Several years ago in undergrad, I went with some friends to a talent show hosted by one of the residence halls to celebrate international coffee day. To be honest, we were mostly interested in the free food and coffee that they were offering, but you had to watch at least part of the talent show to get anything. One particular presentation still stands out to me several years later and it was a piece of art with a message reminiscent of a common objection to religion.
He had crafted two crutches out of wood into the shape of crosses, complete with fake blood, and walked on stage being supported by them. I wasn’t too sure what to think, but he then spoke for some time explaining that religion is simply a crutch used by people to help them get through life. It was very apparent that he was hostile to religion and this piece was the way that he had chosen to express it.
It did, however, get me thinking quite a bit. Is Christianity a crutch used by those who are weak? Is it nothing more than a coping mechanism? This objection is a common one lodged against religion with a long past and is not likely to go away anytime soon. Freud states it eloquently as “They are illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind… As we already know; the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection – for protection through love – which was provided by the father…. Thus the benevolent rule of divine providence allays our fear of the dangers of life.“1
Freud is not alone in this criticism, with many claiming that Christianity is for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers and need to be told what to think because they cannot do it on their own. This is in the same vein as Marx’s claim that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.“2 This same sentiment continues to be popularized through the ever-so-rigorous medium of internet memes.
Is there truth to this “objection”? Is it complete nonsense? Yes and no.
More Than a Crutch
If you’re like me, the knee-jerk reaction that will come to you is that it does not matter if Christianity, or any religion for that matter, is a crutch. Whether or not Christianity is true does not depend on if it is used as a crutch by the weak. If someone uses Christianity to cope with the loss of a loved one or to get through a difficult time, that says absolutely nothing about whether God exists or Jesus rose from the dead.
It is simply a matter of fact that truth does not depend on how we use it. Suppose someone grew up in an oppressive Christian household that was more like a cult than true Christianity and, after going away to a secular university, converts to atheism. Their atheism might be a reaction to the terrible upbringing that they had in their Christian household. To them, atheism is a crutch to help them heal from their broken past. Would our objector agree that therefore atheism is false?
However, I don’t think that this is quite the right characterization of the objection. In Alvin Plantinga’s book “Warranted Christian Belief” he distinguishes between what he calls de jure and de facto objections. The de facto objections are the “in fact” objections that criticize Christianity on the grounds that it is “in fact” false. Examples of these are the problem of evil and Biblical contradictions, making up the vast majority of objections that Christians encounter when talking to non-believers.
However, the de jure objections are a bit more subtle. They target the rationality of belief. They might concede, for sake of argument, that Christianity is true, but nevertheless you are not justified in believing in. They do not target the truth of Christianity, but rather the rationality in believing it.
The “crutch” objection can be charitably taken to be a de jure objection, not a de facto one. Showing that Christianity is a crutch certainly does nothing to show that it is false. However, if you only believe in it for it’s practical benefit or how it makes you feel, then you have no good reason for holding to it as true. If someone close to me dies and I convert to Christianity, thus making myself feel better with the promise that my loved one is in heaven, then Christianity is acting as a crutch for me and I have no good reason to believe that it is true.
It seems to me, then, that this is a valid de jure objection to Christianity even if it is a failed de facto one. Does it constitute a valid objection though? Should Christians recognize that their faith is without warrant? No. Plantinga argues extensively in his book that there is no good de jure objection that is independent of a de facto one. This means that the “crutch” argument works if and only if Christianity is, in fact, false.
He accomplishes this through a careful analysis of what constitutes knowledge and incorporates a plausible way in which God can make Himself known precisely through these sorts of means. I will expound on this in a later post, as fully examining it here will take us far away from the focus of this post.
Not Less Than a Crutch
We have seen that this objection does not hold water with respect to both the truth and the rationality of Christianity. However, this does not mean that there is no truth to be found here. I want to share a quote by Madalyn O’Hair, the founder of the American Atheists who was a prominent atheist activist. This is the beginning of her response to “Why are you an atheist?”3 and has been turned into a meme for use in those very academic Facebook debates:
This quote, I believe, gets at the heart of not only why this objection is so popular, but also gets to the heart of Christianity. The truth is, we are all broken people who are deeply corrupted and stained by sin and it’s effects. To use Madalyn O’Hair’s terminology, we are all, every single one of us, crippled and therefore every single one of us is in need of a crutch. However, most people don’t see this need. They think that they are healthy and do not need help, they are not crippled and certainly aren’t stained to the core of their being. The idea of needing a crutch is offensive.
Matt Chandler says it very well: “I just heartily agree if I’m with a skeptic and he says, ‘I think religion is for the weak.’ I’m like, ‘You’re absolutely right. I just totally agree with you. I think where we probably disagree is that you don’t see yourself as weak. But I would totally agree that the weak-hearted, weak-minded, that they use religion as a crutch. But what I’m trying to say lovingly, brother, is that your legs are broke. I got a crutch for you. Come on in.’”4
This echos Paul’s letter to Titus: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”5
In summary, then, Christianity is a crutch, but this does not mean that it is either false or irrational. While Christianity is certainly more than a crutch for the weak, it is never less either.
3. Found here.
4. Found here.
5. Titus 3:3-7.