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Few atheists will be celebrating their dads on Father’s Day.

At least that’s the solemn judgment of Dr. Paul Vitz, psychologist and author of Faith of the Fatherless: the psychology of atheism.

Published in 1999, Vitz’s book argues that absent or abusive fathers cause their children to lose trust in father figures, leading those kids to reject them as well as their “Heavenly Father.” Vitz supported his “Defective Father” hypothesis (DFH) by citing well-known atheists who had terrible or nonexistent relationships with their dads. Many of the devoutly religious took his hypothesis as fact, praising Vitz’s book for finally explaining how anyone could reject their god. 

When I first read this claim years ago, I didn’t reject it out of hand. I and another atheist friend are estranged from our fathers. Then I realized I could name just as many atheists I knew who had healthy relationships with their dads. Anecdotal evidence alone isn’t enough either way, so curiosity drove me to see if this hypothesis has been researched since Vitz. But very few researchers have studied Vitz’s claims.

One study by Ohio University researcher Joseph Langston found “no relationships” that were significant enough to validate the hypothesis and called the hypothesis “unconfirmed.” Langston goes further, making several specific arguments against the DFH. That men are statistically more likely to be atheists than women, yet we don’t find evidence that fathers of boys are more likely to be abusive or absent, is one of many weaknesses in the DFH.

Even if a statistical relationship were uncovered between bad fathers and atheist children, correlation is not causation, and there could easily be confounding factors. Maintaining religious belief, church attendance, and religious traditions often depends on a continued closeness to the controlling male guardian you don’t want to disappoint. When the children of authoritarians become adults, out of the control of that defective father, they may finally be free to decide that their religious beliefs don’t hold water.

When the children of authoritarians become adults, out of the control of a defective father, they may finally be free to decide that their religious beliefs don’t hold water.

Believers have a long history of demonizing atheists and holding doubters in contempt. If leaders want to maintain control of their cult and followers want to avoid admitting they’re being controlled or acknowledging they’ve been duped, skeptics must be swiftly rejected, mocked, imprisoned, or worse. The idea that bad dads cause atheism is just another attempt to make non-belief pathological, something that signifies to Christians that you should be avoided because you come from a bad family and carry emotional baggage. 

Ultimately, what believers are demonizing is the rejection of authoritarianism. In the world of Abrahamic religions, pastors, priests, rabbis, elders, and imams stand at the top of the pyramid. Under them are husbands and fathers, then women and children sit obediently at the bottom. There is a need to pathologize independent thinking and the freedom to abandon one’s religion or god because these actions oppose obedience to the husband and father, the authority in the family. They’re essentially saying, “How dare you rebel against your father (and by extension, your Heavenly Father)?” This also explains why so many believers will assert that atheists are “just mad at God.” To them, not believing their deity exists is like not believing your own father exists, so atheists are simply going through a rebellious teenager phase.


RELATED: Do atheists just need a father figure?


To accept the “Defective Father” hypothesis is to ignore the stacks of reasonable arguments and evidence against god claims, assume bad fathering is a very recent phenomenon in human history, assume there’s no such thing as an atheist father who’s lovingly raising good atheist kids, believe there are no atheists from polytheistic religions, and believe most people who grew up abandoned or abused by their dads are now atheists. If the last one was true, wouldn’t atheists make up more than a measly 3% of society? If we go by the percentage of atheists in the US population, then those who tout the legitimacy of this hypothesis are saying they believe abusive and neglectful fathers are extremely rare, even during times in which husbands could legally beat their families and rape their wives. 

What does the research say about atheist dads who raise their kids in secular homes?  While little or nothing has been done specifically on fathers in that context, there’s plenty of research on atheist parents, and it turns out kids tend to fare very well in nonreligious homes

The “Defective Father” hypothesis may be nothing more than psychological projection. It’s been said that humans look to a god in the heavens who will love us unconditionally, guide us with wisdom, care for us during our most difficult times, and maintain an orderly world where fairness and justice reign precisely because our fellow humans fail us so often. We created a Heavenly Father to do what our earthly fathers (and brothers, mothers, and sisters) were not doing. Interestingly, many atheists cite the realization that their own fathers were there for them in all the ways their Heavenly Father wasn’t, by protecting them from harm and comforting them during difficult times, as a reason they became nonbelievers. If they would do everything in their power to prevent their children from suffering needlessly, why can’t this god?

There is certainly a defective father in this scenario, but it isn’t the earthly one.

Liz LaPoint is a bibliophile, sexuality researcher, writer, atheist, secular humanist, producer of The Naked Advice YouTube channel, model, wife, and mom.