C.S. Lewis’s Achy Breaky Soul

By Robert Barron

One of the classical demonstrations of God’s existence is the so-called argument from desire: Every innate or natural desire corresponds to some objective state of affairs that fulfills it. Now we all have an innate or natural desire for ultimate fulfillment, ultimate joy, which nothing in this world can possibly satisfy. Therefore, there must exist objectively a supernatural condition that grounds perfect fulfillment and happiness, which people generally refer to as “God.”

I have found in my work as an apologist and evangelist that this demonstration, even more than the cosmological arguments, tends to be dismissed out of hand by skeptics. They observe, mockingly, that wishing something doesn’t make it so, and they are eager to specify that remark with examples: I may want to have a billion dollars, but the wish doesn’t make the money appear; I wish I could fly, but my desire doesn’t prove that I have wings, etc.

This rather cavalier rejection of a venerable demonstration is a consequence of the pervasive influence of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud, both of whom opined that religion amounts to a pathetic project of wish-fulfillment. Since we want perfect justice and wisdom so badly, and since the world cannot possibly provide those goods, we invent a fantasy world in which they obtain. Both Feuerbach and Freud accordingly felt that it was high time that the human race shake off these infantile illusions and come to grips with reality as it is. In Feuerbach’s famous phrase: “The no to God is the yes to man.” The same idea is contained implicitly in the aphorism of Feuerbach’s best-known disciple, Karl Marx: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.”

In the wake of this criticism, can the argument from desire still stand? I think it can, but we have to probe a bit behind its deceptively simple surface if we are to grasp its cogency.

The first premise of the demonstration hinges on a distinction between natural or innate desires and desires of a more artificial or contrived variety. Examples of the first type include the desire for food, for sex, for companionship, for beauty, and for knowledge; while examples of second type include the longing for a fashionable suit of clothes, for a fast car, for Shangri-La, or to fly through the air like a bird. Precisely because desires of the second category are externally motivated or psychologically contrived, they don’t prove anything regarding the objective existence of their objects: some of them exist and some of them don’t…

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