November 23, 2018

Fantasy Feels Good But Makes Poor Substitute for Reality

dream fantasy
Suppose someone were to tell you that he has a crush on a co-worker. He knows that nothing is ever going to materialize but feels powerless to turn off the feelings. The object of the crush has no idea he feels this way, and this is how it needs to stay. Getting involved with someone at work would be a disaster on multiple levels. While the two seem compatible in some areas (at least in his imagination), there are many where they would clash. And yet, the fantasy that something could happen someday seems so much more appealing than the reality.

I suspect most of us have found ourselves in situations like this at one time or another. Maybe our experience with similar situations makes it easier for us to empathize with religious believers at least a little bit. They have crafted what they consider to be a perfect god, and while what is left of the rational part of their minds may experience doubt at times, who wouldn't want such a god? Forget about all the reasons it cannot be true. Isn't it more exciting to ponder the possibility that it might be?

Sometimes I wonder if the feelings of excitement religious believers report while considering their god are really that different from those we experience when fantasizing about what might (but won't) be a potential romantic situation. Do they not sometimes worry about losing themselves in the face of their passion just as we sometimes have to exert self-control not to do or say something we'd instantly regret?

And what about other pleasant fantasies that do not involve the possibility of romance? Wouldn't it be great to be smarter, stronger, better looking, or more talented than we really were? Wouldn't you stand in line for superpowers if they were being handed out? There are many types of fantasies that should help us understand part of the pull of religion. And by understanding the pull of religion, maybe we would have an easier time understanding religious believers.

I have encountered many religious people who respond to my objections with some variation of, "I don't care whether it is true or not; it makes me feel better to believe it." Fair enough. If they wouldn't have to take the next step of meddling in everyone else's lives, maybe we could all just allow each other our fantasies. Then again, we might recognize that some fantasies can be harmful.

Maybe the difference between non-religious fantasies and religious fantasies is that those of us who have non-religious fantasies can recognize that they are not real. We don't really believe that the other person is in love with us or that we have superpowers. We wish it was true while recognizing that it is not. We want to believe that we'll find ourselves in relationship bliss or be able to handle any villains that come our way. Daydreaming about such possibilities may feel better than facing reality at times, but we still realize that the fantasies are not real. If we were unable to do so, we'd likely have problems living in the real world.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2009. It was revised and expanded in 2018.