The title of this paper,
"The Psychology of Atheism," may seem strange. Certainly, my
psychological colleagues have found it odd and even, I might add,
a little disturbing. After all, psychology, since its founding
roughly a century ago, has often focused on the opposite topic-namely
the psychology of religious belief. Indeed, in many respects the
origins of modern psychology are intimately bound up with the
psychologists who explicitly proposed interpretations of belief
William James and Sigmund
Freud, for example, were both personally and professionally
deeply involved in the topic. Recall The Will to Believe
by James, as well as his still famous Varieties of Religious
Experience. These two works are devoted to an attempt at
understanding belief as the result of psychological, that is
natural, causes. James might have been sympathetic to religion,
but his own position was one of doubt and skepticism and his
writings were part of psychology's general undermining of
religious faith. As for Sigmund Freud, his critiques of religion,
in particular Christianity, are well known and will be discussed
in some detail later. For now, it is enough to remember how
deeply involved Freud and his thought have been with the
question of God and religion.
Given the close involvement
between the founding of much of psychology and a critical
interpretation of religion, it should not be surprising that
most psychologists view with some alarm any attempt to propose a
psychology of atheism. At the very least such a project puts
many psychologists on the defensive and gives them some taste of
their own medicine. Psychologists are always observing and
interpreting others and it is high time that some of them learn
from their own personal experience what it is like to be put
under the microscope of psychological theory and experiment.
Regardless, I hope to show that the psychological concepts used
quite effectively to interpret religion are two- edged swords
that can also be used to interpret atheism. Sauce for the
believer is equally sauce for the unbeliever.
Before beginning, however, I
wish to make two points bearing on the underlying assumption of
my remarks. First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in
God are not rational but -in a general sense- can be called
psychological. I do not wish to offend the many distinguished
philosophers-both believers and nonbelievers-in this audience,
but I am quite convinced that for every person strongly swayed
by rational argument there are many, many more affected by non-rational psychological factors.
The human heart-no one can
truly fathom it or know all its deceits, but at least it is the
proper task of the psychologist to try. Thus, to begin, I
propose that neurotic psychological barriers to belief in God
are of great importance. What some of these might be I will
mention shortly. For believers, therefore, it is important to
keep in mind that psychological motives and pressures that one
is often unaware of, often lie behind unbelief.
One of the earliest theorists
of the unconscious, St. Paul, wrote, "I can will what is right,
but I cannot do it . . . I see in my members another law at war
with the law of my mind . . ." (Rom. 7:18, 23). Thus, it seems
to me sound theology as well as sound psychology that
psychological factors can be impediments to belief as well as
behavior, and that these may often be unconscious factors as
well. Further, as a corollary it is reasonable to propose that
people vary greatly in the extent to which these factors are
present in their lives. Some of us have been blessed with an
upbringing, a temperament, social environment, and other gifts
that have made belief in God a much easier thing than many who
have suffered more or have been raised in a spiritually
impoverished environment or had other difficulties with which to
cope. Scripture makes it clear that many children-even into the
third or fourth generation-suffer from the sins of their
fathers, including the sins of fathers who may have been
believers. In short, my first point is that some people have
much more serious psychological barriers to belief than others,
a point consistent with the scriptures' clear statement that we
are not to judge others, however much we are called to correct
My second point as
qualification is that in spite of serious difficulties to
belief, all of us still have a free choice to accept God or
reject Him. This qualification is not in contradiction to the
first. Perhaps a little elaboration will make this clearer. One
person, as a consequence of his particular past, present
environment, etc., may find it much harder than most people to
believe in God. But presumably, at any moment, certainly at many
times, he can choose to move toward God or to move away. One man
may start with so many barriers that even after years of slowly
choosing to move toward God he may still not be there. Some may
die before they reach belief. We assume they will be judged-like
all of us- on how far they traveled toward God and how well they
loved others-on how well they did with what they had. Likewise,
another man without psychological difficulties at all is still
free to reject God, and no doubt many do. Thus, although the
ultimate issue is one of the will and our sinful nature, it is
still possible to investigate those psychological factors that
predispose one to unbelief, that make the road to belief in God
especially long and hard.
The Psychology of Atheism:
Social and Personal Motives
There seems to be a widespread
assumption throughout much of the Western intellectual community
that belief in God is based on all kinds of irrational immature
needs and wishes, but atheism or skepticism is derived from a
rational, no- nonsense appraisal of the way things really are.
To begin a critique of this assumption, I start with my own case
As some of you
know, after a rather weak, wishy-washy Christian upbringing, I
became an atheist in college in the 1950s and remained so
throughout graduate school and my first years as a young
experimental psychologist on the faculty at New York University.
That is, I am an adult convert or, more technically, a reconvert
to Christianity who came back to the faith, much to his
surprise, in my late thirties in the very secular environment of
academic psychology in New York City.
I am not going into this to
bore you with parts of my life story, but to note that through
reflection on my own experience it is now clear to me that my
reasons for becoming and for remaining an atheist-skeptic from
about age 18 to 38 were superficial, irrational, and largely
without intellectual or moral integrity. Furthermore, I am
convinced that my motives were, and still are, commonplace today
among intellectuals, especially social scientists.
The major factors involved in
my becoming an atheist-although I wasn't really aware of them at
the time-were as follows.
An important influence on me 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 certainly nothing romantic or impressive about being
from Cincinnati, Ohio and from a vague mixed
German-English-Swiss background. Terribly middle class. Further,
besides escape from a dull, and according to me unworthy,
socially embarrassing past, I wanted to take part in, in fact to
be comfortable in, the new, exciting, even glamorous, secular
world into which I was moving. I am sure that similar motives
have strongly influenced the lives of countless upwardly mobile
young people in the last two centuries. Consider Voltaire, who
moved into the glittery, aristocratic, sophisticated world of
Paris, and who always felt embarrassed about his provincial and
nonaristocratic origin; or the Jewish ghettos that so many
assimilating Jews have fled, or the latest young arrival in New
York, embarrassed about his fundamentalist parents. This kind of
socialization pressure has pushed many away from belief in God
and all that this belief is associated with for them.
I remember a small seminar in
graduate school where almost every member there at some time
expressed this kind of embarrassment and response to the
pressures of socialization into "modern life." One student was
trying to escape his Southern Baptist background, another a
small town Mormon environment, a third was trying to get out of
a very Jewish Brooklyn ghetto, and the fourth was me.
socialization. Another major reason for my wanting to
become 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 on psychological theory, were, as far as I could tell,
united in only two things-their intense personal career ambition
and their rejection of religion. As the psalmist says, ". . .
The man greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord. In the
pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him; all his
thoughts are, 'There is no God'" (Psalm 10:3-4).
In this environment, just as I
had learned how to dress like a college student by putting on
the right clothes, I also learned to "think" like a proper
psychologist by putting on the right-that is, atheistic-ideas
Finally, in this list of superficial, but nevertheless, strong
irrational pressures to become an atheist, I must list simple
personal convenience. The fact is that it is quite inconvenient
to be a serious believer in today's powerful secular and
neo-pagan world. I would have had to give up many pleasures and
a good deal of time.
Without going into details it
is not hard to imagine the sexual pleasures that would have to
be rejected if I became a serious believer. And then I also knew
it would cost me time and some money. There would be church
services, church groups, time for prayer and scripture reading,
time spent helping others. I was already too busy. Obviously,
becoming religious would be a real inconvenience.
Now perhaps you think that
such reasons are restricted to especially callow young men-like
me in my twenties. However, such reasoning is not so restricted.
Here I will take up the case of Mortimer Adler, a well known
American philosopher, writer, and intellectual who has spent
much of his life thinking about God and religious topics. One of
his most recent books is titled How to Think About God: A
Guide for the 20th Century Pagan (1980). In this work,
Adler presses the argument for the existence of God very
strongly and by the latter chapters he is very close to
accepting the living God. Yet he pulls back and remains among
"the vast company of the religiously uncommitted" (Graddy,
1982). But Adler leaves the impression that this decision is
more one of will than of intellect. As one of his reviewers
notes (Graddy, 1982), Adler confirms this impression in his
autobiography, Philosopher at Large (1976). There,
while investigating his reasons for twice stopping short of a
full religious commitment, he writes that the answer "lies in
the state of one's will, not in the state of one's mind." Adler
goes on to comment that to become seriously religious "would
require a radical change in my way of life . . ." and "The
simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to
being a genuinely religious person" (Graddy, p. 24).
There you have it! A
remarkably honest and conscious admission that being "a
genuinely religious person" would be too much trouble, too
inconvenient. I can't but assume that such are the shallow
reasons behind many an unbeliever's position.
In summary, because of my
social needs to assimilate, because of my professional needs to
be accepted as part of academic psychology, and because of my
personal needs for a convenient lifestyle-for all these needs
atheism was simply the best policy. Looking back on these
motives, I can honestly say that a return to atheism has all the
appeal of a return to adolescence.
The Psychology of Atheism:
As is generally known, the
central Freudian criticism of belief in God is that such a
belief is untrustworthy because of its psychological origin.
That is, God is a projection of our own intense, unconscious
desires; He 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 kind
of critique, Freud has raised the ad hominem argument
to one of wide influence. It is in The Future of an Illusion
(1927, 1961) that Freud makes his position clearest:
[R]eligious ideas have arisen
from the same needs as have all the other achievements of
civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself
against the crushing superior force of nature. (p. 21)
Therefore, 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 danger of life.
Let us look at this argument
carefully, for in spite of the enthusiastic acceptance of it by
so many uncritical atheists and skeptics, it is really a very
first paragraph Freud fails to note that his arguments against
religious belief are, in his own words, equally valid against
all the achievements of civilization, including
psychoanalysis itself. That is, if the psychic origin of an
intellectual achievement invalidates its truth value, then
physics, biology, much less psychoanalysis itself, are
vulnerable to the same charge.
In the second paragraph Freud
makes another strange claim, namely that the oldest and most
urgent wishes of mankind are for the loving protecting guidance
of a powerful loving Father, for divine Providence. However, if
these wishes were as strong and ancient as he claims, one would
expect pre-Christian religion to have strongly emphasized God as
a benevolent father. In general, this was far from the case for
the pagan religion of the Mediterranean world-and, for example,
is still not the case for such popular religions as Buddhism and
for much of Hinduism. Indeed, Judaism and most especially
Christianity are in many respects distinctive in the emphasis on
God as a loving Father.
However, let us put these two
intellectual gaffes aside and turn to another understanding of
his projection theory. It can be shown that this theory is not
really an integral part of psychoanalysis- and, thus cannot
claim fundamental support from psychoanalytic theory. It is
essentially an autonomous argument. Actually, Freud's critical
attitude toward and rejection of religion is rooted in his
personal predilections and is a kind of meta psychoanalysis-or
background framework which is not well connected to his more
specifically clinical concepts. (This separation or autonomy
with respect to most psychoanalytic theory very likely accounts
for its influence outside of psychoanalysis.) There are two
pieces of evidence for this interpretation of the projection
The first is that this theory
had been clearly articulated many years earlier by Ludwig
Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity
(1841, 1957). Feuerbach's interpretation was well-known in
European intellectual circles, and Freud, as a youth, read
Feuerbach avidly (see Gedo & Pollock, 1976, pp. 47, 350). Here
are some representative quotes from Feuerbach which make this
What man misses- whether this
be an articulate and therefore conscious, or an unconscious,
need-that is his God. (1841, 1957, p. 33)
Man projects his nature into
the world outside himself before he finds it in himself. (p.
To live in projected
dream-images is the essence of religion. Religion sacrifices
reality to the projected dream. . . (p. 49)
Many other quotes could be
provided in which Feuerbach describes religion in "Freudian"
terms such as wish-fulfillment, etc. What Freud did with this
argument was to revive it in a more eloquent form, and publish
it at a later time when the audience desiring to hear such a
theory was much larger. And, of course, somehow the findings and
theory of psychoanalysis were implied as giving the theory
strong support. The Feuerbachian character of Freud's
Illusion position is also demonstrated by such notions as
"the crushing superior force of nature" and the "terrifying
impression of helplessness in childhood," which are not
psychoanalytic in terminology or in meaning.
The other piece of evidence for
the nonpsychoanalytic basis of the projection theory comes
directly from Freud, who explicitly says so himself. In a letter
of 1927 to his friend Oskar Pfister (an early psychoanalyst, and
believing Protestant pastor), 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. (Freud/Pfister, 1963, p. 117).
There is one other somewhat
different interpretation of belief in God which Freud also
developed, but although this has a very modest psychoanalytic
character, it is really an adaptation of Feuerbachian projection
theory. This is Freud's relatively neglected interpretation of
the ego ideal. The super-ego, including the ego ideal is the
"heir of the Oedipus complex," representing a projection of an
idealized father-and presumably of God the Father (see Freud,
1923, 1962, pp. 26-28; p. 38).
The difficulty here is that the
ego ideal did not really receive great attention or development
within Freud's writings. Furthermore, it is easily interpreted
as an adoption of Feuerbach's projection theory. Thus, we can
conclude that psychoanalysis does not in actuality provide
significant theoretical concepts for characterizing belief in
God as neurotic. Freud either used Feuerbach's much older
projection or illusion theory or incorporated Feuerbach in his
notion of the ego ideal. Presumably, this is the reason Freud
acknowledged to Pfister that his Illusion book was not
a true part of psychoanalysis.
Atheism as Oedipal Wish
Nevertheless, Freud is quite
right to worry that a belief can be an illusion because it
derives from powerful wishes- from unconscious, childish needs.
The irony is that he clearly did provide a very powerful, new
way to understand the neurotic basis of atheism. (For a detailed
development of this position see Vitz and Gartner, 1984a, b;
Vitz, 1986, in press.)
The Oedipus Complex
The central concept in Freud's
work, aside from the unconscious, is the now well-known Oedipus
Complex. In the case of male personality development, the
essential features of this complex are the following: Roughly in
the age period of three to six the boy develops a strong sexual
desire for the mother. At the same time the boy develops an
intense hatred and fear of the father, and a desire to supplant
him, a "craving for power." This hatred is based on the boy's
knowledge that the father, with his greater size and strength,
stands in the way of his desire. The child's fear of the father
may explicitly be a fear of castration by the father, but more
typically, it has a less specific character. The son does not
really kill the father, of course, but patricide is assumed to
be a common preoccupation of his fantasies and dreams. The
"resolution" of the complex is supposed to occur through the
boy's recognition that he cannot replace the father, and through
fear of castration, which eventually leads the boy to identify
with the father, to identify with the aggressor, and to repress
the original frightening components of the complex.
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 hate and of incestuous sexual desire within a
family context are never in fact removed. Instead, they are
covered over and repressed. Freud expresses the neurotic
potential of this 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 (Freud, 1919, Standard
Edition, 17, p. 193; also 1905, S.E. 7, p.
226ff.; 1909, S.E., 11, p. 47).
In short, all human neuroses
derive from this complex. Obviously, in most cases, this
potential is not expressed in any seriously neurotic manner.
Instead it shows up in attitudes toward authority, in dreams,
slips of the tongue, transient irrationalities, etc.
Now, 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 rejecting God. After
all, the Oedipus complex is unconscious, it is established in
childhood and, above all, its dominant motive is hatred of the
father and the desire for him not to exist, especially as
represented by the 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 nonexistence of God.
Therefore, in the Freudian framework, atheism is an illusion
caused by the Oedipal desire to kill the father and replace him
with oneself. To act as if God does not exist is an obvious, not
so subtle disguise for a wish to kill Him, much the same way as
in a dream, the image of a parent going away or disappearing can
represent such a wish: "God is dead" is simply an undisguised
It is certainly not hard to
understand the Oedipal character of so much contemporary atheism
and skepticism. Hugh Heffner, even James Bond, with their
rejection of God plus their countless girls, are so obviously
living out Freud's Oedipal and primal rebellion (e.g., Totem
and Taboo). So are countless other skeptics who live out
variations of the same scenario of exploitative sexual
permissiveness combined with narcissistic self-worship.
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 him. Modern
atheism has attempted to accomplish this. Now man, not God, is
the consciously specified ultimate source of goodness and power
in the universe. Humanistic philosophies glorify him and his
"potential" 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 tried
to succeed where Satan failed, by seating himself on the throne
of God. Thanks to Freud it is now easier to understand the
deeply neurotic, thoroughly untrustworthy psychology of this
One interesting example of the
Oedipal motivation proposed here is that of Voltaire, a leading
skeptic about all things religious who denied the Christian and
Jewish notion of a personal God-of God as a Father. Voltaire was
a theist or deist who believed in a cosmic, depersonalized God
of unknown character.
The psychologically important
thing about Voltaire is that he strongly rejected his father-so
much that he rejected his father's name and took the name
"Voltaire." It is not exactly certain where the new name came
from but one widely held interpretation is that it was
constructed from the letters of his mother's last name. When
Voltaire was in his early twenties (in 1718), he published a
play entitled "Oedipus" (Edipe), the first one of his plays to
be publicly performed. The play itself recounts the classic
legend with heavy allusions to religious and political
rebellion. Throughout his life, Voltaire (like Freud) toyed with
the idea that he was not his father's son. He apparently felt
the desire to be from a higher, more aristocratic family than
his actual middle-class background. (A major expression of this
concern with having a more worthy father is the play Candide.)
In short, Voltaire's hostility to his own father, his religious
rejection of God the Father, and his political rejection of the
king-an acknowledged father figure-are all reflections of the
same basic needs. Psychologically speaking, Voltaire's rebellion
against his father and against God are easily interpretable as
Oedipal wish fulfillment, as comforting illusions, and
therefore, following Freud, as beliefs and attitudes unworthy of
a mature mind.
Diderot, the great
Encyclopaedist and an avowed atheist-indeed he is one of the
founding brothers of modern atheism-also had both Oedipal
preoccupation and insight. Freud approvingly quotes Diderot's
If the little savage were
left to himself, preserving all his foolishness and adding
to the small sense of a child in the cradle the violent
passions of a man of thirty, he would strangle his father
and lie with his mother (from Le neveau de Rameau;
quoted by Freud in Lecture XXI of his Introductory Lectures
(1916- 1917), S.E., 16, pp. 331-338).
The Psychology of Atheism:
The Theory of Defective Father
I am well aware of the fact that
there is good reason to give only limited acceptance to Freud's
Oedipal theory. In any case, it is my view that although the
Oedipus complex is valid for some, the theory is far from being
a universal representation of unconscious motivation. Since
there is need for deeper understanding of atheism and since I
don't know of any theoretical framework-except the Oedipal one-I
am forced to sketch out a model of my own, or really to develop
an undeveloped thesis of Freud. In his essay on Leonardo da
Vinci, Freud made the following remark:
Psychoanalysis, 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 (Leonardo
da Vinci, 1910, 1947 p. 98).
This statement makes no
assumptions about unconscious sexual desires for the mother, or
even about presumed universal competitive hatred focused on the
father. Instead he makes the simple easily understandable claim
that once a child or youth is disappointed in and loses his or
her respect for their earthly father, then belief in their
heavenly Father becomes impossible. There are, of course, many
ways that a father can lose his authority and seriously
disappoint a child. Some of these ways-for which clinical
evidence is given below-are:
He can be present but
obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect- even if
otherwise pleasant or "nice."
He can be present but
physically, sexually, or psychologically abusive.
He can be absent through
death or by abandoning or leaving the family.
Taken all together these proposed
determinants of atheism will be called the "defective father"
hypothesis. To support the validity of this approach, I will
conclude by providing case history material from the lives of
prominent atheists, for it was in reading the biographies of
atheists that this hypothesis first struck me.
We begin with Sigmund Freud's
relationship to his father. That Freud's father, Jacob, was a
deep disappointment-or worse-is generally agreed to by his
biographers. (For the supporting biographical material on Freud
see, for example, Krull, 1979, and Vitz, 1983, 1986.)
Specifically, his father was a weak man unable to financially
provide for his family. Instead money for support seems to have
been provided by his wife's family and others. Furthermore,
Freud's father was passive in response to anti-Semitism. Freud
recounts an episode told to him by his father in which Jacob
allowed an anti-Semite to call him a dirty Jew and to knock his
hat off. Young Sigmund, on hearing the story, was mortified at
his father's failure to respond, at his weakness. Sigmund Freud
was a complex and in many respects ambiguous man, but all agree
that he was a courageous fighter and that he greatly admired
courage in others. Sigmund, as a young man, several times stood
up physically against anti-Semitism- and, of course, he was one
of the greatest of intellectual fighters.
Jacob's actions as a defective
father, however, probably go still deeper. 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 from this.
There are also other possible moral disasters that I have not
bothered to note.
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, this weak, rather passive "nice
guy," this schlemiel, was clearly connected to Judaism and God,
and also to a serious lack of courage and quite possibly to
sexual perversion and other weaknesses very painful to young
Very briefly, other famous
atheists seem to have had a similar relationship to their
fathers. Karl Marx made it clear that he didn't respect his
father. An important part in this was that his father converted
to Christianity-not out of any religious conviction-but out of a
desire to make life easier. He assimilated for convenience. In
doing this Marx's father broke an old family tradition. He was
the first in his family who did not become a rabbi; indeed, Karl
Marx came from a long line of rabbis on both sides of his
Ludwig Feuerbach's father did
something that very easily could have deeply hurt his son. When
Feuerbach was about 13, his father left his family and openly
took up living with another woman in a different town. This was
in Germany in the early 1800s and such a public rejection would
have been a scandal and deeply rejecting to young Ludwig-and, of
course, to his mother and the other children.
Let us jump 100 years or so
and look at the life of one of America's best known
atheists-Madalyn Murray O'Hair. Here I will quote from her son's
recent book on what life was like in his family when he was a
child. (Murray, 1982) The book opens when he is 8-years-old: "We
rarely did anything together as a family. Hatred between my
grandfather and mother barred such wholesome scenes." (p. 7) He
writes that he really didn't know why his mother hated her
father so much-but hate him she did, for the opening chapter
records a very ugly fight in which she attempts to kill her
father with a 10-inch butcher knife. Madalyn failed but
screamed, "I'll see you dead. I'll get you yet. I'll walk on
your grave!" (p. 8)
Whatever the cause of O'Hair's
intense hatred of her father, it is clear from this book that it
was deep and that it went back into her childhood-and at least
psychological (e.g. p. 11) and possibly physical abuse is a
Besides abuse, rejection, or
cowardice, one way in which a father can be seriously defective
is simply by not being there. Many children, of course,
interpret death of their father as a kind of betrayal or an act
of desertion. In this respect it is remarkable that the pattern
of a dead father is so common in the lives of many prominent
Baron d'Holbach (born Paul
Henri Thiry), the French rationalist and probably the first
public atheist, is apparently an orphan by the age of 13 and
living with his uncle. (From whom he took the new name Holbach.)
Bertrand Russell's father died when young Bertrand was
4-years-old; Nietzsche was the same age as Russell when he lost
his father; Sartre's father died before Sartre was born and
Camus was a year old when he lost his father. (The above
biographical information was taken from standard reference
sources.) Obviously, much more evidence needs to be obtained on
the "defective father" hypothesis. But the information already
available is substantial; it is unlikely to be an accident.
The psychology of how a dead
or nonexistent father could lay an emotional base for atheism
might not seem clear at first glance. But, after all, if one's
own father is absent or so weak as to die, or so untrustworthy
as to desert, then it is not hard to place the same attribute on
your heavenly Father.
Finally, there is also the
early personal experience of suffering, of death, of evil,
sometimes combined with anger at God for allowing it to happen.
Any early anger at God for the loss of a father and the
subsequent suffering is still another and different psychology
of unbelief, but one closely related to that of the defective
Some of this psychology is
captured in Russell Baker's recent autobiography. (Baker, 1982)
Russell Baker is the well-known journalist and humorous writer
for the New York Times. His father was taken to the
hospital and died there suddenly when young Russell was five.
Baker wept and sorrowed and spoke to the family housekeeper,
. . . For the first time I
thought seriously about God. Between sobs I told Bessie that
if God could do things like this to people, then God was
hateful and I had no more use for Him.
Bessie told me about the
peace of Heaven and the joy of being among the angels and
the happiness of my father who was already there. The
argument failed to quiet my rage.
"God loves us all just like
His own children," Bessie said.
"If God loves me, why did He
make my father die?"
Bessie said that I would
understand someday, but she was only partly right. That
afternoon, though I couldn't have phrased it this way then,
I decided that God was a lot less interested in people than
anybody in Morrisonville was willing to admit. That day I
decided that God was not entirely to be trusted.
After that I never cried
again with any real conviction, nor expected much of
anyone's God except indifference, nor loved deeply without
fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of
five I had become a skeptic . . . (Growing Up, p.
Let me conclude by noting that
however prevalent the superficial motives for being an atheist,
there still remain in many instances the deep and disturbing
psychological sources as well. However easy it may be to state
the hypothesis of the "defective father," we must not forget the
difficulty, the pain, and complexity that lie behind each
individual case. And for those whose atheism has been
conditioned by a father who rejected, who denied, who hated, who
manipulated, or who physically or sexually abused them, there
must be understanding and compassion. Certainly for a child to
be forced to hate his own father-or even to despair because of
his father's weaknesses is a great tragedy. After all, the child
only wants to love his father. For any unbeliever whose atheism
is grounded in such experience, the believer, blessed by God's
love, should pray most especially that ultimately they will both
meet in heaven. Meet and embrace and experience great joy. If
so, perhaps the former atheist will experience even more joy
than the believer. For, in addition to the happiness of the
believer, the atheist will have that extra increment that comes
from his surprise at finding himself surrounded by joy in, of
all places, his Father's house.
Adler, M. (1976). Philosopher
at large. New York: Macmillan.
Adler, M. (1980). How to
think about God: A guide to the twentieth century pagan.
New York: Macmillan.
Baker, R. (1982). Growing
up. New York: Congdon & Weed.
Feuerbach, L. (1891/1957).
The essence of Christianity. Ed. and abridged by E. G.
Waring & F. W. Strothman. New York: Ungar.
Freud, S. (1910/1947).
Leonardo da Vinci, New York: Random.
Freud, S. (1927/1961). The
future of an illusion. New York: Norton.
Freud S. (1923/1962). The
ego and the id. New York: Norton.
Freud S. & Pfister, 0. (1963).
Psychoanalysis and faith: The letters of Sigmund Freud and
Oskar Pfister. New York: Basic.
Gedo, J. E. & Pollock, G. H. (Eds.).
(1967). Freud: The fusion of science and humanism. New
York: International University.
Graddy, W.E. (1982, June). The
uncrossed bridge. New Oxford Review, 23-24.
Krull, M. (1979). Freud
und sein Vater. Munich: Beck. Murray, W.J. (1982). My
life without God. Nashville, TN: Nelson.
Vitz, P.C. (1983). Sigmund
Freud's attraction to Christianity: Biographical evidence.
Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, 6, 73-183.
Vitz, P.C. (1986). Sigmund
Freud's Christian unconscious. New York: Guilford, in press.
Vitz, P.C. & Gartner, J.
(1984a). Christianity and psychoanalysis, part 1: Jesus as the
anti-Oedipus. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 12,
Vitz, P.C., & Gartner, J.
(1984b). Christianity and psychoanalysis, part 2: Jesus the
transformer of the super-ego. Journal of Psychology and
Theology, 12, 82-89.
- Address: New York
University, Department of Psychology, 6 Washington Place,
New York 10003.
- I understand there is a
sequel to the story of Adler. I've recently been told that
about 2 years ago Adler became a Christian, and Anglican