The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question

The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question.  “How do you believe in God?” comes closer to the mark. 

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, saw religion as an infantile illusion, one in which God would comfort and protect us from the harshness of the world as our parents once did (Future, pp 30-31, 43).  But this is not all psychoanalysis has to say about religion.

Jung and myth

For Carl Jung, a follower of Freud in his younger years, a rebel in his later years, religious myth is a great achievement.  As myth, religion is neither true, nor false.  The categories don’t apply.  A myth is generally the story of an epic hero sent on a journey to found or save a people, either by defeating an enemy, or solving a problem.  Moses did both.  So did Jesus Christ: the enemy is sin and death; the solution is believe that Christ is the Son of God, and act accordingly.

It is no repudiation of God to reject him because almost all of what we know about God and Jesus comes through stories.  We live by and through narrative.  Stories are how we make sense of our lives, and our world.  The Bible is a series of stories, one reason it prospered while the gnostic gospels failed.   Not enough good stories.  About religious myths, Jung says

The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe (Jung, Collected Works, vol. 5, para. 343)   


D. W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst writing a generation after Freud, had the deepest insight into religion. For reality to be real to us, says Winnicott, we must participate in the illusion of having created it. Otherwise, it will be a dead reality, the husk of reality, but never the living thing. 

Winnicott (1971) distinguishes between objective and subjective objects.  Objective objects are things that exist external to us, without reference to us and our needs.  They are “not-me-objects,” objectively real, but “out there,” in the world.  Subjective objects reflect back to us our own aliveness.  They participate in our needs and wishes.  They correspond to our sense of being alive. 

Our . . . Mozart arias, our religious rituals contain in themselves both the subjective and objective poles and hence function as true symbols,

pointing beyond themselves (Ulanov, p 16).  By psychologically investing in the ritual object, such as the cross or Torah, the objective object becomes subjectively real, without reducing the objective to the subjective.  The same may be said about The Bible.  Read creatively, we help make it true. 

Transitional space, babies, and God

The area between objective and subjective objects is called transitional space.  From the perspective of transitional space, the question becomes not does God exist, but do we experience him in a lively or dead way?  If experienced in a dead way, God feels added on, something we are forced to adopt lest something worse happen to us (Ulanov, p 18).  Such a God is not likely to be very helpful  when we are faced with limit experiences, such as loss of a loved one, serious illness and death. 

We should not feel insulted that Winnicott compares knowledge of God with a baby’s experience of the world.  It’s a compliment, for lived religion opens us to the wonder of the world, a wonder that many of us have not experienced since childhood.

About babies, Winnicott said

A baby [man] creates an object [God], but the object [God] would not have been created as such if it had not already been there.  (Playing, p 71)

I’ve inserted God and man in the square brackets to show that the point is the same whether we are talking about babies or adults: we create what we discover, but what we discover had to have been there in order to be created.  Winnicott was aware that this paradoxical insight had theological implications. 

For me the paradox is inherent . . . . Although the object was there to be found it was created . . . and in theology the same thing appears . . . around the question: is there a God?  If God is a projection [of fantasy], even so is there a God who created me in such a way that I have the material in me for such a     projection? . . . . The important thing for me must be, have I got it in me to have the idea of God? —if not, the idea of God is of no value to me (except superstitiously). (Playing and culture, pp 204-205)

Going to the theater

A quote from Winnicott may seem to have no bearing on religion.  I think it does.

The exciting thing about the curtain in a theater.  When it goes up, each one of us will create the play that is going to be enacted, and afterwards we may even find that the overlap of what we   created . . . provides material for a discussion about the play that was enacted. (Child in family, p 133)

Because religious doctrine and ritual are often pretty well defined, there will be a lot of overlap in the God each of us helps create.  We will find ourselves talking about the “same” God.  In fact, God is special and different for each of us, for we have helped make him.  “Helped” make him; because if someone imagined that his beliefs really created God he would be mad.

This is why ritual and doctrine are so important: so that we have enough God in common to share.  Not because each of us has to believe the same thing, but so that we know the outlines, at least, of what we don’t.  Doctrine defines us whether we adhere to it or not, perhaps especially when we don’t.

Why “do you believe in God?” is a stupid question

This is why the question “do you believe in God?” is a stupid question.  How you believe, or disbelieve, in God is what’s important.  About atheism, Simone Weil, a profound but unconventional believer, said

An atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God. (quoted in Auden, A Certain World, “God”)

It’s harder than it seems not to believe in God.  The question is always how?  And, of course, how do you put your beliefs into practice in everyday life? 

By putting our beliefs into practice we not only bring our beliefs to life, but we share this life with others, even if they don’t always know what we are sharing with them.  Often we ourselves don’t know.  Perhaps it is just our goodness that we share, but sometimes it feels like more, almost like we were sharing God. It doesn’t have to feel this way and generally doesn’t.  That’s OK too.  The gift of paying attention to the other person is enough, at least as far as human relations are concerned.


W. H. Auden, A Certain World. Viking Press, 1970.

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion.  W. W. Norton, 1975.

Carl Jung, Symbols of the mother and rebirth.  In Collected Works, vol. 5.  Princeton University Press, 2014. [digital edition]

Ann Belford Ulanov, Finding Space: Winnicott, God, and Psychic Reality.  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. [A very helpful book]

D. W. Winnicott, Creativity and its origins. In Playing and Reality (pp. 65-85). Routledge, 1971.

D. W. Winnicott, The use of an object and relating through identifications. In Playing and Reality (pp. 101-121). Routledge, 1971.

D. W. Winnicott, The child in the family group. In Home is Where We Start From (pp. 128-141). W. W. Norton, 1986.

D. W. Winnicott, Playing and culture. In Psychoanalytic Explorations (pp. 203-206). Karnac, 1989.    

4 thoughts on “The question “Do you believe in God?” is the wrong question”

  1. An atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God. (quoted in Auden, A Certain World, “God”
    I like that

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