Monday, September 19, 2011

You Might Be an Atheist Because You Have a Defective Father

I just read a lecture given by Paul C. Vitz that summarizes his book entitled, "Faith of the Fatherless." He looked at the biographies of several prominent 19th and 20th century atheists, notably Freud, Marx, and O'Hair. Apparently in his book, he compares these biographies with those of several notable theists and finds significant differences in their fathers. From this anecdotal evidence he constructs his "defective father hypothesis":

...once a child is disappointed in and looses his or her respect for the earthly father, then belief in a heavenly father becomes impossible.

In his case studies, he noted that the atheists either have fathers who died early in the atheist's life, intentionally abandoned the family, or were weak or abusive. Vitz himself became an atheist during college, though he eventually became a Christian again later. He noted that, as in his case, individuals may also become an atheist for "superficial reasons", such as personal convenience or a desire to conform to the culture or professional environment. He rejects the assertion that atheism is born out of rationalism.

As a psychologist, I'm always interested in the development of belief systems and family background is always one area I inquire about. It would be surprising if family environment didn't play a role in most aspects of our development. Of course, Vitz didn't conduct a rigorous experiment from which we can make bold claims about causation. However, he offers interesting anecdotes that offer insight into important influences on some atheists. He appears to reject the idea that atheism may be born out of a reasoned critique of religion. This is where I question him. Are the only causes a selfish desire to either get ahead or avoid moral constraints or deep psychological anguish inflicted by a defective father?

What is your family background and what influences has it had on your religious beliefs or lack thereof? What other factors are involved in shaping these beliefs?

As far as my family background, I'll mention my dad's experience before my own. My dad was the 3rd of 5 siblings. He had a lovely mom and an abusive and psychotic dad. The oldest 2 children experienced abuse and witnessed their mom being beaten. My grandfather was removed from the home when my dad was 3 years old, so he was spared the brunt of the trauma. The oldest child, a boy, was mentored by hypocritical men in his church who made a mockery out of their Christian beliefs. He functioned as a surrogate parent to his 3 younger siblings and made them respect their mom and attend church with her, though he became an atheist, of the angry, I'll-do-what-I-please variety. He's lived as a functional alchoholic his entire life, living in reaction to everyone. The other 4 siblings have maintained their Christian beliefs. My dad was lucky enough to get positive mentors from his church who encouraged him to attend college, despite his poverty and family background. My dad became a leader in his church, served others in the community, and helped heal many lives. There's no doubt that the "defective father theory" works to describe my dad and his siblings.

As far as I'm concerned, one might expect me not to have the problems hanging on to my Christian beliefs, given the upbringing I had. Christianity was modeled in a positive way by my parents who practiced it sincerely and devoutly. Christianity felt comfortable and protective, not like a burden of morally repressive rules. The defective father theory doesn't work for me, nor do the superficial reasons. It's to my benefit, professionally and socially to remain orthodox within my faith community. I have no desire to be morally unrestrained either. Though my initial questioning did come from intense revulsion to the doctrine of hell and cognitive dissonance in understanding it in the context of belief in a loving God, subsequent study did nothing but undermine my belief system.

Of course, the validity of our beliefs aren't determined by the reasons we hold them, but it's instructive to understand how we arrive at our conclusions.


  1. I read that book some years back. While some of the argumentation for this thesis is compelling, I tend to think it doesn't say everything about the subject.

    My dad was a man of Christian faith - although he held somewhat of a skeptical attitude about life in general, somehow he never, ever applied it consistently to his faith (elements of it, yes, but not broadly) - and held his conviction until his death, even in his later years urging me not to doubt God.

    The overall religious environment that I was raised it in made it extremely difficult for me to objectively examine arguments from "the other side."

    I no longer believe in the "Old Man in the Sky" God, which was a staple of my youth. But I moved away from that slowly, by degrees, as I did an increasing amount of study and thinking about the subject.

    For some time now I have felt that our religious beliefs have more to do with our emotions than our logic. Is that true also for non-theists? Perhaps. The things is, it is very difficult for us to be introspective enough to unpack our emotional selves to the degree that we can answer such questions in a straightforward manner.

    At least that is what I think. Or what I think I think. Anyway, this is an interesting post and poses some interesting ideas.

    Even as a non-theist I still struggle with the idea that the Cosmos is just some happy accident. I have doubts about my doubts. That doesn't lead me to a personal God, but I can't help feeling that nature is in some sense sacred. There does seem to me to be some organizing principle behind it all.

  2. Does the author intend his thesis to be undermining to atheism? Because it seems that if it's true, then the reverse must also be true and people become religious because they have good fathers. And that seems equally undermining.

    It also seems question begging and reductionistic to an almost Freudian degree to say that reason isn't involved in moving from religion to atheism. If people say they reasoned themselves out of religion, well, that's probably what they did. I don't see what the point is in denying reality like that.

  3. I knew a Christian psychologist once who said that in his experience the strongest determinant of belief in God as an adult was how secure a person felt in their parents' love as a child. I don't recall that he thought that one parent was any more influential than the other.

    I suspect that the child who is unsure about being loved will see the world as more random and chaotic. That may make it more difficult to believe that a benign force is in control.

  4. Interesting hypothesis, but my feelings on it is that its utterly false. Yes there will be some atheists who match, but there will also be some that don't. I expect the differential will be within acceptable error limits and there would be no obvious weight one way or the other.

    As to my own family experience. Its probably best I refer to my grandfathers. Both of whom never knew their own fathers.

    My paternal grandfather was born illigitimate and while we suspect we know who the father is, we don't know for sure and he was never a feature in my grandfathers life. My grandfather never expressed a firm opinion on faith. He was sympathetic to religion but regained agnostic as far as I can tell.

    My maternal grandfather lost his father in WW1 before he was even born. So again grew up without a father. He grew to be a very godly man, his sister became a missionary and each of their respective children had / have a strong faith.

    As for me, well divorce has tainted my relationship with my father so its had it ups and downs. Until 3 or 4 years ago I would have said I was a very strong christian, now, not so much. In that time my relationship with my father has improved considerably.

  5. My relationship with my father is good, but then again, I don't fit the label of atheist or christian. I do think that a loss of trust in childhood can increase one's skepticism level. For me, it was the loss of trust in the church, its leaders, its people, its scholars. My husband had a good relationship with his dad as a child but was estranged from him 4 years ago when he had an affair and divorced my
    MIL and started becoming cruel (as if he was a different person). Certainly my husband has much reason to abandon Christianity, with his suddenly mean FIL and the church abuse we experienced. Yet he clings on. This study seems easily refuted!

  6. My dad was an alcoholic who had an affair, effectively ending my parent's relationship when I was around 8 or 9. Relatively soon after the divorce, he married the woman he had the affair with, and is still married to her to this day. Of his three kids though, I maintained the closest relationship with him after the divorce. I didn't hold it against him, nor did I have ill feelings when my mom remarried someone else.

    So, I would say I kind of fit the Vitz mold for a defective father/atheist son, but that's just if you look at the surface.

    To my recollection, I never held my dad in such high esteem as for our relationship to affect my faith. That's not at all to say that I did not love him or respect him, but just that I didn't hold unrealistic expectations for him to be a perfect, sinless man or God's personal representative.

    When it came down to considering my faith in God, thoughts of my earthly father never came bubbling up. To me, the earthly father versus the heavenly father were as different as night and day. That may have something to do with the Methodist church I was raised in, which (to my recollection) did not preach Godly interaction in every detail of our lives. Meanwhile the relationship with my dad was a much more regular and intimate daily experience.

  7. I get uncomfortable with the blame the parents game. Probably because I'm a parent and I figure my kids can blame me on a whole lot of things. I know I blamed my parents for tons of stuff. Then you grow up and well, you grow up. Aren't we all "defective" in one way or another?

    My vulnerability for the hell message I heard at a church camp was because I (short story) saw a stash of my dad's suicide letters that year. Dad never killed himself but he forgot to destroy the letters. I didn't know what end was up. I never confronted him. I was scared shitless and lived in a constant state of wondering when he was going to kill himself. At the time I was living my first year as a teenage in hell. I had always believed in Jesus because I knew nothing different, but the Jesus I had believed in wasn't one who sent you to hell if you weren't "born-again." Knowing the hell I was in and being told I was headed for a worse hell made me want "to be saved." "Saved" from all of it. My pain, my confusion. My foundation was cracked, my security ruined, my trust vanished. I was ripe for the "we are sinners, defective, wretched worms with deceitful hearts" message. Dad's so called "defective" parts led me to born-again Christianity.

  8. I agree with Zoe (no surprise there, eh?) (The “eh?” was Canadian-speak.)

    One can find rottenness and good in every human—equally all fathers have exhibited some good traits and some bad ones.

    I have a good father, who raised his family the best he would within his means. At times he was probably too strict; other times too lenient. And other times just right. He came to our sports functions when work allowed, he gave us an appreciation for adventure as well as stewardship. He taught us well, methinks.

    Yet if I wanted to, I could focus on some of his poor decisions and errors and paint a tainted picture of who he is.

    *shrug* I might add, if one is “looking for a relationship” the dearth of atheists and the almost complete lack of social functions surrounding atheism would make it a pretty poor choice, if that is what one was looking for. It would seem to me, most people “looking for a fatherly figure” would gravitate TOWARD a church, rather than away from it.

  9. I was the youngest of nine children. My parents were good people who did the best they could but I think they were a little worn out by the time I came along. I remember feeling unsure about where I stood in the family and whether I measured up. I can't say exactly how this played into my religious experience, but I'm pretty sure that it did.

  10. I appreciate all these responses. It's always interesting to learn about someone's family. This nonrepresentative sample of comments illustrates the variety of factors at play in decisions as complex as religion.

    It's interesting that you actually read the book. i might at least skim it. it's an interesting subject.

    Arni, I do think Vitz is using his defective father theory to undermine atheism, at least the assertion that it's based on reason.

    Vinny, Limey and LikeAChild,
    in my counseling practice, I often do run into family factors having an obvious impact on religious outlooks, but it's not a simple, linear relationship. Just this week I talked with someone whose abusive past causes her to feel less than and to avoid religion as she believes she can't measure up to religious standards. However, I've also worked with highly religious people who never had a father figure.

    You bring up an interesting point about the type of religion you're raised in. I would think that it would be hardest to maintain Christianity with a defective father if one comes from a religion where a close, personal relationship with God is what is taught and valued.

    You bring up a good point, which is that sometimes it's the "defect" that actually causes one to seek religion or a religious community. A salvation from one's experience.

    Yes, I think a subset of people do, in fact, gravitate toward religion as a way of seeking father figures. That's part of why I think Vitz's view at best describes a subset of atheists whose response is to flee seriously flawed fathers and their projections, like in the case of my uncle.

  11. I don't think it's as black and white as saying that people with a "defective" father become atheists. Of course, I haven't read the book so I'm sure Vitz isn't claiming it's that black and white. I think it has to do with the personality, thought processes and genetic makeup of an individual. Some people with crappy home lives as children gravitate toward religion and some people with crappy home lives as children end up militantly atheist. The other side of that coin is that some people with fantastic fathers end up atheist and some end up devoutly fundamentalist. It's a mixed bag. I'd guess that most people whether they had a good or bad father end up somewhere in the middle of the two.

    I had a fantastic dad who was a weekend alcoholic. He spent lots of time with us and loved us beyond measure. We also played bartender and cleaned up after moonshine. He was honest and hardworking. My mom also bailed him out of jail a time or two. I thought my childhood was pretty normal.

    After he died and then later my mom died my brother and I sought out "relationship". We needed a place to belong. My two sisters were angry with God and shunned religion. Now my brother and I are both agnostic after much research and thought, after we both learned that what we'd believed wasn't true.

  12. In hindsight, I don’t think I can blame my dad for any of this. I did not finally completely loose my Christian Faith until my mid-40’s, by which time I was long out of my parent’s house, so I don’t think any of their influence was a direct cause.

    Might as well share a bit of that story. I was raised in a very broken and defective home. I was the oldest child of 3. (Or 5. Or 6. It depends on how you count). Both my parents were non-religious when I was very young, and my mom and I were victims of regular abuse and beatings from my often drunk father. After several years of misadventures, my mother finally divorced him and married the son of a local Pentacostal preacher. Mom suddenly became very religious, and this is the environment I was raised in from there on. Step-dad was also often drunk, but he managed better than my real dad – and for many years stayed sober with the help of AA. By the time I was 30, step-dad was long since dumped by my mother, who by then was just starting her fourth marriage. My real dad was also starting his fourth marriage, and had converted to Mormonism. I had struggled to make amends with my dad, partly because I never had a relationship with him, partly because I viewed Mormonism as a heresy and I longed to see him convert to the True Faith. Although he had quit smoking, drinking, etc, and was taking his new Mormon Faith very seriously, I can’t count the number of times I would take a photo of him to our weekly prayer meetings, and soaked the photo wet with my own tears of fervent prayer, and fear of seeing him wind up in Hell. When I visited him, of course, he would also try to convert me to His True Faith. We never debated. We just each expressed our own points of view to each other, then left it at that, without argumentation. I never argued, because at the time I was still intimidated by him. For the first time in my entire life, I actually spent some time with him, trying to get to know him, and understand him. And do my best to learn to love him. Nearly 20 years later, I don’t know if I ever succeeded. But as a 30 year old, I could still remember his fists connecting to my face, and the force of that impact lasted through the intervening years. Even though he professed new Faith in God, I remembered those beatings. I wanted to, nay, yearned to love him, because he was the only father I would ever have. But he still scared the crap out of me.

    I am now 47 years old. Mom still lives with her 4th husband, and they have been together for nearly 20 years. She has by now pretty much entirely abandoned any Christian Faith she once had, although I would not call her a Skeptic or Atheist. She is simply non-religious and does not seem to care. Our relationship is fairly close.

    Dad now lives in Bataan, Philippines with his 6th wife (how he wound up there is a very, very long story, and one I don’t fully understand myself) and two young children. Realistically, knowing the logistics of travel in Provincial Philippines, and knowing the unusual nature and personality of dad, I have to be content with the fact that I will likely never see him again. He is now 67 years old, and he remains a total mystery to me. He occasionally posts videos of his life in rural Philippines on his YouTube page (you can see a link on the sidebar of my blogsite). I believe he has abandoned his Mormon Faith (another long story), but last I hear, he attends a Baptist church there in Bataan. He is fervently religious.

    I had no loving relationship with my father. Did that lack of relationship make me an atheist? After thinking about it while typing this response, I don’t think so. At least it is very unlikely. On the contrary – I think that lack of relationship, that lack of a father is what made me very religious. Mom turned to religion to help her in her hour of need, and passed those beliefs onto me. I turned to religion, looking for that relationship that I never knew.

  13. D'Ma, Thanks for sharing. I do think people seek out or maintain their religion based to a great degree on community and/or family connection.

    You've had quite a complicated childhood. The fact that both you and your dad married a Filipino woman is not lost on me. I have no idea what it means, if anything, but it's pretty interesting. It's a little sad to me that you have even visited the Philippines since he's been there but have been unable to visit. It may not bother you but it feels disappointing to me. I did watch a few minutes of his videos, btw. He's lived alot of lives!