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Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism

By Thomas Van (bio - articles - email) | Apr 24, 2014

For as long as atheism has existed as a significant intellectual movement, there have been attempts by atheists to psychoanalyze religious belief – to explain it or explain it away not with regards to its inherent truth or falsehood, but rather in terms of psychological needs, as wish-fulfillment for comfort or security or purpose. While psychological research into the factors which may make belief in God more or less likely is legitimate in itself, psychological accounts of religious belief are all too often used as disingenuous rhetorical ploys which allow atheists to conveniently dismiss religion on an intellectual level.

The predominant assumption, effectively put to use by the so-called New Atheists, is that religious belief is based on psychological and emotional needs whereas the rejection of God is based on rational principle. But what if the same theories used to explain religious belief could be turned around to explain atheism? What if it could be shown that, while atheists claim that people believe in God because they need God to exist, the opposite is actually true – that many atheists reject the idea of God, sometimes violently, because they have a deep desire for God not to exist?

This is the goal of psychologist Paul C. Vitz, professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at NYU. Ignatius has just published the second edition of Vitz’s cleverly-titled 1999 book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. The heart of the book is Vitz’s “defective father hypothesis,” which states that having had a defective or absent father makes it much harder to believe in God, particularly in a personal God the Father. This new edition has been updated to reflect recent research on attachment theory and autism, as well as to include information on the New Atheists who have become popular since the book’s initial publication.

The bulk of the book is spent examining the biographies of many of the most influential atheists (and a few deists), including Nietzsche, Hume, Sartre, Schopenhauer, Freud, H. G. Wells, and Richard Dawkins. This group is contrasted with a representative “control group” of prominent theists such as Pascal, Kierkegaard, Wilberforce, Chesterton, Bonhoeffer, and Newman. Vitz makes a strong argument, for in nearly every case, the atheists had abusive, weak, distant, absent or otherwise defective fathers, while the theists had positive relationships with their fathers, or, in some cases, with caring father-figures.

Much of the information presented here is truly fascinating, such as this extraordinary passage from Daniel Dennett’s autobiography, in which he, in reflecting on his father’s death when Dennett was five, unwittingly gives us a psychological account of his own atheism:

In my youth some of my friends were the sons of eminent or even famous professors at Harvard or MIT, and I saw the toll it took on them as they strove to be worthy of their fathers’ attention. I shudder to think of what would have become of me if I had had to live up to my father’s actual, living expectations and not just to those extrapolated in absentia by my friends and family.

Of course, the defective father hypothesis cannot be applied in a simplistic way, and there are necessarily exceptions, which Vitz attempts to explain with various corollaries to the main hypothesis. He also emphasizes that atheism is not psychologically determined; every person ultimately chooses to accept or reject God, but there are nonetheless psychological factors that make it significantly easier or more difficult to believe in God or cultivate a relationship with Him. That one’s relationship with one’s father is a major psychological factor in one’s relationship with God the Father is intuitive to the point of being common sense, and while there are a number of possible ways the two could be related, the biographical evidence provided by Vitz seems to favor the defective father hypothesis.

Less conclusive is the evidence brought forth in support of some of Vitz’s supplementary theories, in part because this is a fairly short book and most of it is devoted to the defective father hypothesis. There is a section examining how women may express atheism differently from men, but it is mostly of a speculative nature and some of Vitz’s examples stretch the definition of atheism to its utmost.

More interesting are some of the considerations on attachment theory, as well as the corollary that an atheist with a positive relationship with his or her father is more likely to be tolerant of religious belief. This is plausible enough from the examples given, but in all the aforementioned areas, more research will need to be done if these fragmentary speculations are to be developed into anything really conclusive.

In a short autobiographical chapter, the author, a former atheist himself, draws from his own life some examples of psychological motivations to deny God, but these are unrelated to the defective father hypothesis and are little more than a diversion from the book’s central theme.

If the defective father hypothesis is true – and more broadly, if many atheists disbelieve in God for psychological, not purely intellectual, reasons – its importance is far greater than as a clever way to get back at popular atheists who deride religious belief as a security blanket. It would be a crucial part of understanding atheists in order better to reach out to them, on a level distinct from the intellectual; distinct even from the moral and spiritual. In this regard Faith of the Fatherless is, while not definitive, an important step forward.

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