It was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) who first popularised the notion that religious belief is merely the projection of human longing, the objectification of a false idea that people wish to be true. ‘God’ is, according to this view, an entirely human invention, ‘a dream of the human soul’, brought into being to give comfort along life’s difficult and dark path.
Religious people are unaware of this. They think that the God they have imagined has some objective existence. They have yet to learn that ‘consciousness of God is human self-consciousness’. Religion tells us not about God but about ourselves – our hopes, fears, and deepest longings. Man is a god to himself. To study God is to study human nature. Religious beliefs and practices are so many windows into the human soul, revealing its secrets and mysteries.
Influential as it may have been, the problems with this approach are not difficult to see.
For one thing, the argument is circular: it begins with the premise that there is no God, and then asks why people might want to believe in a non-existent deity. As Alister McGrath says, ‘atheism having duly been presupposed, it is not unduly demanding to make it the argument’s conclusion.’
For another thing, if belief in God is a result of a wish for comfort and security, it might equally be argued that atheism is also a result of wish-fulfilment: the longing for independence and self-determination.
Furthermore, the existence of a wish that something might be true by no means disproves the reality of that thing. Indeed, the existence of such longing might be considered to be an indication that the object of that longing might, in fact, exist, just as the presence of hunger points towards the existence of food.
See McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, 56-59.