By James Bishop| This article examines two main propositions. First, the claim that belief in a monotheistic concept of God is analogous to the childish belief in Santa. Second, that belief in a monotheistic concept of God is explained by the wish-fulfillment hypothesis.
Belief in God is wishful thinking
A proponent of the wish-fulfillment hypothesis says that belief in God is wishful thinking because it somehow makes the pains, existential crises, and traumas of a person’s life more tolerable and bearable.
Skeptics, however, need to be careful with this argument. For one, it by no means follows that because God is a product of wishful thinking that God does not exist. In fact, some theists would grant that belief in God is often wishful thinking on the part of many people. In some cases God might provide that immediate certainty of personal immortality especially when the individual grapples with his or her own mortality and immediate sufferings in life.
Belief in God might also be wishful thinking in the sense that it means one will be reunited with his or her loved ones in heaven. But to attempt to show a belief is false by showing why a person holds that belief is to commit what is called the genetic fallacy. If you want to show a belief to be false, you must present an argument against that belief. You can’t merely point to how that belief originated within someone.
It could be objected to, however, that this wishful type of thinking would be the dominant reason for belief in God on the part of all monotheists. This just doesn’t seem to be the case.
Second, this argument leaves untouched the major arguments presented for God’s existence traditionally proposed by classical monotheists, and it is certainly those arguments that matter in determining the epistemic warrant, or lack thereof, of belief in a monotheistic concept of God.
Third, many religious beliefs do not seem to support this. Some monotheists believe that all human beings are sinful and therefore under divine wrath, that human beings must deny their sinful desires, and so on. These beliefs don’t appear to gel well with the wish-fulfillment hypothesis.
Fourth, one could point out the wishful thinking on behalf of skeptics too, especially atheists. In his book ‘Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism,’ Dr. Paul Vitz suggests that fathers exert a powerful influence on their child’s concept of God. Vitz examines a number of prominent atheists and discovers that for “thirteen major historical rejecters of a personal God, we find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case.”
Vitz does not argue that this is the case for every atheist but that for a number of them there is a very real fatherly factor that influences how they view God. Vitz mentions Richard Dawkins and how he at the age of 9 experienced sexual abuse while being separated from his mother and father at a boarding school, that Dennett had a father who died at five, and that Christopher Hitchens’ father was remote, distant, and unsuccessful. In none of these cases, says Vitz, “do we find a strong, beloved father with a close relationship with his son or daughter.” On the other hand, however, famous believers in God often had strong relationships with their fathers who were good role models.
Vitz’s findings suggest that some people may be predisposed to atheism because of their family and parental circumstances. Now, a monotheist could argue that atheism is a form of wishful thinking in the sense that because of their negative upbringing and relationships with their fathers atheists desire to reject the ultimate father figure: God. This is wishful because it is not necessarily done on the basis of reasons and arguments, but because of emotions.
However, would this prove that every atheist reasons on the basis of wishful thinking? No. Does it disprove atheism, namely, the view that God does not exist? No. And neither does such reasoning disprove monotheism.
Belief in God is like belief in Santa
Skeptics will compare the epistemic warrant of belief in a monotheistic God with that of belief in Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Usually the argument (often intended pejoratively) is that just as belief in Santa or Father Christmas is childish and limited to an individual’s childhood so is belief in God. So, that adult human beings would believe in God is suggestive of the fact that some cannot move beyond their childhood fantasies and embrace reality. If you were a rational human being then you would have disposed of your belief in God just as you have disposed of your childhood belief in Santa.
Admittedly, prior to my own conversion to belief I used this as an argument at a time, and would later learn just how demonstrative it was of my naivety and lack of understanding of monotheism, belief in God, and even skepticism. Let’s look at a few of these.
First, this argument is directly challenged on the grounds that intelligent, intellectual thinkers have, and do, come to believe in God during their adulthood. In fact, some of these thinkers are incredibly bright and often specialists in sophisticated fields of expertise. One could list numerous anecdotes of unbelievers coming to faith.
Francis Collins is a world-renowned geneticist and biologist who led the successful human genome project. Previously an atheist, Collins can to believe in God on the basis of reason, and was particularly convinced by the moral argument for God’s existence. Alister McGrath, a scientist, tells a similar story. One could produce many more examples, and each one of them challenges the assertion that belief in God is a childish phenomena analogous to belief in Santa.
Further, although epistemologists debate the warrant for certain beliefs, especially when a lack of evidence becomes evidence of absence, we could be reasonably confident that we have good grounds for not believing in the existence Santa. In this way the absence of evidence for Santa can be taken to be evidence of absence.
For one, we know that the Santa story was invented for children and is not intended to be taken seriously. Two, if Santa existed and really visited homes to place presents under Christmas trees we would then expect someone to have spotted him and at least taken a photo or some video footage. No-one has seen a sled being pulled through the night sky by flying reindeers, or a factory in the North Pole making countless toys. In other words, the evidence isn’t there when we have good reason to believe the evidence should be there.
Further, the wider story seems to lack plausibility. There is no means by which Santa could deliver millions of presents to every child within a single night, know what all children desire for Christmas, or slip down chimneys and into houses undetected on every occasion. For these reasons no mature intellectuals have come to believe in Santa on the basis of evidence and reason. In fact, it is the opposite: we don’t believe in Santa because reason demands it. To the contrary, when it comes to monotheism we have intellectual thinkers coming to belief, or sustaining belief, in God on the basis of reasoning and arguments.
Third, if the skeptic maintains that epistemic warrant for belief in God and Santa are the same then he needs to do several things. He would need to show the syllogistic arguments that have been forwarded to establish rational belief in Santa. If he cannot do this then it is obvious that he is making no attempt to be intellectually honest or open to discussion, rather he is likely being pejorative and condescending.
Second, the skeptic would need to show the weaknesses in the traditional theistic arguments for God such as the Moral Argument, Teleological Argument, Cosmological arguments, and the other arguments thought convincing to many thinkers. If he cannot then to say that belief in a theistic God is epistemically level with Santa just makes him look uninformed in both religious beliefs and skepticism.