Monday, 6 June 2011

Jesus - my imaginary friend?

I think most Christians - especially those of a sceptical and analytical bent - occasionally have doubts, and I should confess that this has sometimes been one of mine. Since a friend recently asked me if God is really just a grown up person's imaginary friend, I thought I would try to address this question here.

Many children have imaginary friends who apparently act as a source of comfort, companionship etc. - in fact many of the roles that God often seems to fulfil in the lives of those who believe in Him.

I can see why then, for unbelievers - especially those of a strongly atheist disposition - this might seem like the best way to explain the beliefs and "alleged" experiences of such as myself. If you're 100% convinced that God does not exist (as many atheists do claim to be), then you still need some sort of explanation for the persistence of millions of believers around the world who not only believe in God, but also claim to have encountered him in some way. This explanation would seem to fit the bill quite nicely!

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, I have occasionally wondered this myself. It seems most Christians experience times in their lives when God seems particularly distant. Many renowned spiritual authors have written about this phenomenon over the centuries. During times like these I have sometimes found myself wondering whether God was ever really real to me at all, or whether I just imagined the whole thing. Also, because I do have an enquiring mind and am not afraid to challenge others to question their own perspectives, it seems only fair that I should be willing to do the same. Accordingly, even when things have been going well, I have sometimes asked myself - is this really God? Am I just making this up? Is what I'm experiencing really just wishful thinking or some other kind of deep-seated psychological reaction?

The short and honest answer is that it's actually very difficult to be 100% sure! When you're in the middle of something that may or may not be a delusion, it's extremely difficult to completely step back from that and analyse it from a totally objective point of view - especially if it's something in which you have a very strong emotional investment! Obviously I want this to be true - and that does sometimes make honest attempts at debunking it quite difficult!

The conclusion I've generally come to though, is that there have just been too many things - too many "coincidences" if you like - to put this all down to chance and wishful thinking. Even if I was just talking about my own life and experience this would be true, but if I then factor in millions of other Christians around the world and their recorded experiences down through the centuries, and the extraordinary and surprising resonance I've so often found with my own, the only sensible conclusion seems to me to be that there really is some kind of external guiding hand out there - and the God of the Christians, especially as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, seems to me by a long way to be the best available fit.

Some things I've experienced that could potentially be put down to the imaginary friend syndrome:
  • A sense of God's love and presence. If this was imaginary though, I would generally expect to have more control over it. As it is, I generally cannot predict when this will happen. There are some situations in which it seems more likely, but sometimes I am disappointed and other times God seems to reveal himself quite unexpectedly.
  • A sense of God's guidance - e.g. unexpected and surprising wisdom or insight into a difficult situation or problem. There are similar psychological phenomena which could potentially account for this - particularly the idea that the brain will sometimes process things sub-consciously then provide flashes of insight to the conscious mind.
  • I've run out - I can't think of any more at the moment...

Some things I think are less easy to explain in this way:
  • Knowledge or insight given to me into other people's situations which I knew nothing about - which has sometimes been very surprising to those concerned.
  • Similar knowledge or insight given by others into my own situation. For example, being told by a complete stranger what I'd been praying about for the past few weeks (no-one else knew) and that my prayer would be answered (it was).
  • Praying for people with various physical ailments and seeing them healed on a number of occasions. Most of these could be put down to co-incidence by a determined sceptic but for me they fit together with too many other things I've experienced and understand about God and the world and I'm afraid I'm just not that determined! A critic will of course ask why God doesn't heal every time a person is prayed for - but that's for another discussion...

So there you are - a few more reasons why I believe what I believe. I don't propose to provide details of any of the above. These are my experiences and are not for sceptics to pore over. As I've said elsewhere on this blog, if God wanted to prove Himself universally and indisputably, I believe He would have done so by now. The above are not meant to be testable or falsifiable by unbelieving sceptics - they are just some of the reasons why I personally have chosen to believe.

If you don't believe, I think you have 2 choices: Carry on not believing, or have a go at reaching out to God for yourself. If you're willing to try the second, in a spirit of honest humility, then you may just end up with some very good reasons of your own...


  1. Hi Dan! With regards to the things you find less easy to explain...

    The knowledge of others, or others have of you. Psychics have long claimed to be able to do this, and they certainly seem to be able to convince quite a few people that what they are saying is real, however they don't stand up to scientific scrutiny. This is similar to what you describe, but in a non-God context.

    I have had strange experiences where I think of something, and the person next to me says it. This happens too often to be coincidence, but tends to happen more with the people I am closer to, so is probably more that the same stimulous in the environment have led to the same brain thoughts. That's how I explain it anyway, but equally a believer might say God is giving them some insight. There are always two ways to skin something.

    Faith healing is an odd one. I guess there are no statistics out there on this one as to number of healed attempts tried versus succeeded etc! There is however good evidence of the placebo effect, and how the brain can think you're being made better and then you actually are. Faith healing surely is an even stronger version of this. To a believer, God can cure them, and they must have a great expectation that they will be cured. A much larger expectation than when taking placebo pills.

  2. Hey Gary - thanks for your comments!

    On the "faith healing" thing - one of the guys I prayed for was an atheist and was more surprised than I was when the prayer got answered!

    As you say though, there are always two ways to skin something and I suspect that for now we will both continue to interpret this in different ways.

    I don't think it's fair to say though - as you've said elsewhere - that there is zero evidence. There's quite a bit of evidence in my humble opinion, it's more a question of how you interpret it. What I would concede is that there is no incontrovertible, publicly available proof (in the scientifically testable, falsifiable sense of that word) - but we've discussed this before and have different ideas about what this signifies!

    In my view, all of these things are signs. They're supposed to encourage people to go looking for God and to meet and experience Him for themselves, whilst continuing to leave the door open (at least for now anyway) for those who would rather not live in a God-oriented world.

  3. As a skeptic, I'd have to say what you've experienced is also experienced by members of other religions, whether it be a state of nirvana or speaking in tongues. The problem with almost all of these religions is they make exclusive claims. So either somebody is right and everyone else is wrong, everybody is wrong, or we need to rethink our concept of "God". This is where skeptical thinking comes in, claims need to be verified with evidence, otherwise how can we differentiate all the various claims between all the various religions. I do not claim any absolute knowledge about any "god", but I think if one does exist, it is vastly different than the one that exists in the minds of humans.

  4. Hey Josh - thanks for your comments!

    I agree with you that all religions make exclusive claims, but most of them also have certain things in common and to me it seems likely that all or at least many of them have got it partly right at least. I'm personally convinced by the claims of the early Christians that Jesus was and is the Son of God and by the incredible story of His self-sacrificial death and resurrection. I still have much in common with members of other faiths however, who don't share all of my convictions.

    I also think that God is ultimately well beyond our ability as humans to comprehend, but that's not to say we can't get glimpses from time to time, or that He can't sometimes reveal himself to us in ways that we can make some kind of sense of.

  5. Dan King- Thanks for the response. I've also considered that it's possible for more than one religion to be partly right, but I think you'd agree they differ on the ultimate truth, which is the path to a pleasant afterlife. I've looked at many of the major religions from a very objective angle, and it all comes down to blind faith in unverifiable claims, and this is my problem. I personally see the claims coming out of religion as the epitome of human existance, the desire to create subgroups with like minded people. I think any god that were to exist would be infinitely above our primal instincts.


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