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Why Are People Atheists?

by Paul C. Vitz


This article is excerpted and adapted from Paul C. Vitz's book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. His primary concern is to examine the reasoning behind the viewpoint which assumes that belief in God is based on irrational, immature needs and wishes, while atheism or skepticism flows from a rational, grown-up, no-nonsense view of things as they really are.

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New Oxford Review, Inc., Berkeley, CA, January 2000

Only as it starts to fade can we see how strange the modern world has been. It is natural that some distance is needed for the characteristics of the "Modern" to become obvious, and nothing has been more typical, especially of public life, than the presumption of atheism. God has been banished from public discourse so thoroughly that in today's high schools we teach about condoms and masturbation but are legally prohibited from making reference to the Deity.

In the academic world, serious reference to God in scholarly writing — not to mention the use of concepts like "providence" — is altogether taboo. To refer to God in any serious way would bring the legitimacy of one's scholarship into question. But even in intellectual and academic circles, atheism did not become respectable until about 1870, and it continued to be restricted to small numbers of intellectuals into the 20th century. Not until the past half-century has it become a predominant assumption in public life.

In general, historians agree that atheism is a recent and distinctively Western phenomenon and that no other culture has manifested such a widespread public rejection of the divine. In view of the suddenness of the public shift from accepted belief to accepted unbelief, in view of its rarity in the historical record of other cultures, and in view of the continued high prevalence of private belief in God, atheism needs to be examined — indeed, explained.

The importance of atheism is, I trust, obvious, since it constitutes a major determinant of a person's worldview. For example, if one believes in a personal God, life has obvious meaning, and one generally takes seriously the issues of moral and social responsibility. As Voltaire is reported to have said, "Don't tell the servants there is no God, or they will steal the silver." This view was later shared by Sigmund Freud, who believed that religion was necessary to keep the masses from acting on their sexual and aggressive impulses.

In contrast, the worldview of those who reject God creates problems — like the meaninglessness and alienation that so many report these days. Atheism, of course, has been a central assumption of many modern ideologies and intellectual movements — Communism, socialism, much of modern philosophy, most of contemporary psychology, and materialistic science. Indeed, atheism is one of the distinctive features of what is meant by the Modern.

Some might say that the reason for the dominance of atheism is that it is true: There is no God. Let me simply point out here that although it may be possible to prove the existence of God, it is clearly impossible to prove the non-existence of God — since to prove the non-existence of anything is intrinsically impossible. In other words, atheism is an assumption made by certain people about the nature of the world, and these people have been, in the past century, extraordinarily successful at controlling the acceptable view of the matter. In particular, there seems to be a wide-spread assumption throughout much of our intellectual community that belief in God is based on all kinds of irrational, immature needs and wishes, whereas atheism or skepticism flows from a rational, grown-up, no-nonsense view of things as they really are.

To examine the psychology of this viewpoint is my primary concern, and I will address the deep personal psychology of the great — or at least the passionate and influential — atheists. Atheism began in the personal lives of particular people, many of them the leading intellectuals of the modern period, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its founders.

But why should one study the psychology of atheists at all? Is this relevant to the issue of unbelief? Here we must remember that it is atheists themselves who began the psychological approach to the question of belief. Many atheists have famously argued that believers suffer from illusions, from unconscious and infantile needs, and from other psychological deficits. A significant part of the argument for atheism has been an aggressive interpretation of religious belief as arising from psychological factors and not from the nature of reality, and this interpretation has been widely influential. The theory that God is a projection of our own needs is a familiar modern position and is presented, for example, in countless university courses. But the psychological concepts used for the interpretation of religion by those who reject God are double-edged swords — they can also be used to explain unbelief.

The Projection Theory Of Belief In God

Freud's criticism of belief in God is that such a belief is untrustworthy because of its psychological origins. That is, God is a projection of our own intense, unconscious desires. God is a wish-fulfillment derived from childish needs for protection and security. Since these wishes are largely unconscious, any denial of such an interpretation is to be given little credence. It should be noted that in developing this critique, Freud raises the ad hominem argument to a new level of importance. It is in The Future of an Illusion that Freud makes his position clearest: "Religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all the other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature." Religious beliefs are "illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection — for protection through love — which was provided by the father. . . . Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life."

Looking at this argument carefully, we see that in spite of its enthusiastic acceptance by so many, it is very weak. First, Freud fails to note (his own words notwithstanding) that his arguments against religious belief are equally valid against many of the "achievements of civilization," including psychoanalysis itself. Equally strange is his claim that the oldest and most urgent wishes of mankind are for the loving protection and guidance of a powerful father. If such wishes were as strong as Freud claims, one would expect the religions that immediately preceded Christianity to have strongly emphasized God as a benevolent father. In general, this was not the case for the pagan religions of the Mediterranean world. It is still not the case for such major religions as Buddhism and Hinduism. Indeed, Christianity is in many respects distinctive in its emphasis on God as a loving Father. (This emphasis on the father is also characteristic of many of the most primitive religions.)

Let us turn to another aspect of this projection theory of Freud's. It can be shown that this theory of religion is not really a part of psychoanalysis — hence it cannot claim support from psychoanalytic theory. Freud's critical attitude toward and rejection of religion are rooted in his personal predilections, and his interpretation of religion is not supported by specifically clinical concepts. There are two strong pieces of evidence for this.

First, Freud's theory had been clearly articulated many years earlier by Ludwig Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach's interpretation was well known in European intellectual circles, and Freud, as a youth, read Feuerbach avidly. Illustrative quotations from Feuerbach's work make his influence on Freud clear: "What man misses — whether this be articulate and therefore conscious, or an unconscious need — that is his God"; "Man projects his nature into the world outside himself before he finds it in himself; "To live in projected dream-images is the essence of religion. Religion sacrifices reality to the projected dream." Throughout the work, Feuerbach describes religion in terms that we think of as Freudian, such as "wish-fulfillment" and the like. What Freud did, years later, was to revive Feuerbach's position, articulate it more eloquently, and publish it at a time when the audience for such a theory was much larger. And because Freud is the author, somehow the findings of psychoanalysis are assumed to support the theory.

Second, Freud himself admitted that projection theory does not arise from psychoanalytic evidence. In a letter of 1927 to his friend Oskar Pfister, Freud wrote: "Let us be quite clear on the point that the views expressed in my book [The Future of an Illusion] form no part of analytic theory. They are my personal views."

Nevertheless, Freud implies in Illusion that he is very familiar with the psychology of belief in God. Such, however, is not the case. In fact, Freud had very little psychoanalytic experience with patients who believed in God or were genuinely religious. None of his published cases deals with a patient who believed in God at the time of the psychoanalysis. That is, nowhere does Freud publish a psychoanalysis of the belief in God based on clinical evidence provided by a believing patient. He never presented publicly any serious psychological evidence for his projection theory or for his other ideas about religion. Instead, Freud's peculiar personal obsession with religion is primarily focused on texts and issues drawn from anthropology, history, and literature, not from any cited psychoanalytic experience. In short, Freud's general projection theory is an interpretation of religion that stands on its own, unsupported by psychoanalytic theory or clinical evidence.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no systematic empirical evidence to support the thesis of childhood projection being the basis of belief in God.

Freud's Unacknowledged Theory Of Unbelief

Nevertheless, Freud is right to consider that a belief might be an illusion because it derives from powerful wishes, from unconscious, childish needs. The irony is that he inadvertently provides a powerful new way to understand atheism as a psychological illusion — that is, in spite of himself he offers a projection theory of atheism.

The central concept in Freud's work, aside from the unconscious, is the well-known Oedipus complex. In the case of male personality development, the essential features of this complex are the following. Roughly at age three, the boy develops a strong sexual desire for his mother. At the same time, he develops an intense hatred and fear of his father and a desire to supplant him — a "craving for power." This hatred is based on the boy's knowledge that his father, with his greater size and strength, stands in the way of his desire. The child's fear of his father may be explicitly a fear of castration by the father, but more typically it has a less specific character. The son does not really wish to kill his father, of course, but patricide is assumed to be a common preoccupation of his unconscious fantasies and dreams. The "resolution" of the complex is supposed to occur through the boy's recognition that he cannot replace his father and through fear of castration, which eventually lead the boy to identify with his father — with the aggressor — and to repress the original frightening components of the complex. This resolution is normally completed around age five.

It is important to keep in mind that, according to Freud, the Oedipus complex is never truly resolved, and is capable of activation at later periods — almost always, for example, at puberty. Thus, the powerful ingredients of murderous hatred and of incestuous sexual desire within the family are never in fact removed; they are merely covered over and repressed. The adult continues to fear his now-internalized father, who has been incorporated into his super-ego. This fear and self-directed moral hostility are always ready to erupt from the unconscious. Freud explains the neurotic potential of the situation: "The Oedipus complex is the actual nucleus of neuroses. . . . What remains of the complex in the unconscious represents the disposition to the later development of neuroses in the adult" In short, human neuroses derive from this complex. In many cases, this potential is not expressed in any seriously neurotic manner but shows up in critical attitudes toward God and authority, and also in slips of the tongue, transient irrationalities, and the like.

Yet in postulating a universal Oedipus complex as the origin of all our neuroses, Freud inadvertently developed a straightforward rationale for understanding the wish-fulfilling origin of the rejection of God. After all, the Oedipus complex is unconscious, it is established in childhood, and above all its dominant motive is hatred of the father (God) and the desire for him not to exist, something represented by the boy's desire to overthrow or kill the father. Freud regularly described God as a psychological equivalent to the father, and so a natural expression of Oedipal motivation would be powerful unconscious desires for the non-existence of God. Therefore, in the Freudian framework, atheism is an illusion caused by the Oedipal desire to kill the father (God) and replace him with oneself. To act as though God does not exist reveals a wish to kill Him, much in the same way as in a dream the image of a parent going away or disappearing can represent such a wish. The belief that "God is dead," therefore, is an Oedipal wish-fulfillment — the sign of seriously unresolved unconscious motivation.

It is certainly not hard to grasp the Oedipal character of so much contemporary atheism and skepticism. Those whose lives are characterized by promiscuity and atheism are, on Freud's analysis, living out the Oedipal, primal rebellion. And of course the Oedipal dream is not only to kill the father and possess the mother or other women in the group, but also to displace the father. Modern atheism has attempted to accomplish this. Man, not God, is now the consciously specified ultimate source of goodness and power in the universe. Humanistic philosophies glorify him and his "potential," in much the same way religion glorifies the Creator. We have devolved from one God to many gods to everyone-a-god. In essence, man, through his narcissism and Oedipal wishes, has seated himself on the throne of God. Thanks to Freud, we may more easily understand the deeply illusory and thoroughly neurotic Oedipal psychology of unbelief.

A New Theory Of Atheism: The Defective-Father Hypothesis

Although the Oedipus complex is valid for some, the theory is far from a universal explanation of unconscious motivation. There is a need, therefore, for a wider understanding of atheism, especially of the intense kind. So I will develop an undeveloped thesis of Freud's. In his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, Freud remarks that "psycho-analysis, which has taught us the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God, has shown us that the personal god is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down."

This interesting observation requires no assumptions about unconscious sexual desires for the mother, or even about presumed universal competitive hatred focused on the father. Instead, Freud makes the simple and easily understandable claim that once a child or youth is disappointed in or loses respect for his earthly father, belief in a heavenly father becomes impossible. That a child's psychological representation of this father is intimately connected to his understanding of God was assumed by Freud and has been rather well developed by a number of psychologists, especially psychoanalysts. In other words, an atheist's disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.

There are, of course, many ways in which a father can lose his authority or seriously disappoint his child: He can be absent through death or abandonment; he can be present but obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect, even if he is otherwise pleasant or "nice"; or he can be present but abusive physically, sexually, or psychologically. I call these proposed determinants of atheism, taken together, the "defective father" hypothesis, and evidence for it can be found in the lives of prominent atheists. Indeed, it was in reading their biographies that this interpretation first occurred to me.

My book Faith of the Fatherless, from which this article is drawn, covers 15 major historical atheists. The famous names include Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Schopenhauer, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Jean d'Alembert, Baron d'Holbach, Ludwig Feuerbach, Samuel Butler, Sigmund Freud, and H.G. Wells. In every case we find a weak, dead, or abusive father. But in the present article there is room for a biographical sketch of only one eminent atheist, so why not let that one be Freud?

That Sigmund Freud's father, Jacob, was a disappointment or worse to his son is generally agreed upon by biographers. Jacob Freud was a weak man, unable to provide for his family. Instead, the money seems to have come from his wife's family and others. Furthermore, Freud's father was passive in response to anti-Semitism. Freud recounts an episode told him by his father, in which Jacob allowed an anti-Semite to call him a "dirty Jew" and knock his hat off. Young Sigmund, on hearing the story, was mortified at his father's failure to respond strongly, at his father's weakness. Sigmund was a complex and in many respects an ambiguous man, but all agree that he was a courageous fighter and that he greatly admired courage in others. As a young man, Sigmund several times physically stood up against anti-Semitism, and of course he was one of the greatest of intellectual combatants.

Jacob's defectiveness as a father, however, probably went deeper than incompetence and weakness. Specifically, in two of his letters as an adult, Freud writes that his father was a sexual pervert and that Jacob's own children suffered as a result. Finally, it should be recalled that in proposing the Oedipus complex, Freud placed hatred of the father at the center of his psychology. It is not unreasonable to assume that this expressed, at the least, his strong unconscious hostility to and rejection of his own father.

The connection of Jacob to God and religion was also present for his son. Jacob was involved in a kind of reform Judaism when Freud was a child; the two of them spent hours reading the Bible together, and later Jacob became increasingly involved in reading the Talmud and in discussing Jewish scripture. In short, for Sigmund, this weak, rather passive "nice guy" was clearly connected to Judaism and God, and also to a serious lack of courage and to sexual perversion and other weaknesses very painful to young Sigmund. It is not surprising then that we owe to Freud the autobiographical insight, "Psychoanalysis. . . daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down."

For purposes of comparison with Freud and the other unbelievers, my book examines the childhoods of a similarly large group of believers. After all, what if the evidence of defective fathering in the lives of atheists is simply a reflection of the social conditions of their times? If the fathers of prominent believers over the past three centuries are no different from those of unbelievers, then the biographical data on atheists and their fathers do not constitute evidence for the defective-father hypothesis.

So I also examined the lives of some historically important theists. I selected these theists not just for their piety or general prominence during their lifetimes, but because each is known for his intellectual defense of Christianity or Judaism. Each was a part of the religious counter-response to the atheistic or skeptical intellectual attitude typical of the modern period. Indeed, they make a very representative list of the prominent defenders of belief in God from the 17th to the 20th century. They are Blaise Pascal, George Berkeley, Bishop Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, Edmund Burke, Moses Mendelssohn, William Paley, William and Samuel Wilberforce, Francois Chateaubriand, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, Soren Kierkegaard, Baron von Hugel, G.K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Heschel.

There is no room here, unfortunately, to include even one biographical sketch. But my investigations show clearly positive father-son relationships — or good father-substitute-and-son relationships. There is only one case of serious estrangement, Kierkegaard's, which was resolved in a way that provides direct support for the present hypothesis. For Kierkegaard's reconciliation with his father led him to express an understanding of how the father complex is related to belief in God.

If the denial of God by intense atheists is conditioned by defective relationships with their fathers, still they have made their religious choices freely and have mounted explicit defenses of their atheism. Nonetheless, it seems clear from the evidence that many an intense personal "reason" lies behind the public rejection of God. If one genuinely wishes to reach such people, one must address their underlying psychology. Most serious unbelievers are likely to have painful memories underlying their rationalization of atheism. Such interior wounds need to be fully appreciated and addressed by believers.

Superficial Atheism: A Personal Account

My psychological critique of atheism should not omit to examine atheism's more shallow and more common forms. So let me sketch my own case history. After a rather wishy-washy Christian upbringing, I became an atheist in college (at the University of Michigan in the 1950s), and remained so throughout graduate school (at Stanford University) and my first years as a young experimental psychologist at New York University. I rediscovered Christianity in my late thirties in the very secular environment of academic psychology in New York City.

On reflection, I have seen that my reasons for becoming, and remaining, an atheist-skeptic from age 18 to age 38 were, on the whole, superficial and lacking in serious intellectual or moral foundation, and I think that such reasons are common among Americans, especially in intellectual and artistic communities and in the media.

As a student of psychology, I was supported in my atheism by various general ideas. The argument that God is a projection of psychological needs, particularly childish needs, was one that I accepted. Supporting this psychological interpretation was a cultural or anthropological critique of belief as such. I am not sure where I learned it, though I do remember enjoying a course at the University of Michigan taught by an outspokenly atheistic professor of anthropology.

I also believed in "evolution," including the evolution of worldviews. It seemed to me that primitive man had many gods, goddesses, and spirits of various types: In this animistic phase, deities inhabited many natural locales (springs, woods, impressive animals, large distinctive rocks, and the like). Somewhat more "advanced" cultures had fewer deities but were still polytheistic. By the time of the Greeks or the Egyptians, there was a relatively small number of gods and goddesses, with a fairly clear hierarchy; Judaism introduced monotheism as the natural conclusion of this progression from many to one. And of course the final answer for the "mature modern mind" was to do away with the divine altogether, to understand the whole process as a form of intellectual evolution or maturation. Thus, the evolution from many to few to one to none appeared to be both a historical and a logical progression.

I never seriously investigated the evidence for this view or questioned it in any way. It just seemed obvious. If I had done some homework, even back then, in the 1950s and 1960s, I would have found out that the "evolutionary" or "progressive" model simply does not fit the data and, if anything, should be reversed: The evidence then and now supports the claim that the earliest humans were commonly monotheistic, since the religious beliefs of the most primitive tribes for which we have any information sustain this view. The undisputed finding is that many — perhaps most — of the most primitive peoples were monotheistic. Hence, no evolutionary model that calls monotheism a relatively late development can be considered acceptable on empirical grounds. In fact, many of the commentators (of various backgrounds) who have observed the primitive monotheism of simple peoples have noted its great similarity to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in this regard.

Polytheism and the proliferation of deities seem to have begun when cultures or tribes met and blended, especially when one group conquered another. And by extension it would appear that as cultures turned into political empires, the number of divinities became still larger. We might call this the "Pantheon Effect": Make peace with a neighboring tribe or a conquered city by adding their important gods to your list.

From this perspective, religious historical change has generally been one of devolution or regression, in that cultures went from one god to a few gods to many gods — and finally, in the modern period, to every person a god. This is no doubt an oversimplification, but it looks closer to the truth than my old, sophomoric model. Within this context, Judaism was a notable exception and can be understood as a return to the original state of simple monotheism — a state lost in more "advanced" cultures, and a state from which the ancient Hebrews themselves often fell away. In the history of the Jews, we see many times how political, economic, and social relations with other cultures persistently undermined their monotheism by introducing new gods (such as Baal and Astarte). Again and again, in the face of social and political pressures, they had to return to monotheism in order to maintain their faith and cultural identity.

But the major factors in my becoming an atheist — though I was not really aware of them at the time — were not so much intellectual as social and psychological. There is good reason to believe that, for many people, social and psychological factors are far more influential than rational arguments. But these are all too rarely discussed.

An important motivating factor in my youth was a significant social unease. I was somewhat embarrassed to be from the Midwest, for it seemed terribly dull, narrow, and provincial. There was nothing romantic or impressive about being from Cincinnati, Ohio, and from a vague, mixed German-English-Swiss background — all terribly middle class! Besides escaping from a dull and, according to me, socially unworthy past, I wanted to take part, to be comfortable, in the new, glamorous secular world into which I was moving. I am sure that similar motives have strongly influenced countless upwardly mobile young people in the past two centuries. Think of the Italian and Jewish ghettos that so many Americans have fled — or of the latest young arriviste in New York, mortified by his fundamentalist parents. The pressure of this kind of socialization has pushed many a young person away from belief in God and all that this belief entails.

I remember a small seminar in graduate school in which every member at some time acknowledged this pattern in his life. One student was trying to escape his Southern Baptist background, another a small-town Mormon childhood, and a third was trying to distance himself emotionally and intellectually (as he had physically) from his Brooklyn Jewish ghetto. I was the fourth.

Another major reason for my becoming an atheist was that I desired to be accepted by the powerful and influential scientists in the field of psychology. In particular, I wanted to be accepted by my professors in graduate school. As a graduate student, I was thoroughly socialized by the specific "culture" of academic research psychology. My professors at Stanford, however much they might disagree among themselves on psychological theory, were, as far as I could tell, united in two things: their intense career ambitions and their rejection of religion.

Just as I had learned how to dress like a college student, to put on the right clothes, I learned to think like a proper psychologist, to put on the right — that is, atheistic — ideas and attitudes. I wanted as few impediments to my career as possible.

In addition, there was my wish to claim my autonomy as an individual. Since the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, an exaggerated desire for independence has characterized much of Western society. To be a "self-made man," to be "autonomous" and "authentic," have been common ideals. Obviously, such attitudes fit especially well with the psychology of the young male. A chip-on-the-shoulder, "no-one-tells-me-what-to-do" mentality has been widely admired and has become a cliché of modern culture. This kind of attitude easily generalizes into an independence from all restraint, and thus supports the rejection of belief in God. For me, as presumably for many, becoming an atheist was part of a personal infatuation with the "romance of the autonomous self."

Finally, among these superficial but nonetheless strong nonrational pressures to become an atheist, I must list simple personal convenience. The fact is that, in our secular and neopagan world, it is quite inconvenient to be a serious believer. To be a believer, I would have had to give up many pleasures (you may use your imagination) and was unwilling to do so. And besides, religion takes a good deal of time, and not just on Sunday mornings. The serious practice of religion calls for much more. There are other church services, there is prayer and Scripture reading, not to mention the time required to do "good works." I was far too busy for such time-consuming activities.

One might think that the preceding concerns are restricted to particularly callow young men (such as I was). But more mature persons of both sexes can have the same attitudes. After all, if there is no God and only matter, if atheism is true, then there is no afterlife, no Heaven or Hell. As Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov declared, "If God is dead then everything is permitted." At a rather less elevated level, I took the message to be "Grab all the gusto you can!" For example, the atheist and materialist implications of Darwin's theory of evolution for our sexual behavior were and are one reason for its popularity. As Stanley Jaki has put it, "None other than Aldous Huxley singled out sexual license as the chief immediate benefit to be derived from agreeing with the Origin [of Species]."

Mortimer Adler provides an exemplary case. A well-known American philosopher, he has spent much of his life thinking about God and religious subjects. In one of his books, How to Think About God: A Guide for the Twentieth-Century Pagan (1980), Adler strongly presses the argument for the existence of God, and by the later chapters he is very close to accepting the living God. But ultimately he pulls back; he remains among "the vast company of the religiously uncommitted." Adler leaves the impression that his problem is more one of will than of intellect. In his autobiography Philosopher at Large (1976), while exploring his reasons for twice stopping short of a full religious commitment, Adler admits that the answer "lies in the state of one's will, not in the state of one's mind." He acknowledges that to become seriously religious "would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for," and he admits, "the simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person."

Here we have a mature philosopher's own clear statement that being seriously religious would be difficult, or at least too much trouble. In my own case, I now see that it was because of my social need to assimilate, my professional need to be accepted as part of the world of academic psychology, and my personal need for independence and an agreeable way of life that I chose to be an atheist. Hence, the intellectual basis for my own erstwhile atheism, like that of countless others, appears in retrospect to be much more a shallow rationalization than an objective rationale.

Paul C. Vitz is a professor of psychology at New York University. A convert to Catholicism and the father of six children, he is the author of Psychology as Religion and other books. This article is excerpted and adapted from Vitz's book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, published in October 1999 by Spence Publishing Co.

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