Religious epistemology is one of the frequent targets of our secular friends. They might suggest that the way we come to learn our beliefs are not likely to produce true knowledge. This is a point that we should take to heart. As believers, we should do our epistemic duty. We should not believe things merely because we prefer to believe them. This is relevant to the notion that religious belief functions as a crutch for weak-minded people who cannot bear reality. Again, I think there is some truth to that. But I would take the point a little further. There is a sense in which religion, philosophy and atheism can be a crutch – and that is fine.
If we focus solely on the theological context, we should be able to appreciate the atheists’ point. I can even imagine a Christian who wields the crutch concept in a stroke of piety. She might say something like “Jesus Christ has conquered this world. I do not have to be afraid.” The Bible often says, “Do not fear; I am YHWH.” The mechanism for overcoming fear is the knowledge of YHWH. I think that is a biblically prescribed crutch. God gives himself as a crutch knowing that his people cannot overcome this world.
Everybody Uses Crutches
Ours was a tooth and claw world from the very first. When God created the very good world, there was a stable ecosystem consisting of predation and animal death. There were natural disasters, thorns and diseases. When Adam and Eve came on the scene, they stepped into that world. This means that humanity has dealt with loved ones dying, children becoming sick, loneliness and despair from the beginning. We need mechanisms to deal with that.
Even a loved one can function as a crutch. We see this theme emerging in television dramas such as Lost and The Leftovers. Relationships with other people are what matters. We might hear a mantra like, “We can get through this together.” Strictly speaking, a strong person would be able to get through troubling times alone. We lean on other people, which is to say that we use them as a crutch.
Any Comforting Concept Can Be A Crutch
One approach to apologetics is to paint a bleak picture of rivaling worldviews. We might remind our atheist friends of their own mortality in the hope that the resurrection will be exceedingly pleasant news. The concept of a final resurrection and reunion with loved ones is a pleasing concept. A platonic separation of the soul from the body would similarly be a comforting concept. Any of these concepts can function as crutches.
But there are more concepts than those associated with worldviews. A perfectly secular person might say something like “Everything happens for a reason” to comfort herself when enduring a difficult time. A lot of people share memes on social media featuring mantras about overcoming heartbreak or a death in the family. Thinking about these concepts brings a different perspective to one’s struggle and helps them to deal with it. They are crutches.
Some crutches can be a little lighter and not necessarily about despair. Some can just help people get through a long day. For example, if it has been a long day, the worker might remind herself of the imminent day off. She is not currently experiencing it, but the fact that it is impending allows her to cling to it. We often hear people say, “At least you have something to look forward to.” Having something to look forward to is a concept that makes reality more tolerable. It is a crutch. We might not realize how often we introduce comforting concepts into our mind to make the current state of affairs more tolerable. An interesting experiment might be to pay attention to your thoughts during stressful situations and ask how you comfort yourself. What thoughts do you introduce, and how is that significantly different from using a crutch? Why isn’t a crutch?
How Atheism Can Be A Crutch
It might surprise you to learn that atheism can function as a crutch. That is not meant as a jab against our atheist friends. As I pointed out, I do think that religion can be and often is a crutch. There are probably very few religious people who have not used their faith as a crutch. But if we are being absolutely fair, the concepts introduced by atheism can be used as crutches as well.
Perhaps the most obvious one is the notion that life ends at the grave. While this might seem like a bleak image at first blush, the atheist might find the alternative even more troubling. If Christian theology is true, then life does not end at the grave, and all creatures will have to stand in judgment before their Creator. Atheism could feasibly function as relief from that fear. Before you say that atheists are not concerned about a judgment that they do not believe in, remember that fear of the underworld is often ingrained in people for years after they leave the faith. Further, this might also come back to a more fundamental question. If there really will be a judgment, then atheism really would be a crutch to avoid reality.
While it might be tempting to view ourselves as machines who just objectively process evidence without bias, that is really not the case. There are psychological factors at play. The NYU psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz as argued in his book The Faith of The Fatherless that fatherlessness often gives rise to atheism. So rejecting the Heavenly Father concept would then be a crutch to deal with the pain associated with having an absent or deficient father. Again, that is not meant to be jab because these are serious internal and psychological struggles about which I would not make light. I am just pointing out how atheism, like many other philosophical systems, can function as a crutch. Interestingly, Dr. David Wood applied the theory of the defective father to the Prophet Muhammad, as he also seemed to dislike regarding God as Father.
How Philosophy Can Be A Crutch
I am not talking so much about treatises about philosophical issues. I am thinking more of applied, practical philosophy, such as what we find in Marcus Aurelius’s personal journal Meditations. This brings us back to the idea of introducing concepts to get through the day.
A good is example is something on page 97 of the Barnes and Noble edition. He writes that if men do something that is unethical, we should recognize that they are doing this in ignorance and unwillingly. This pithy philosophical concept is useful because it will prevent us from dwelling on what somebody said or did. Yet if we actively try to apply it, there is a sense in which it is there to make us feel better. We might also say things like “All people are my brothers and sisters,” which will introduce a sort of unity and feeling of belonging for those who have never had that. While pithy wisdom like this can have other effects, especially on the way we treat people, it is easy to see how it can additionally be used as a crutch to help the individual get through the day.
If you do not like these specific examples, that is fine. It would not be hard to find a philosophical concept that has pleasing implications. People often will meditate on this sort of philosophy to improve their state of mind. It is a crutch, and there is really nothing wrong with that.
A Purely Utilitarian Point of View
Utilitarianism is the idea that if a doctrine is useful or practical then it should be applied. I would not ascribe to this doctrine, but it is one way for readers to think about this issue. Secular scholars sometimes note that they do not care what people believe in the privacy of their minds. For them, religion is useful because it gives people a sense of community and generally improves our state of mind. Something similar can be said about a lot of worldviews, including secular ones that introduce comforting concepts.
When Using A Crutch Becomes A Problem
I think we have an epistemic duty to seek what is true and live according to that truth/truths. This does not only apply to religious belief. Unfortunately, I think people will take the utilitarian concept a little too far. Some think that because a doctrine works for them or because it makes them feel good that they should not examine it. But I do not think utilitarianism can be used like that. Utilitarianism is a good philosophy when it is applied to science, for example. If a theory is useful and explanatory, then it should be applied. But utilitarianism is not helpful in coming to know theological truths.
A good example of this is the debate within Christianity between Calvinism and Arminianism. At its core, Calvinism is defined by doctrines such as total depravity, unconditional election and limited atonement. This means that God chose who would be saved prior to creation and that he created some people knowing that they had no hope of redemption. There is a heavy emotional recoil to this doctrine, and many people allow this emotion to determine the truth of the matter. If belief in God, philosophy or atheistic concepts are comforting, they should still be examined. As Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
How Religion, Philosophy And Atheism Can Be A Crutch
Religion functioning as a crutch is typically a jab against religious people. I do not think we should object. We can embrace the idea that religious belief is a crutch. That would not mean that it was false. It is only a problem if we believe in religion because it is functioning as a crutch. That would be a sort of selfish religion, impious and not really devoted to Christ. Pure religion will start with meditating on Christ in devotion to him and his word and being open to receiving crutches. It does not seek mental crutches as a first priority.
Crutches are not something we should be ashamed of. Everybody does it. There are very few people who are strong enough to get through life alone without leaning on a person or a concept. We all use crutches.