“Is religion an infantile neurosis, and do you expect to grow out of it at some stage?”

“Your face is an infantile neurosis!” is not an assertion that many of us would take seriously. The idea that all religious beliefs are delusional is worthy of similar respect. The heart of the claim as I read it is that religious faith is, like fairy-tales and myths, not rooted in reality. This is an interesting idea, but in the spirit of rational inquiry, rather than taking it as given we should probably ask where the evidence lies!  It can be rhetorically effective to class beliefs that one disagrees with as ‘childish’, but where is the substance?

The possibility that children might be attracted in some way to a set of beliefs is probably irrelevant to the truth question. The actual problem with ideas that are commonly dismissed as ‘childish’, such as fairy tales or Santa Claus, is not that children believe them, but that believing them is not well justified given what we know about the world. More specifically, it’s not just that they’re counter-intuitive or a bit odd (try thinking about positrons!) but that the claims made seem to lack a connection to reality; any number of stories can be invented out of thin air, but what matters is how the world really is and what actually happens.

Christianity is an historical faith, which makes a host of claims concerning specific putative past interactions between God and the world. These claims need to be investigated before being dismissed. Unlike beliefs about Santa, Christian faith has an explanation of how it is linked to true facts. It claims to come from a specific true source (God) who rules over the whole universe including our belief-forming faculties. According to Christians, the Bible is our primary source of knowledge about God, and rather than mere stories, claims to be a mix of direct revelation, prophecy, and eyewitness testimony to historical events. This claim is worth checking out.

By contrast what little evidence there is for the existence of Santa Claus is clearly defeasible in light of more plausible ‘naturalistic’ explanations (e.g. Grandad in a red dressing gown rather than a genuine Santa sighting). But attacking belief in God using a similar tactic can only have limited success, as God is a global-level concept rather than a local object in the world such as a fairy, leprechaun, or member of the Claus household. Naturalistic explanation also struggles when dealing with the well-evidenced specifics of the central claims of Christianity – the death and resurrection of Jesus. When viewed against the background of global-level considerations which constitute evidence for the reality of God (the existence of the universe, its law-like nature, and moral facts, as well as more specific features such as the existence of life and consciousness), the particular historical evidences of Christian theism can be seen to be part of a powerful case. Opposing it often relies on an overly narrow view of what constitutes evidence, for starters. As a final point of difference, the fact that many people come to believe in Jesus in adulthood doesn’t guarantee it to be true, but does place this faith in a different category to childish myths.

Not all religious beliefs are equally well-founded (any more than all ethical or political beliefs are equally true), but the claims of Christianity are very different to mere delusions, and I don’t intend to swap them for a narrow-minded scientism or any of the other alternatives any time soon.

[Published in a student magazine which shall not be named, but not on the website. I came up with the question, as I’m intrigued by the topic, and the article was intended for a previous edition on something like ‘childhood memories’ – this week’s is on religion, so it fit in okay there too. It’s meant to be a weekly ‘ask a Christian’ column but this is the first published. We’ll see how it goes!]

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