Question of the Week: God and Imaginary Friends

By Photo by Carol Pratt. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Photo by Carol Pratt. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On 3/6/18, the Mentionables recieved this question from Ben P.

Hello all! Recently an atheist said Christians talk to God like my 4 year old talks to her imaginary friend. Meaning you’re prayers are petty and pointless and your god is a figment of your imagination how would you respond?

These are the answers from the Mentionables:

This answer is from Mentionables Team Member Nick Peters for answers from Joel Furches, Robert Vroom and Marc Lambert, scroll below.

Thanks for the question Ben!

I recently read a book called Why Men Hate Going To Church by David Murrow and he said something similar. Many times when we pray, we pray as if we're putting on a show. Consider the joke that you can go to a church meeting and hear a prayer and see how many times the word "just" is said. I think you should just talk to God in a respectful tone and don't try to sound impressive. God is more interested in your heart than in your diction. Don't try to impress Him. You won't. Also, get a mentor. I have one who helps me with prayer. I email him every night after I pray and tell him how my day has gone.

And oh yeah, read Murrow's book.

This is the answer from Mentionables Team Member Joel Furches. For answers from Robert Vroom and Marc Lambert, scroll below.

In one sense, the comparison is entirely appropriate insofar as Jesus instructed his followers to approach him with the same heart as a little child. One may take this to mean that God desires an innocence, openness and trust in people’s attitude towards him, rather than the cynicism and distrust that adulthood tends to breed.

But clearly the atheist is more specifically referencing the idea of a person interacting with someone who doesn’t exist. The suggestion might be that the same mechanism that causes a child to believe in and interact with a person that doesn’t exist is what causes an adult to do the same.

In order to respond to this claim, it would be appropriate to examine what this mechanism is, and how it operates.

37% of children create imaginary friends. About 17% of children also create what psychologists call “paracosms” – that is, entire imaginative worlds including things like geography, cosmology, transportation systems and residents. Children with paracosms tend to live within these worlds during imaginative play, and reference these worlds outside play.

Imaginative friends are always unique to the child rather than being a product of outside influence, and can be extremely detailed in terms of appearance, abilities, personality and the world which they inhabit. So a child might pretend they are talking to Elmo, but are able to acknowledge that this is pretend, and the incidents tend to be brief versus invisible friends which may be present for years.

 According to psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, children who create a friend out of a personified object tend to have a parent-like relationship with their special toy friend, whereas children with invisible friends tend to imagine an egalitarian relationship, more like a real friend.”

In almost all cases, children interact physically with their invisible friends, touching them and physically playing with them. They describe both speaking with and hearing their friends speak, and the friends are not always cooperative with the child so that they end up arguing or complaining about the friend’s behavior.

Kennedy-Moore says, “Children vividly experience interactions with their invisible friends, but they almost always know that these friends aren’t real. Looking at transcripts of interviews of 86 children with invisible friends, Taylor and her colleagues found that 77% of these children said “yes” when asked if they had a pretend friend, and 40% spontaneously remarked at some point during the interview that they were talking about a pretend friend. The children offered statements such as, “Her is a fake animal,” “I just made him up in my head,” and “He’s not in real life.” Only one child was adamant that her invisible friend was real.

While invisible friends are present mostly in youngsters, adolescence occasionally create and talk to imaginary friends, and imaginative adults – particularly fiction authors – have been known to say that their characters tend to take on a life of their own, and that they sometimes speak with these characters.

In all of these instances, it is important to note that the person in question is aware that they are responsible for creating and driving the actions of their imaginary person.

In many respects, the imaginary friend phenomenon operates as a coping mechanism. Only children, oldest children and children who do not watch television are more likely to create imaginary friends, and these creations have been known to help a child cope, experience comfort and even to problem-solve.

Children with imaginary friends also tend to have a slightly better vocabulary, are less shy, and display a better capacity for empathy with others.

Children also sometimes seem to invoke imaginary friends as a method of blame for their own misbehavior.

Says Laurence J. Young, “[Some imaginary friends] manifest as mean, aggressive, and bossy. Children sometimes act subordinate to their creations, and their imaginary friends can cause kids to say and do things that would get them into trouble …Just like in real-life healthy peer relationships, a mixture of positive and negative emotions characterizes imaginary companionships”

People who have manifested invisible friends at one point outgrow these friends. In most instances, the person in question forgets about these friends later in life, so that they are unable to recreate a description of the friend’s appearance, behavior and world that they inhabit. And frequently don’t remember having the friend at all.

Despite their limited existence, imaginary friends do seem to serve a role in childhood development, as the interaction a child has with an imaginary friend may precede aspects of the child’s personality and later social interactions.

Knowing these details about how imaginary friends operate, it would be difficult to make the claim that belief in God is the same mechanism as belief in an invisible friend, since both operate in almost entirely different ways.

While belief in God may be an effective coping mechanism – like belief in imaginary friends – the similarities end there.

Firstly, people almost never make up a belief in God without some outside influence. While it has been argued that belief in some kind of invisible higher power is an early and nearly universal phenomenon, specific beliefs about God are almost always determined by religious texts, teachers and institutions.

Further, there are practically no instances of a person having a physical interaction with God, nor coming up with physical descriptions of God. God is almost always perceived as a universal force more than a physical being. And when a person prays to God, very seldom do they claim to hear God responding audibly to their prayers. In this way, prayers are an entirely different system than conversations children have with invisible friends.

Moreover, a person’s attitude toward God is always that God is a superior being rather than an egalitarian or subordinate person, as an imaginary friend would be.

Finally, and most importantly, Kennedy-Moore says that, “invisible friends are an especially compelling and involved form of pretend play.

Belief in God is clearly a different thing than pretend play. It is seldom playful, and the person never claims that God is pretend or a creation of their mind – at least, during the time in which they believe in him. While people do occasionally “outgrow” God, they rarely forget what their belief in God was like.

By comparing the two belief systems, it is plainly obvious that the claim that God and invisible friends are the same kind of thing is spurious at best. Whether or not God exists, a person’s religious practices are so dissimilar to their pretend play that the two are hardly worth the comparison.

This is the answer from Mentionables Network Member Robert Vroom. For the answer from Marc Lambert, scroll below.

It looks like there are two questions here.

1) Why do Christians talk to God like 4-year olds talking to an imaginary friend

2) God is a figment of your imagination

First, please note that his claim seems to be that God does not exist BECAUSE we talk to God like 4-year olds. Whether or not we talk to God like 4-year olds of course says nothing about whether or not God exists. Next, is the atheist claiming that by talking to God in any form we are acting like 4-year olds, or is it specific things (asking for money, jobs, winning the lottery...)? If he is referring to our praying for specific things, I unfortunately often agree with him... we can be very childish. Since God is not an imaginary friend however, praying, giving thanks, talking about our fears and such is perfectly reasonable. This sort of thing is what we are told to do in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18... "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

To the statement that God is a figment of your imagination, there are a number of excellent answers. There are arguments from science (the beginning of the universe, fine-tuning of the universe, beginning of life, the fact that the universe seems to be based on rational laws and mathematics...), arguments from prophecy, miracles and Biblical reliability, arguments from morality and rationality... you would need to get a bit more information about this person's main objections to God before being able to give a response that he might find convincing. With that said however, you can be certain that there is a large amount of evidence and that you are far more rational in your acceptance of Christianity than he is in his rejection.

This is the answer from the Mentionables Network member Marc Lambert

Honestly, upon reading this question, my first thought was one of frustration and a desire to dismiss it because it has a ring of mockery to it. Though that might simply be my own experience being read into it.

However, when I stop and reflect on the core idea of the question, as a pastor, you have this issue of not hearing from God. That is something that a lot of Christians wrestle with. That is something that even people who wholeheartedly believe and acknowledge that God is there struggle with. Why do I not hear an answer from God?

And I think the reason that can be so very frustrating for questions is because we know God is not imaginary. We know that he's there. We know that He's real. And so the seeming silence from the other side of the phone so to speak is frustrating and disheartening. And it can indeed seem like or make one wonder, God are you really there? And I think that one thing we have to consider is that even if it seems there is silence in prayer, we have good reason and evidence to be confident God is actually there. Whereas a child's imaginary friend has exactly zero evidence because they're imaginary. God on the other hand is very real, even if seemingly silent.

But as I reflect on this question, what is the difference between my praying to God and my four-year-old talking to their imaginary friend, I'm struck with the reality that her imaginary friend has never and will never answer back. But God can. God has. God will.

I think that virtually any Christian I can think of that I've talked to knows what it is like to get a response from God in prayer. That doesn't mean an audible voice, though it can. Often the response that we received from God is spiritual. God is a spiritual being. We Are Spiritual creatures. Prayer is a spiritual act. So of course we ought to expect that any communication or response from God would most commonly be of a spiritual sort.

I have had such instances in my life where I'm praying angry. I was angry with God and so I was expressing my frustration and my anger to God for the situation in which I found myself. And in the midst of my angry prayer, I was overwhelmed by a sensation of conviction and shame that I would approach my sovereign King in such a way, but that was followed by an overwhelming sense of peace. There were no words. There was no communication of information. But I received an answer of spiritual experience that transformed my heart and mind in that moment.

I think that often in prayer God's response is either an answer to the prayer or a spiritual communication like I experienced above. However, I think the problem interest in that in our secular materialistic culture even a lot of Christians who are saturated in this worldly culture, though we know better, we do not recognize the voice of God when he is speaking or the hand of God when He is moving. And so we use the world's standards on what is real or imaginary. And from that view we look on and we don't see where God is working. We don't hear where God is speaking. And so it seems to us and especially to the outside world that God is not speaking. That God is not moving. And is there for imaginary.

So I think the answer is to not judge the question according to worldly standards of what is real. Instead remember God is Spirit. We are Spirit. Prayer is a spiritual exercise. So it should not be viewed by or judged by material standards. We need to see it for the spiritual exercise it is. And when we do that we will see that God is doing what an imaginary friend could never do: He is legitimately active and responsive in our lives.