“I would absolutely love to believe that Christianity is true. The idea that I am unconditionally loved, that I will live forever in paradise after death, that an all-powerful God will hear my prayers, that someone good is looking after me, and all the rest… I would love to believe that message is true. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. It sounds like wishful thinking, and I’m too realistic for that.”
Or as Freud said, “Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”
This is a very important objection to Christianity because it strikes at the core of the Christian faith: the good news that God loves us. The Christian faith offers an incredibly hopeful, optimistic view of life. If this central theme of the Christian faith becomes a reason to avoid Christianity in the first place, what a stunning reversal!
In light of the stakes, we need to consider this doubt from a variety of angles.
Wishful Thinking is a Human Problem
The atheist can say to the Christian, “Look, you just believe in an afterlife because it is appealing to you. I understand what you like about the idea of eternal life in a mansion, where all the streets are paved with gold. But just because that idea sounds good doesn’t mean it is real or true.”
However, the Christian is on equally firm ground in saying to the atheist, “Look, you just reject the idea of an afterlife because that is appealing to you. I understand what you like about the idea of death being the end, because it gives you free license to do whatever you want. But just because that idea sounds good doesn’t mean it is real or true.”
This is an ancient exchange. As Augustine put it, “No man says, ‘There is no God’ but he whose interest it is there should be none.”
A fairer perspective is that everyone, whatever their worldview, is tempted to indulge in wishful thinking.
Accusing Others of Wishful Thinking Might Be Illogical
In Why Darwin Matters, Michael Shermer summarizes the findings of a survey of 10,000 Americans on their belief in God:
Notice that the intellectually based reasons offered for belief in God — “the good design of the universe” and “the experience of God in everyday life” — which occupied first and second place when people were describing their own beliefs dropped to sixth and third place, respectively, when they were describing the beliefs of others. Indeed, when reflecting on others’ beliefs, the two most common reasons cited were emotion-based (and fear-averse!): personal comfort (“ comforting, relieving, consoling”) and social comfort (“raised to believe”).
Sulloway and I believe that these results are evidence of an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, whereas they see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven…This intellectual attribution bias appears to be equal opportunity on the subject of God. (Shermer, Michael (2010-04-01). Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (pp. 37-38). Macmillan. Kindle Edition).
This intellectual attribution bias, or in-group favoritism, leads us to have an inaccurate perception of others. As a commenter on the Reasons for God Facebook page once wrote, “Religion = self deception. Ironic, isn’t it?” The irony was heavy indeed.
Wishful Thinking Doesn’t Make an Idea False
To dismiss someone’s idea or argument, simply because they believe it on the basis of wishful thinking, is to commit a logical fallacy known as the genetic fallacy.
The genetic fallacy occurs whenever we attack the source of someone’s belief rather than the evidence for or against the idea itself. It is irrational and intellectually lazy to dismiss another perspective with such cheap accusations. Reason requires that we dig deeper.
Let’s say that a given atheist, Paul, believes there is no God only because he had bad experiences in church while growing up, and now feels upset whenever he thinks about God and religion. Ok, fair enough. However, if there is, in actual fact, no God, then Paul’s belief “God does not exist” is entirely correct.
So it would be an error for a Christian to accuse Paul of being wrong because of his motivation. Why Paul’s believes “there is no God” is entirely irrelevant to whether or not Paul’s belief is true. This is the case whether Paul is a theist, an atheist, a Buddhist, or Muslim. (An independent and substantially different concern is how persuasive we are in explaining our beliefs to others).
Why Not Try Optimism?
There seems to be an undercurrent to this doubt, the sense that pessimism is somehow more ‘realistic’ than optimism.
At worst, this begs the question against Christianity, taking for granted that atheism is already established, and we have to come to terms with this reality, like it or not.
At best, this tendency serves as a rational guide to keep us from accepting unsubstantiated claims just because they sound good. (For instance, this is an excellent principle to follow when watching nearly all advertisements).
But in general, I find that this preference for pessimism is overdone.
Perhaps the resonance between the message of God’s love and the desires of our hearts is a clue that we are made for God.
Perhaps the prevalence of hope is an indication that the future will be better, even considering the inevitability of death.
Perhaps our transcendent experiences of beauty, or love, or joy, are pointers to a Greater Beauty, Love, and Joy.
To dismiss this out of hand, just because it is good news, is to short-circuit the rational process. If Christianity is true, than optimism is far more realistic than pessimism!
As a matter of mere pragmatics, it is wise to take a little effort and see if good claims can be substantiated.
When I see an advertisement for a particularly amazing product, it often tempts me to at least research the product and see if it is really worth purchasing. No doubt about it: Christianity makes stupendous claims. All the more reason, pragmatically speaking, to see if they are true.
We could hammer away at this objection from more angles: for instance, Christianity makes uncompromising demands on how you must live. In my experience, it has been the moral rigor, more than the good promises, that often pushes people away from Christianity. Perhaps you can think of other ways that wishful thinking affects what you and others believe.
Most importantly, we can create a far more civil atmosphere for discussion if we hold off on accusing each other of wishful thinking. Maybe after you get to know someone well, and have a foundation of trust, and there’s abundant evidence that they hold a belief out of wishful thinking, then you might suggest that they find a better basis for their worldview. But this is a weak way to start a conversation (especially on the Internet).
I encourage you to give others the benefit of the doubt. Look to understand the good reasons that led them to their conclusions. Be humble about the real reasons why you believe what you believe. When we look for the good in others, we are far more likely to start great conversations and make new friends.
1. What do you believe on the basis of wishful thinking?
2. Do you habitually tend towards pessimism or optimism?
3. How can you realistically take account of wishful thinking in your own life and relationships?