John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion (3d edition), 1983.


Grounds for Disbelief in God

The responsible skeptic, whether agnostic or atheist, is not concerned to deny that religious people have had certain experiences as a result of which they have Become convinced of the reality of God. The skeptic believes, however, that these experiences can be adequately accounted for without postulating a God, and by adopting instead a naturalistic interpretation of religion. Two of the most influential such interpretations will now be discussed.


Developed earlier in the present century mainly by French sociologists, principally Emile Durkheim.1 this type of analysis appeals today to a generation that is acutely conscious of the power of society to mold for good or ill the minds of its members.

The sociological theory refers to this power when it suggests that the gods whom people worship are imaginary beings unconsciously fabricated by society as instruments whereby society exercises control over the thoughts and behavior of the individual.

The theory claims that when men and women have the religious feeling of standing before a higher power that transcends their personal lives and impresses its will upon them as a moral imperative, they are indeed in the presence of a greater environing reality. This reality is not, however, a supernatural Being; it is the natural fact of society. The encompassing human group exercises the attributes of deity in relation to its members and gives rise in their minds to the idea of God, which is thus, in effect, a symbol for society.

The sense of the holy, and of God as the source of sacred demand claiming the total allegiance of the worshiper, is thus accounted for as a reflection of society's absolute claim upon the loyalty of its members. In primitive societies (in relation to which Durkheim's theory was originally worked out) this sense of the group's right to unquestioning obedience and loyalty is very strong. The tribe or clan is a psychic organism within which the human members live as cells, not yet fully separated out as individuals from the group mind. The tribal customs, beliefs, requirements, and taboos are sovereign and bear collectively the awesome aspect of the holy. In advanced societies this primitive unity has enjoyed a partial revival in time of war, when the national spirit has been able to assert an almost unlimited authority over the citizens.

The key to the complementary sense of God as people's final succor and security is found in the way in which the individual is carried and supported in all the major crises of life by the society to which he or she belongs. We humans are social to the roots of our being and are deeply dependent upon our group and unhappy when isolated from it. It is a chief source of our psychic vitality, and we as individuals draw strength and reinforcement from it when as worshipers we celebrate with our fellows the religion that binds us together ("religion" probably derives from the Latin ligare, to bind or bind together.)

It is, then, society as a greater environing reality standing over against the individual, a veritable "ancient of days" existing long before one's little life and destined to persist long after one's disappearance, that constitutes the concrete reality which has become symbolized as God. This theory accounts for the symbolization that transforms the natural pressures of society into the supernatural presence of God by referring to a universal tendency of the human' mind to create mental images and symbols.

Here, in brief, is an interpretation of the observable facts of religion that involves no reference to God as a supernatural Being who has created humanity and this world in which we live. According to this interpretation, it is the human animal who has created God in order to preserve its own social existence. '

Religious thinkers have offered various criticisms of this theory, perhaps the most comprehensive critique being that of H. H. Farmer.2 The following difficulties have been stressed. 33

1. lt is claimed that the theory fails to account for the universal reach of the religiously informed conscience, which on occasion goes beyond the boundaries of any empirical society and acknowledges a moral relationship to human beings as such. In the teaching of the great prophets and rabbis, and in the teaching of Jesus and of his church at its best, the corollary of monotheism has been pressed home: God loves all human beings and summons all men and women to care for one another as brothers and sisters.

How is this striking phenomenon to be brought within the scope of the sociological theory? If the call of God is only society imposing upon its members forms of conduct that are in the interest of that society, what is the origin of the obligation to be concerned equally for all humanity? The human race as a whole is not a society as the term is used in the sociological theory. How, then, can the voice of God be equated with that of the group if this voice impels one to extend to outsiders the jealously guarded privileges of the group?

2. It is claimed that the sociological theory fails to account for the moral creativity of the prophetic mind. The moral prophet is characteristically an innovator who goes beyond the established ethical code and summons his or her fellows to acknowledge new and more far-reaching claims of morality upon their lives. How is this to be accounted for if there is no other source of moral obligation than the experience of the organized group intent upon its own preservation and enhancement? The sociological theory fits a static "closed society," but how can it explain the ethical progress that has come about through the insights of pioneers morally in advance of their groups?

3. It is claimed that the sociological theory fails to explain the socially detaching power of conscience. Again the criticism focuses upon the individual who is set at variance with society because he or she "marches to a different drum" -- for example, an Amos denouncing the Hebrew society of his time or, to span the centuries, a Beyers Nande rejecting the hegemony of his own race in South Africa, or Camilo Torres in Colombia, or Vietnam war resisters. If the sociological theory is correct, the sense of divine support should be at a minimum or even altogether absent in such cases. The prophet cannot have the support of God against society if God is simply society in disguise. The record shows, however, that the sense of divine backing and support is often at a maximum in these situations. These people are sustained by a vivid sense of the call and leadership of the Eternal. It is striking that in one instance after another the Old Testament prophets express a sense of closeness to God as they are rejected by their own people; yet they belonged to an intensely self-conscious and nationalistic society of the kind that, according to the sociological theory, ought to be best able to impress its will upon its members.

It seems, therefore, that a verdict of "not proven" is indicated concerning this attempt to establish a purely natural explanation of religion.

1 The Elementary Form, of the Religious Life, 1912 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1915 and New York: The Free Press, 1965).

2 See H. H. Farmer, Towards Belief in God (London: Student Christian Movement Press Ltd., ; 1942), Chap. 9, to which the present discussion is indebted.


Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) the originator of psychoanalysis and a figure comparable in importance to Galileo, Darwin, or Einstein, devoted a good deal of attention to the nature of religion.3 He regarded religious beliefs as "... illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most insistent wishes of mankind."4 Religion, as Freud saw it, is a mental defense against the more threatening aspects of nature -- earthquake, flood, storm, disease, and inevitable death. According to Freud, "With these forces nature rises up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable."5 But the human imagination transforms these forces into mysterious personal powers. "Impersonal forces and destinies [Freud said] cannot be approached; they remain eternally remote. But if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety. We are still defenseless, perhaps, but we are no longer helplessly paralyzed; we can at least react. Perhaps, indeed, we are not even defenseless. We can apply the same methods against these violent super beings outside that we employ in our own society; we can try to adjure them, to appease them, to bribe them, and, by so influencing them, we may rob them of part of their power."6 The solution adopted in Judaic-Christian religion is to project upon the universe the buried memory of our father as a great protecting power. The face that smiled at us in the cradle, now magnified to infinity, smiles down upon us from heaven. Thus, religion is ". . . the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity,"7 which may be left behind when at last people learn to face the world, relying no longer upon illusions but upon scientifically authenticated knowledge.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud uses his distinctive concept of the Oedipus complex8 (which rests on concurrent ambivalent feelings) to account for the tremendous emotional intensity of religious life and the associated feelings of guilt and of obligation to obey the behests of the deity. He postulates a stage of human prehistory in which the unit was the "primal horde" consisting of father, mother, and offspring. The father, as the dominant male, retained to himself exclusive rights over the females and drove away or killed any of the sons who challenged his position. Finding that individually they could not defeat the father-leader, the sons eventually banded together to kill (and also, being cannibals, to eat) him. This was the primal crime, the patricide that has set up tensions within the human psyche out of which have developed moral inhibitions, totemism, and the other phenomena of religion. Having slain their father, the brothers are struck with remorse. They also find that they cannot all succeed to his position and that there is a continuing need for restraint. The dead father's prohibition accordingly takes on a new ("moral") authority as a taboo against incest. This association of religion with the Oedipus complex, which is renewed in each individual (for Freud believed the Oedipus complex to be universal), is held to account for the mysterious authority of God in the human mind and the powerful guilt feelings which make people submit to such a fantasy. Religion is thus a "return of the repressed."

There is an extensive literature discussing the Freudian treatment of religion, which cannot, however, be summarized here.9 The "primal horde" hypothesis, which Freud took over from Darwin, and Robertson Smith, is now generally rejected by anthropologists,10 and the Oedipus complex itself is no longer regarded, even by many of Freud's successors, as the key that unlocks all doors. Philosophical critics have further pointed out that Freud's psychic atomism and determinism have the status not of observational reports but of philosophical theories.

Although Freud's account of religion, taken as a whole, is highly speculative and will probably be the least-enduring aspect of his thought, his general view that faith is a kind of "psychological crutch" and has the a quality of fantasy thinking is endorsed by many internal as well as external critics as applying to much that is popularly called religion. Empirical religion is a bewildering mixture of elements, and undoubtedly wish fulfillment enters in and is a major factor in the minds of many devotees.

Perhaps the most interesting theological comment to be made upon Freud's theory is that in his work on the father-image he may have uncovejed the mechanisrn by which God creates an idea of deity in the human mind. For if the relation of a human father to his children is, as the Judaic-Christian tradition teaches, analogous to God's relationship to mankind, it is not surprising that human beings should think of God as their heavenly Father and should come to know God through the infant's experience of utter dependence and the growing child's experience of being loved, cared for, and disciplined within a family. Clearly; to the mind that is not committed in advance to a naturalistic explanation there may be a religious as well as a naturalistic interpretation of the psychological facts.

Again, it seems that the verdict must be "not proven"; like the sociological theory, the Freudian theory of religion may be true but has not been shown to be so.

3 See his Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Moses and Monotheism (1939), The Ego and the Id (1923), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).

4 The Future of an Illusion. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans, and ed. James Strachey (New York: Liveright Corporation and London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1961), XXI, 30.

5 Ibid., 16.

6 Ibid., 16-17.

7 Ibid., 44.

8 Oedipus is a figure in Greek mythology who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother; the Oedipus complex of Freudian theory is the child's unconscious jealousy of his father and desire for his mother.

9 Some of the discussions from the side of theology are: Ian Suttie, The Origins of Love and Hate (London: Kegan Paul, 1935); R. S. Lee, Freud and Christianity (London: James Clarke Co. Ltd., 1948); H. L. Philip, Freud and Religious Belief (London: Rockliff, 1956 and Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974); Arthur Guirdham, Christ and Freud (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1959); and from the side of psychoanalytic theory, T. Reik, Dogma and Compulsion (New York: International Universities Press, 1951); M. Ostow and B. Scharfstein, The Need to Believe (New York: International Universities Press, 1954); J. C. Flugel, Man, Morals, and Society (New York: International Universities Press, 1947).

10 A. L. Kroeber, Anthropology, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1948), p. 616. Kroeber describes the psychoanalytic explanation of culture as "intuitive, dogmatic, and wholly unhistorical." Bronislaw Malinowski remarks in the course of a careful examination of Freud's theory, "It is easy to perceive that the primeval horde has been equipped with all the bias, maladjustments and ill-tempers of a middle-class European family, and then let loose in a prehistoric jungle to run riot in a most attractive but fantastic hypothesis." Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex; and Repression in Savage Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1927 and New York: Humanities Press, 1953), p. 165.


The tremendous expansion of scientific knowledge in the modern era has had a profound influence upon religious belief. Further, this influence has been at a maximum within the Judaic-Christian tradition, with which we are mainly concerned in this book. There have been a series of specific jurisdictional disputes between the claims of scientific and religious knowledge, and also a more general cumulative effect which constitutes a major element, critical of religion, in the contemporary intellectual climate.

Since the Renaissance, scientific information about the world has steadily expanded in fields such as astronomy, geology, zoology, chemistry, biology, and physics; contradicting assertions in the same fields, derived from the Bible rather than from direct observation and experiment, have increasingly been discarded. In each of the great battles between scientists and churchmen the validity of the scientific method was vindicated by its practical fruitfulness. Necessary adjustments were eventually made in the aspects oi religious belief that had conflicted with the scientists' discoveries. As a result of this long debate it has become apparent that the biblical writers, recording their experience of God's activity in human history, inevitably clothed their testimony with their own contemporary prescientific understanding of the world. Advancing knowledge has made it possible and indeed necessary to distinguish between their record of the divine presence and calling, and the primitive world view that formed the framework of their thinking. Having made this distinction, the modern reader can learn to recognize the aspects of the scriptures that reflect the prescientific culture prevailing at the human end of any divine-human encounter. Accordingly, we find that the three- storied universe of biblical cosmology, with heaven in the sky above our heads, hell in the ground beneath our feet, and the sun circling the earth but halting in its course at Joshua's command, is no longer credible in the light of modern knowledge. That the world was created some 6,000 years ago and that humanity and the other animal species came into being at that time in their present forms can no longer be regarded as a reasonable belief Again, the expectation that at some future date the decomposed corpses of mankind through the ages will rise from the earth in pristine health for judgment has largely ceased to be entertained. Yet, in all of these cases, churchmen initially resisted, often with great vehemence and passion, scientific evidence that conflicted with their customary beliefs.11 In part, this resistance represented the natural reaction of conservative-minded people who preferred established and familiar scientific theories to new and disturbing ones. But this reaction was supported and reinforced by an unquestioning acceptance of the propositional conception of revelation (see pp. 60-61. This conception assumes that all statements in the scriptures are God's statements; consequently, to question any of them is either to accuse God of lying or to deny that the Bible is divinely inspired.

The more general legacy of this long history of interlocking scientific advance and theological retreat is the assumption, which is part of the climate of thought in our twentieth-century western world, that even though the sciences have not specifically disproved the claims of religion, they have thrown such a flood of light upon the world (without at any point encountering that of which religion speaks) that faith can now be regarded only as a harmless private fantasy. Religion is seen as a losing cause, destined to be ousted from more and more areas of human knowledge until at last it arrives at a status akin to that of astrology -- a cultural "fifth wheel." persisting only as a survival from previous ages in which our empirical knowledge was much less extensive.

The sciences have cumulatively established the autonomy of the natural order. From the galaxies whose vastness numbs the mind to the unimaginably small events and entities of the subatomic universe, and throughout the endless complexities of our own world, which lies between these virtual infinities, nature can be studied without any reference to God. The universe investigated by the sciences proceeds exactly as though no God exists.

Does it follow from this fact.that there is indeed, no God? \/ [

There are forms of theistic belief from which this negative conclusion follows and others from which it does not.

If belief in the reality of God is tied to the cultural presuppositions of a presciendfic era, this set of beliefs, taken as a whole, is no longer valid. But the situation is otherwise if we suppose (with much contemporary theology) that God has created this universe, insofar as its creation relates to humanity, as a neutral sphere in which we are endowed with a sufficient degree of autonomy to be able to enter into a freely accepted relationship with our Maker. From this point of view, God maintains a certain distance from us, a certain margin for a creaturely independence which, although always relative and conditioned, is nevertheless adequate for our existence as responsible personal beings. This "distance" is epistemic rather than spatial. It consists of the circumstance that God, being not inescapably evident to the human mind, is known only by means of an uncompelled response of faith. (For a iurther elaboration of this idea, see pp. 69-71). This circumstance requires that the human environment should have the kind of autonomy that, in fact, we find it to have. The environment must constitute a working system capable of being investigated indefinitely without the investigator's being driven to postulate God as an element within it or behind it. From the point of view of this conception of God, the autonomy of nature, as it is increasingly confirmed by the sciences, offers no contradiction to religious faith. The sciences are exploring a universe that is divinely created and sustained, but with its own God-given autonomy and integrity. Such an understanding of God and of the divine purpose for the world is able to absorb scientific discoveries, both accomplished and projected, that had initially seemed to many religious believers to be profoundly threatening. The tracing back of man's continuity with the animal kingdom; the locating of the origin of organic life in natural chemical reactions taking place on the earth's surface, with the consequent prospect of reproducing these reactions in the laboratory; the exploration of outer space and the possibility of encountering advanced forms of life on other planets; the probing of the chemistry of personality and the perfecting of the sinister techniques of "brainwashing"; the contemporary biomedical revolution, creating new possibilities for the control of the human genetic material through, for example, gene deletion and cloning; the harnessing of nuclear energy and the dread possibility of human self-destruction in a nuclear war -- all these facts and possibilities, with their immense potentialities for good or evil, are aspects of a natural order that possesses its own autonomous structure. According to religious faith, God created this order as an environment in which human beings, living as free and responsible agents, might enter into a relationship with God. All that can be said about the bearing of scientific knowledge upon this religious claim is that it does not fall within the province of any of the special sciences: science can neither confirm nor deny it.

From this theological point of view, what is the status of the miracle stories and the accounts of answered prayer that abound in the scriptures and in human records from the earliest to the present time? Must these be considered incompatible with a recognition that an autonomous natural order is the proper province of the sciences?

The answer to this question depends upon the way in which we define "miracle." It is possible to define the term in either purely physical and nonreligious terms, as a breach or suspension of natural law, or in religious terms, as an unusual, and striking event that evokes and mediates a vivid awareness of God. If "miracle" is defined as a breach of natural law, one can declare a priori that there are no miracles. It does not follow, however, that there are no miracles in the religious sense of the term. for the principle that nothing happens in conflict with natural laws, does not entail that there are no unusual and striking events evoking and mediating a vivid awareness of God. Natural law consists of generalizations formulated retrospectively to cover whatever has, in fact, happened. When events take place that are not covered by the generalizations accepted thus far, the properly scientific response is not to deny that they occurred but to seek to revise and extend the current understanding of nature in order to include them. Without regard to the relevant evidence, it cannot be said that the story, for example, of Jesus's healing the man with the withered hand (Luke 6:6-11) is untrue, or that comparable stories from later ages or from the present day are untrue. It is not scientifkallv impossible that unusual and striking events of this kind have occurred. Events with religious significance, evoking and mediating a vivid sense of the presence and activity of God, may have occurred, even though their continuity with the general course of nature cannot be traced in our present very limited state of human knowledge.

In the apologetic systems of former centuries miracles have played an important part. They have been supposed to empower religion to demand and compel belief. In opposition to this traditional view many theologians today believe that, far from providing the original foundation of religious faith, miracles presuppose such faith. The religious response, which senses the purpose of God in the inexplicable coincidence or the improbable and unexpected occurrence, makes an event a miracle. Thus, miracles belong to the internal life of a community of faith; they are not the means by which the religious community can seek to evangelize the world outside.12

The conclusion of this chapter is thus parallel to the conclusion of the preceding one. There it appeared that we cannot decisively prove the existence of God; here it appears that neither can we decisively disprove God's existence. We have yet to consider what is, for many people, the most powerful reason for doubting the reality of a loving God, namely the immense weight both of human suffering and of human wickedness. This is so important an issue that the next chapter will be devoted to it.

11 The classic history of these battles is found in A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896). 2 vols. This history is available in a paperback edition (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960).

12 One of the best modern treatments of miracles is found in H. H. Farmer, The World and God: A Study of Prayer, Providence and Miracle in Christian Experience, 2nd ed (London: Nisbet & Co., 1936). See also C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (London: The Centenary Press, 1947 and New York: Macmillan Publishing Co , 1963).