Is Religion a Crutch?
Posted by Simon Wenham on April 1, 2012
Believers are often caricatured as being weak and naïve — the kind of people who need their faith as a crutch just to get them through life. But the truth of the matter is that Jesus never offered a crutch, only a cross.
“ONE OF THE most familiar criticisms of Christianity is that it offers consolation to life’s losers,” writes Alister McGrath in his book Mere Apologetics . 1 Believers are often caricatured as being somewhat weak and naïve—the kind of people who need their faith as a “crutch” just to get them through life. In new atheist literature, this depiction is often contrasted with the image of a hardier intellectual atheist who has no need for such infantile, yet comforting, nonsense.
This type of portrayal may resonate with some, but does it really make sense? 2
From the outset it is helpful to define what we mean by a “crutch.” In a medical setting, the word obviously means an implement used by people for support when they are injured. The analogy implies, therefore, that those who need one are somehow deficient or wounded. In a sense, it is fairly obvious that the most vulnerable might need support, but as the agnostic John Humphrys points out, “Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible.” 3 As this suggests, it is not so much a question of whether you have one, but it is more of a question of what your particular crutch is. This is an important point to make, as people rely on all kinds of things for their comfort or self-esteem, ranging from material possessions, money, food, and aesthetics to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and sex. Rather than being viewed as signs of weakness, many of these are even considered to be relatively normal in society, provided they don’t turn into the more destructive behaviors associated with strong addiction.
Nevertheless, many of these only offer a short-term release from the struggles of life and they sometimes only cover up deeper problems that a person might be suffering from. To suggest, therefore, that atheists are somehow stronger than believers is to deny the darker side of humanity, which is only too apparent if we look at the world around us. As McGrath explains:
“[I]f you have a broken leg, you need a crutch. If you’re ill you need medicine. That’s just the way things are. The Christian understanding of human nature is that we are damaged, wounded and disabled by sin. That’s just the way things are.” 4
Moreover, Augustine of Hippo compared the church to a hospital, because it is full of wounded and ill people in the process of being healed. 5 As is the case with any illness, this treatment cannot begin, however, until someone has admitted they are sick or need help. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that religious belief does have an advantageous effect on both mental and physical health. Andrew Sims, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, writes that a “huge volume of research” confirms this, making it “one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally.” 6 In a culture that often seems to exalt health, well-being, and happiness above other things, this would seem to render religious belief very appealing both to the weak and the strong in society.
PROJECTION OVERRULED Yet even if we accept that Christians may not all be dysfunctional and weak, you may have heard it said that religion only survives because people desperately want it to be true, because they can’t come to terms with their own mortality (or that of loved ones). It was Sigmund Freud who helped to popularize this idea, as he suggested that the concept of a loving Creator was simply a psychological projection of a person’s innermost wishes:
“We tell ourselves that it would be very nice if there was a God who created the world and was a benevolent Providence and if there were a moral order in the universe and an after-life; but it is the very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.” 7
This kind of argument would seem to ring true, at least on a superficial level. You would expect it to be more likely for people to believe in something that they like than something that they don’t, and it is clear that Christianity is powerfully compelling. In fact, the argument itself is an admission of this, as it acknowledges the innate desire in us all that is fulfilled by God. Who wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with a loving deity who not only wants the best for those he has created but who is offering eternity in a place that is more wonderful than can be imagined? Yet the Bible also contains some very hard-hitting passages, which would seem to contradict the notion that religious belief is simply a projection of our wishes. C. S. Lewis pointed out that scripture also teaches that believers should fear the Lord, but you would not then suggest that this meant faith was some kind of “fear fulfillment!” 8
The problem with the argument is that it cuts both ways. If you suggest that people only believe because they want it to be true , then the counter-claim is that atheists are only non-believers because they don’t want it to be true . Some people have expressly stated this, such as Aldous Huxley who wrote:
“For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust.” 9 As Czeslaw Milosz points out, this is a negative wish-fulfillment, because “A true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders, we are not going to be judged.” 10
SOMETHING MUCH BETTER What is interesting about the Christian faith is that the intellectual arguments for God are backed up with a reality that can be personally experienced. There are countless examples of people who discover a life-changing faith even though they were once hostile to the idea of it . This may sound too good to be true, but this is something that is within everyone’s reach. Many believers testify to the transformative effect that becoming a Christian has had on their lives and this can include being delivered from some of the crutches they had previously relied upon. Yet, the idea that coming to faith is somehow either liberating or empowering is, of course, anathema to many people. Christopher Hitchens, for example, speaks of the totalitarian nature of Christianity that keeps its followers in a state of constant subservience.12 G. K. Chesterton saw it differently, however, as he suggested that the “dignity of man” and the “smallness of man” was held in perfect tension, allowing people to have a strong sense of self-worth without becoming big-headed. 13
Yet God clearly offers much more than this. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, it says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The idea of strength flowing from human powerlessness may seem counterintuitive in today’s risk-averse culture, but as Simon Guillebaud points out, “Paradoxically, our waving the white flag of submission to God’s right over our lives is the key that unlocks the gate to many future victories in his name.” 14 Nevertheless, as C. S. Lewis observed, people will still choose to cling on to their crutches, even though something much better is being offered to them:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 15
It can be helpful, therefore, to reflect on what we really rely upon in our own lives and what impact this has upon us. As the blogger and former atheist, Daniel Rodger, reminds us, we do not want to miss out on the fullness of life that God offers all of us, whether we think we need it or not:
“The truth of the matter is that Jesus never offered a crutch, only a cross; it wasn’t a call to be a better person with high self-esteem or a plan to help us scrape through our existence. It was a call to acknowledge that the forgiveness we all seek is to be found in him by following him onto the cross…. It’s because Christianity is true that it has something to offer every person in every circumstance, regardless of their background or intellectual capabilities.” 16
Simon Wenham is Research Coordinator for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Europe.
Alister McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2012), 167. Article adapted from Simon Wenham’s “Is Christianity Just a Crutch?” Pulse , Issue 10 (Spring 2012), 14-16. John Humphrys, In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007), quoted in John C. Lennox, Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), 24. McGrath, Mere Apologetics , 170. Ibid Andrew Sims, Is Faith Delusion? Why Religion Is Good for Your Health (London: Continuum, 2009), quoted in Lennox, Gunning, 77-78. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W.W. Norton, 1962), 21,quoted in McGrath, 167. C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays (New York: Mariner Books, 2002), 19. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, eds., Aldous Huxley Complete Essays, Vol 4 (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2001), 369. Czeslaw Milosz, “The Discrete Charm of Nihilism,” quoted in Lennox, 47. Manfred Lutz, God: A Brief History of the Greater One (Munich: Pattloch Verlag GmbH + Co., 2007), cited in Lennox, 46. Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (London: Atlantic Books, 2007), 232-234. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 143. Simon Guillebaud, For What It’s Worth (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 1999), 171. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1949), 1-2. Daniel Rodger, “Is Christianity a Psychological Crutch?” Online at http://www.bethinking.org/truth-tolerance/introductory/is-christianitya-psychological-crutch.htm .