The notion of God as a delusion has gained traction in recent years following the 2006 publication of The God Delusion by popular "new atheist" Richard Dawkins. In this anti-theistic diatribe, Dawkins argues that belief in God, no matter what form, is delusional. Dawkins defines a delusion as "persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence" (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam, 2006), 28.). The American Psychiatric Association defines delusions as ". . . false or erroneous beliefs that usually involve a misinterpretation of perceptions or experiences. Their content may include a variety of themes (e.g., persecutory, referential, somatic, religious, or grandiose)."
Is God merely a delusion?
Interestingly, God as a delusion is not a new argument. Karl Marx famously said that religion was the "opium of the people." This might be understood as saying that religion is just something people invoke to get through their difficult lives. Sigmund Freud argued that religious ideas were nothing other than illusions and wish fulfillment. For Freud, various psychological factors work in concert to drive man into belief in the supernatural, but there is no God in actual, mind-independent reality. Ludwig Feuerbach also made similar claims about religion being only a projection of the mind.
What these arguments, from Marx to Dawkins, all have in common is that God only exists in the believer's mind. God exists "in here" but not "out there," so to speak. And continually believing that God exists "out there," and that one's religious experience "in here" is legitimate, is manifestly delusional.
So, is there any basis to the "God delusion"? On the surface, it seems that there is some merit to the arguments in favor. After all, there are many different religious systems claiming the path to truth and life. And many of these religions are quite bizarre. Further, there are people who have ceased believing in God upon reading the works of atheist writers. To borrow from new atheist Daniel Dennett, many people have "broken the spell" of religion (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2007).).
Yet, there are many intelligent, well-informed people that believe in God. Some of the greatest minds in history were theists, such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Gregor Mendel. Thus, if God is a delusion, then these men had a significant intellectual blind spot. And there have been atheists who have changed their minds, such as the renowned philosopher Anthony Flew. Nonetheless, perhaps they were wrong.
The God delusion question must be focused to have any value. Cramming all religious systems and claims into one box and then labeling that box "delusional" commits the fallacy of association. The heart of the issue is whether it is irrational to believe in a God who creates, sustains, and acts in His creation. The theist, especially the Christian, can in fact demonstrate the rationality of their belief and futility of the contrary. As the Psalmist writes "the fool says in his heart, there is no God (Psalm 14:1).
First, it should be noted that Marx, Freud, Dawkins, and many others commit a genetic fallacy by attacking the origin of belief in God. That is, how a person arrives at a particular belief does not make that belief false. One person might believe in God because of an experience and another might believe based upon years of philosophical or scientific inquiry. Each person arrives at the same belief in different ways. The way they arrived at "God exists" does not make the proposition false. Now, the justification (reasons for holding) for one's belief could be attacked, but that is not the main thrust of the delusion arguments.
There are many natural theological arguments for the existence of God. The apostle Paul tells us that God has made His existence knowable to all (Romans 1:18–20; 2:14–15). All people know God exists because God has made this plain to them in the created order. God delusion arguments often fail to account for these arguments, or fail to interact with them in a substantive manner. The theist examines the world of his/her everyday existence and concludes that God exists. They may not necessarily need sophisticated philosophical or scientific proofs. Nonetheless, these proofs are available, significant, and are imminently defensible. Here "proof" means metaphysical or logical demonstration.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins primarily engages William Paley's "Watchmaker" argument, but only gives a cursory and caricatured critique of other arguments for God's existence. The cosmological (argument from causation), teleological (argument from design/fine-tuning), moral (argument from the existence of objective moral values and duties), ontological (argument from the idea/concept of God), and other arguments are topics of lively debate in academic philosophy of religion today. One would have to search high and low to find an atheistic critique of these arguments that rests upon the claim of a God delusion.
The God delusion assertion rests primarily upon ignorance of the arguments and evidence that theists provide for believing in God. It is as if upon seeing some strange religious practices the delusion proponent throws out any belief in God whatsoever. Once the arguments and evidence of theism are considered, even if one disagrees, theism cannot just be dismissed with a wave of the hand. And simply because some theists cannot provide a robust defense of their belief does not undermine the truth of their belief. It should be noted that any atheists and agnostics cannot provide any intelligible reasons for not believing in God, outside of their own preference.
One can even see that the claims of Marx, Feuerbach, and Freud could all be reversed onto their proponent. For example, the theist could claim that atheism is just as likely an opiate as theism. That is, people deny God so that they can go through life acting in whatever manner they see fit. And why not simply state that unbelief in God is the wish-fulfillment of an inner rebellion; like the Oedipus boy that just subconsciously wants to kill his father? Perhaps atheism is just a manifested authority problem. And maybe atheism itself is a mind-projection? Unbelief in God could just as well be a projection of feelings of inferiority, and so forth.
The God delusion is in fact a non-argument against God. Though informal, it fails to make any substantive claims and renders a conclusion with no basis for acceptance other than an appeal to emotion. To posit God as a delusion generally signifies a failure to consider the robust truth claims of theism vis-à-vis the Judeo-Christian view.
Can the existence of God be proven?
Is faith in God a crutch?
What is the meaning of Psalm 14:1 (53:1), "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'"?
Is God man made? Did people create the idea of God?
Why should we care if God exists?
Truth about Worldview and Apologetics