A psychological need for God?

God’s central position in a believer’s world view

Willingness to accept God is at times ascribed to a psychological need for God.

I am convinced that believers have already made up their minds. They want to believe in God. That is why they will accept any `proof’, however far-fetched or flimsy it may be!

To some extent, this is true; not in the sense that the proofs are not valid, but in the sense that `God’ and the proofs relate to each other in an unusual way.

Our mental map of the world carries God as a key referent. God is not just the conclusion of an argument. He is a linchpin in our thinking, a hub that holds our thoughts and feelings together in a coherent structure.

In many publications about God, by both believers and non-believers, God is presented as the end of an argument. In reality, he/she/it is the beginning of the argument.

Yes, we need to prove the existence of God; but we should understand this proof in the correct way.

It is necessary to demonstrate that belief in God is rationally justified. We owe this to our own intellectual make up. We are forced to it by the need to defend our beliefs. Some of our contemporaries assume that “science has disproved religion”. Believers need to counter open attacks by militant atheists. Faith can be justified on excellent grounds.

However, it is crucial that we understand how we acquire religious knowledge and how arguments for its truthfulness function. For silly mistakes have been made.

Believers and atheists have been arguing about God’s existence for thousands of years. But since most people were deeply religious in the past, the academic arguments were restricted to theologians and philosophers. This changed with the upsurge of modern science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The new scientific methodology was based on induction, on observing facts and drawing conclusions. Philosophers demanded a similar approach regarding proofs for the existence of God. They postulated the principle that God, like any other object, should be proved by observation and deduction. Christians rose to the challenge and began to construct such proofs.

vase

The so-called theistic proofs produced in the debate, though scoring valuable points, were bound to fail. They had unwittingly copied unproven assumptions of their opponents. The greatest error lay in thinking that belief in God rests on a foundation of layer upon layer of separate arguments. The imagined structure was: general principles at the bottom, then evidence, then God lying on top.

The whole argument then looks like a ramshackle stack of shelves with God, as a fragile vase, perched on top.

Not only does this incorporate the misguided idea that God is a separate entity like other objects in the world; it also makes belief in God very insecure: he can then easily be `toppled’ by any counter proof.

The approach is wrong for the simple reason that our knowledge is structured in a different way and that God holds a far more basic position in it.

This erroneous procedure is often referred to as foundationalism. Its shortcomings have been especially exposed by the Calvinist theologians Alvin Plantinga and Nicolas Wolterstorff; see A.PLANTINGA, God and Other Minds, Ithaca 1967; God, Freedom and Evil, Grand Rapids 1974; A.PLANTINGA and N.WOLTERSTORFF (Ed.), Faith and Rationality, Notre Dame 1983; R.AUDI and W.J.WAINWRIGHT, Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment, Ithaca 1986. A brief, but excellent account of the issues involved is given by K.J.CLARK, Return to Reason, Grand Rapids 1990.

Most of us learn about God from our family, from society around us, from literature and culture, from the language we learn to speak. Our ideas of God are confirmed in our mind by our own intuitive perception and by religious and spiritual experiences that come our way. We start with an outlook on the world in which God, however we define him, already has a place. Before we begin to reflect and reason logically, we have a hypothesis in which God is included.

God in the structure of our thinking

wheelSecondly, since God represents the Absolute in this integrated world view, God occupies a central position, much more like the hub in a wheel. The meaning of life, our origin and destiny, the norms for good and evil, everything is held together by God.

As I said before, this does not mean that we do not need to justify belief in God through rational argument.

The Calvinist theologians went too far in their opposition to Foundationalism by claiming that knowledge of God is `properly basic‘; which means that it is so self evident that it does not need proofs. See G.I.MAVRODES, `Jerusalem and Athens Revisited’, in Faith and Rationality, l.c. pp. 192-218; W.L.SESSIONS, `Coherence, Proper Basicality and Moral Arguments for Theism’, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 22 (1987) 119-137; B.LANGTRY, `Properly Unargued Belief in God’, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 26 (1989) 129-154; P.DRAPER, `Evil and the Proper Basicality of Belief in God’, Faith and Philosophy 8 (1991) 135-147; M.HESTER, `Foundationalism and Peter’s Confession’, Religious Studies 26 (1990) 403-413.

However, we do need rational arguments for our belief in God. But the process is different. We do not arrive at God as at one object among many. Our arguments affirm God as the central reality: the source of all being, the basis of all truth, beauty and love, the depth of our existence, the overarching frame of meaning.

Most people already begin with a hypothesis in which God holds a central position. The proofs they consider will either affirm or weaken their whole mental construction of the world.

Here are some different ways in which authors have expressed the way we come to know about God:

  • “Belief in God begins like any other reality we learn. It is impossible to learn a language or function in society if one does not from infancy believe most of what one is told. Yet most of what one hears, in so far as it is evidential at all about the world, is not systematic, controlled, or replicable evidence; and a person will never have an opportunity to verify more than a tiny fraction of it through more reliable means”.
    J.HOBBS, `Religious and Scientific Uses of Anecdotal Evidence’, Logos 12 (1991) 105-121, here p.115. See also: D.R.ANDERSON, `Three Appeals in Peirce’s Neglected Argument’, Trans Peirce Society 20 (1990) 349-362, here p.349; `An American Argument for Belief in the Reality of God’, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 26 (1989) 109- 118.
  • “God’s nature is something one has to grasp as well as one can in one’s imagination; and only then can one try to justify one’s imaginative grasp by various arguments or logical illustrations”.
    A.B.PALMA, `Notes Towards God’, Sophia 25 (1986) 4-17; here p.14.>
  • “Belief in God is part of a natural and coherent perspective. It is a coherent and natural way of accommodating all the factors that incline us towards accepting our view of the world.”
    W.H.DAVIS, `Evidence and belief’, Sophia 30 (1991) 1-22, here p. 5.
  • “Belief in God is part of a complete phenomenological gestalt, that is: a unified perception of reality within which we live.”
    S.PRASINOS, `Spiritual Aspects of Psychotheraphy’, Journal of Religion and Health 31 (1992) 41-52, here p. 50.

fragile

It is not a question of our wanting to believe in a God, and therefore accepting any arguments. It is rather that various reasonings, insights and experiences combine to confirm a world view in which God holds a central position.

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CREDITS

The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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