Children and infants suck their thumbs; thumb-sucking is sometimes even seen in the womb. Why would babies engage in a behavior that serves no survival need? That brings them no food or shelter?
For infants, the sucking instinct is part of survival. Sucking is the means to get food—food means survival.
Then why should a child who is no longer an infant continue to suck his thumb?
When the child is tired, hungry, cold, bored, wet, or otherwise stressed, thumb-sucking becomes a “pleasure center” activity—just like exercising, eating, or sex (for adults)—that produces endorphins, the chemicals that bring on pleasure, relaxation, and a sense of well-being. The message in the child’s brain is, “When I suck my thumb, all is well. Even if I’m not getting any food, I can do something that equates to food” and to a child, food is contentment, safety, security, and love.
Fast-forward to the ages between 5 and 10. Thumb-sucking was acceptable in infancy or toddlerhood, but what happens if the child is now still sucking his thumb? Parental pressure to stop comes into play (“You’re too old for that!”). The child will face critical comments made by friends, teachers, or even strangers. Shame and ridicule may well be in store for the child who continues to suck his thumb beyond childhood and into adolescence.
When one is no longer a child, the thumb-sucking behavior is naturally discarded—unless the child is suffering from such emotional insecurity that he cannot give up his “pleasure center” activity.
Fast-forward to adulthood. What is the “thumb-sucking activity” in full-grown adults? What behavior serves no survival need and yet brings on pleasure, relaxation, and a sense of well-being, as well as acceptance (one can join a group of others with the same behavior, an organization that has millions of members around the world)?
Belief in God.
Fast-rewind to the first civilizations and first philosophers. Much like the baby who has just learned that his foot is part of him and moveable at will, the collective human consciousness is in its infancy, just learning to explore the psyche as separate from the body and separate from the physical world.
Beliefs in “spirits” and “gods” emerge as “cultural thumb-sucking.” Deceit is nothing new (a clever lie may aid in survival), but humans develop expertise in self-deception, fueled by fear of all the dark, mysterious, and potentially dangerous unknown corners of life. We learn projection. We learn to imagine our greatest triumphs and our worst nightmares as projected images of ourselves. We create the mythologies of “invisible forces” that possess our very own abilities to feel (and act on) our emotions of hate, fear, love, need, anger, or forgiveness.
Living in a fearful world, where danger may spring from around any corner, we create our imaginary warlords and warriors, judges, and intermediaries—as well as the imaginary villains against whom our imaginary parents protect us.
These beliefs bring a sense of safety, especially as the numbers of believers around the world flourish.
The believers are the thumb-suckers of the modern age. They are those who have not been able to give up the behavior that was acceptable in civilization’s emotional/psychological infancy. They are the adults who, like babies and toddlers, still believe that Santa Claus (God) reads their letters (prayers) and brings them toys or that monsters (demons) lurk under the bed.
Belief in supernatural deities is non-nutritive. It serves no purpose related to survival. It does not further the evolution of our species. For adults, its only purpose is to anesthetize an emotional need—just as thumb-sucking fills an emotional need for an infant.
While I cannot support deliberate meanness, there is something to be said for the peer pressure that can help “overage thumb-suckers” turn the corner on their habit. If enough people snub their infantile behavior, they may eventually want to discard it. It will transform from a near-addictive need (like smoking) to something viewed with disdain. “I’m so glad I finally broke that nasty habit!”
Like thumb-sucking—which relieves emotional insecurity but can eventually be discarded as an individual grows into their own personhood and their insecurity dissipates—belief in God can also be discarded as people grow into and embrace their own psychological security.
As the numbers of atheists around the world grow, and as atheists continually find the courage to talk about the security and self-reliance they enjoy without needing an invisible thumb to suck, it will become easier for others to do the same.