As we approach Halloween, researcher Derek Caldwell explores Freud’s wish fulfilment hypothesis in light of our inherent fears
“The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?” (Memento)
Growing up in America in the 80s, my pop-cultured mind was full of supernatural evil. Ghostbusters, Friday the 13th, Poltergeist and so on. My parents would not allow me to watch these entries in masterpiece macabre theatre, but my older siblings were less discerning.
Whenever a particularly graphic scene would play out in front of me—here’s looking at you, Johnny Depp’s bedroom blood geyser from 1984’s inaugural Nightmare on Elm Street—I would close my eyes until it was over. This closing my eyes business had been helpful up to that point in my life. I remember as a very young child feeling safe when closing my eyes. I have very old memories (or dreams?) of someone staring at me through my bedroom window at night. If I closed my eyes and waited a few seconds that felt like minutes, the ghostly figure would be gone.
Unsurprisingly, the more sinister films of the bunch stayed with me, especially in my nightmares. But I heard somewhere that the average dream lasts about twenty seconds. I’m not sure if that is true, but it was something I was able to remember in my dreams. And so, when I was stuck in a nightmare with the likes of a rapidly closing-in Freddie Krueger, I learned that even in my dreams I could close my eyes, count to twenty and wake up.
Eventually I stopped having to close my eyes. I found that the best way to avoid the sense of dread that could set in when watching horror films was to just imagine that none of it corresponded to reality—those actors are playing dress-up, wearing makeup, and pretending. There was something about the thought of adults playing make-believe that tickled me, and my fear of horror movies subsided.
Eyes wide shut
Why exactly do we close our eyes? How does it help? Every child does it. Of course, many adults still do it, especially on rollercoasters. But with children, there is the real sense that closing their eyes changes something about their predicament.
Perhaps it is related somehow to object permanence. Maybe when we are children, we think that a thing unseen is a thing ceasing to exist. While this causes us to cry when our mothers leave the room, perhaps it produces relief to think that a threat has vanished. This is the feeling I remember receiving as a child with closed eyes.
University of Cambridge researchers have found that some children believe they remove their true self from danger by closing their eyes. They realise they are still there bodily, but somehow the true self is shielded from danger. Whatever the case may be, children believe that by closing their eyes, they hide themselves from their fears, and by hiding themselves from their fears, their fears can never find them.
In my conversations, I’ve found many people share these early experiences, especially when it comes to horror flicks. Closing our eyes helps, even when young and believing everything we were watching was to some extent real and possible.
One might say these fears only exist because we live in the West, a land still saturated with a ghoulish and superstitious Christian past. But our fears are not just based on the Christian milieu of the West. Supernatural evil and otherworldly menaces are universal fears across time, space and culture.
It is these universal fears of unnatural things that go bump in the night, along with the mundane fears of simply being alive in a natural world that seems hell-bent on killing you (think bacteria, viruses, falling trees, spiders or, worst of all, other humans), that instil in us the constant desire for protection. When we are young, it is our parents we rely on to protect us.
As we get older, the need for protection is still there. The fears and threats become more complicated and existential as we begin to think about the finitude of our lives, the end of love and laughter and joy. We sense the need for a father still, but a bigger and better one. And so, we anxiously fabricate one or a million (same difference), and that is how religion began. Or so says Sigmund Freud and many other sceptics to religion since then.
Religious beliefs “are illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind,” writes Freud. He continues:
“What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes…Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality, just as the illusion itself sets no store by verification.” (The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud)
New Atheists like Richard Dawkins have moved beyond the wish-fulfilment merely of a heavenly father and have located the wish also in the desire to avoid hell. And certainly, the avoidance of hell is a great motivator for many. Whatever the case, the point is that there is an underlying psychological motive guiding a religious person’s belief in the divine.
These are devastating critiques of religious belief. Yet they are also condescending critiques lacking self-awareness.
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Psychological motives for unbelief
One could easily point out that there are just as many, if not more, psychological motives for unbelief. All of us—I’ll say it again, all of us—have biases that colour how we view the thorny question of God’s existence. Philosophers Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli located five in their book ‘Handbook of Christian Apologetics’: the addictions to power, lust, greed, worldliness and radical freedom (self-centeredness).
Likewise, missiologist Harold Netland points to the common thread in many communities (in his book ‘Encountering Religious Pluralism’) that flirt with the possibility of a god or gods: love toward a hypothetical Creator and rejection of a hypothetical Judge. The desire to do what one wants and not be hampered by transcendent rules is a common psychological motive for rejecting God (one that makes the belief in a moral God a poor candidate for the wish-fulfilment hypothesis). You might be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to admit that now, but those who have made the “leap of faith” have admitted it after the fact, saying the quiet part of unbelief out loud.
It is not always some negative trait of the unbeliever in question that may cause the bias, either. Perhaps it is seeing the way other Christians act, clergy abuse scandals or being personally affected by the damaging behaviour of religious people. While the behaviour of religious people says nothing about the existence of God, it can certainly fill one with an understandable underlying bias against belief. You know the old saying: “rotten fruit from rotten trees” (Matthew 7:18).
Trauma: afraid of the light
Applying Freud’s theory to the notion of psychological motives for unbelief really adds depth to this argument. Freud’s theory essentially said that by looking at mechanisms of protection in early childhood one could make sense of later beliefs that he and others consider illusions. For the sake of argument, let’s consider atheism, naturalism or materialism—pick the ism that denies the existence of a transcendent and benevolent First Cause—an illusion.
By using Freud’s own theory, can we saddle the illusion of atheism with a childhood wish-fulfilment gone rogue?
Very much so, yes.
We could first look to the emerging field of trauma studies.[i] My wife is a trauma-informed care provider who has really helped me understand the devastating role early childhood trauma and attachment wounds can play in an individual’s life. It affects not only the pain, depression, anxiety and diseases they live with, but also their memories, their capacity to make good decisions for themselves and their ability to reason properly.
Through the trauma of attachment wounds, children adjust to the caregiving potential of their parental figures and internalise the lack of attention they receive, leading to (among other things) a diminutive sense of self and self-worth. If they are told long enough, whether implicitly or explicitly, that they are of little worth, they start to believe it.
The brains of the traumatised person had to make certain adjustments to help them persevere in atrocious situations. But as the person grows older, these coping mechanisms that helped them survive become barriers to forward progress. They may even subconsciously select partners that remind them of the abusers in their lives, viewing danger as safety and safety as danger, since familiarity is confused for security. Indeed, they could have written the words themselves: “Darkness is my closest friend” (Psalm 88:18).
Being alive in a fallen world means that there is a certain level of trauma all of us endure, given that every awful thing we witness, first or second-hand, should not be. When the world that was supposed to nurture us instead treats us as undersigned dirt, we may start to believe it. Perhaps atheism itself is a trauma response to our devastated world. And when the Saviour is presented, perhaps the peace and safety he offers feels too good to be true, too secure to be safe, like a bright light to unadjusted eyes. It is this sad reality that, within Freud’s theory, means atheists may be afraid of the light.[ii]
Nightmare non-fulfilment: are you afraid of the dark?
Of course, there is also a fear of the dark even for atheists. One way of dealing with the experience of horror—the horror that is lived experience, the suffering of others that we can’t bear to watch and hope will reach its end soon, or even the possibility of real spiritual evil that influences the actions and outcomes of human beings—is to close our eyes in one way or another and protect ourselves from its encroaching harm, much like we did when we were children.
In his book The Problem of Pain, CS Lewis describes the Numinous experience. To help us understand what he means by the Numinous, Lewis asks us to imagine being told a tiger is in the room next door. We would feel fear because of the real and present danger: there is something mighty, ferocious, capricious and hungry just one door over.
Next, Lewis asks us to imagine being told a ghost is in the room next door. You might again be full of fear, but of a different quality. The fear is no longer what harm might beset your person, but fear of the existence of the thing in the other room. “It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous,” Lewis writes, “and the special kind of fear it excites might be called Dread.” If you were then told there was a mighty spirit in the next room, again the fear of danger would not be severe “but the disturbance would be profound.”
Nature testifies to us of order and design, yet it also testifies of disorder, chaos and danger. It inspires both dread and awe. Lewis explains in The Problem of Pain that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for many to consider a good God’s existence given the inconclusive data. It is only from revelation that people could, as Jewish people did, identify “the awful Presence haunting black mountain-tops and thunderclouds with ‘the righteous Lord’ who ‘loveth righteousness’.
My point is that the atheist who accuses the Christian of wish-fulfilment is him or herself guilty of much of the same. They have sensed the Dread of a strange world and have turned back, closing their eyes tightly to the darkness with the somewhat comforting notion that all they have to fear is the tiger in the next room. Essentially, it is arrested development, using a childhood coping mechanism to refuse the advances of the profound disturbance of a reality full of good and evil that doesn’t play by the rules of Newtonian physics.
French poet Charles Baudelaire famously wrote: “My dear brethren, never forget, when you hear the progress of wisdom vaunted, that the cleverest ruse of the Devil is to persuade you he does not exist!” As it turns out, it is not that hard to convince someone of something they already want to believe. Close your eyes to the devil, we say to ourselves soothingly, and he will flee from you.
Limits to the argument
There are severe limitations to a wish-fulfilment argument, as I hope sceptical atheists will now realise, having the mirror turned around for a bit. First, it commits the genetic fallacy. Second, it requires psychoanalysing the motives of strangers. Third, they seem to completely forget that sometimes wishes do come true, or rather are already true and only discovered later.
But wait! The fear of hell is a powerful motivator!
Let us not overlook the fact that it is not always wrong to be motivated by hopeful desires to achieve some goal or by fears to avoid some consequence. And the fears of many things can be a powerful motivator. My only hope is that the indignation some might feel toward this suggestion of nightmare non-fulfilment might turn into the motivation to bury the wish-fulfilment argument once and for all.
What is the Christian wish anyway?
That people wish to avoid suffering and to increase happiness is no major revolution in psychological understanding. However, this really is not the major Christian wish. The versions of different wishes above display two very similar views of the world around us—darkness—and two very different understandings of that darkness.
The atheistic response to the darkness is typically that these inherent fears of the dark are the result of oppressive religious dogma and superstition. As such, they can be ignored, for the darkness does not exist. One need only close their eyes for the bogeyman and he will flee.
The Christian response to the darkness is not to leapfrog it with Jesus’ help before skipping gleefully to the pearly gates. Rather, it is to turn and face down the approaching darkness and to save others from it. The wish we so desperately want fulfilled is to be shaped more and more into the image of Christ, who took the form of a servant and poured himself out for the life of the world (Philippians 2:1-11; John 6:51).
Derek Caldwell is researcher and content creator for Embrace the Truth Ministries. He studied biology at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) and history and theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He lives with his wife and a horde of animals in the Detroit area.
[i] Helpful resources on trauma and attachment include Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin, 2015), Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (Basic Books, 2015), Robert Karen’s Becoming Attached (Oxford University Press, 1998), and last but certainly not least, Scott Harrower’s God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of This World (Lexham Press, 2019) and Joshua Cockayne, Scott Harrower, and Preston Hill’s Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches (Cascade Books, 2022).
[ii] Oxford mathematician John Lennox once uses this phrase in response to Stephen Hawking saying in an interview that belief in heaven was “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” Lennox would later retort that atheism was a fairytale for people afraid of the light. I do not use the phrase “afraid of the light” that I first heard from Lennox in quite the same way that he used it. While I agree with his now-famous creation of this phrase, I am attempting to use it less as a rhetorical counterpunch and more as a lamentable truth that all struggle to overcome.