Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Is Christianity a Psychological Crutch?

            Sometimes people claim, “Christianity is a psychological crutch. You believe it because you need it to get through life!” I like to take a Plantingian approach to this claim: So what? What exactly is the problem here? At this point, people stumble through a response. I am wondering, however, if we can make the objection stronger. What follows will be these attempts, and answers to them.

Attempt #1: Christianity is just a psychological crutch.

            The idea here is to claim that the Christian has no other reason he holds to Christianity besides the idea of a psychological crutch, because he is too weak to get through life without it. But that’s not true of a great many individuals. There are people who are quite psychologically healthy who believe in Christianity, and there are people who are raised in a Christian home and believe, at least in part, due to their upbringing. But even if there are (and there might be) people who believe solely for psychological crutch reasons, what is the problem? We need to strengthen the claim a little for anything to follow.

Attempt #2: Christianity believed mostly or solely on the basis of a psychological crutch is less likely to be true.

            This holds the idea that whatever is believed for psychological crutch reasons is less likely to be true than those beliefs that are held for non-psychological crutch reasons. First, I think this confuses ontology with epistemology. Something can be true independently of one’s reasons for holding it. But more importantly, I think it’s not quite true. Suppose someone has been physically or verbally abused his entire life. As an adult, he wants to deal with the mental issues that accompany such a horrific existence. He believes, solely for psychological crutch reasons, that seeing a counselor will help him work through these issues. He has no experience in this area, and he doesn’t think that others experiences give any indicators as to how his will turn out (perhaps because he doesn’t know anyone who has experienced his type and degree of mental wounds, or perhaps because of those he did know the rate of success was 50%, etc.). It helps him to believe that counseling will help him work through the issues, and so he does. It seems that, nonetheless, the belief that counseling will help is true (or at least none the worse for wear). Which brings us to our next formulation…

Attempt #3: Christianity believed mostly or solely on the basis of a psychological crutch is not justified.

            This formulation grants that Christianity could be true even if a believer holds it for psychological crutch reasons, but it denies warrant or justification in the cases in which Christianity is mostly or solely based on psychological crutch factors. In the case of Christianity being believed solely on the basis of psychological crutch factors, I would agree that some type of wish-fulfillment or psychological crutch is not itself justifying of Christianity. However, if God exists, very plausibly no one believes in the truth of Christianity for solely psychological reasons. This is because, if God exists, he would (and if Christianity is true, he did) provide knowledge of God or a sense of the divine within every human person. “Now wait just a minute,” an objector may interrupt. “You can’t just assume that God exists!” No such assumption is made. We must remain aware of the dialectic (or course of the argument) here. The argument is that:

1.     If Christianity is held for solely psychological crutch reasons, then it is unjustified.
2.     Christianity is held for solely psychological crutch reasons.
3.     Therefore, it is unjustified.

Remember, this argument is predicated on Attempt #3, which grants that Christianity could be true (so we’re only dealing with epistemological concerns). This means it will not do simply to insist God doesn’t exist a priori; this must be argued for. But in that case, it will be that argument that does all the work, and if the skeptic convinces us that God does not exist, the reasons for my belief become superfluous (since I will no longer believe that God exists, and hence no longer believe Christianity is true). So the response given by the Christian is a denial of (2), for Christians believe God exists, after all. This response is not question-begging, because it does not assume Christian belief is justified (it just so happens it entails that Christian belief is justified, but that is a different story). The question then revolves around God’s existence. But that means the argument fails.

The astute reader will notice we left out a crucial qualifier from our skeptic’s formulation: “mostly.” So suppose the skeptic grants our criticism of the “solely” clause and moves to “mostly.” Well what about those who believe in Christianity “mostly” or “primarily” on the basis of psychological crutch reasons? First, if we have rebuffed the stronger claim, the weaker won’t fare any better (and for the same reasons). Second, Christians (at least some of them) hold Christianity for evidential or argumentative reasons, and some hold them so strongly that they actually defeat any psychological factors (such as doubt induced for psychological reasons). In short, this just isn’t a good objection, even when strengthened as much as I can.


  1. There's a lot of psychological research that shows God serves as an attachment figure. Unbelievers take this to mean it is just for the psychologically 'weak.' However, the same research also shows that non-believers have replacement attachment figures such as science, pets, family, etc. So using a psychological 'crutch' isn't unique to believers. Additionally, we should expect God to be an attachment figure since He refers to Himself as Father.

    1. I think that's probably right. :) This is why I offer a Plantingian response, as I state above.

  2. Psychology is a anti-Christ philosophy anyway, so who cares?
    But, in case you are wondering, my answer ever has been: "Cripples need crutches, but I need WAY more than a crutch, I need Jesus" and then I go on through the good person test ( to show why they, and everyone else, need Jesus as well.
    Indeed, by the time I am done they should be quaking in their boots at the thought of facing Almighty God guilty in their Sins. And then, ready to kill me for showing them who they are, or, crying in gratitude for the Mercy God has shown them, grateful SOMEONE took the time to tell them.
    So should you...
    Remember, no apologetic ever saved anyone, only Jesus saves.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment! :) I appreciate your fervor for Christ, but I believe you have a few misunderstandings of certain things, specifically the apologetic project.

      First, psychology is not monolithic: it is simply, at its base, the study of human mental states. Since God is the creator, proper psychology will consider him. Obviously, the vast majority of academics in this discipline do not, but it is by no means universal. That is, some of those who study the mental life of humans try to do so in a God-honoring and acknowledging way. In any case, there is nothing inherent in the study of God's creation that makes it anti-Christian.

      Next, I think you confuse the method with the message. No Gospel presentation ever saved anyone, but it doesn't then follow that we don't present the Gospel! People *have* been convinced of God's existence, and subsequently given their hearts to Christ, as a result of apologetic arguments and defenses of the Gospel. These people are few, but two considerations: a) every soul is precious to God, and b) these people are often very influential, winning many to Christ themselves. I don't want to sound harsh, but the attitude among laypeople that no one should engage in removing intellectual barriers to Christ is both baffling and damaging.


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