilities.
“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”
(G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World)
 Freud, S (1927/1961) The Future of an Illusion. New York:
 Vitz, P (1999) Faith of the Fatherless. Dallas: Spence.
 Nagel, T (1997) The Last Word. Oxford University Press.
 Foxe, J (2005) Foxe’s Christian Martyrs. Ohio: Barbour.
 Dawkins, R (1995) River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London.
© 2011 Daniel Rodger
Daniel Rodger blogs as The Failed Atheist.