Is God Just a Psychological Crutch?

freudBy Ajit Krishna Dasa
Atheists commonly argue against the existence of God by claiming that theists just believe in God for psychological reasons. For example, Sigmund Freud, founder of the psychoanalytical school of psychiatry, claimed that religious belief is an “obsessional neurosis”, that God is nothing more than a psychological crutch, an illusion, a form of wishful thinking caused by human weakness. Freud claimed to be able to trace back the illusory concept of God to an often subconscious, childish desire to be protected. In this scenario God is simply a substitute for the perfect father that the weak religious person never really had. In addition, the religious person also uses God as a crutch by referring to Him as the explanation for things otherwise inexplicable. Or God is used as a crutch when the religious person can’t deal with life’s tough realities. God listens to prayers and removes bad conscience when the religious person has commited something that he imagines to be sinful. According to many critics of religion it is only mature and rational human beings, that have risen higher on the evolutionary ladder who is above the fantasmagoria of religion. According to them we need to guide the psychological energy that’s directed towards the illusory God and heaven, back to the real, material world.

The Psychogenetic Fallacy

The Genetic Fallacy is committed when it is claimed that the origin of a specific proposition has an inherent bearing on it’s truth-value. And when the origin is said to be of a psychological nature the fallacy is called the psychogenetic fallacy. This atheistic argument commits this fallacy since it claims that the proposition “God exists” is false due to its origin in the psychological needs of theists. There’s clearly no warrant for such a conclusion, since it’s possible that God exist and that theists at the same time have psychological needs for Him. And just because theists have psychological needs for God it doesn’t follow that psychological needs are the one and only reason they believe in Him. They will offer additional reasons. But even if, for the sake of argument, psychological needs were the only reason for believing in God, it still would not disprove the existence of God. Just like our psychological needs for loving relationships with other people does not disprove the existence of these other people, so our psychological needs for God doesn’t disprove the existence of God.

Is Atheism a Psychological Crutch?

Further, the atheistic argument is like a double-edged sword, because if a proposition can be declared false if it’s believed in due to psychological reasons, then theists might as well argue that atheism is associated with the presence of psychological needs in those who can’t bear the thought that God exists. Let us examine some of the psychological mechanisms that can cause atheists to try to psychologically repress the idea of God:

Everything is Permitted

If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted. There’s no absolute moral standard against which we can measure our acts. Morality is created on the basis of the individual’s likings. The atheist can justify all kinds of abominable actions with claims such as: ”Somebody may think my actions are morally wrong, but that’s just their subjective opinion. I can do whatever I like”. In this way atheism gives people the possibility to ignore the dictates of conscience and live a life of full self indulgence. So atheism could be considered a psychological invention aimed at eliminating all moral obligations. God becomes a threat to the atheists’ egocentrism and consequently they wish to deny His existence.

Removal of guilt

If everything is permitted then there’s no reason to feel guilty when thinking, feeling or doing something which we normally would consider immoral. Again the atheist can claim, “you might think I should feel guilty about this, but that just your subjective opinion. There’s no need to feel guilty about anything.” The idea that one day we have to settle our ethical account with an all-knowing, allmighty God can no doubt be such an intense psychological stress factor for the atheist that he prefers to try to psychologically repress the idea of the existence of God.

Hankering After Power and Control

If naturalism is true and God therefore doesn’t exist, then the universe simply functions according to the laws of nature. Consequently there’s nothing which can’t, at least in principle, be subjected to human control. It’s only a matter of us gaining the necessary knowledge, then we can manipulate it and use it for our own selfish gratification. It could definitely be tempting to dream of such a materialistic universe where everything that exists, in principle, either now or in the future, can or will be under human control. This idea of gaining power and control over the world could easily be another motive for atheism.

Aversion Towards Authorities

If the human being is simply a combination of chemicals, then no human can be said to be more of an authority than anyone else. Everyone is on an equal level. In an atheistic worldview the atheist can therefore easily tell himself that no one is better than him, or is in a position to tell him what is good for him, and how he should do, think and behave. The existence of God naturally becomes a big threat to anyone who suffers from aversion towards authority, and such a person might very well do everything within his power to fabricate a worldview that eliminates God’s existence.

To sum up, atheism paves the way for a worldview that allows the atheists to conclude the following:

  • Nothing is really morally good or bad, so in principle I can do whatever I feel like, when I feel like it, where I feel like it, and to whom I want. And no one has the right to stop me or punish me for my behavior.
  • Since nothing is morally good or bad there’s no reason why I should feel guilty about anything I think, feel or do.
  • There exists nothing that can’t, at least in principle, be subjected to my control, or to the control of those I favor.
  • No one is in a position to be my authority, no one can claim to be better than me, in a higher or more important position than me, and thus no one has any right to instruct or order me to do anything, or to stop me from doing anything.

In this way the atheist creates a universe in which he becomes his own god. This is obviously a very tempting fantasy. But if the above psychological reasons for being an atheist are true, then it’s quite easy to see how deep-rooted psychological and emotional problems atheists have.

The Need for God – a Proof for God’s existence?

Critics of religion have no methods to show that God can be reduced to a psychological phenomenon, and that this phenomenon is brought about by human weakness. That assertion is nothing but an unsubstantiated speculation. It’s based on data which might as well point in the direction of the existence of God. If we study the human species there’s no doubt that it as a whole is endowed with a strong urge towards the divine, and why not interpret that to mean that therefore the divine probably exists? When we observe the human need for water, then it would be ridiculous to argue that we imagine the existence of water because we are thirsty. It would also be ridiculous to argue that we imagine the existence of food because we’re hungry, or that we imagine the existence of our family and friends because we feel a need for social relations. That would be really poor explanations. Our physiological and social cravings coexist with an awareness that there exist real things in the real world that can satisfy these needs. If we feel a need for God why not see this as an indication that there exists a real thing in the real world, God, that we can find? At least it should be seen as a possibility worthy of serious investigation.

The Scientific Perspective: Are Religious People Really Weak?

Sigmund Freud’s so-called scientific studies have long been outdated. Recent social-scientific studies show that religious people are more psychologically strong than non-religious people. One such study concludes: “There is increasing research evidence that religious involvement is associated both cross-sectionally and prospectively with better physical health, better mental health and longer survival.” [1] In his book “Is Religion Dangerous?” Keith Ward mentions a number of scientific studies about the relationship between religion, happiness, mental illness, and altruism. These studies shows that religious people are neither weak-minded nor mentally ill. On the contrary, religious people are usually more psychologically strong than non-religious people, and they also tend to be happier, healthier, to live longer and to be more altruistic. They tend to be less likely to suffer from hypertension, depression and criminal delinquency. Young religious people tend to lower levels of drug and alcohol abuse, criminal delinquency and attempted suicide. In conclusion, there’s no scientific basis to support the atheistic claim that people are religious because the are weak or that religion makes them weak. [2]


[1] Religion, psychology and health, Peltzer, Karl; Koenig, Harold G., Journal of Psychology in Africa, Volume 15, Number 1, January 2005 , pp. 53-64(12) []

[2] “Is Religion Dangerous” by Keith Ward, Lion, 2006, Chapter 9.