Projecting God: The Psychology of Theological Justification

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
God and the New Atheism
Book Author: 
John F. Haught

Theologian John F. Haught argues that science isn't our best and most reliable means of knowing ultimate reality; rather, there are other means involving subjective experience which put us directly in touch with God. But why should we trust such experience? Haught's says this trust is justified because God exists, but this presumes what needs to be proved. His brand of theological cognition violates some basic epistemic norms that should constrain any description of the world which aims for objectivity. His concept of God seems vague, contradictory, and is clearly driven by human psychological needs.


In his book God and the New Atheism, theologian John F. Haught offers what he calls a theological response to the new atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and to a lesser extent Daniel Dennett. He argues they give short shrift to theology and so haven’t really engaged with a mature Christianity. Their critiques of theism are simply atheistic mirror images of the unnuanced religious fundamentalisms they attack. Indeed, Haught is just as hard on creationists and advocates of intelligent design as the new atheists, which lends his book some balance: he visits a plague on both houses from a theological perspective, or attempts to. But his primary target is science-based naturalism, what he considers to be a “deeply self-contradictory” worldview (82), caught up in a blinkered scientism that fails to acknowledge any alternative to science in our quest to grasp reality. If we expand our epistemic horizons, Haught says, we will find God.

In a way Haught is guilty of the same charge he levels against the new atheists. Just as they might not have grappled with high-level theology, in his critique he isn’t grappling with a well-articulated naturalism. To do justice to naturalism, as opposed to simply responding to the new atheists, Haught would have had to consider a wider philo-scientific community that’s been developing naturalism as a worldview, making it competitive with Christianity and other faith-based religions as an existential and ethical perspective. For instance, he might have taken on Owen Flanagan, whose books The Problem of the Soul and The Really Hard Problem: Finding Meaning in a Material World are well-argued explorations of viable naturalistic conceptions of human agency, morality and meaning. Flanagan explicitly defends naturalism against the charge of scientism, and had Haught reckoned with that defense he wouldn’t have been able to claim their equivalence. (Haught mentions Flanagan in passing on page 41.) Since I mainly want to accommodate Haught's request that naturalists take theology seriously, here I will simply footnote other materials, including some at Naturalism.Org, that would have made Haught’s caricature of naturalism less feasible had he taken them into account.[1]

So, what is it, precisely, that we naturalists are missing out on that a sophisticated Christian theologian offers?  Is it something that should give us serious pause? Haught thinks so, and says why in God and the New Atheism and other writings. In what follows, I’ll critique Haught’s theological arguments for belief in God, suggesting that they fail to respect some basic norms of justification that apply when making claims about reality. Moreover, his concept of God seems vague and contradictory, and is all too clearly driven by human psychological needs.

Justifying Belief - 4 basic requirements

As much as their worldviews differ, both naturalists and anti-naturalists share a common objective: getting the nature of reality right according to their best lights. Both camps are also concerned to justify their worldviews in the marketplace of belief. Theists, a species of anti-naturalist, suppose God exists according to some specification, while naturalists generally suppose not. Haught agrees that to claim God exists is to make a claim about reality that needs justification:

 If faith in God is truthful, then, as the new atheists rightly point out, there must be something in reality that corresponds to the idea of God…Since faith gives rise to all sorts of fantasies, how do we know that the idea of God is not just as wild and removed from reality as belief in the tooth fairy? As [Sam] Harris insists, in order to be accepted as true there has to be a way of confirming the reality of God independently of faith. (44-5, emphasis added)

But one of Haught’s central complaints against the new atheists is that they mistakenly think that the existence of God is an empirical hypothesis that could be settled by scientific investigation:

Do our new atheists seriously believe …that if a personal God of infinite beauty and unbounded love actually exists, the ‘evidence’ for this God’s existence could be gathered as cheaply as the evidence for a scientific hypothesis?...If God exists, then interpersonal experience, not the impersonal objectivity of science, would be essential to knowledge of this God…  (46)

Note that by “interpersonal experience,” Haught means a direct, private encounter between a person and God. This sort of evidence isn’t to be confused with intersubjective evidence of the public sort that’s in principle available to anyone, which is what science normally relies on. He goes on to explain what theological evidence consists of:

So, if the universe is encompassed by an infinite Love, would the encounter with this ultimate reality require anything less than a posture of receptivity and readiness to surrender to its embrace? How is it that the new atheists think they can decide the question of God’s existence without having opened themselves to the personal transformation essential to faith’s sense of being grasped by an unbounded love? Clearly the new atheists are looking for a shortcut and a direct, objectifying access to what believers regard as unapproachable apart from the surrender of faith. Not finding God or any “evidence” of God by way of either scientific or ordinary ways of knowing, they are certain that God does not exist. (46-47)

The insulation requirement. What are we to make of this theological way of knowing, contrasted as it is with scientific and ordinary ways?  First of all, we see that detecting the object of knowledge – infinite Love, should it exist – requires receptivity to the possibility of its existence on the part of the knower. But of course being receptive is patently to be psychologically biased in favor of the possibility, to be susceptible to a certain interpretation of one’s experience, namely that one is being embraced by God. So right away we encounter a stark contrast between Haught’s theological mode of knowing and ordinary empirical inquiry, in which subjective biases in favor of certain hypotheses are seen as threats to objectivity. For those concerned about whether their preconceptions and desires might be distorting their grasp of reality, that is, anyone interested in truth as opposed to wishful thinking, the theological requirement of receptivity raises a bright red flag. It compromises what we might call the insulation requirement: that we should do our best to insulate truth claims from the influence of bias.

The public object requirement. A second contrast between theological and ordinary cognition is that it’s the quality of subjective experience – of surrendering, being grasped and transformed – which counts as evidence of God’s existence, not public observation using normal sensory channels responsive to the world outside our heads. Knowledge of ultimate reality comes from an indubitable, direct encounter with the object of knowledge: the unbounded love encompassing the universe. It’s a kind of private cognitive transaction that requires no public criterion for validation.

Now, it doesn’t take a skeptical new atheist, but merely an open-minded inquisitive lay person to wonder how Haught knows that this experience, however powerful and transformative, is a direct reflection of ultimate reality. After all, there are crucial distinctions between wanting something to be true, having strong faith in something being true, experiencing it as being true, and it actually being true. Why should anyone suppose that, absent some external independent validation, the experience of being grasped by God is evidence for God?  Experience is certainly part of reality, but not by any stretch an indubitable reflection of its true nature. Given the fallibility of human experience, its potential to misrepresent the world, it seems reasonable to ask for further justification for the claim that religious experience reveals the truth about things. This normally involves producing evidence for the claim that’s independent of the experience itself, something other than the mental state of the experiencer, such as a publicly observable object or measurement. Call this the public object requirement. It doesn’t matter how many people report powerful, transforming experiences of being grasped by God, since they could all be mistaken, just as all those experiencing alien abduction could be mistaken. If there’s no possibility of proving such experiences don’t get reality right, by checking them against publicly available evidence, then we shouldn’t trust that they do get reality right.

Haught dismisses this seemingly reasonable requirement, and dismissing it makes sense given his theology, since otherwise he’d be conceding the need for intersubjective evidence. For Haught, asking for such evidence is simply beneath the dignity of the question of God’s existence: “Any deity whose existence could be decided by something as cheap as ‘evidence’ in Harris’s or Dawkins vulgar understanding of the term could never command anyone’s worship” (44).

Having put intersubjective evidence, and therefore science, in its place, what then does Haught think could validate the experience of being grasped by God? Well, he contends simply that “an ineradicable element of trust is present” in cognition, whatever the field or mode of inquiry (47). That is, we simply must and do trust that we can grasp truth, whether in pursuit of science or religion:

We spontaneously trust that our journeys of exploration will be greeted by an ever-expanding field of intelligibility and an inexhaustible depth of truth. This trust also lies at the heart of genuine religious faith. (47)

…by identifying the radical trust that underlies the cognitional life of every seeker and knower, we can locate the appropriate place of theology in its relation to science. Theology is not the answer to scientific questions, as the new atheists would like it to be – since this would make their job of destroying theology an easy one. Rather, theology responds to the question of whether the spontaneous trust that underlies every journey of inquiry, including science, is justifiable. (48)

Theology must, of course, respond to this question in the affirmative if we are to believe that religious experience reveals the truth about reality. But what is theology’s justification for our spontaneous trust, precisely?  First, Haught claims that a naturalistic understanding of ourselves cannot justify this trust:

True, evolutionary science has a plausible explanation for why our minds are adaptive, but that is not enough to justify the spontaneous trust we have in our minds to put us in touch with reality or truth. In fact, we should instead distrust our cognitional activity if evolution is the ultimate causal factor involved in the making of minds. Since evolution is itself understood to be a mindless process, why does the scientific naturalist trust it to be good at anything but adapting? (49)

The non-circularity requirement. The naturalist can answer this question, see here, but let us continue to follow Haught’s argument. To justify trust, he says there must be something more, something that can’t be explained on naturalistic account:

In order to justify our cognitional confidence, something in addition to evolution must be going on during the gradual emergence of mind in natural history…Mind has to be more than an adaptive mechanism in order to merit our trust. (49-50)

And here’s the something more:

Theology can provide a very good answer to why we can trust our minds. We can trust them because, prior to any process of reasoning or empirical inquiry, each of us, simply by virtue of being or existing, is already encompassed by infinite Being, Meaning, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. We awaken only slowly and obscurely into this unfathomably deep and liberating environment and are bathed in it all our days. We cannot focus on it, and we may not even notice it at all since, like fish in a river, we are so deeply immersed in it. But we may trust our capacity to search for meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty because these have already beckoned and begun to carry us away. Faith, at bottom, is our gracious and enlivening assent to this momentous invitation. (50)

The circularity in the structure of Haught’s theological justification for truth claims might already be apparent, but I will spell it out: The believer has a religious experience, a surrender of faith, which Haught says is good, trustworthy evidence for God. But on his account, trust in our minds, including religious experience, is justified by the assertion that we are “already encompassed” by God. This justification for trusting the experience assumes the existence of what the experience was supposed to be evidence for. As a general rule, justifications for truth claims can’t presuppose the existence of what they purport to justify. This rule applies to any mode of inquiry that aims at truth, including theology. Call this the non-circularity requirement.

To show that we should trust religious experience of God as truthful, Haught would have to provide independent grounds outside that experience, meeting the public object requirement. He suggests the independent grounds lie in the putative fact that naturally evolved minds can’t possibly track truths about the world, so that “something in addition to evolution must be going on during the gradual emergence of mind in natural history” to justify our trust. We have in our minds a divinely installed truth-tracker of some sort, something evolution alone couldn’t supply. But this is a straightforwardly empirical claim, and the inquiring lay person wants to know what this additional thing supplied by God might be, and how it works. Haught is barred from pointing to any additional concrete perceptual or cognitive mechanism, since of course that would merely be vulgar scientific evidence of actual facts about cognition.

The cognitive mechanism requirement. Part of what makes claims to knowledge plausible is having a transparent explanation of the cognitive mechanisms themselves – call this the cognitive mechanism requirement. Haught can’t supply even a hint of what these might be since that would involve the sort of intersubjective empiricism he eschews when seeking God. And of course if he did stoop to science to demonstrate our extra-physical truth tracking abilities, he would likely come up empty handed.   

Remember, Haught is making an objective claim, namely that God exists, which he said at the outset (agreeing with Harris) needs validation by something outside faith, that is, something outside uncorroborated belief in God. But because it can’t sully itself with publicly observable facts (the public object requirement), and because it can’t explain how we know (the cognitive mechanism requirement), theological cognition as Haught presents it loses plausibility. Further, it involves circular logic when justifying trust in religious experience, violating the non-circularity requirement; and by asking us to be uncritically receptive to being embraced by God it violates the insulation requirement. These four requirements about justifying belief, the layperson might see, are pretty reasonable demands that any claim to objective knowledge should at least attempt to meet. Although science meets them, they aren’t special to science, but are simply basic to reliable ways of knowing generally, so it isn’t unfair to ask theology to meet them as well. If it does not, then there’s a substantial risk that theologians and their flocks will end up trapped within their own psychology, projecting their desire for God’s love onto reality.

Unclear on the Concept

Throughout his book Haught emphasizes that his theology isn’t in competition with science, rather the competition is between worldviews: between theism and science-based naturalism.[2]  He’s perfectly willing to let science have the final say about the natural world and its workings. He only contests the idea that science is the last and best word about what ultimately exists in toto. This leaves room for non-scientific ways of justifying belief (which we looked at in the first section above), and therefore room for God as something more than nature. Naturalists push back and say, as I did above, that theological justifications are faulty, so there’s no good evidence for God as something more, there’s only good evidence for what we ordinarily call nature.

This dispute aside, Haught recognizes that there are difficulties for the theist who accepts God’s active role in the world – he claims God is personally involved in terrestrial affairs – but who also concedes science’s authority about how things transpire in nature. In his chapter of a forthcoming book celebrating the work of theologian Paul Tillich,[3] Haught frames the question pointedly: “Is it possible then to understand divine action in such a way that theological explanation will not seem to be either superfluous altogether or in conflict with science?” If natural laws do all the work, then it seems God’s action in the world is superfluous. If God acts directly in the world, then there might be competing accounts, scientific vs. theistic, of how things transpired, for instance in cosmic and biological evolution.

For Haught, the idea of God as a specific causal agent diminishes God; it makes God just another player along side of natural laws. This is why in both God and the New Atheism and his book chapter, following Tillich, he castigates naïve supernaturalists,[4] creationists and advocates of intelligent design as idolatrous (Haught’s word!): by setting God up as a supernatural causal agent, they inadvertently naturalize God by bringing him into direct, specific causal involvement with nature.[5] The only god worthy of our worship is what Tillich (among others) has called the ground of being: “For Tillich it is more than enough that God is the ground and power of being, and so any attempt to specify divine action in terms of natural categories will only diminish the sense of God’s power and love.”    

God as the ground of being doesn’t compete with what science describes, since the ground of being doesn’t play a specific causal role. It doesn’t design life forms ex nihilo, or fine-tune physical constants to make the universe life-friendly, as creationists and other varieties of intelligent designers would like. But then one wonders: what is it, concretely, that God as the ground of being adds to nature? Tillich, quoted by Haught in his book chapter, says: “God is neither alongside things nor even ‘above’ them; he is nearer to them than they are to themselves. He is their creative ground, here and now, always and everywhere.”

Whether one finds this formulation of the divine cryptic or enlightening might be diagnostic of the difference between naturalistic and theistic temperaments. But besides the Zen-like inscrutability of Tillich’s god concept (as naturalists see it), Haught faces a further difficulty. Haught’s god, the ground of being, is nevertheless essentially personal, whereas the scientific description of nature is essentially impersonal. In his book, Haught is confident that there is no conflict here:

God’s personal wisdom, love and responsiveness no more compete with physical causes than my publisher’s request to write this book interferes with the chemical laws that bond ink to the paper on the page you are reading. The physical determinism, or lawfulness, of the lower levels in the hierarchy of explanations does not need to be suspended in order for the universe to be influenced by a personal God. (91)

But of course one wants to know what personal influence on the universe, outside the impersonal laws of nature, and outside of being the ground of being, God has and how it operates. This question is tellingly suggested when Haught says

Christianity’s vulnerable God is not detached from the chaos of natural and historical processes. Its God is unabashedly incarnate; fully enfleshed in the world; and intimately related to its becoming, antiquity, creativity, pain, uncertainty, mortality, weakness, and hopes. (107)

Here God is an incarnate, enfleshed and apparently sentient participant in the world. Here it seems God really acts, really has concrete influence, such that the mere unfolding of impersonal natural laws isn’t sufficient to describe what goes on. God as a person, an intelligence, adds something more to nature that science can’t capture. But as we’ve seen, Haught earlier insisted that we may not construe God as an independent identifiable cause, since that would be to diminish God as merely another causal player in the world, one that potentially competes with natural causation in explaining the world. But how does a fully enfleshed God influence the universe, including our lives on earth, without at the same time being an identifiable cause?

Haught tries to finesse this conflict by saying that scientific and theistic explanations can both be true simultaneously. Theology looks for ultimate, intentional explanations, science for causal explanations, and these don’t compete, for instance when explaining the existence of religion and morality (p. 85). Although I rather think (but won’t argue here) that they do compete, the conflict at issue here isn’t between theism and science, it’s between two incompatible aspects of Haught’s conception of God: that God simultaneously is and is not a causal actor and influence in the world. Those looking for a logically coherent, transparent conception of divinity, including naturalists who take theology seriously, won’t find it in a god who is all at once the impersonal ground of being and thus not a separate causal influence, yet personal and fully enfleshed, and therefore causally active. Remember also from the preceding section that Haught believes “something in addition to evolution must be going on during the gradual emergence of mind in natural history” to give us truth-tracking capacities. This claim is inescapably empirical, inserts a specific divine action into nature, and so puts God directly in competition with science. So Haught can’t quite deliver on his promise to keep theology and science separate, which is what one would expect if indeed God acts concretely in the world that science describes. If God doesn’t, then of course he’s not worthy of worship.

Projecting God

Haught’s search for theological justifications for belief in God is essentially a motivated project, driven by human desires for ultimate security, meaning, freedom, and a comprehensible universe with a benign intention at its heart. He and other religionists very much want an embracing cosmic love to exist, and this bends their investigation to the desired conclusion. For this reason alone – the violation of the insulation requirement –  his brand of theological cognition is suspect as a route to objective truth, although as we’ve seen there are logical, evidential and explanatory difficulties as well.

Here are three sections among others in the last chapter of God and the New Atheism in which human desiderata are plainly driving Haught’s theological picture of reality, emphasis added:

In effect, therefore, the new atheists are demanding that religions either provide perfect representations of God (suitable to their tastes) or abandon images altogether, but Christianity tolerates ambiguity and imperfection in the Bible’s struggle to imagine God. Why? Because the alternative is much worse, namely an Absolute that remains eternally above the world’s struggles in splendid isolation…In fact, from the point of view of the Bible’s prophetic tradition, the puritanical God of splendid isolation would be the truly immoral “role model” for humans.  (99)

From a Christian theological point of view, however, the main point of the Bible is…that we should never lose trust that our lives, human history, and the universe itself are part of a momentously meaningful drama of liberation and the promise of ultimate fulfillment. Furthermore, the sense that our lives have a meaning, and that life is worth living in a spirit of trust, provides an energy and direction to moral aspiration that it would otherwise lack. According to the cumulative religious wisdom of our species, without a basic trust that the whole of being including the universe itself, has a meaning, our ethical juices will eventually dry up for lack of nourishment. (101)

In their instructions as to how a decent God should act, the new atheists demand that either the world is finished once and for all in the beginning, or else there is no role for God to play at all. A morally acceptable God would get things completely right from day one. The universe would be an unblemished, unchanging reflection of its divine engineer. There would be no growing pains, no death, no terrorists. There would be no theodicy problem either, since there would be no evil to reconcile with the existence of God.
        Neither, of course, would there be any life, freedom, and future, and adventure, any grand cosmic story, any opening to infinite horizons up ahead…creation would have nowhere to go…human beings, if one can imagine them existing at all, would be puppets and statues.
        Only a still unfinished universe…could provide the setting for human freedom and creativity…An initially perfect universe would be deadly. (105-106)  

The basic structure of the argument in these passages is the same: since the universe wouldn’t be to our liking in certain respects unless God existed, he therefore likely exists and has certain attributes. Since a remote god is unpalatable to us, he must act in the world; since ethics would wither without trust in ultimate meaning conferred by God, we are justified in such trust; and since a perfectionistic god would leave no room for human freedom, God must therefore have given us free will. It’s hard to imagine more explicit examples of how psychological needs drive a picture of reality. 

In his book chapter on Tillich, Haught likewise acknowledges that scholarly contemporary theism is essentially a response to what he calls the “threat of non-being”: awareness of the finitude of nature, the prospect of personal annihilation, the terrifying abyss of imagining that there’s no ultimate meaning. This drives his (and Tillich’s) conception of God as the ultimate and imperishable ground of being, a ground that’s nevertheless personal and responsive. Only such a universal but immediately present god provides the needed defense against non-being – therefore this god exists and theism is true. Since naturalism provides no such recourse, it’s false:

 Scientific naturalists today are no more devoid of faith than are their theistic opponents. The difference is that they fail to acknowledge nature’s radical finitude. They do not realize that a finite natural world, no matter how large and resourceful it may be, is ultimately incapable of conquering the threat of nonbeing.

Nevertheless, whether scientific naturalism is a truthful and ultimately satisfying worldview can be determined only by observing whether it allows nature to function symbolically in such a way as to be fully transparent to being itself, or what Tillich alternatively calls the power and depth of being. This means asking whether naturalism can function to give one courage sufficient to conquer the threat of nonbeing. If not, then Tillich’s theology would consider it to be a species of idolatry. (original emphasis)

Again, Haught couldn’t be more candid in admitting that the acceptability of a worldview depends on whether it meets our psychological needs, for instance to give us courage in the face of non-being. But it hardly needs repeating that the psychological viability of a picture of reality has nothing to do with its truth. The fact that God would conquer the threat of non-being is no justification for the belief that God exists, only a reason to hope God exists. Equally, that naturalism doesn’t supply us with eternal cosmic love is not a good reason to believe it's false, only a reason to hide from the possibility of its truth. Haught must give us reasons independent of human psychology to support the objective truth of theism and the falsity of naturalism, since only such reasons could give us confidence in his claims. Otherwise he’s very likely projecting his need for God onto the cosmos.

In Conclusion

Having taken a tour of Haught’s theological justifications for belief in God’s existence, which he agrees needs more than faith to be warranted, we find them wanting. He flouts some basic epistemic norms which ground the plausibility of truth claims: insulating such claims from the influence of bias and wishful thinking; providing public evidence against which subjective experience can be checked; avoiding circularity in one’s justifications; and providing an account of cognitive mechanisms, of how we know. These requirements seem uncontroversial, not special to science (and therefore not special to naturalism), so it seems fair to ask that theology respect them. If it doesn’t, it risks losing status as a serious contender in the argument about how we should best represent reality. Any mode of knowing with pretensions to objectivity must do at least some justice to these requirements, and no doubt to others not mentioned here.

The divine object of theological cognition as Haught presents it – a universal ground of being that is simultaneously a personal, responsive god; a sentient agent that acts but is not an identifiable cause – seems too transparently cobbled together in service to our needs, too convenient, flexible, ambiguous and ultimately self-contradictory. God, according to Haught’s specifications, is such that no empirical fact about the world could count for or against his existence. This conveniently defangs science for theology. God is such that whatever disasters, misfortunes and evils pile up here on earth, these are the necessary concomitants of his love, of his concern for human freedom. We must therefore accept that untold suffering is ultimately necessary for the good. Since God is enfleshed and a participant in every aspect of earthly reality, there’s no distance between us and God. And yet: we are not God, since according to Haught only an unfinished universe allows for the infinite horizons that beckon us to realize the eventual perfection of God’s love. In short, the contradictory nature of Haught’s and Tillich’s god is simply a projection of our own warring human psychology, in which we want both security and freedom, certainty and the unknown, peace and competition. We also want very much not to die or to lose our loved ones to death, and this basic psychological fact drives the elaborate edifice that is the modern theological response to the “threat of non-being.” 

Naturalists hope they might do better than Haught in hewing to basic epistemic norms, and in formulating a view of reality that is driven less by their own psychology than by reality itself. We don’t claim that we never fall into error, that the methods of science are unimproveable guides to what’s real, or that naturalism is necessarily the last word in worldviews. We remain cognitively humble in the face of human fallibility and the deep puzzles of nature and existence. Nevertheless, a clear choice exists between theological and naturalistic ways of justifying belief, and there are good, non-partisan, ideologically unbiased reasons to prefer naturalism over theism, at least Haught’s variety, when deciding where to place one’s cognitive bet.

TWC, May 2008


[1] I respond to some of Haught’s charges against naturalism (scientism and nihilism) here and contrast naturalism favorably to anti-naturalism in several papers here, including a review of Haught’s book Is Nature Enough? For general expositions and defenses of naturalism, see Encountering Naturalism, Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God, and the extensive section on naturalism at the Secular Web. A selected bibliography of books mostly favorable to naturalism is here, and other online references and resources on naturalism are listed here. See also the Spirituality page at Naturalism.Org for viable naturalistic alternatives to theism.

[2] I agree with Haught about this, see here.

[3] The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich, Russell Re Manning, editor, 2008 (forthcoming), Cambridge University Press.

[4] Haught describes himself as an anti-naturalist theist, not a supernaturalist (personal correspondence).

[5] I think Haught’s right about this, see here.