God: Psychological Projection or Real, External Being? Print
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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