The great psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) called Christianity a “fairy tale.” The phrase derived in the 1700s from the French conte de fées (“story about fairies”) and has now become shorthand for a story that is both false and silly. We hear remarks such as “I don’t believe in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, or Jesus.” Such a remark about religion is parallel to an equally childish statement about science, such as “I don’t believe in intergalactic crab monsters or molecular biology.” Christianity is based on historical evidence that is open to evaluation.
For me, Christianity is the opposite of childish. As a child I learned that God didn’t exist before I learned that Santa Claus didn’t exist. My parents told me at an early age that only stupid people believed in God, and I accepted that until I examined the evidence. Again, we should distinguish point of view from bias: Point of view develops according to evidence; bias refuses to adjust to evidence. Whatever view we hold must always be revised in accordance with the evidence.
Anti-theists imagine that Christians believe in a Big Daddy or Mommy who will be nice to them when they are good and punish them when they are naughty. Such people ignore the central event of Christianity — the life and death of God’s own son — and the multitudes of Christians who have painfully died for their faith. They also ignore the innumerable brilliant scientists, philosophers, writers, and others who have believed and now believe in Christ. It’s true that some people are childish in their belief in Christianity, but others also are childish in their belief in atheism.
Freud’s followers preferred the term “folk tale” to Freud’s “fairy tale.” Is Christianity a collection of folk tales? Some have claimed that the New Testament accounts are written versions of tales that gradually arose about Jesus before and after his death. The difference between the New Testament and folk tales is that the narratives about Jesus focus on a real person and were composed shortly after his death on the basis of eyewitness evidence. Folk tales are about fictional beings without known origins.
Whatever the New Testament narratives are, they are certainly not folk tales. On the other hand, a number of fictional accounts about Jesus and his followers popped up in at least the second century and continue to proliferate today. Most make no pretense at being true and are accepted as fiction, like novels about other historical characters. Some claim to present the “real, secret truth.” The Christian community has always discerned between the fictional and the historical and between what is open and what is secret. Christianity has no room for secrets and is neither fairy tale nor folk tale.
This post is an excerpt from the book Exposing Myths About Christianityby Jeffrey Burton Russell (IVP Books, 2012). It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.