A constant refrain one hears from the more angry atheists is that religious belief is purely psychological. When one asserts that God exists, he is really asserting an inner mental state or frame of mind—he is not really commenting on some objective outer state of affairs—something true about the universe we live in, its origin, end, or reason for existing. And hewing to the fact/value distinction, all talk of morals, good, evil, and the “ought” over the “is” is really just sentimentalism. There is some good stuff on this whole issue here.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is so obviously self-defeating. After all, the argument can simply be turned around. It is entirely possible that atheism is a psychological response to something experiential or cultural. Perhaps one had a bad relationship with his father or was abandoned by his father and these bad experiences are projected onto a “God-the Father” figure and there is a need, a desire, a wish, to believe this figure, this being, doesn’t really exist. Or perhaps one was hurt by a pastor or priest, or had a bad experience in a church, wherein the hurt was such that it made one want to throw out the whole thing, wash one’s hands of the whole matter, including a belief in the “God” these people who hurt me believe in and trust. Or perhaps it just fills a psychological need to rebel, to pat one’s self on the back as a maverick and not a blind follower likes the rest of those “sheep.” It could also stem from a need to be shown a “free-thinker” an “intellectual,” someone smart and not given to belief in fairy tales and superstition. Since this attitude has been the status-quo in the academy for so long, there is no doubt a lot of peer pressure (a matter of psychology) to adopt this same sort of attitude—to feel part of the “in” group.
One could go on and on. While one may want to believe he went through a logical, reasonable, linear, sequential process of reflection, where evidence was examined and a cool objective neutral conclusion was reached (God does not exist.), it may be one is just unconsciously trying to mask the hidden psychology of wishing or not wanting such a being to exist—and then looking for reasons.
One runs into the same problem with morality. Even most atheists want things to be a certain way as opposed to another. For instance, they may think it “evil” to let capitalism run free and rampant, without any restraints whatsoever. Or they may think it “evil” for oil companies to be given free reign as to the environment. But what if they are just being “sentimental”? The fact/value distinction means then that every “value” is just a sentimental wish, like wishing there was a Santa Clause. The problem is that it reduces everyone’s claim of “good” or “evil,” even the atheists’, to sentimentalism, which at the end of the day is really just a condescending dismissal. It is an acid that “dissolves” everyone’s view of morality–not just the Christian’s.
So these claims then are just self-defeating and a waste of time. The Christian, the atheist, the agnostic, the “whomever” are all susceptible to having their views dismissed as social constructions based in nothing but pure psychology. How does this help the conversation? After all, who is going to continue conversing with someone who we think is really just spouting made up stuff—that is “all in their heads”? It would be pointless. So we simply put “those” people in a “box” and move on to talk to people like us, you know, the “smart” people. And guess what? That person then just lives in an echo chamber. So not only is this line of reasoning ultimately self-defeating, it is harmful to one’s growing, learning, and maturing as a human being. This attitude or sensibility leads to closing the door and shuts down conversation because it deems all such views as “non-starters.” Wow, I guess there is no point in starting then. Goodbye. What other response could there be to such an attitude?
Something else to consider: Is a view which claims that everyone else’s view is purely psychological, while one’s own is the only “true” and objective view of the world—more likely or less likely to be tolerant, open-minded, and not condescending toward other views? Bernard, given how dear this subject is to your own heart, it would be good to hear your response to this question. What do you think, more likely or less likely?
Just like with cigarettes, this line of reasoning should come with a warning: Use of this reasoning may be hazardous to one’s philosophical health and also inhibit the maturation process. This product is known to produce the cancer of ignorance and immaturity.
I bring this up partly to say that I will not respond to such lines of argument in the future as an assertion for what Christian belief is “really” about. To do so would just be a colossal waste of time. I’m happy to let it go and let it act as just a very revealing insight into the person making the assertion.