Psychologizing Religion: Is God an Imaginary Friend?

From left to right: Hegel, Feuerbach, and Freud

hen the Enlightenment was inaugurated by Immanuel Kant in 1784, public institutions — most notably the Church and State — became the subject of intense scrutiny. It was not enough to simply question the authority and dogmas of these institutions, rather many found it necessary to pursue projects of (what would later be called by Jacques Derrida as) deconstruction. The goal of these projects was to conceptually dismantle not only the ideologies of these institutions (such as ‘the divine right of kings’) but also their antecedent conditions. By this I mean the circumstances, situations, and historical events that these beliefs were predicated upon.

For the State, this had some rather severe consequences (for royalty anyhow), such as the advent of constitutional governments. For the Church, it not only exacerbated the effects of the Reformation, but laid the groundwork for all forms of religious critique and criticism we see today. In this article, I am going to turn the tables by critiquing the psychological notion that ‘God is an imaginary friend’ or otherwise some sort of projection that stems from our conscious and subconscious desires, hopes, and fears. Although before I get to Freud himself, I will discuss two of his influences— Hegel and Feuerbach.

By most accounts the Enlightenment thinker who opened the door to secular critiques of theology and religion was Georg W.F. Hegel, who in The Phenomenology of the Spirit, sought to explicate a philosophical system that was rooted in consciousness (or ‘Geist’ in German). By way of introduction, you are probably familiar with the phrase ‘spirit of the times’ (or Zeitgeist) which comes directly from Hegel. Well, ‘spirit’ is meant to encompass a mode of thinking, of cognition, of consciousness, and self-awareness. So as thinking persons we have our own spirit about us — some essential part of ourselves that makes us unique — indeed our very self, and so together we also have a collective spirit, a national spirit, a fighting spirit, a world spirit, and so on and so forth. On this view, God is conceptualized as an ‘Absolute Spirit’ by Hegel, a kind of supreme consciousness or cosmic mind of sorts.

Much could be said (perhaps negatively) about how long-winded and unclear Hegel was in his writing. It seems par for the course that the most wave-making philosophers in Western civilization had these qualities in their writing. I say that only as a warning for the quotes I am citing below, so you can read Hegel in his own words.

759. This, that absolute spirit has given itself the shape of self-consciousness in itself and thereby also for its consciousness, now appears in the following way. The faith of the world is that spirit is there as a self-consciousness, that is to say, as an actual person, that spirit is for immediate certainty, that the faithful consciousness sees, feels, and hears this divinity. In that way, it is not imagination; rather, it is actual in the believer. Consciousness then does not start from its inner, from thought, and then within itself bring together the thought of God with existence; rather, it starts from the immediate present existence and takes cognizance of God in it…

761. This immediate existence is at the same time not solely and merely immediate consciousness; it is religious consciousness. What the immediacy inseparably signifies is not only an existing self-consciousness but also the essence which has been purely conceived, that is, the absolute essence… God is therefore here revealed as He is; He is therein the way that He is in itself; He is there as spirit. God is solely attainable in pure speculative knowing, He is only in that knowing, and He is only that knowing itself, for He is spirit, and this speculative knowing is revealed religion’s knowing. That knowing knows Him as thinking, or pure essence, and it knows this thinking as being and existence, and knows existence as the negativity of itself, and hence as the self, as this self and a universal self. This is precisely what revealed religion knows…

The point I think Hegel was trying to make is that ‘the stuff of thought’ is the stuff that God is made out of. God is not known primarily through material reality but mental activity, because God is the conscious self of the Universe, who we find our own conscious selves reflected in. Hegel’s philosophy is what came to be known as Idealism, which is a theory about what is ultimate or fundamental to reality as we know it, or in this case it would be consciousness. (See my article: “A Lighthouse Upon a Hill: In Defense of Philosophers” to understand why philosophers pursue fundamentals.)

Idealism accounts for why we do not find God loitering in material reality, and why most people believe that ‘there is no material proof of God’s existence.’ The reason is simple: God is not a material being that is perceptible to our sensory faculties (e.g. eyes and ears), but rather our cognitive faculties (e.g. memory, heuristics, imagination, language, and so forth). This is also why ‘proofs’ for the existence of God used by theologians are in fact cognitive arguments rather than material demonstrations.

An example of a cognitive argument in action could be trying to prove to someone that you ate a particular meal last week. Do you have any material demonstration of this meal that someone could see with their own eyes? Of course not. All you have is the memory of that meal. Simply recalling that meal and telling someone about it will not make them believe that you ate it, but they can imagine you eating it, which does make it believable. Whether or not they want to believe you actually ate the meal is a topic for another time.

But suffice to say, what Hegel is perhaps arguing when it comes to thinking about God, or conceiving of God, or forming a concept in our minds about God, these are all cognitive activities which are part and parcel of human consciousness. These activities are as natural to us as is breathing. Just as Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am,” so too might have Hegel said ‘the Universe is, because God thinks it to be.’ You would be forgiven for thinking this sounds an awful lot like something Carl Sagan said in his TV show Cosmos, “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”

Understandably, Idealism is not everyone’s cup of tea. Reality as we know it seems to present itself materially and not mentally. The underlying natural processes that for instance drive nuclear fusion in stars and cellular biology do not have a conscious mind. Rather, as a Materialist would maintain, these processes can be fully described by the analog interactions between particles and fields. However, the advent of quantum physics (QP) has opened the door to new paradigms (or ‘conceptual playgrounds’ if you will) that challenge this traditional notion of Materialism.

One such paradigm that has been making waves in academic literature is that of digital physics (DP). (Check out “The Physical World as a Virtual Reality” and “Introduction: Does Information Matter?” to acquaint yourself with DP more fully.) By way of comparison, QP assumes that natural processes are driven by systems of very small things and small amounts of energy (or quanta, hence ‘quantum’). However, DP assumes these same natural processes are driven by an underlying state that is a simpler version of the one we experience. This underlying state contains less dimensions, and yet the same amount of information. But how is this even possible?

Consider the very screen you are looking at right now as you are reading this sentence. Each word on this screen is merely a bundle of photons being projected by your two-dimensional display, which in turn is being driven by software code, which in turn is just a series of bits (1s and 0s) that are being computed. These bits do not have a length, width, height, or volume; rather, they are computed within a two-dimensional circuit. (The YouTube channel Numberphile has a great video that illustrates this principle called “Domino Addition,” in which he constructs a basic addition computer using nothing but dominoes.) Digital physicists think that elementary particles (the ‘stuff’ that everything is made out of) can also be described as ‘projections’ that are the result of 2D binary computations.

Evidence: the similarity between Feynman diagrams (which model the behavior of quantum fields) and logic gates (which model how 1s and 0s are computed) is a coincidence that many find to be explicitly supportive of a DP paradigm, if not implicitly supportive of an underlying mathematical structure to reality. Another line of evidence includes algorithms such as Monte Carlo and random walk simulations, which yield similar results to the probability distributions of quantum mechanics equations. (For a high level read on this subject, check out: “Quantum random walks — an introductory overview.”)

So why all this talk of digital physics? The implication is that if digital physics is a better way to interpret reality, then Materialism (or ‘analog physics’ if you will) needs to take a hike. Reality is not the result of particles bouncing off each other, but the deep structure that constrains their behavior. Just as the words on this screen have an underlying source code, so too does material reality.

Given the central claim of Idealism, in which the mind of God is the conscious self of the Universe, we could interpret this via DP by thinking of the mind of God as the source code of the Universe. Everything in the Universe — from the laws of physics, to elementary particles, to biological processes, and to religious experiences — can ultimately be retraced back to this source code.

There is some overlap between Idealism and psychology as well, which is germane to my discussion here. Research that neuroscientists have done in search of an explanation for why we have religious experiences in the first place has provoked some interesting questions. Consider some of the concluding remarks made in the following paper, “Is Our Brain Hardwired to Produce God, or is Our Brain Hardwired to Perceive God? A Systematic Review on the Role of the Brain in Mediating Religious Experience”:

Modern neuroscience no longer ignores the mind phenomenon and is progressively starting to address the mind-brain problem (for the review see Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts 2001): Physical (‘objective’) and mental (‘subjective’) processes are considered as two basic and complementary aspects of the same whole informational brain state (Fingelkurts et al. 2009). In this sense it is possible to come closer to understanding how something subjective has causal interactions with something objective.

Based on the above review of the existing literature and the proposed definition of religious experience, it is obvious that the human brain is the junction point of the material world and the world of ideas, the body and the mind, the objective and subjective (Fingelkurts and Fingelkurts 2004), the phenomenal organisation of the physical universe (Revonsuo 2006). The human mind (consciousness) is not just a reflection of physiological (internal) and physical (external) processes, but rather is a powerful active force: a mirror can not change creatively the object which it reflects, but the human mind is capable of this (see Section 8.2, argument (7) and comments on it).

In summary, the human mind appears as a partially isolated or partially independent pocket of thought and purpose, receiving its separate identity due to the constraining conditions of natural laws, the material composition of the individual brain, biological drive and genetics, and perhaps also through its own free agency (Clayton 2000). According to Clayton (2007) the emergence of the human mind in turn gives in principle the possibility for divine influences. In this scenario, no physical or natural laws are broken if there is an exchange of information between a divine source and conscious human agents: God could bring about changes in one’s subjective thoughts, will and emotions the same way as the thoughts, will and emotions of other people do. Such influences do not require the addition of new causes or new energy into the system. (p.35)

In other words, our consciousness is not only fundamental to religious experience, but the human experience overall. We cannot navigate reality or participate in reality without consciousness. Does it make sense then, to think of God as an imaginary friend on Idealism? I should think not. God is NOT an imaginary friend, rather he is so much more. It might be more appropriate to say that ‘we are God’s imagined friends,’ for God is no more an emergent concept generated by our consciousness than we are of his. You do not have to agree or accept Idealism at this point, but it sets the stage for all psychological critiques of religion that I will discuss going forward.

Someone who took Idealism in a different direction was Ludwig Feuerbach, who in The Essence of Christianity, conceded the fact that thinking about God comes naturally to us, but denied that God actually exists. It would be more correct to say, according to Feuerbach anyhow, that God certainly exists, but only as an idea in our imagination. We project the idea of God onto reality because of certain traits and features we find in ourselves. The term ‘projection’ itself originates with Freud, who I will discuss later, but psychologists refer to it as a mechanism in which a patient displaces their attitudes, thoughts, or behaviors onto something other than themselves.

An extreme example of projection can be found in the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks played a mail-delivery executive whose plane went down over the ocean, and his character later washes up on a remote and desolate island. In his struggle to stay alive, the character latches on to a volleyball that has been painted with a face and so-named “Wilson.” Hanks’ character begins to treat “Wilson” as though he is a person, and even apologizes to “Wilson” when the volleyball gets washed out to sea. Likewise, critics of religion who take the psychological angle tend to portray God as a collective “Wilson” of sorts.

Background image is from the movie Castaway (2000).

To be clear, Feuerbach did not use the term ‘projection’ but his commentary in The Essence of Christianity all but speaks to it:

“But when religion — consciousness of God — is designated as the self-consciousness of man, this is not to be understood as affirming that the religious man is directly aware of this identity; for, on the contrary, ignorance of it is fundamental to the peculiar nature of religion. To preclude this misconception, it is better to say, religion is man’s earliest and also indirect form of self-knowledge. Hence, religion everywhere precedes philosophy, as in the history of the race, so also in that of the individual. Man first of all sees his nature as if out of himself, before he finds it in himself. His own nature is in the first instance contemplated by him as that of another being. Religion is childlike condition of humanity; but the child sees his nature — man — out of himself; in the childhood a man is an object to himself, under the form of another man. Hence the historical progress of religion consists in this: that what by an earlier religion was regarded as objective, is now recognized as subjective; that is, what was formerly contemplated and worshiped as God is now perceived to be something human.” (p.13)

Feuerbach then turned his gaze towards Christianity:

“Religion, at least [to] the Christian, is the relation of man to himself, or more correctly to his own nature (i.e. his subjective nature); but a relation to it, viewed as a nature apart from his own. The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or, rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective-i.e. contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of the human nature.” (p.14)

If you are familiar with Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series at all, he has said as much as Feuerbach as well. For Peterson, the idea of God began as an abstraction of great-making properties we find in great people. Peterson is following the Jungian school of thought, in that humans have this natural tendency to find patterns in people, places, and things. When we apply these patterns to people, we get what Jung called archetypeswhich are categorical roles, events, narratives, or identities that we find in society. Peterson thinks that God originated as an amalgamation of various personal archetypes, becoming a sort of super-archetype (i.e. God is often referred to as a “Lord of Lords,” see: Deuteronomy 10:12–22).

If the critique of religious belief given by Feuerbach is correct, then God is most definitely an imaginary friend…

Just as children might imagine themselves as superheroes battling monsters on the playground, so do religious believers imagine God when they gather together in church, or when they pray. Because these practices have been ritualized for thousands of years, religion and theology have become normalized delusions so to speak. This is not to say that theism is a form of neurosis or psychosis, or some other mental disorder per se, but that God is no more real than a speed limit.

Feuerbach even anticipated a rebuttal: unlike something like a speed limit which was invented arbitrarily, the existence of God can be discovered through various proofs. (Remember earlier how the word ‘proof’ here is being used as shorthand for cognitive argumentation, not material demonstration.) These proofs point to various schemes we observe in the Universe, and from those schemes we may infer that God exists because only something like God could be sufficient for those schemes to occur in the first place. (The role of theistic proofs gets into how we account for the origin of religious beliefs in general, which was a topic I explored in my previous article: “Celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of Antony Flew’s ‘Theology and Falsification’ with a Response.”)

For example, one such scheme is that of causation. Someone could look at common instances of cause and effect, and from these instances deduce a general principle of causation. This principle could then be applied to other instances where a cause is unknown, but the effects are clearly observable. For instance, if you came home from work one day to your favorite meal on the dinner table, your principle of causation would inform you that these effects can be explained by positing a cause sufficient to bring them about.

Moreover, you know that you are not merely imagining this dinner to be on the table, and so it would be completely rational to believe that the cause exists outside of your imagination. Now here is the kicker: replace ‘the dinner’ with ‘the Universe.’ According to a general principle of causation, it would be entirely rational to believe that the Universe had a cause sufficient to bring its existence about. Theologians refer to this kind of proof as a Cosmological Argument, because it strongly implies that God is a (or even the) sufficient cause of the Universe. However, Feuerbach believed that all such proofs fail, not because they commit some logical fallacy or use unsound premises, but because they are proofs. I will let him explain:

“Real, sensational existence is that which is not dependent on my own mental spontaneity or activity, but by which I am involuntarily affected, which is when I am not, when I do not think of it or feel it. The existence of God must therefore be in space — in general, a qualitative, sensational existence. But God is not seen, not heard, not perceived by the senses. He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me. If I am not devoutly disposed, if I do not raise myself above the life of the senses, he has no place in my consciousness. Thus he exists only in so far as he is felt, thought, believed in; the addition ‘for me’ is unnecessary.” (p.200)

Things which really exist tend to impose their existence upon us, such that we are involuntarily affected by their existence — we have no choice but to believe they exist. Or as Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Likewise, what Feuerbach is contending is that as soon as we stop believing that God exists, God goes away. If God really existed, then we would not have to compose proofs for his existence; rather, we would be involuntarily affected by it. We should just know that God exists, plain and simple, just as we know the Sun and Moon exist.

In the academic literature, this idea has been called doxastic involuntarism, which says in practically every case where we believe a proposition to be true, we do not decide that it is true. What I find to be ironic is that the proposition of doxastic involuntarism itself seems to be a matter of personal decision as to whether or not it is true for you! Regardless, there are some borderline cases that philosophers dispute.

Take for example a research assignment that might have been given to you by a history professor, in which you must determine if the famous painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze (1851) was a true depiction of what really happened. When doing historical research, your conclusion is going to be driven by the criterion you established at the outset and the number and types of sources you accessed, at the very least. These are both things that you have some control over, so doxastic involuntarism does not seem to be exclusively the case. If so, it need not be the case that God’s existence should be imposed upon us. Discovering the existence of God might be an essential component of the religious experience overall.

Another issue with Feuerbach’s reasoning is that it seems to dismiss the reality of ethics altogether. If Feuerbach does not believe the proposition ‘God exists’ because God is not evident to his senses, then what of ethical propositions such as ‘it is wrong to take candy from a baby’ for example? Such a proposition is not evident to our senses, but nonetheless is important to living our lives, so should we dismiss it too?

Oddly enough this is also where Jordan Peterson comes back into the discussion, because whenever someone asks him if he believes in God, he typically replies “I act as though God exists.” Although the sentiment is simple, it is profound because it focuses on what is actually relevant in religious matters — ethics. If you agree, then consider ignoring the issue of deciding whether or not God exists, and instead focus on whether or not you think you should live as though God exists. Here we would classify theological propositions, such as ‘God loves you’ as having some ethical connotation that requires us to decide if ‘God loves you’ is worth orienting your words, thoughts, and actions around.

The implication of categorizing theology as ethics, is that the question ‘is God an imaginary friend?’ becomes trivial. Even if the various proofs for the existence of God fail at least implying that God actually exists outside of our imagination, it is worth contemplating whether or not such proofs are even relevant to the ethical dimension of theism or atheism. If they are, then projecting God as an imaginary friend would be akin to projecting ethical propositions as well. Voluntarily participating in religion for ethical reasons would be no more irrational than voluntarily obeying the speed limit, or refusing to take candy from a baby, for ethical reasons. If these reasons are sufficient, then religious belief is rational.

Should I call Sigmund Freud the man of the hour? It seems like his voice has been an expected one in this discussion. Where Hegel’s psychological critique of religious belief led to Idealism, Feuerbach rejected Idealism in favor of the projection hypothesis — which Freud himself later coined. The reason for this is that Freud developed what has become known as psychoanalysis.

In the world of psychology, psychoanalysis emphasizes the subconscious aspects of a person, including their dreams. Psychoanalysis supposes that what we are actively thinking about at any given time is just surface level activity that stems from deeper attitudes and feelings. We have certain fears, hopes, urges, and desires that wind up getting expressed or suppressed, and these expressions or suppressions manifest themselves in various behaviors or conditions.

By way of contrasting psychoanalysis with say cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with an analogy, CBT sees the person as a ship with a captain who is in control of the rudder and focusing only on what they can see above water; whereas psychoanalysis sees the person as an iceberg who is adrift on the open sea and is being influenced by things below the water. Neither of these approaches have a monopoly in a counseling setting, as both are useful depending on the issues that one wants to work on with a therapist. However, psychoanalysis offers a perspective on religious beliefs that CBT does not. (A typical CBTist would likely agree with Jordan Peterson’s approach, which as we saw equated religious beliefs with ethics.)

At any rate, Freud laid out his basic theory of religion in Totem and Taboo. The book is somewhat controversial, because all of its arguments were based on anecdotal evidence and also because Freud used racist language (i.e. referring to non-Europeans as “savages”). But to the point, Freud believed that religiosity originated in tribal totems, and that these totems functioned as symbols of tribal values. Essentially, Freud refined Feuerbach’s hypothesis in the fires of psychoanalysis, and what emerged was something more nuanced because Freud provided the mechanism that gave the projection hypothesis its explanatory power. This is what he had to say about gods:

How does the god come into this situation which originally was foreign to him? The answer might be that the idea of god had meanwhile appeared-no one knows whence-and had dominated the whole religious life, and that the totem feast, like everything else that wished to survive, had been forced to fit itself into the new system. However, psychoanalytic investigation of the individual teaches with especial emphasis that god is in every case modeled after the father and that our personal relation to god is dependent upon our relation to our physical father, fluctuating and changing with him, and that god at bottom is nothing an exalted father. (p. 242)

From a historical anthropological perspective, men have collectively been the providers, protectors, and punishers. These roles have typically been assumed by fathers, and so the ideal father is one who maximizes and optimizes these roles. These roles then become abstracted into general or universal notions, whom God embodies. We then project this divine Father onto reality because we want there to be some father figure ‘up there’ in the heavens providing for us, looking out for us, and making sure the injustices we experience do not go unaccounted for. The relationships we have with our earthly father also becomes a template for the kind of relationship with have with our divine father, and so forth.

Background image is from the Sistine Chapel.

Needless to say, this sort of critique of religious belief has become somewhat of a meme, as often it appears in various expressions such as ‘religion is a crutch,’ or ‘religion is a system of control implemented by the patriarchy,’ or Karl Marx’s classic phrase that religion is “the opium of the people,” or as the late Stephen Hawking said “there is no heaven…that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” The famous British mathematician Bertrand Russell also echoed Freud’s theory in his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” (1927):

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.

In closing, I wanted to identify three ironies with Freud’s theory (and related memes based on it). The first of these ironies is that his theory could be extrapolated to describe all sorts of ideas other than God by thinking of them as coping mechanisms. Take for instance the ideas of human rights, or currency, or civil law, or democracy, or historical research, or even ‘Science.’ It could be said that we project these things not because we have some rational argument that justifies their truth, but because we want to feel good about the world we live in, and that we want these schemes to be true because they give us structure and help us deal with ourselves and a Universe that baffles us.

The second irony is that even if Freud’s theory was completely true and accurate, it suffers from a logical error known as the genetic fallacy. Explaining the origins or history of a belief does not explain whether or not it is true or false. It is logically possible that God really exists, even if we are projecting God. We should not mistake motivation for accepting (or rejecting) a belief as justification for the truth or falsity of that belief. Origin stories also have a tendency to be biased by particular paradigms we want to be true. If we want ‘the Cosmos’ to be as Carl Sagan said “…all that is, or was, or ever will be,” then that leaves no room for God, and plenty of room to fabricate a theory of religion that excludes God from the outset.

The final irony is that Freud’s theory it not only applies to religious believers, but atheists as well. In Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, author Paul Vitz profiles a number of famous atheists and reveals how they all had ‘daddy issues’ — including Freud himself. So the question is this: if religious people form an irrational attachment to God, could not also irreligious people form an irrational detachment? Freud cannot have his cake and eat it too; he cannot psychoanalyze religious belief while also avoiding psychoanalyzing disbelief. Or as Oxford professor John Lennox once put it at a prayer breakfast, “…if religion is a fairy tale of those afraid of the dark, then atheism is a fairy tale of those afraid of the light.”

Of course most atheists probably do not have a problematic relationship with their father, and their belief that God does not exist is predicated upon some rational inference or argument. But if that could be true for atheists, then it could also be true for theists as well. If so, Freud’s theory becomes rather trivial; and thus the question of ‘is God an imaginary friend?’ shows itself to be naïve at best, or empty rhetoric at worst.

Clear and critical thinking-out-loud about philosophical and theological topics from the perspective of a Christian pastor.

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