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Is God Just a Human Invention? - Video Interview and Book Excerpt with Sean McDowell

  • Updated Aug 02, 2011
Is God Just a Human Invention? - Video Interview and Book Excerpt with Sean McDowell
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[Editor's note: the following excerpt is taken from Is God Just a Human Invention? by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Kregel Books, 2010, pages 120-129.]

Is God Just a Human Invention?  


A lot of people believe in God—like billions. Religion is all over the place and growing.1 So why are humans so religious? Well, there is no shortage of explanations for belief in God. Our intention in this chapter is to walk through some of the most common reasons skeptics think God is a human invention and see if they sufficiently show that belief in God has been rendered unreasonable, or if the reason that so many people believe in God is best explained by the fact that he actually does exist. First, however, we need to address a common misunderstanding about approaching the question of God. 


Many times it is assumed that the one who believes in God—the theist—bears a special burden of proof when it comes to arguing for God's existence. In other words, in the absence of evidence for God's existence, one should presume that God doesn't exist; this is the famous "presumption of atheism." However, both "God does not exist" and "God exists" are claims to knowledge that are either true or false. Both viewpoints require justification or evidence. The New Atheists don't get a free pass; they must make the case for their worldview too. Yet all of the theories we will discuss in this chapter explicitly or implicitly draw on the presumption of atheism.   


If there is a default position, then it is "I don't know if there is a God" (agnosticism), not "there is no God" (atheism).* So why don't we just retreat to the default position of not knowing? Knowledge, as the only firm foundation on which to build a life, is always preferable and should be pursued—especially on questions as important as this. Agnosticism can be a virtue for a season of exploration, because we definitely want to avoid being gullible. But as Yann Martel wrote in Life of Pi, "Doubt is useful for a while. . . . But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation."2 Moreover, with tongue in cheek, it has been observed that being an agnostic (Greek word) sounds much more sophisticated than being an ignoramus (Latin word), yet both mean not to know. Saying that one is an "ignoramus with respect to the question of God" just doesn't carry the same punch. 


* For a more detailed treatment of this issue, see Scott A. Shalkowski, "Atheological  Apologetics," in Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992). It should be noted that we are intentionally dealing with the "presumption of atheism" as it typically is used, not in the precise sense that Antony Flew originally conceived of it. In the 2009 debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig, Craig pressed Hitchens on this point but Hitchens was either unwilling or unable to set forth a positive case for atheism. 


The Projection Theory  

In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud wrote that religious beliefs are "illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection—for protection through love—which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life."3 In short, we project the existence of God based on a human need  for him. Is this hypothesis unanswerable as Hitchens claims in this chapter's epigraph? We think not for the following reasons. 


First, it begs the question against God. Freud's argument is, essentially, since we know that God doesn't exist, what are psychological explanations of this belief? His argument assumes from the outset that no object of belief exists. This is the presumption of atheism that we discussed above. The New Atheists commonly approach the God question in the same way: "Since God doesn't exist—and we know this, along with every other sane person in the world—why do so many people still believe?" 


We have evidence for God's existence (e.g., arguments from origins, design, morality, etc.) and know that God is far from dead in the academy (see chapter 1). In fact, many world-class philosophers and scientists are Christians and are publishing at the highest levels. Yet, as one looks through the bibliographies of the New Atheists, it quickly becomes obvious that they are not interacting with the most sophisticated defenders of Christianity. 4 


Second, another assumption made by those who employ Freud's projection theory is that having beliefs that bring us comfort means that those beliefs are false. But this does not follow logically. Philosophers of religion Paul Copan and Paul Moser observe that "a belief that brings comfort and solace should not be considered necessarily false. We find comfort in human relationships, and this is perfectly normal, reasonable, and healthy, at least in routine cases. It would be implausible to presume that our finding comfort in something is automatically cognitively defective or otherwise wrong."5 


Third, part of the rhetorical force of Freud's projection theory cited by Hitchens is the perceived connection between God being an illusion and Freud's rigorous psychoanalysis. Actually, this connection is what's illusory. Emeritus professor of psychology at New York University and former atheist Paul Vitz writes, "Nowhere did Freud publish a psychoanalysis of the belief in God based on clinical evidence provided by a believing patient," and further that "Freud's general projection theory is an interpretation of religion that stands on its own, unsupported by psychoanalytic theory of clinical evidence."* In other words, there is no psychological basis for his conclusions because he never performed psychoanalysis on people who actually believed in God.


* Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 9. McGrath further states that "while it is a historical truism that Freud was a confirmed atheist long before he became a psychoanalyst, it is important to note that he became a psychoanalyst precisely because he was an atheist. His indefatigable harrying of religion reflects his fundamental belief that religion is dangerous." Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 70.

Fourth, the projection theory cuts both ways. If it can be argued that humans created God out of a need for security or a father figure, then it can just as easily be argued that atheism is a response to the human desire for the freedom to do whatever one wants without moral constraints or obligations. Perhaps atheists don't want a God to exist because they would then be morally accountable to a deity. Or maybe atheists had particularly tragic relationships with their own fathers growing up, projected that on God, and then spent most of their adult lives trying to kill a "Divine Father Figure."6 Consider the heartbreaking childhood of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), perhaps the leading English atheist of the twentieth century. His mother died when he was two and his father when he was four. An extremely stern Presbyterian woman raised Russell. A loner with no real childhood friends, he would grow attached to nannies and then become inconsolable when they left. We don't mention this to make light of it—it's sad and tragic. We mention it because it's possible that not all of Russell's reasons for rejecting Christianity and God were purely rational or intellectual. Belief is a complex thing.  

Finally, perhaps the idea that humans invented God to meet their desires is precisely backward. Perhaps the reason humans have a desire for the divine is because something or someone exists that will satisfy them. C. S. Lewis powerfully articulates this point: "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire, which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only arouse it, to suggest the real thing."7 



The "God Gene" and Neuroscience 


We are living in the biotech century and genetic information has taken center stage. Humanity will benefit from mapping the human genome (completed in 2003), and we should applaud that progress.8 But the focus on genetics has some unfortunate byproducts. One example is The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes by Dean Hamer. In this book Hamer explores the impact of genetics on belief in God. The specific gene in question, that everyone has some version of, is VMAT2. Hamer claims that this gene accounts for the spirituality that emerges in some people but not others. 


To be fair, Hamer admitted his title was overstated in a later interview and that there "probably is no single gene."9 But if he knew this going in, then why not change the title of the book? Admissions such as these after the fact never make it on the cover of magazines to correct public misconceptions. The implication to be drawn from his title is that the God question can be reduced to a genetic roll of the dice. Some believe and some don't and it is not a matter of evidence or truth. 


None of Hamer's work was subjected to peer review by other geneticists or published in any scientific journals. And the study, upon which the book was based, was never repeated. While The God Gene became a New York Times best-seller and made the cover of Time magazine, the book's main conclusion has been shown to be completely overstated and unreliable. The Human Genome Project director, Francis Collins, states plainly, "There is no gene for spirituality." In an interview, Collins suggested a more appropriate title for Hamer's book, The Identification of a Gene Variant Which, While Not Yet Subjected to a Replication Study, May Contribute About One Percent or Less of a Parameter Called Self-Transcendence on a Personality Test. But then he added,"that probably wouldn't sell many books though."10 


So we can dismiss Hamer's "God gene," but what about future discoveries? Collins gives us wisdom on what to make of future genetic link discoveries and the implications of those discoveries for certain behaviors, diseases, or belief in God: 


There is an inescapable component of heritability to many human behavioral traits. For virtually none of them is heredity ever close to predictive. Environment, particularly childhood experiences, and the prominent role of individual free choices have a profound effect on us. Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of genetic cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us.11 


Similarly, we need to temper our conclusions in neuroscience in the same way Collins encourages in regard to genetics. Neuroscience is a critical field of study that promises to be fruitful in many ways. Much has been made of religious experiences being manipulated, whether through electrodes hooked up to the brain or by taking certain drugs.* But philosopher Keith Ward discusses the inherent limitations associated with neuroscience: 


What neuroscience can do, then, is to clarify the physical basis in the brain of human beliefs and feelings… What neuroscience cannot do is prove that religious belief or behavior is nothing more than the by-product of brain behavior or of our naturally evolved cognitive processes. The question of truth remains primary. . . . Brain processes come up with truths and falsehoods. But brain processes alone cannot distinguish between them. What can? People with brains can, and they do so by using their brains, not being controlled by them! 12 


*Dawkins mentions in passing for cumulative effect: "Visionary religious experiences are related to temporal lobe epilepsy." The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 196. Again, all this would show is that there is a correlation between the physiology of the temporal lobe and a certain kind of experience; not that the experience is exhaustively explained by the physiology. 


The mind or soul is clearly correlated with certain brain states or chemistry, but the mind or soul is not identical or reducible to them. We reject as inadequate materialistic accounts of reality that reduce human consciousness, free will, morality, or belief in God to genetics and neuroscience—as important and promising as these fields are. 




We now turn to Dawkins's account of the root of religious belief: "The fact that religion is ubiquitous probably means that it has worked to the benefit of something, but it may not be us or our genes. It may be to the benefit of only the religious ideas themselves, to the extent that they behave in a somewhat gene like way, as replicators."13 Dawkins calls these replicators memes, which he defines as "units of cultural inheritance."14 Elsewhere, he compares the spread of memes to a computer virus in which "self-replicating information leaps infectiously from mind to mind."15 Did you catch his word choice? Obviously viruses are not good. Dawkins candidly admits, "To describe religions as mind viruses is sometimes interpreted as contemptuous or even hostile. It is both."16  

While Dawkins scores points for creativity by coining the term meme, the idea has been subject to severe criticism and is by no means a mainstream view among his peers.17 First, unlike genes, there is no scientific evidence that memes actually exist. Dawkins reveals as much, "We don't know what memes are made of or where they reside. Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick; they even lack their Mendel."18 Next, the gene had to be postulated due to the observational data piling up. Not so the meme, which is explanatorily redundant because anthropologists and sociologists are already exploring beliefs and communal dynamics in human cultures.19 Or as one book reviewer put it in the Los Angeles Times, "Memetics is no more than a cumbersome terminology for saying what everybody knows and that can be more usefully said in the dull terminology of information transfer."20 Finally, Alister McGrath observes, "Since the meme is not warranted scientifically, are we to conclude that there is a meme for belief in memes? The meme concept then dies the slow death of self-referentiality, in that, if taken seriously, the idea explains itself as much as anything else."21 


But let's briefly return to the notion that religion is a virus of the mind. How does one decide what is a dangerous idea and what is a beneficial idea? Or to put the matter bluntly, why are the ideas that Dawkins dislikes (e.g., religion or God) viruses of the mind, but others like Darwinian evolution are pure, safe, and beneficial? All these ideas would have infectiously leaped from mind to mind. All would function as memes in his view. It seems wholly arbitrary and subjective to prefer one set of beliefs and condemn another. As McGrath has pointed out, "Each and every argument that Dawkins adduces for his idea of ‘God as virus of the mind' can be countered by proposing its counterpart for ‘atheism as a virus of the mind.' Both ideas are equally unsubstantiated and meaningless."22 



A By-Product of Natural Selection 


Dawkins, in conjunction with his dubious meme theory, turns to the emerging field of evolutionary psychology to explain the roots of religion.23 Perhaps humans were hardwired to believe in God by the process of natural selection?24 Maybe this belief was useful for human survival? Many experiments in cognitive psychology strongly suggest that "human minds come into the world with all sorts of ‘software' both preinstalled and booted up" and that "some of this software manifests itself right from birth, while other bits of it become operative at specifiable times in human development."25 This research is fascinating and illuminating, but not very controversial until it is applied to religion.* 


* Since we talk about the morality question elsewhere, we will only mention here that the corollary of the religion argument would run the same way. If we discover through cognitive psychology that it seems certain moral behaviors are hardwired into properly functioning human beings, then this would fit nicely as well with the biblical notion of God's laws being written on the human heart (see Rom. 2:14-15). 


Michael Murray describes the sort of cognitive evidence that leads some researchers to conclude that we are hardwired to believe in God: 


We have a mental tool that makes us think there are agents around when we detect certain sounds (bumps in the night), motions (rustling in the bushes), or configurations (crop circles) in nature. This "Hyperactive Agency Detection Device" (or "HADD") leads us to hypothesize invisible agents that, for example, control the forces of nature. And this disposes us to belief in the supernatural.26 


It needs to be pointed out that one could just as easily interpret the emerging cognitive evidence to mean that the reason that people naturally form beliefs about God is that God actually exists and designed humans to form these kinds of beliefs. Barrett, one of the pioneers of this field, concludes that "belief in gods generally and God particularly arises through the natural, ordinary operation of human minds in natural ordinary environments. . . . The design of our minds leads us to believe."27 


If belief in God is indeed an issue of hardwiring, then two possible explanations exist for the design we observe. Either a blind process of natural selection produces religious belief over time as a by-product with some selective advantage, or an Intelligent Mind designed humanity to naturally believe God exists. If the latter is the case, then we are back to our original question— what is the evidence for God? The evidence is what will allow us to make sense of why people seem to naturally believe in God. 


What If We Were Designed to Believe? 


So if, as we have labored to show in this book, it is reasonable to conclude that God exists, then it is also possible to infer that the reason so many humans have desires for and beliefs in the divine points to God's desire to be known. This coheres nicely with the portrait of God we find in the Bible, for as the writer of Ecclesiastes observes, God "has also set eternity in the hearts of men."28 



For Further Engagement 


McGrath, Alister. Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.  

Murray, Michael J. "Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain?" In Contending with Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors,  edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, 47-57. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2009.


Sean McDowell is a popular speaker at camps, churches, schools, and conferences nationwide. Sean has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, Campus Crusade for Christ, Youth Specialties, Wisdom Works and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean is the national spokesman and a conference speaker for Wheatstone Academy (www.wheatstoneacademy.com), an organization committed to training young people with a biblical worldview.

Sean is the General Editor for Apologetics for a New Generation (Harvest House, 2009), and has also written Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World (B&H, 2006). He is also the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students (B&H, 2010), and has contributed to YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine, the Christian Research Journal, and blogs regularly at www.seanmcdowell.org.


Excerpt taken from Is God Just a Human Invention? by Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow, Kregel Books, 2010, pages 120-129. 



1. Gerald R. McDermott, The Baker Pocket Guide to World Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know (Grands Rapids: Baker, 2008).
2. Yann Martel, Life of Pi (San Dieg Harvest, 2003), 28.
3. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1989), 38.
4. See, for example, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell,
5. Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, The Rationality of Theism (London: Routledge, 2003), 5.
6. Interestingly, there is some evidence of this. See Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 17-57.
7. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 119-22.
8. However, we certainly need to move forward responsibly and humanely. See the excellent work by C. Ben Mitchell et al., Biotechnology
and the Human Good (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007).
9. Quoted in Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (New York: Riverhead, 2009), 93.
10. Ibid., 94-95.
11. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 263.
12. Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 176.
13. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 193.
14. Ibid., 222.
15. Richard Dawkins, A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 117.
16. Ibid.
17. These points are summarized from Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005),
18. Dawkins, Devil's Chaplain, 124.
19. McGrath, Dawkins' God, 134.
20. Ibid., 135.
21. Ibid., 130.
22. Ibid., 137.
23. Dawkins, The God Delusion, 208-9.
24. See the arguments for and against in Michael J. Murray and Jeffrey Schloss, The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological
Reflections on the Origin of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
25. Michael J. Murray, "Belief in God: A Trick of Our Brain?" in Contending with Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other
Objectors, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2009), 47.
26. Murray, "Belief in God," 52.
27. Justin L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Cognitive Science of Religion Series (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2004), 124. For a
philosophical/theological argument for this same conclusion, see Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2000).
28. Ecclesiastes 3:11.

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