In my mind, the most challenging question facing atheism is that of religious experience. If, as atheists contend, there is no “spiritual reality”at all beyond our physical world, then why do so many people claim to have experienced it? This question is taken up by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, the Reasonable Doubts podcasters, and a handful of the famous skeptical intellectuals who are covered in Atheism for Lent.
The Illusion Theory
According to some theists, each person has a “God-sized hole” in their psyche that can only be filled by God. Theists sometimes see this as evidence that we were made in the image of God. But many skeptics interpret this same evidence as proof that God is made in the image of humans. If there was no God(s), wouldn’t the nagging “God-sized hole” drive humans to invent the deities that we see today?
This is more or less the line of reasoning taken by Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th Century atheist and philosopher. For Feuerbach, “God” is an externalized projection of human nature in its purest form. When we talk about God, we’re talking about ourselves in a loud voice. Today’s theologians should be read in the same way that we read Greek mythology: their God(s) is/are simply a reflection of human nature and cultural context.
Sigmund Freud seemed to think that religion is merely one (relatively ineffective) way of dealing with the discomforts of life in civilization. Freud’s most significant contribution to this discussion, I think, is his insight into the human psyche. Like the feet of a duck underwater, our unconscious mind is constantly paddling beneath the surface, unseen. Our unconscious is perfectly capable of both inventing a God and making us think that this God is something “out there,” independent of us.
David Hume, writing almost 100 years before both Feuerbach and Freud, developed a natural history of religion without invoking divine intervention. For Hume, religion is born out of the powerful human fear of death and uncertainty, and passed down from generation to generation. In a desperate attempt to control the volatile world around them, humans invented supernatural agents that could be influenced by prayers, rituals, and sacrifices.
Richard Dawkins explains the phenomenon of God with reference to evolution. Humans who trusted their elders were less likely to mess with crocodiles and eat funny mushrooms, so they lived on and spread those genes. Evolution also favors humans who project agency onto the unknown: if two primitive humans heard a stirring in the brush nearby, and one thought “there must be someone over there,” while the other thought “that’s probably just the wind,” guess who was eaten by the tiger in the reeds? Trusting elders and projecting agency were handy for keeping humans alive in the wild, so they came to dominate the human gene pool. Unfortunately, those traits “misfired,” causing humans to mistakenly “hear” the gods communicating with them and uncritically pass their religious beliefs down through the generations.
Last week, I compiled what I take to be the best arguments against the plausibility of divine action and miracles. I think that skeptics have a very strong case there, and it will take reinterpretation of both God and the world in order to make any notion of divine interaction with our physical world, including human minds, plausible for me.
By contrast, I find the “illusion” theory, in its many variations, very inconclusive. It seems to me that these explanations of religious experience are just as unverifiable and potentially legendary as the origin stories that religions tell about themselves!
Dawkins doesn’t understand why monotheists, who already believe that the gods of other religions are made up out of thin air, make a big fuss about denying one more deity. But I’m not that kind of monotheist. Maybe other religions are the product of God interacting with different people on their own terms, within their radical historical/cultural situatedness. This should be easy to imagine for those of us who tell a story (especially this time of year) in which God, out of love for every person in the entire world, took on human flesh, used a human language, and lived and died within a human culture as Immanuel, “God with us.”
At its most persuasive, the illusion theory demonstrates that it is possible that humans invented everything that we call “spiritual”. But possible and likely remain two different things. In my mind, pointing to ulterior motives does not automatically falsify any claims, including the claims of millions (billions?) of people who say they’ve experienced some transcendent reality, often in surprising and unexpected ways. If there is/are no God/gods at all, then I’ll need to come to that conclusion on different grounds, and I’ll need to reach that conclusion in spite of, not because of, religious experience.