Christians are often said to believe because they need a crutch. Unless a person is willing to agonize hourly in the actual conviction that his or her life is really and truly meaningless, everyone needs a crutch—a basis of support—of some kind. But Christianity is often singled out and demeaned as a faith for the weak and psychologically disabled.
This view has influenced intellectuals from the time of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who said that God was dead and that Christianity was an unhealthy slave morality and the religion of the weak. Karl Marx (1818-1883) denounced Christianity as a means to distract people from their real economic problems by belief in a fantasy reality beyond the earth. Nikolai Lenin (1870-1924) proclaimed that Christianity was a drug that enabled people to tolerate oppression. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) thought that the Oedipus complex was at the root of all religions.
Christianity can be a crutch. Belief that one will go to heaven is reassuring. So is the belief that God is with us at all times and hears our prayers. The sense of a warm spiritual companion through life is comforting. It’s also sometimes a relief to complain and rage against God. It’s more pleasant to believe that the cosmos is being guided to a goal that is good, than that it is meaningless. On the other hand, Christianity is based on the life and death of Jesus, and on the belief in personal responsibility, the reality of sin, and divine judgment. As the New Testament says, “‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10: 30-31).
Atheism also can be a crutch. In atheism, there is no intrinsic morality, so how to behave is purely a matter of personal choice. At best, it means setting artificial standards for oneself. At worst, it means acting without regard to others. One of the few truly consistent atheists of all time was the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). In an intrinsically relative, valueless world, Sade argued, the only sensible thing to do is to seek your own personal pleasure. Whatever we feel like doing is good for us. If we enjoy torturing, fine. If others don’t, they don’t have to participate, but they have no right imposing their views on us. Crime can be more exciting than sex, Sade said, and a sex crime is the best of all. The greatest pleasure derives from torture, especially of children, and if one degrades the victim, the delight is enhanced. Sade’s fellow atheists recoiled in disgust at this extreme reduction of their belief, but disgust is not a moral principle.
Besides, the threshold for disgust has been waning. As Alan Jacobs points out, nothing makes people more comfortable than lowering the threshold of unacceptable behavior. If there are no intrinsic moral restraints, none that we don’t invent for ourselves, then we have no reason to condemn anybody, including ourselves. A meaningless universe is, well, meaningless. And that lets us do whatever we feel like doing so long as we can get away with it. The most persuasive argument for atheism is its permission to do whatever we feel like doing. The extreme expression of this behavior is found in sociopaths — people lacking any conscience or empathy at all.
Atheists and humanists avoid relativist disgust by clinging to ideas that sound soft and benevolent, such as “equality,” but which have no basis other than religious tradition. Secularists have failed to construct a plausible system of universal ethics that does not rely on baseless assumptions; rejecting relativism, they put up a false front against it and readily fall into relativism themselves.
Another crutch for atheists is just going along with the crowd, whatever the crowd may be. It’s uncomfortable to be banished from the tribe for raising doubts. It’s convenient to believe that you have no free will and that everything you do is the result of a combination of genetics, upbringing, and chemicals in your brain. No one can blame you. The Big Bang made you do it. Finally, if one is relieved of the burden of convincing others through evidence and reason, one uses the crutch of arrogance and sarcasm to impose one’s opinions instead of honestly considering those of others.
This post is an excerpt from the book Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell (IVP Books, 2012). It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.
Published February 14, 2018