"The Causes of Atheism" Written by James Spiegel on 28 January 2010. The Atheists Discussed thus far are all scholars. But, of course, not all atheists are academics. Like believers, they can be found in every sphere of society. In fact, some of the more well known atheists are celebrities. Actress Jodie Foster, for example, has spoken openly about her rejection of all things spiritual. In an interesting case of art imitating life, she has noted the similarities between her own beliefs and those of Eleanor Arroway, the astronomer she plays in the film Contact: I absolutely believe what Ellie believes—that there is no direct evidence [for God], so how could you ask me to believe in God when there’s absolutely no evidence that I can see? I do believe in the beauty and the awe-inspiring mystery of the science that’s out there that we haven’t discovered yet, that there are scientific explanations for phenomena that we call mystical because we don’t know any better.
The late George Carlin was more emphatic about his atheism, even turning an anti-religion harangue into a comedy bit. Here is an excerpt from his 1999 HBO special: When it comes to believing in God, I really tried. I really, really tried. I tried to believe that there is a God, who created each of us in His own image and likeness, loves us very much, and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that, but I gotta tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize . . . something is wrong here. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a Supreme Being.
This is the kind of [stuff] you’d expect from an office temp with a bad attitude. So Carlin gave up his efforts to believe in God. He opted for atheism “rather than be just another . . . religious robot, mindlessly and aimlessly and blindly believing that all of this is in the hands of some spooky incompetent father figure who doesn’t [care]. ”Notice that Carlin’s and Foster’s reasons for unbelief are founded on the two pillars of atheism discussed earlier. Foster’s rationale for her view reveals a latent positivism, the notion that all knowledge must be verifiable by the senses. Carlin, on the other hand, provides a tart version of the objection fromevil, which is as thought-provoking as it is irreverent. But Jodie Foster and George Carlin have more in common than just being thoughtful celebrity atheists.
They also share the experience of having lost their fathers while they were young. Before she was even born, Foster’s father left her family. Hermother raised young Jodie, eventually guiding her into the acting career she enjoys to this day. Carlin also grew up fatherless. His mother left his alcoholic, abusive father when George was two months old, and she raised him and his older brother on her own. Is there any relevance to the fact that these two atheists grew up without a father? Some recent research strongly suggests that there is. In this chapter we will look at evidence for the claim that broken father relationships are a contributing cause of atheism. We will also consider evidence that immoral behavior plays a significant role in motivating views on ethics and religion.We will see how desires often drive a person’s beliefs when it comes to such issues, and I will propose that herein lies the explanation for atheism.
The Faith of The Fatherless Paul C.Vitz teaches psychology at NewYork University. Though now a practicing Roman Catholic,Vitz was an atheist until his late thirties. Reflecting on his change of mind, Vitz observes that his “reasons” for becoming an atheist in the first place, during his college years,were not intellectual so much as social and psychological. Eventually, he began to focus his psychological research on atheism, and in 1999 he published the provocative Faith of the Fatherless,which proposes that “atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates.” Looking at the lives of numerous renowned atheists,Vitz’s study reveals a stunning link between atheism and fatherlessness. This he expresses as the “defective father hypothesis”—the notion that a broken relationship with one’s father predisposes some people to reject God.
While some might be critical of any attempt to psychologize the phenomenon of atheism,Vitz notes: “We must remember that it is atheists themselves who began the psychological approach to the question of belief.” Turnabout, as they say, is fair play.Of course, a principal figure to whom Vitz’s observation applies is Sigmund Freud,whomaintained that religious belief arises out of psychological need.According to Freud, people project their concept of a loving father to the entire cosmos to fulfill their wish for ultimate comfort in a dangerous world.However, it was this same Freud who developed the concept of the “Oedipus complex,” characterized by a repressed sexual desire for one’smother andmurderous jealousy of one’s father.Vitz notes that here Freud inadvertently provides a straightforward rationale for understanding the wish-fulfilling origin of the rejection of God. . . . 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. . . . In other words, an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.
Thus, Freud’s own theory can be used to explain atheism. And, as Vitz proceeds to show, the empirical data bears out this account. The following are several cases from the modern period explored by Vitz that confirm his thesis.
Atheists Whose Fathers Died:
• David Hume—was two years old when his father died
• Arthur Schopenhauer—was sixteen when his father died
• Friedrich Nietzsche—was four years old when his father died
• Bertrand Russell—was four years old when his father died
• Jean-Paul Sartre—was 15 months old when his father died
• Albert Camus—was 1 year old when his father died.
Atheists with Abusive or Weak Fathers:
• Thomas Hobbes—was seven years old when his father deserted the family
• Voltaire—had a bitter relationship with his father, whose surname (Arouet) he disowned
• Baron d’Holbach—was estranged from his father and rejected his surname (Thiry)
• Ludwig Feuerbach—was scandalized by his father’s public rejection of his family (to live with another woman)
• Samuel Butler—was physically and emotionally brutalized by his father
• Sigmund Freud—had contempt for his father as a “sexual pervert” and as a weak man
• H. G.Wells—despised his father who neglected the family
• Madalyn Murray O’Hair—intensely hated her father, probably due to child abuse
• Albert Ellis—was neglected by his father, who eventually abandoned the family
While this list is impressive,Vitz’s overall case for his thesis is not limited to these but includes analyses of well-known theists from the same era. These scholars had consistently healthy relationships with their fathers or significant father figures. This confirms by contrast Vitz’s thesis about their atheist peers. Such prominent modern theists include Blaise Pascal, George Berkeley, Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, Edmund Burke,William Paley,William Wilberforce, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, Soren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Heschel. Of course, none of the fathers of these men were perfect moral exemplars. Some, such as the elder Kierkegaard, grieved or disappointed their sons by their misbehavior. Still, the relationships persevered, and resentment did not prevail. In most cases, these men had strong love, admiration, and respect for their fathers or father figures.
To be clear,Vitz’s thesis does not imply that having a defective father guarantees one will become an atheist. He takes care to emphasize this point. This is because, as Vitz puts it, “all of us still have a free choice to accept or reject God. . . . As a consequence of particular past or present circumstances some may find it much harder to believe in God. But presumably they can still choose to move toward God or to move away.” In fact, some people with defective fathers do not turn away from God but become vibrant believers and faithful practitioners of their faith.Given the strong majority of religious believers, it appears that most children of defective fathers manage to resist the temptation of atheism. Still others, such as C. S. Lewis and Antony Flew, give up their atheism even after many years of unbelief. So the psychological dynamics of atheism are very complex, but the impact of the father relationship does appear to be profound.
I would add that when it comes to atheism, as with any other behavior, an explanation is not an excuse.To identify a cause of a belief or behavior does not imply that the person is not morally responsible for it. So even if we can causally explain why some people reject God, this does not mean that they aren’t responsible for doing so. Rather, the lesson seems to be that having a defective father presents special challenges to faith, but that this kind of psychological wound can only predispose one to atheism." (1 of 4 to be continued)