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God: Psychological Projection or Real, External Being? Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 08 January 2012

In 1841 Ludwig Feuerbach, modernity’s first outright atheist, wrote in The Essence of Christianity that God is nothing more than a projection of the idealized human being: “The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or rather, the human nature purified, freed from the limits of the individual man, made objective – i.e., contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being. All the attributes of the divine nature are, therefore, attributes of the human nature.”

For Feuerbach, human beings must reclaim from God these attributes and virtues for themselves if they are to achieve true, human fulfillment.

Seventy years later Sigmund Freud put Feuerbach’s God on the couch, and he concluded from his psychoanalysis that “at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father,” the infantile projection of the human need for protection. God is not real for Freud; he is a human invention who succeeds only in generating guilt and anxiety in believers.

These arguments for God as a mere figment of the human mind contrast sharply with the Judeo-Christian understanding of God as a real, independent being who is the source of all that is. This understanding stems from reflection on the world and on the inner longings of the human heart.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church opens by explaining this latter perspective:  “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself” (27).

Today both atheistic and theistic arguments tend to begin with the human subject:  The atheist reasons that God is the omnipotent byproduct of human psychological misgivings while the theist claims that an external God has created human beings with an internal compass that points the way back to him.

Who is right? How are we to adjudicate these two claims that cannot be proved by empirical science?

Elements of the atheistic argument do contain some truth. When we speak of God, we employ human images and concepts, and our “definitions” of God are human attributes – omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, goodness, beauty, truth – predicated on a being who lies ultimately beyond comprehension.


   Elohim Creating Adam by William Blake (1795)

Furthermore, we certainly look to God as a protector: psalm after psalm sings of God as a rock, refuge, or fortress who will save Israel from its enemies. In our own day the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes points to the human propensity to invoke God in the face of fear and danger.

But for Feuerbach and Freud the objectified and projected God is the end of the story. Once they have established that God is no more than a figment of the human mind, they can destroy God – and in doing so, they can set human beings free to reach their full, human potential without the burdens of theism’s superstition, guilt, and anxiety. Human beings can now find satisfaction within themselves rather than in an objectified idea.

The Catholic philosopher and apologist Maurice Blondel, a contemporary of Freud, seizes on the atheists’ reductive conclusion to argue that God is not a projection of what is within, but the external reality toward which human action is directed. For Blondel, in the summary of Father John Cihak, human beings discover an external transcendent reality when reflecting on freedom and the insatiability of the will. Unable to find fulfillment in the finite –which is all that exists in the worldview of Feuerbach and Freud – human beings must open themselves to something beyond themselves

Contrary to the arguments of Feuerbach and Freud, the great beyond is not a psychological projection because a projection is a finite object. In Cihak’s words, “The dynamism of the will. . .goes beyond psychological projection. Man, spurred on by the search for meaning, begins to search for an adequate term, ultimately conceding that he is unable to find such a term in the finite world.”

Since the finite cannot satisfy the infinite longings of the will, human action requires an external something or someone beyond the natural realm to bring it to completion. Thus Blondel’s rational critique of human action leaves him at the door of the supernatural, open to the possibility that the deepest human longings are fulfilled by a real, external, and infinite power beyond anything we can project into existence.

The Catechism complements Blondel’s account of human action by placing human beings within the realm of “Being itself, which alone is without origin or end” (34). Since we did not create ourselves, human beings are not the first principle of life, nor its ultimate fulfillment.

The source of life lies beyond human reach, and no natural or psychological explanation will ever account for this fact. Coming from this source and stamped by it, human beings continually long for it as their fulfillment and destiny. This is the reality of God the creator that exists apart from human imagination.

Both theist and atheist lack a scientific or logical proof of their respective positions. Their arguments equally rest on faith, although the atheist conceals this fact under the veil of science. The theist need not apologize for his belief: by appealing to the totality of human existence rather than reducing human life to psychology, the theist offers the more comprehensive – and persuasive – argument.


David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
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written by Other Joe, January 08, 2012
Once God is removed as real and described as a projection based on anxiety or wishing, our words lose meaning. Terms such as "fulfillment" become instantly trivialized down to transient impressions of self-satisfaction. In Freud's guilt-free world are monsters such as Bernie Madoff or the perennial favorite, Hitler. If there is no God there is no judgment beyond the easily fooled courts of man. There is no compelling reason not to shoot everyone with whom I am presently annoyed, plus a few strangers and then myself. Rights and wrongs become merely political as there is no higher authority and the political becomes defined by physical power - he who has the most guns. Culture then has no higher purpose than control and amusement. And strangely, we see these things growing all around us like a cheap housing development around an old, settled neighborhood. A moment's clear thinking reveals that man-centered morality is oxymoronic. It may have been Napoleon who observed (and he would have lived during the Great Terror) that if God didn’t exist we would have to invent him. Today’s whited sepulcher is the smug atheist.
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written by Scott Quinn, January 08, 2012
Wow, we can see just how rotten Catholic philosophy is today when Blondel is cited as an authority. I'll give the author credit for at least being honest when he links the modernist Blondel with the new-and-failed catechism, since, of course, what passes for Catholic teaching today is simply the very modernist errors condemned by many popes prior to Vatican II.
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written by Dave, January 08, 2012
Theism lacks scientific proof in the modern sense of science, which looks only at the natural realm and judges as real that which is observable, quantifiable, reproducible under controlled circumstances (or not). In the definition of the perennial philosophy, however, that science is knowledge through understanding of causes, the case for theism and against atheism takes on much clearer lines. That philosophy starts, though it doesn't end, with common sense. Common sense says that if there is order in a room, or a house, or a car, or pick a manufactured object, someone put it there. Philosophy says that if there is order in the universe -- and science tells us there is, even to the extent that chaos itself has been shown to be subject to laws of order -- then someone greater than the universe put it there. Thus I would argue that it is anti-scientific to posit that God does not exist, since the indications abound that He does, even if those indications do not rise to the level of absolute philosophic certainty or fall to the level of material verfiability.

Professor Bonagura puts us on surer ground by showing that in the end, arguments for atheism are not scientific truth claims, but moral cris de coeur that long to describe freedom as freedom from the restraints imposed by order -- moral order, law and order, psychic order (or disorder); and while he doesn't say it in so many words, that are finally rooted not in a longing for freedom but in malice and vindictiveness. Those two vices are hardly sufficient bases upon which to build a life; but they are more than sufficient bases for destroying a life, whether it be a life of one's own, one's own family, or, finally, one's own society. As the Other Joe writes, evidence for moral vindictiveness and malice abound more and more.
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written by Michael PS, January 08, 2012
Blondel was very far from being a Modernist; as he, himself, explained, he was always careful to distinguish the method of immantism, which he employed and the theory of immanentism, condemned in Lamentabili and Pascendi.

He was an outspoken opponent of the fascist Action Française, unlike the Neo-Scholastics he opposed.

Along with Edouard LeRoy, he furnished the intellectual foundations of the Nouvelle Théologie of such theologians as Maréchal, Chenu, Henri de Lubac, Congar, and Daniélou, many of them his friends.

It is impossible to imagine the Second Vatican Council without them
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written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., January 09, 2012
@Picahel PS: Doesn't your last setence tend to support Scott Quinn's point? Doesn't the current state of things represent the very triumph of Modernism? If you we possit that this mess is not what the Council Fathers intended, it seems odd to laud people on the basis that their work was essential to that Council. Is it just, "Oops! They didn't mean that to happen at all, but they were fine chaps,"?
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written by Gian, January 09, 2012
God as a Protector figure is not very likely since the lack of supernatural protector is very evident.

However, man hungers for justice and can not live without it. So, a better atheist argument would be that God is created to fulfill the hunger man and human societies have for justice.
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written by Achilles, January 09, 2012
Scott Quinn's statement is an ideological reduction- "new failed catechism"? Really Scott? Have you read it? Can you show me where it contradicts the Council of Trent Catechism?

Did the pre-vatican II Popes really condemn what is in the council writings? or the "spirit of Vatican II" innovations?

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written by Crowhill, January 09, 2012
"Since the finite cannot satisfy the infinite longings of the will...."

Uh ... what definition of "infinite" can we reasonably attach to the "longings of the will"? I suppose man may think he is longing for the infinite, but that's not at all the same thing, and you end up prevaricating on the meaning of infinite.
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written by Rev. Michael Hickin, January 10, 2012
H. de Lubac's The Drama of Atheist Humanism is an excellent resource for further research. Bonagura does an excellent job succinctly framing a vast topic.
It wouldn't hurt to consider, however, that Feuerbach's challenge is poignant and valid insofar as it urges Christians to rise up to the height of their dignity and believe that they are called to become the God they adore. This is the whole spirituality of "theosis" (divinization), more emphasized in the East but not absent from such great writers in the West as Augustine and Leo the Great. See CCC #460.
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written by Jean-Philippe, September 14, 2012
Some people are honest enough so they just blind their eye to new comprehensions when they feel it can't break their believes. Other are trying to argue.

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