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On Gods and Wishful Thinking | Why Christianity? Series 2

Derek Caldwell

This is part 2 of the Why Christianity? series. You can read part 1 here.

One Less God?

There is another version of the “aren’t religions all the same” argument that we should first discuss, as it leads quickly into a distinctive of Christianity. The person who may have popularized it most in recent memory is the “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins, along with comedian Ricky Gervais. Dawkins writes, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us [atheists] just go one god further.”[1] His argument is that, essentially, we are all atheists in regard to 99.9% of all gods, and so we should really just be intellectually consistent and drop belief in any gods who somehow have been left standing. The overarching point here is that all gods are all same (i.e., clearly just creations of culture), and, thus, they are all wrong. His idea is that even religious people agree with him and all atheists except for the fact that we have a slavish loyalty to the one God we stubbornly refuse to give up.

There are a few problems with this “I just believe in one less god than you” argument. First, it doesn’t prove anything. Apologist Tim Barnett asks, “If you’re a married man, are you a bachelor too? You are, on this reasoning, billions of times over, because you’re unmarried to all the other women on the planet.”[2] I don’t want this to sound uncharitable, but it is an absurd argument. You can disbelieve 99.9% of all religions, and yet still believe in a religion that reflects reality. The fact that you don’t believe in the others proves nothing about the one you do believe in. It proves nothing other than the fact that truth always excludes many other falsehoods.

Secondly, the logic seems to be that the existence of many “versions” of religions is evidence of their falsehood. Logically, this simply doesn’t compute. Let’s take a horse for example. A horse is a real animal. Even if you had never, would never, or could never see one, horses would still exist. In the realm of fantasy, we also have unicorns, winged horses, centaurs, and last but not least, My Little Ponies. Now let’s say we went about creating even more fantasy creatures based on the form of a horse. Maybe a horse that swims and has gills, a horse whose feet are made of tires, a horse that’s also a magical mini-fridge, and so on. The question I ask is: how many fake horses will it take to establish that real horses don’t exist? This may seem illogical to you, but that’s only because it is. The number of otherwise lovely forgeries that exist does not mean that the real thing is also from the realm of fantasy. Horses exist even if unicorns don’t.

Third, Christianity is a historical religion and, therefore, is within a different category of “religion” than others. That is, it is based on a historical person—Jesus Christ—and stands or falls on one historical event—the resurrection. Unlike other religions, it does not require faith in a primordial past, but in something that happened in relatively recent times. It happened around people who were watching, remembering, and taking notes. No one truly doubted the historicity of the Jesus of history until much, much later. The most contemporaneous accounts we have (from friends and foes alike) seem to assume that He lived, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and that His followers believed in earnest that they saw Him walking around in the flesh after He had died. There is no credible reason to disbelieve any of what I have said thus far, as even critical scholars of various religious beliefs agree. The only difference in opinion that is historically justifiable, to some degree, is how one interprets what the disciples of Jesus thought they saw.[3] If you would like to learn more about this, please see these articles on the resurrection and the historical Jesus.

And now for something completely different

Even though I grew up in a culture that had been saturated in Christianity, I wasn’t prepared for the utter strangeness that was and is Christianity. This is one of the reasons I was never bothered by the wish-fulfillment theory of religion, because I think Christianity is something completely different than what we could or would imagine on both conceptual and moral grounds.

First, I sincerely doubt anyone would choose a religion where God came down and was killed, especially in the first century when power meant everything and the expected messiah would not be defeated (not even in appearance only), especially in such a humiliating way. There was no more demeaning way to be killed in the ancient world than by crucifixion, where one’s naked body was hoisted up in the air for all to see as the person being crucified fights a losing battle to breathe for several hours. This is why, by and large, the whole crucifixion-to-death-to-resurrection thing was usually seen as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 1:23, many couldn’t even get past the crucifixion itself). Indeed, this was unfathomable to everyone, even Christ’s followers, until He started appearing to them and letting at least one of them touch His wounds to verify His identity. Those first-century believers, who were beaten and executed on account of their faith, certainly didn’t benefit in any of the usual ways (monetarily, politically, religiously, socially, etc.) from following this crucified Messiah. To me, these facts confront and arrest me. Why in God’s name did they keep following?

Second, there are certainly easier belief systems to conceive where one would not be consistently aware of their failure in living up to a golden standard of conduct. If understood out of balance, this view can lead to crushing guilt and shame, though it should lead to something else: humility and compassion. In the Christian view, awareness of our failures is meant to show us our dependence on God and our essential equality with all people. CS Lewis tells us that the moral law is felt by us in two ways: first, we feel it as something that tells us how we should act even when we don’t feel like it and it might benefit us to make a different (often selfish) choice; and second, we feel it as something we fail to live up to on a regular basis. The former tells us that the law is external to us, and the latter tells us that if it were up to us, we would probably choose a much easier law to follow, perhaps one a bit more to the liking of our selfish appetites.[4]  While the moral law only leads us to the idea of a moral Lawgiver, we will discuss in the next article how Lewis expands upon this and sees it as a distinctively Christian idea.

Related to this previous point is that the first followers of Christ certainly weren’t having all of their worldly wishes fulfilled by becoming Christians. Quite the opposite. To become a Christian was probably more of a nightmare-fulfillment, full of ostracism, marginalization, beatings, torture, and violent murder (the slow kind). There were certainly easier ways to fulfill the wish-fulfillment desires that Freud claimed were the basis of religious belief. Christianity was evidently compelling enough to endure the trials it brought; this Christ who had approached them in love and kindness was, in their minds, worth the temporal punishments heaped upon them by Rome.

The third reason why I doubt wish-fulfillment is that I often disagree with God, as I should if the biblical story is true. If I still struggle with sin and I still only see partially, and He is perfectly good and perfectly just, it stands to reason that there would be times I seek to reject what He asks of me. Christians like me still struggle to do the right thing and to understand the right thing to do, which is to lay aside pride and vengeance and lying and self-gratification. At first this feels very much like God is telling you to stop having fun, until you realize that your fun only leads to pain in the end, and that God’s way gives you all those things you desire, but in their pure, perfected-in-love forms. In Lewis’s classic allegorical tale, The Great Divorce, it is the process of turning the parasitic lizard on our backs into a mighty stallion that carries us to greater adventures.[5]

The fourth and final reason I reject wish-fulfillment is that it violates the genetic fallacy. In other words, it claims that by describing why a belief arose, it has established the truth or falsity of said belief. That Christianity fits the “wishes” of an individual says nothing about its veracity. So, it would be like saying because I know why people want seatbelts in their cars, I have somehow proven that seatbelts do not exist. This argument could go both ways. I can imagine why people might want to reject the supernatural. For instance, when I was a child, I was frightened by scary movies, especially the supernatural ones. I learned, though, that if I closed my eyes and remembered that the whole ordeal was just actors in makeup then I would be less afraid. Closing one’s eyes with the belief—or at least the hope—that scary things will no longer exist is not an uncommon early childhood behavior. So, projecting that out a bit further now, perhaps people reject a belief in the supernatural because of the fear of supernatural evil. Maybe they then add the intellectual dressings to it, but at its root it is really a fear of things that go bump in the night—it is a consideration of the supernatural that progresses no further than Lewis’s notion of Dread, discussed in the next article. Any non-believer would be right to recoil at the accusation that their non-belief is simply because of their desire for a demon-less universe even if somewhere deep down that fear did direct one’s interests, and I hope with this example we can see the absurdity of this even in the case of those who may believe in God because they want it all to be true.

When I look at other religions, I largely see how I would respond to evil and suffering. I see a lot of forcing people to prove their worth before the divine (however that is defined) will enter relationship with them again, and a lot of overlooking and sweeping aside of the real pain we receive from those things that make us most human, like seeking relationships. I see a lot of apathy. I see a lot of divine beings preoccupied with themselves, with human suffering as an afterthought, one in which the humans must pull themselves out of by their own strength. I also see a lot of withholding of the verdict—no tally on the good works versus bad works—as if to say, “Keep proving yourself to me and maybe I’ll forgive you, at least somewhat, for a little bit.” This sounds like all the ugliest parts of myself.

But a king who steps down from His throne to help those who have nothing to give back to Him? One who asks for only a small, mustard seed-sized amount of trust to gain a new heart, a royal adoption, and eternal life? One who just honestly tells us that our works won’t cut it, but that He already achieved all the works we need? One who tells me He loves me and lays down His life for me even when I kick and spit at Him and call for His crucifixion? One who doesn’t make me prove myself first and allow me into paradise second, but who loves me first and gives me the power to live a full, victorious life now and into eternity second? A King like that sounds nothing like me at all, and that’s a very good thing.

Jesus does not demand we become perfect before inviting us into His kingdom. Rather, He loves us in and makes us perfect. He tells us to come as we are, broken and bruised, and He will make us whole. This brokenness is the result of my own actions and the actions of others; we have all been unjustly hurt by others, and we have unjustly hurt others. God does not demand payment from us; He paid the price and redeemed us from this web of pain Himself.

You can read part 3 the Why Christianity? series here.

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[1] Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (Boston: Mariner Books, 2004), 150.

[2] Tim Barnett, “Christians Are Really Atheists—Kinda, Sorta, Not Really,” Stand to Reason, August 31, 2020, https://www.str.org/w/christians-are-really-atheists-kinda-sorta-not-really.

[3] One of the things that, for me, disqualifies Islam as divinely-inspired is its claim that Jesus did not really die on the cross. In establishing itself as a historical religion, and then having stood upon such a demonstrably false historical claim, its credibility is wounded from the outset.

[4] See CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 1.  

[5] CS Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 106-112.