Is Faith Just Wishful Thinking?
One of the most common criticisms of belief in the Christian God is that it is mere wishful thinking. According to this view, Christianity is just an emotional crutch for those unable to deal with the reality of life without God, and those that are strong enough to do without religion should do without religion.
There are a number a reasons for rejecting this view of Christian belief.
First, this objection applies just as well to atheism as to belief in God.
Second, if all that Christians were after were a comforting belief system, then they could do far better than Christianity, and there must therefore be some factor other than wishful thinking that makes them believe.
Third, an idea is only comforting if you have some independent reason to think that it is true, so religious faith will only be effective as an emotional crutch for those for whom it is not just an emotional crutch.
Each of these points is explained in more detail below.
Is Atheism Just an Emotional Crutch?
The first response to the view that belief in God is mere wishful thinking, then, is to point out that it is just as easy to argue that atheism is just an emotional crutch as it is to argue that belief in God is an emotional crutch.
Belief in God has consequences; if one believes in God, then one must make a decision either to follow him or to oppose him. Anyone who believes that Christianity is true must either commit themselves to living out their faith, or set themselves in opposition to God. This choice can be hard to face, but by denying Christianity one can avoid having to face it. Atheism, then, offers an easy way out for those unable to deal with the reality of life with God.
Some think that this view of atheism is correct, that atheists really are consciously aware of the existence of God but choose to rebel against him by professing unbelief. This is not my view. My point here is just that if Christianity can be rejected as irrational simply because some people find it comforting, then the same must be true of atheism. And if atheism cannot be dismissed in this way, as the atheist will surely hold, then neither can Christianity.
Christianity isn’t the Most Comforting Belief-System
The second response to the view that Christianity is just an emotional crutch for the weak is that if all that believers were after were a comforting belief system then they could do much better than Christianity. The Christian gospel, good news though it is, is not unequivocally comforting. The idea that if you believe in God then life’s a breeze over-simplifies the Christian experience.
Christianity does not teach that Christians get an easy ride; in fact, it stresses that believers may well undergo great suffering in this life. It also makes people aware of their fallenness, of their sinfulness, and that can hurt. For all the comfort that Christianity offers in terms of eternal security, even its teachings about eternity have a downside; many Christians face the painful experience of expecting close friends and relatives to face just punishment for their sins.
If believers were really just after comforting beliefs, then they could do a lot better than Christianity. For example, they could believe that suffering is just an illusion, that there are no moral constraints that oblige us not to do what we want to do, and that all (not just Christians) are destined to enjoy a blissful afterlife in heaven.
These beliefs, though, are all seen as heretical by the Christian church. Why? Because Christianity isn’t mere wishful thinking.
For an Idea to be Comforting there must be Reason to Believe that it is True
The final response to the view that Christianity is just an emotional crutch for the weak is that ideas are only comforting if we have some reason to believe that they are true.
Most of us worry about money at some point in our lives. Isn’t it great, though, to think that if you ever run up debts that you can’t repay, all you have to do is to look down the back of the sofa and you’ll find enough loose change to cover the bill? Isn’t that thought comforting? No?
The thought isn’t comforting because we have no reason to think that it is true. If we had a reason to think that it were true, then yes, that would be a great thought to have, but we don’t, and so it isn’t.
If thoughts are only comforting if we have reason to think that they are true, though, and many believers find comfort in Christianity, then those believers must have some reason to think that Christianity is true that has nothing to do with it’s being good news. To put the point in another way, Christianity is only effective as a crutch for those for whom it is not merely a crutch, for those that have some reason to believe it. Unless you have some reason to believe that Christianity is true apart from its being comforting, then it won’t be much comfort at all.