Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Review: Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism by Paul Vitz

Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of AtheismFaith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism by Paul Vitz is a relatively short (150 page) but very interesting look at the psychological factors that may contribute to atheism. The premise of the book is not to explore the existence of God or to show that belief or unbelief is true or false. Instead, the author is investigating notable psychological patterns in those who espouse strong atheist positions:

…there seems to be a widespread assumption, throughout much of our intellectual community, that belief in God is based on all kinds of irrational, immature needs and wishes, whereas atheism or skepticism flows from a rational, grown-up, no-nonsense view of things as they really are. To challenge the psychology of this viewpoint is the primary concern of this book. As I present the evidence from the lives of atheists, I will be looking for regularities, for patterns that distinguish their lives from those of a comparable group of theists.1

Vitz begins by laying out his hypothesis and the underlying principle behind it. He proposes that “atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates.”2  He notes that the theory that God is merely a projection of one’s needs is a popular position, but “the psychological concepts used so effectively to interpret religion by those who reject God are double-edged swords that can also, indeed easily, be used to explain their unbelief.”3  He makes clear one of the underlying assumptions of his study: “First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but can be called, in a general sense, psychological.”4

The psychological angle that Vitz examines is the role and influence of one’s father in the formation of beliefs about God. The author notes that “Christianity is in many respects distinctive in its emphasis on God as loving Father.”5 Vitz points out that “Freud makes the simple and easily understandable claim that once a child or youth is disappointed in or loses respect for his earthly father, belief in a heavenly father becomes impossible.”6 It is with this thesis in mind – the lack of a father plays a strong role in one’s psychological disposition towards rejecting God – that Vitz engages his case study comparing the lives of famous atheists and theists: “I have selected for study those who are historically famous as atheists. These are great thinkers, typically philosophers, whose rejection of God was central to their intellectual life and public positions.”7

Vitz looks first at the lives of famous atheists whose fathers died quite early: Friedich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Arthur Schopenhaur. He then looks at the abusive and weak fathers of Thomas Hobbes, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Jean d’Alembert, Baron d’Holbach, Ludwig Feurbach, Samuel Butler, Sigmund Freud, and H.G. Wells. Vitz provides a historical vignette of each figure, describing their childhood, the father’s role, and the resulting psychological impact. The author finds that, “Looking back at our thirteen major historical rejectors of a personal God, we find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case.”8

As a control group, Vitz compares famous theists and their fathers of the same time frame:

These are many of the major theists from the seventeenth to the twentieth century: Blaise Pascal, Bishop Butler, Thomas Reid, Edmund Burke, Moses Mendelssohn, William Paley, William and Samuel Wilberforce, Francois Chateaubriand, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, Soren Kierkegaard, Baron von Hugel, G. K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Abraham Heschel.9

It should be noted that not all the theists had theistic fathers. Again, with the theist group, Vitz provides historical background of each individual. This is sometimes very interesting to read, sometimes somewhat flat. Nevertheless, the author’s hypothesis is consistent with both the most famous atheists and the most famous theists of the same time frame. Vitz properly acknowledges that “…human lives are complex, and we should not expect a single hypothesis to account for all relevant cases,” but adds, “though I am rather surprised at the high number of cases that this single theory does seem to explain.”10  His general conclusion: “In short, the presence of a positive and effective father, or father-figure, seems to be a strong antidote to atheism.”11

With the main thesis of the book established, Vitz goes on to assess other cases, such as what he calls political atheists – Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and others. He also looks at atheistic fathers who were positive influences. He looks at some exceptions, then briefly explores some of the psychological differences between men and women:

For men, God seems to function primarily as a principle of justice and order in the world – and only secondarily as a person with whom one has a relationship. In other words, God’s law and providential control seem to be the central aspects of belief for men. […] We would expect, therefore, that men who become atheists will find a new absolute principle with which to order the world. Thus, we expect male atheists to be quite explicitly atheistic and to have a new ‘divinity’ that takes the intellectual place of God.12

Vitz evaluates his own psychological reasons for disbelief in the final chapter, Superficial Atheism: A Personal Account. This portion of the book points out other substantial psychological influences, as acknowledged in Vitz’s own account:

But the major factors involved in my becoming an atheist – though I was not really aware of them at the time – were not intellectual, but social and psychological. I turn to these since they are rarely discussed, even though there is good reason to believe that, at least for many people, social-psychological factors are far more influential than rational arguments.13

The author points to specific socialization issues that played a role as well:

Just as I had learned how to dress like a college student by putting on the right clothes, I learned to think like a proper psychologist by putting on the right – that is, atheistic – ideas and attitudes. I wanted as few impediments to my professional career as it was possible.14

Personal independence also seemed to play a role for Vitz: “For me, as presumably for many, becoming an atheist was part of a personal infatuation with the ‘romance of the autonomous self.’”15  The implications of a godless reality seemed attractive, as he reasoned: “After all, if there is no God and only matter, if atheism is true, then there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell. As Dostoevsky observed, ‘If God is dead then everything is permitted.’ At a rather less elevated level, I took the message to be ‘Grab all the gusto you can!’”16

Vitz summarizes what he sees as the psychological factors in his own atheism:

In my own case, I now see that it was because of my social need to assimilate, my professional need to be accepted as part of the world of academic psychology, and my personal need for independence and an agreeable way of life that I chose to be an atheist. Hence, the intellectual basis for my atheism, like that of countless others, appears in retrospect to be much more of a shallow rationalization than an objective rationale.17

In the conclusion, Vitz reflects on his findings and reminds the reader that psychology cannot tell us about whether or not God exists:  “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.”18 He notes that to use psychology in an argument for or against the truthfulness of the question is to commit the genetic fallacy (the idea that because someone came to believe something in a certain fashion, their belief is therefore false). In addition, he cautions that “in this framework, ad hominem arguments must be rejected as irrelevant – and psychological arguments are all ad hominem; that is, they address the person presenting the evidence and not the evidence itself.”19

After rightfully pointing out that psychology cannot play a role in evaluating the truthfulness of a position, Vitz lays out what he thinks is an important practical application of this psychological assessment:

On the other hand, in the actual, practical interaction between believers and unbelievers, the preceding study also supports a different conclusion. It seems clear from the kinds of evidence I have cited that many an intense personal ‘reason’ lies behind the public rejection of God. If one wishes to genuinely reach such people, one must address their underlying psychology. Aside from the common, superficial reasons, most serious unbelievers are likely to have painful memories underlying their rationalization of atheism.20

Vitz cautions against the misuse of his thesis, noting that every person’s psychology is different. In the end, the author would suggest a more pastoral application for his thesis.

Let us conclude then by noting that, however prevalent the willful choice of unbelief by an ambitious or arrogant intellectual, there still remain, in many instances, profound and disturbing sources of unbelief. It is easy to formulate the hypothesis of the defective father, but we must not forget or oversimplify the pain and the complex causes that lie behind individual cases.21

In summary, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism is a fascinating book that is appropriate for atheist and theist. It is both a must-read for those studying atheism, and good food for thought in assessing one’s own reasons for belief or unbelief.

1 Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 1999), p. xiv.
2 Ibid, p. 3.
3 Ibid., p. 4.
4 Ibid., p. 5.
5 Ibid., p. 7.
6 Ibid., p 16.
7 Ibid., p. 18.
8 Ibid., p. 57.
9 Ibid., p. 92.
10 Ibid., p. 94.
11 Ibid., p. 104.
12 Ibid., pp. 109-110.
13 Ibid., p. 134.
14 Ibid., pp. 135-136
15 Ibid., p. 136.
16 Ibid., p. 137.
17 Ibid., p. 138.
18 Ibid., p. 145.
19 Ibid., p. 145.
20 Ibid., p. 145.
21 Ibid., p. 147.


  1. Matthew February 13, 2010

    I'm a tad skeptical about such sayings, but it's hard to dispute that every behaviour has it's influences.
    Probably an interesting read.

  2. Dan Rodger February 14, 2010

    Read this book a couple of years back, great review, good book but the overall conclusion must be taken with a pinch of salt.

  3. Sergio February 17, 2010

    What a ridiculous assertion. The reason people are atheists are because with education and knowledge come the critical thinking skills to analyze the factual basis of the claims of religion. To put it simply, there is no proof, none whatsoever, for the existence of gods, or anything supernatural for that matter. It really isn't very complicated.

  4. James February 17, 2010

    Vitz's thesis, while interesting, is rather condescending in its execution. There have been many studies of beliefs, of which I find very interesting, but rarely do I enjoy such little snippets like this one you supplied:

    "If one wishes to genuinely reach such people, one must address their underlying psychology."

    It's almost a tongue in cheek way of evading by essentially saying "given that psychology doesn't determine the veracity of beliefs, I think they're wrong". It's like saying "I don't mean to offend you, but you're dressed like an idiot".

    Furthermore, he never sufficiently treated the reality that many atheists, and christians as well, do have reasons (some valid) for remaining in their belief system. And his suggestion that you play to the psychology of some atheists to convert them seems rather disingenuous and condescending by treating someone predominately on the basis of their past rather than treating them as adults who may hold a rational position. Like I said above, I like reading psychological analysis about positions, but one should always be careful to neither over generalize or to be manipulative and downplay the beliefs of respectful adults.

  5. Brian February 17, 2010

    Thanks for chiming in with your thoughtful responses, James.

    while interesting, is rather condescending
    Perhaps you should blame my insufficiency as a reviewer. By my reading, I found no tone of condescension in his writing. He was very matter-of-fact and readily acknowledged that his thesis is not the only factor involved in belief formation.

    "If one wishes to genuinely reach such people, one must address their underlying psychology."

    It's almost a tongue in cheek way of evading by essentially saying "given that psychology doesn't determine the veracity of beliefs, I think they're wrong". It's like saying "I don't mean to offend you, but you're dressed like an idiot".

    I think that could be true if that is the intention of the person. All of this psychology works both ways: it works that way for theist and atheist alike. It seems to me that if someone has a lot of psychological factors involved in their belief formation then it makes sense to take that into account when speaking with them… and I don't see how the atheist couldn't also use this in addressing theists as well, for there are many theists whose 'road to belief' involves a number of psychological factors.

    Furthermore, he never sufficiently treated the reality that many atheists, and christians as well, do have reasons (some valid) for remaining in their belief system.
    But that is not the focus of the book. The very fact that he is saying that there are also psychological reasons involved implies that there are intellectual reasons. He acknowledges that there are intellectual reasons. Personally, I think the two are intertwined and you would be hard-pressed to find one devoid of some degree of the other.

    Keep an eye out for an upcoming review of The Making of an Atheist as well as the current review of If There is a God, Why Are There Atheists here.

    Sergio: Are you suggesting that the reasons people believe things (atheist or theist) are solely based on intellectual assessment?