Projecting God or rejecting God?

[Excerpt from Part Five: Making Up Your Mind]

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In his book Faith of the Fatherless, Freudian-trained psychologist Paul Vitz documents a multitude of atheists who had abusive, absent, or weak father figures growing up. He writes, “I have selected for study those who are historically famous atheists. These are great thinkers, typically philosophers, whose rejection of God was central to their intellectual life and public positions.”[1] From this, Vitz argues that our belief in a heavenly Father closely relates to our relationship with our earthly one.

Vitz found that many famous atheists had fathers who had died when they were young. Young children in this sad situation feel abandoned by their fathers, and thus, might project this abandonment onto God. For instance, atheist Friedrich Nietzsche and agnostic Bertrand Russell both had fathers who died when they were four years old. Skeptic David Hume’s father died when he was two. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus’ fathers both died when they were only one. Atheistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s father died from suicide, when he was 17.

Other atheists had fathers who were abusive. Atheistic philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ father was the vicar of a small Anglican church, who was an ignorant gambler with a violent temper. After attacking a man on the way into church one day, his father fled to another city, and they never heard from him again.

Voltaire’s father sent him to prison, because Voltaire wouldn’t study law in school. He hated his father so much that he tried to be considered illegitimate, rather than the son of his biological father. Vitz comments, “Voltaire’s belief does not mean that he was illegitimate, merely that he preferred to be considered another man’s bastard rather than his legal father’s son.”[2]

Atheist mathematician Jean d’Alembert was the illegitimate son of an artillery officer, and he was abandoned as a newborn boy. His biological father never recognized him as his son, and he died when Jean was only twelve.

Enlightenment atheist Baron d’Holbach was given to his rich uncle, and he was made a baron. As he grew up, he rejected his father’s name in favor of his uncle—never mentioning his father in any recorded source, as though he didn’t even exist.

German atheist Ludwig Feuerbach’s father cheated on his mother with a family friend, when he was only nine years old. After living openly with the affair for nine years, he left the family for his mistress, fathering a boy with the mistress and naming the child after himself. It was only after his mistress died that he returned to the family.

Atheistic novelist Samuel Butler’s father was a Christian clergyman, who would terrorize and beat him. Butler and his father were also in fierce competition with one another, where they would regularly belittle and criticize each another. Vitz notes, “He, in return, could recall no time when he did not fear and dislike his father.”[3]

Other atheists had fathers that were weak or abusive. For instance, Sigmund Freud’s father was unable to provide for the family, and Freud considered him to be passive and weak in response to anti-Semitism. Freud recalls stories of how men called his father a “dirty Jew,” knocking his hat off his head, which horrified Freud. Vitz writes, “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.”[4]

Atheistic author H.G. Wells’ father couldn’t provide for his family. He played sports, drank heavily, and gambled the family’s money away. His mother ran the family business, while his father played cricket.

American atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s son wrote a biography about her, describing her intense hatred for her father (his grandfather). Vitz writes, “He [O’Hair’s son] claims that he did not know why his mother hated her father so much—but hate him she did. In the opening chapter of the book, he reports a very ugly fight in which O’Hair attempted to kill her father with a ten-inch butcher knife. She failed but screamed, ‘I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave!’”[5]

In addition, even though Vitz didn’t document this, atheist Richard Dawkins seems to fit this profile as well. Using vague language, Dawkins explains how his boarding school teachers molested his classmates and him.[6]

In my experience, most atheists that I’ve known are more emotionally hostile to the idea of God than intellectually hostile. Imagine how difficult it would be to believe in God the Father, if your father was abusive, absent, or passive. Consider being physically abused by your father and then hearing that there is a cosmic Father out there that wants a relationship with you! This concept might be more of a threat than a relief.

Of course, this theory is not a proof of theism. Not all atheists have absent or abusive fathers. Some atheists have wonderful dads, but they decide to disbelieve in God anyway. Christians call this free will. People are affected by their upbringing and their environment, but they’re never determined by it. Vitz himself argued that his theory merely applied to many atheists—though not all of them. He concluded his book by writing,

Since both believers and nonbelievers in God have psychological reasons for their positions, one important conclusion is that in any debate as to the truth of the existence of God, psychology should be irrelevant. A genuine search for evidence supporting, or opposing, the existence of God should be based on the evidence and arguments found in philosophy, theology, science, history, and other relevant disciplines.[7]

Vitz’s research doesn’t prove anything about God’s existence; it merely shows that there are many psychological factors involved in belief and unbelief that might be intergenerational, as the Bible teaches (Ex. 20:5). While many Freudians claim that believers are merely projecting God, it’s equally likely that non-believers are rejecting him.[8] This being said, clearly our social surroundings have an impact on our beliefs.

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[1] Vitz, Paul C. Faith of the Fatherless: the Psychology of Atheism. Dallas: Spence Pub., 1999. 18.

[2] Ibid., 39.

[3] Ibid., 44.

[4] Ibid., 47-48.

[5] Ibid., 55.

[6] Dawkins writes, “All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affection for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless if, fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defence, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience).” Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 355.

[7] Emphasis mine. Vitz, Paul C. Faith of the Fatherless: the Psychology of Atheism. Dallas: Spence Pub., 1999. 145.

[8] Moreover, this Freudian argument commits the genetic fallacy. This is fallacious reasoning, because identifying the source of a belief is not the same as defeating the belief. For example, even if people believe in theism to take care of their insecurity and guilt, it could still be true that there is a God. Contrarily, even if people believe in atheism because of their defective fathers, God could still not exist. These arguments are not cogent, because they do not address the beliefs themselves.