In his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud called the hopes offered by religion “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . . We disregard its relation to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification” (pp. 21, 31). In other words, Freud saw religious belief as wish fulfillment, the illusory gratification of a desire.
Freud saw religious belief as a coping mechanism that assisted people in dealing with the harsh realities of life. A belief in God was nothing more than a wish to have a strong father figure in one’s life. The desires of individuals, according to Freud, cause them to look past their intellect to something that isn’t real and can’t be verified. He asserted that the religious person’s belief satisfies a strong desire to meet some emotional need. He has a wish to fulfill, and so he yields to it.
Freud also believed that illusions such as God can and should be resisted by people and that those who choose to participate in religion are “guilty of every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor” (ibid., p. 42).
Is Freud correct in his assumptions where Christianity is concerned?
To answer, let’s begin with the understanding that Freud’s wish fulfillment sword cuts both ways. Could it be true that an atheist like Freud has wishes and desires of his own? Perhaps Freud and others like him wish that a deity such as the God of the Bible does not exist—a God who will call them to account one day for their actions—and their construction of an atheistic belief system is simply wish fulfillment on their part.
The desire for there to be no God can be quite motivating and drive a person to hold an atheistic/agnostic position. Charles Darwin demonstrates just this when he says, “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the [biblical] text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine” (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809—82, Penguin Books, 2002, p. 50).
Contrary to what many atheists believe, the Bible exhorts against fuzzy, wish fulfillment-type thinking and instead commands people to think strongly about their beliefs. For example, God says to Judah, “Come now, and let us reason together, says the LORD” (Isaiah 1:18, NASB). Paul told his apprentice Timothy, “Think over what I say” (2 Timothy 2:7, ESV). Paul also told the church in Corinth, “Stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20, BSB).
Any argument that says Christianity promotes some sort of mindless, fideistic approach to belief about God is simply out of touch with the Bible’s teachings.
Unlike the mythology of the Greeks and Romans, Christianity firmly rests on strong philosophical, empirical, and historical evidence. The events surrounding the origin of Christianity occurred in space/time history and are capable of being verified. Moreover, the hope delivered by Christianity defies Freud’s definition in that it is backed by a person—Jesus of Nazareth, who history says lived and died—and whose resurrection is backed by good historical evidence.
In the end, Freud’s charge of wish fulfillment can easily be turned back upon itself, His allegations that Christians are in search of coping mechanisms or father figures fall flat when measured against the strong evidence that exists for the Christian faith.