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.