In an online debate with pastor/scholar Doug Wilson, the late Christopher Hitchens remarked:
The existence or otherwise of an indifferent cosmos (the overwhelmingly probable state of the case) would no more reduce our mutual human obligations than would the quite weird theory of a celestial dictatorship, whether Aztec or Muslim or (as you seem to insist) Christian. The sole difference is that we would be acting out of obligation toward others out of mutual interest and sympathy but without the impulse of terrifying punishment or selfish reward. Some of us can handle this thought and some, evidently, cannot. I have a slight suspicion as to which is more moral.
Did you catch that sentence towards the end? We live in an indifferent cosmos and some of us can handle this thought and some, evidently cannot. Some people are stronger than others and can handle the fact that there’s no God, no objective morality, no meaning or purpose to existence. Just matter in motion. Hitchens is asserting something commonly found within new atheist rhetoric—people believe in God because its wish fulfillment. They simply cannot handle life without wishing or hoping there’s something else on the other side, or even, by our side.
Hitchens is not alone in his conjecture (that’s all it is). The new atheists have no problem offering psychological reasons why people believe in God. Sam Harris wrote in his book The End of Faith that:
We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them ‘religious’; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad’, ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional’ . . . Clearly there is sanity in numbers. And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.
Richard Dawkins is also fond of such sledgehammer language concerning religion. In The God Delusion, he quipped “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.” Ouch. The least apocalyptic of the four horsemen, Dan Dennett, responded to issues relating to how rude the new atheists are saying “I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.” Tough. Considering religion to be a delusion or a mere projection of the human psyche is not new. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) are usually viewed as the fountainheads of such speculation. But the new atheists should be quick to listen and slow to speak. Why? Because two can play that game.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay “On Obstinacy of Belief” that
If Freud is right about the Oedipus complex, the universal pressure of the wish that God should not exist must be enormous, and atheism must be an admirable gratification to one of our strongest suppressed impulses. This argument, in fact, could be used on the theistic side. But I have no intention of so using it. It will not really help either party. It is fatally ambivalent. Men wish on both sides: and again, there is fear-fulfilment as well as wish-fulfilment, and hypochondriac temperaments will always tend to think true what they most wish to be false. Thus instead of the one predicament on which our opponents sometimes concentrate there are in fact four. A man may be a Christian because he wants Christianity to be true. He may be an atheist because he wants atheism to be true. He may be an atheist be-cause he wants Christianity to be true. He may be a Christian because he Wants atheism to be true. Surely these possibilities cancel one another out? There may be of some use in analyzing a particular instance of belief or disbelief, where we know the case history, but as a general explanation of either they will not help us. I do not think they overthrow the view that there is evidence both for and against the Christian propositions which fully rational minds, working honestly, can assess differently.
Lewis noted that the argument from wish-fulfillment can be utilized by both the theist and the atheist. Certainly I admit that I want Christianity to be true. At the core of my being, I want love and forgiveness to stand at the center of reality. I desire a worldview whose apex has a dying man blessing his enemies with cries of “forgive them” while they abuse him. For me, Christianity is less than a crutch and more like an iron lung. I couldn’t breathe without it; and, in my opinion, the unbeliever’s breath is a matter of grace. Wishing does not make it true, but let’s not pretend one of us is wishing and the other is not. Thomas Nagels, an atheist philosopher, writes in The Last Word that “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 about my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” He does not want there to be a God. He wishes it was not so.
Despite Lewis not desiring to offer a reason why unbelievers refuse to believe, I will. Why would someone not want God to exist? Why not long for reality to be that way? Atheists typically don’t deny the fact of this longing. John Paul-Sartre is famous for saying, “That God does not exist, I cannot deny; that my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.” They just deny the longing points to anything tangibly real. But why? Romans 1 offers a Christian response. The apostle writes,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Rom. 1:18-23).
Paul wrote that God’s just wrath is revealed against humanity for suppressing the knowledge of the true God and for their descent into immoral idolatry (Rom. 1:18-23). The fundamental truth of the universe is that God exists and that he should be worshiped and served and his name should be praised. We know this because of the world we live in—it is God’s world. It’s not the case that if one was to unturn every stone on this planet or even one stone, you’ll find the inscription “I made this rock because I’m awesome. God.” But God’s existence and attributes are present within the created realm. R.C. Sproul noted in his book If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists? that “The cumulative effect of this knowledge that is clearly seen is to leave men ‘without excuse.’ Herein lies the basis of the universal guilt of man. No one can claim ignorance of the knowledge of God. No one can cite insufficient evidence for not believing in God. Though people are not persuaded by the evidence, this does not indicate an insufficiency in the evidence, but rather an insufficiency in man.” An unbeliever doesn’t want the evidence to be there. They desire unfettered autonomy. They want to be their own soul-makers. They want to define what’s right and wrong and who they can put at the center of existence. Paul did not believe there was such a thing as an atheist. He asserted they were merely people who violently suppressed the truth.
In his book The Making of an Atheist, philosopher James Spiegel said,
Atheism is not at all a consequence of intellectual doubts. Such doubts are mere symptoms of the root cause—moral rebellion. For the atheist, the missing ingredient is not evidence but obedience. The irrational heights to which the new atheists are willing to go in order to resist God are never more plain than in Richard Dawkins’s speculation regarding life’s origins: If it were ever shown that life on this planet was designed … then I would say … it must have been some extraterrestrial intelligence, perhaps following Francis Crick’s … suggestion of “directed panspermia” … that life might have been seeded on Earth in the nose cone of a rocket sent from a distant civilization that wanted to spread its form of life around the universe. Dawkins appeals to little green men as the creators of life on Earth, yet he calls theists delusional? What could inspire such silly thinking? How could an otherwise intelligent person propose this B-movie science fiction plot as a plausible theory? It certainly indicates that something other than a rational, dispassionate review of evidence is at work behind the thinking of Dawkins and the new atheists.
The writer agrees with the apostle Paul saying “There is no one thing whatsoever more plain and manifest, and more demonstrable, than the being of God. It is manifest in ourselves, in our bodies and souls, and in everything about us wherever we turn our eye, whether to heaven, or to the earth, the air, or the seas.” The plain truth of God’s existence is suppressed which creates a domino effect of moral blindness and ignorance. Again the author noted:
We may summarize the biblical diagnosis of atheism as follows. The atheist’s problem is rebellion against the plain truth of God, as clearly revealed in nature. This rebellion is prompted by immorality, which diminishes understanding, and a genuine ignorance results. This is not a loss of intelligence so much as a selective intellectual obtuseness or imperviousness to truths related to God, ethics, and human nature. But the root of this obtuseness is moral in nature. It follows from the biblical diagnosis that the atheists’ arguments are an intellectual ruse masking their rebellion.
So why do unbelievers wish for God not to exist? They do so because they hate him. They hate the idea of anyone being on the throne other than themselves. They hate the idea that someone else can tell them what to do. Since Genesis 3, man has sought to take whatever he desires without saying grace over it. “I’ll have whatever is pleasing to my eyes and no one will tell me otherwise. Thank you very much!” But this isn’t true. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way things are. This isn’t your world to abuse and morals aren’t your triviality to decide. Atheists refuse to bow the knee to God referring to him as a “celestial North Korea” while eating the emperor’s rice. They say through proverbial clenched teeth that “I don’t believe in God” and it is important that we say “He believes in you or you wouldn’t even exist!” So both the theist and the atheist are wishing. The issue is whose coin is being flipped into the well of reality.