A Christian scholar reports that Christians are Christian because they had good father figures and atheists are atheists because they had bad ones. Let’s explore the failures in this offensive claim.
It’s Father’s Day in the U.S., so let’s take a look at an odd theory that attempts to base atheism on the lack of a good father figure.
Paul Vitz was a professor of psychology. His Faith of the Fatherless (1999) attempts to use Freudian techniques to conclude that “modern atheism originated in the irrational, psychological needs of a few prominent thinkers.”
Which Freud are we talking about?
Presumably this is the same Sigmund Freud who concluded that, according to Karen Armstrong in A History of God, “a personal god was nothing more than an exalted father-figure: desire for such a deity sprang from infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father, for justice and fairness and for life to go on forever.” Armstrong continues:
[Freud concluded that] God is simply a projection of these desires, feared and worshiped by human beings out of an abiding sense of helplessness. Religion belonged to the infancy of the human race; it had been a necessary stage in the transition from childhood to maturity. It had promoted ethical values which were essential to society. Now that humanity had come of age, however, it should be left behind.
I wonder if Vitz really wants to hold up Freud as a reliable critic of religion or if he wants to cherry pick just the bits from Freud that he likes. (I’m guessing the latter. Vitz does a lot of cherry picking.)
The defective father hypothesis
Vitz uses Freudian thinking to conclude that atheists are atheists because of the absence of a good father. Disappointment in one’s earthly father leads to a rejection of the heavenly Father.
He’s yet another Christian apologist who concludes that atheists don’t exist and are actually theists. They aren’t atheists because there’s no god; rather, they know that God exists but suppress or reject that knowledge for psychological reasons.
The core of Vitz’s “defective father hypothesis” seems to be this observation from Freud: “[Freud] 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.”
He then lists believers such as Blaise Pascal, Karl Barth, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had present and loving fathers and atheists such as Voltaire, Freud, and (wait for it!) Hitler who had absent or unloving fathers.
(There’s reason to argue that Hitler was actually a believer, but let’s ignore that for now.)
This is the argument of a scientist? This is no comprehensive survey; it’s just cherry picking. This correlation that he’s selected can be easily turned around: it’s not that atheists are driven by a poor home life to petulantly reject the Father who is obviously there; rather, Christians are coddled by the strong and wise guidance of their human father, and when they mature, they remain too weak to face reality without the crutch of a father who’s far more powerful than they. They then project a supernatural extension of that caring father onto the universe.
I half expected to read Vitz saying that if atheists had had good fathers, their hearts, like that of the Grinch, would’ve grown three sizes.
Related: Daddy issues: Do ‘defective fathers’ lead children to reject the idea of God?
If I could provide the opposite list—famous Christians who had no father figure and famous atheists who did—would Vitz reject his hypothesis? For example, let’s take one of modern Christianity’s premier thinkers, C. S. Lewis. Here’s what Lewis said about his father: “God forgive me, I thought Monday morning, when he went back to his work, the brightest jewel in the week.”
Would this cause Vitz to walk away from his poor-father hypothesis? Of course not. I’m sure he knew about this example but chose to ignore it. If I presented this defeater to his case, he would accuse me of biased selection of my examples. He’d be right, of course, but why is it okay for him but not me?
Uri Geller predicts the election
Uri Geller the mystic used the same empty reasoning in a Facebook post made shortly before the Trump/Clinton election. He declared that Donald Trump would win. Why? Because “Donald Trump” has 11 letters and “11 is a very powerful mystical number.”
Not enough evidence for you? Well consider this, Mr. Skeptic: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, and more also have 11 letters in their names!
Like Vitz, Geller simply ignores the inconvenient counterexamples such as George Washington (16 letters), Thomas Jefferson (15), Abraham Lincoln (14), and Teddy Roosevelt (14), just to take the faces on Mount Rushmore.
What I find personally obnoxious about Vitz’s claim—and again we’re in the realm of anecdote and not statistics—is that my own father was present, strong, and loving. He also emphasized education and reason, and I’m the result. I could argue that this and many other examples refute Vitz, but he and his hypothesis are a waste of time.
With Father’s Day in mind, I’d rather pass on a powerful story written by Charles Handy, an English economist and author. He describes the funeral of his father, a quiet and modest man who had lived his life as the unambitious minister of a small church in Ireland.
When [my father] died, I rushed back to Ireland for the funeral. Held in the little church where he had spent most of his life, it was supposed to be a quiet family affair. But it turned out to be neither quiet nor restricted to the family. I was astounded by the hundreds of people who came, on such short notice, from all corners of the British Isles. Almost every single person there came up to me and told me how much my father had meant to them—and how deeply he had touched their lives.
That day, I stood by his grave and wondered, Who would come to my funeral? How many lives have I touched? Who knows me as well as all of these people who knew this quiet man?
When I returned to London, I was a deeply changed man. Later that year, I resigned my tenured professorship. More important, I dropped my pretense of being someone other than who I was. I stopped trying to be a hot shot. I decided to do what I could to make a genuine difference in other people’s lives. Whether I have succeeded, only my own funeral will tell.
I only wish that I could have told my father that he was my greatest teacher.