Father’s Day, that wonderful day when we celebrate our dads, is a time when all of us who have terrific dads need to feel sorry for atheists. It’s not such a happy day for them. That’s the take-away from a book called Faith of the Fatherless: the Psychology of Atheism by New York University psychology professor Paul Vitz, who says that what often lies at the core of militant atheism is a disappointing and sometimes abusive experience with the atheist’s earthly dad.
Vitz, who was himself an atheist until his late 30’s, examines the lives of over two dozen famously influential and often belligerent nihilists and atheists from the 18th Century to the present, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, David Hume, Albert Camus, Voltaire, and Mr. God Is Dead himself, Friedrich Nietzsche. Ironically, these were the “fathers” of the atheist movement, cheerleaders for Sigmund Freud’s theory that belief in God is an illusion, just wishful thinking invented by the childish part of our psyche that craves security and protection: in short, Big Daddy to the rescue. Freud’s theory over the years has evolved into the writing and ranting of today’s atheist God debunkers who like to brand religious believers as fools, ignoramuses, and Neanderthals.
But Professor Vitz does a neat switcheroo on Siggy: he finds that non-believers are the ones who are prisoners of their psychology because their personal bad dad experiences have led them to reject the ultimate Father. (Freud too!) Having felt no love from their own dads, they just can’t believe in a God who loves them. Of course, Vitz is not contending that every single atheist out there is a result of a problem with pater. But there’s lots of fascinating evidence in the biographical sketches he presents that a relationship with dad is a strong influencer.
For example, many of these big-time atheists had no father in their life at all. Sartre’s father died when he was only one, as did Camus’ dad. Hume’s father passed away when he was two, and Russell, one of the really notorious atheists of all time, lost his father when he was four. H.G. Wells, Josef Stalin, Freud himself, and others all had very difficult and troubling relationships with their fathers.
Intriguingly, the book also covers the lives of a similar number of prominent believers from the same eras, including Soren Kierkegaard, Blaise Pascal, Edmund Burke, G.K. Chesterton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The bio sketches reveal that while the atheists had weak, mean, or absent fathers, the theists had strong relationships with their good fathers or father substitutes.
This book can serve as a warning to parents: if you want your children to have a strong, secure faith, make sure that they have a strong, secure relationship with a loving father. Pew research also shows that the single most determining factor in a child retaining religious faith in adulthood is whether the father has an active faith. The book also suggests that militant atheists’ rejection and even hatred of the very idea of God may be largely rooted in their childhood psychology and dad-deprivation rather than in any rational or intellectual basis, as they would have us believe.
So while you’re celebrating Dad this weekend, find an atheist and give him or her a big hug – they need it!
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. I John 4: 7, 8
Joy Overbeck is a Colorado author and journalist; her quirky God blog is at www.godsayshi.org, and her site with a sampling of her magazine articles: www.joyoverbeck.com
Tweet her: @joyoverbeck1