The loss of a loved one leaves a vacancyPaul 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 worshipped 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.

What is it—is Freud a reliable critic of religion or not? Vitz wants it both ways.

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. They’re 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.

Vitz supports his “defective father hypothesis” by listing 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 plenty of 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 survey; it’s 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 father, and when they mature, they are too weak to face reality and so project a supernatural extension of that caring father onto the universe.

If I could provide the opposite list—famous Christians who had no father figure and famous atheists who did—would Vitz reject his hypothesis? Of course not. He would accuse me of biased selection of the examples, and he’d be right, but why is it okay for him but not me?


What’s especially offensive about this, and again we’re in the realm of anecdote and not statistics, is that my own father was present, strong, and loving. He also put a strong value on 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.

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 an 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.

My father would have been 84 today.

Photo credit: Kevin

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  • WalterP

    Nice reflection.

    If I could provide the opposite list—famous Christians who had no
    father figure and famous atheists who did—would Vitz reject his
    hypothesis? Of course not. He would accuse me of biased selection of the
    examples, and he’d be right, but why is it okay for him but not me?

    …and now you’re suddenly grasping sampling bias! And the problems of your “I’ll choose my scientists but you can’t choose your theologians” argument.

    • I’m quite sure that I understand sampling bias, thanks. And taking all biologists for Biology and all theologians for Theology sounds hard for you to argue with.

      Though you keep doing so.

    • Greg G.

      Hi WalterP

      If you sample the experts in a field that has good evidence, they will pretty much all agree on things. If the field is weak on evidence, the experts might have a range of opinions. That’s because testing hypotheses against the evidence can weed out wrong ideas.

      Theology is different because it makes itself untestable against reality. Most religions use the same subjective feelings to support their theology but put different spins on the feelings. Even within the same religion, the interpretations are so varied, there is no consensus. If you try to select a theologian as support, you are selecting someone from a minority position. That’s because religious claims cannot be weighed against evidence. All a theologian can say is his opinion or parrot the opinions of others, none of which are based on reality.

  • smrnda

    This reminds me of the assumption that poor father son relationships cause homosexuality. The problem with that hypothesis is that poor father son relationships are far more prevalent than (male) homosexuality.

    My father is still alive, I don’t know if we were ever close, but at no point did my father ever present himself to me as more than just another person, as fallible and imperfect as any other. He even suggested that I couldn’t necessarily trust his opinions or advice since he was as subjective and biased as everybody. The usual response I got for ‘should I do X’ questions was that I should check into what would happen if I did X, and then decide.

    Definitely not a traditional relationship, but I have to give the old man credit for being confident enough to let his kids know he was just some ordinary guy.

    If god is supposed to be a father figure, all said, gods seem to be pretty lousy ones.

  • RichardSRussell

    The psychology of why a person does or does not believe in God is of moderate academic interest but tells us nothing whatever about whether there really IS or is not a God.

  • Norm Donnan

    What happened to my comment Bob??

    • I don’t know. If you’re asking if I deleted a comment of yours, I didn’t. If a comment got lost, I offer condolences. I hate it when that happens.

      I’ve had the occasional comment lost in the ether, so I recommend composing in something else and then pasting in (or at least copying the text into the clipboard). If something bad happens, you still have your comment.

      • Norm Donnan

        ok thanks

  • RichardSRussell

    Mine would’ve been 107 next month, but he only made it to half of that. I’ve gone over half a century without one. Can’t say that anytime during that half a century I felt the need for some imaginary sky-daddy substitute.

  • Voltaire wasn’t an atheist either, he was a deist, but this easily discovered fact was apparently too much for someone with this obvious ax to grind.

  • Rich

    Your father and mine are both missed. They were of a uniquely powerful generation.

    • Yes, I agree. Thanks for the kind thoughts.
      I remember sitting with you, many years ago, in a church in Bellevue, I think it was. The main speaker was Hugh Ross, if I recall correctly. Anyway, I remember this nutty “atheists are atheists because of bad fathers” argument coming up and you rejecting it (at least in my case).

  • JD

    Where do you believe you father is now Bob?

    • I had a dog die a few years ago. They’re in the same place.

      • JD

        Where is that?

  • Carol

    Freud had many valid insights into the disorders of the human personality, but he tended to confuse his insights with a psychological theory of everything (TOE). Like much of our modern Western science, his theories were based on a reductionistic, overly mechanistic Newtonian model.

    Jung had a deeper respect for the mystery of the person and the consciousness expanding revelations from quantum physics takes us ever deeper than Jung.

    BTW, an interesting speculation on the future of Church can be found here:


    • Quantum physics and spirituality? I realize that this is popular among people like Deepak Chopra, but this sounds like nothing more than an opportunity for obfuscation. “You want evidence for my claims? Well, it’s … it’s quantum physics! Yeah, that’s it–it must be hidden in quantum physics somehow.”

      • Carol

        The insight that all reality, including matter, is intrinsically energy does not provide “evidence” for theological dogmas or even the existence of *God*, but it does open up the possibility that the world as we know it may not be the only world that exists. The implications of quantum physics is just beginning to filter down to the popular level and many people are beginning to rethink their presuppositions, spirituality being only one of many fields opening up to new and exciting perspectives.

        • Are you sure this isn’t just wishful thinking? Matter is energy. OK–how is that evidence of a spiritual realm?

        • Carol

          How do you define “spiritual”?

          I understand it to include all non-physical realities, anything that cannot be DIRECTLY measured by the empirical senses, but can only be known by its effects. That would include energy as well as theological realities.

          There are many natural phenomena that I would define as “spiritual” rather than “material”:

          Who Has Seen the

          By Christina Rossetti 1830–1894

          Who has seen the wind?

          Neither I nor you:

          But when the leaves hang

          The wind is passing through.

          Who has seen the wind?

          Neither you nor I:

          But when the trees bow down
          their heads,

          The wind is passing by.

          Contemporary physics does not provide *proof* of theological concepts; but it does challenge the materialistic presupposition that unless something is open to empirical testing it does not objectively exist. At the very least theological concepts are possible. Their degree of probability remains a matter of faith or the lack thereof.

        • Are you saying that the wind is spiritual?

          I understand it to include all non-physical realities, anything that cannot be DIRECTLY measured by the empirical senses, but can only be known by its effects.

          Sounds like most of science. The days when you’d look at something (or smell it or taste it, as I hear Newton did) for your primary information are largely in the past. We’ve got big machines (Hubble, LHC) and small ones (microscope, Geiger counter) that tell us things that our senses are far too limited to do.

          At the very least theological concepts are possible. Their degree of probability remains a matter of faith or the lack thereof.

          Yes, spiritual something-or-other is possible. But where’s the evidence? Wishful thinking doesn’t drive me in that direction; perhaps that’s the difference between us.

        • Carol

          Yes, you are a 100% materialist and I am not.

          There are also people, like Christian Scientists, who are 100% spiritualists. I am not.

          I am a both/and, not an either/or person on this issue, who believes both of those epistemological perspectives are reductionistic.
          Many people find nature to be both a source of deep spiritual experience as well as scientific knowledge. I am one of those.

          BTW, there are nature mystics who are either atheists or have no theological beliefs [agnostics]. “Being spiritual” is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human, not what it means to be *religious.* I know a lot of religious people who are spiritual light-weights and quite a few agnostic/atheists who are deeply spiritual.
          Personally, I would rather be in the company of a deeply spiritual agnostic/atheist than a spiritually light-weight religious person. Dogmatic absolutism is not only spiritually deadening, it is boring.

        • Dogmatic absolutism is not only spiritually
          deadening, it is boring.

          Does it matter whether the spiritual claim is true or not? That is, are you spiritual because (and only because) there is a spiritual world?

        • Carol

          I am *spiritual* because it is intrinsic to being human. Actually, it is intrinsic to all sentient biological life, although it is not always conscious and, like sexuality, can be repressed.

          It is through our spirituality and our sexuality that we experience our humanity most deeply. That is why a disordered spirituality and a disordered sexuality are often found in the same individual and within some social groups.

          Spirituality is more about being whole or well-integrated than about knowing truth in an intellectual sense. It is the source of wisdom rather than knowledge.

          “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” -Isaac Asimov, scientist and writer (1920-1992)

          ‘[The world] has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to
          the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual effort; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.’ –Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart

          “…paradox arises not from intransigent incongruity in the nature of reality, …but from man’s far too rigid and unyielding habits of thought and from the character of his language, which in turn result from his reluctance to accept unconventional implications of new experience.”
          –Harold K. Schilling

          It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand, and what those things are. Human understanding has vulgarly occupied itself with nothing but understanding, but if it would only take the trouble to understand itself at the same time it would simply have to posit the paradox. –Soren Kierkegaard

          Christianity is not a message which has to be believed, but an experience of faith that becomes a message. –Edward

          Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. –Gilbert K. Chesterton

          The word “Christianity” is already a misunderstanding – in reality there has been only one Christian, and he died on the Cross. –Friedrich Nietzsche

        • You assume that there’s a there there. I don’t see any evidence of anything spiritual. Doesn’t that matter?

        • Carol

          You seem to identify “spirituality” with religion.

          I identify it more broadly with our universal human desire for meaning and purpose in life. A person does not have to have explicit theological beliefs to be spiritual.

          “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” — Albert Einstein

        • In my view, religion is a kind of spirituality. Do we agree?

          By your definition–spirituality as our striving for meaning–we all have spirituality. OK, that’s one definition, but I would think that the supernatural has to be in there somewhere.

        • Carol

          Formal religion is one way that we can express our spirituality, but it is not the only way.

          If by “supernatural”, you mean being able to live beyond the natural instincts for individual or group survival or other selfish advantage out of compassionate love for others, then, yes, there is something “supernatural” or beyond our “natural” determinisms there.

          If by “supernatural” you mean a Divine Source or an existence beyond our temporal existence, I don’t see any need for that to explain acts of kenotic [self-sacrificial] love. Nature is replete with anomalies.

          The mysteries of faith can be neither proven, nor disproven within the categories of human reason. As theologian Emil Brunner has stated, “Revelation can never find a place in reason, but reason finds a place in revelation.”

        • Your first definition of “supernatural” is pretty broad. I’m imagining some sort of consciousness there. Sounds like you don’t if love or courage or other positive qualities count.

        • Carol

          In all of the contemplative spiritual Traditions consciousness is the key. A more highly developed consciousness, or at least the potential to realize it, is perhaps the most basic difference that distinguishes the human species from other sentient species. We differ by “degree” rather than “in kind.”

          Once we have our basic survival needs met, most of the harm we do to one another is caused by a lack of awareness [inconsideration], not intent. Not having our basic needs met triggers the survivalist instincts which reduces most people to the level of beasts, more amoral than immoral. Reducing food stamp benefits in an economy where unemployment and underemployment remain a persistent problem will not save money because it will cause a rise in the crime rate which will increase the law enforcement and incarceration costs to rise. One of the affects of reductionistic linear logic [rationalism, not reason] is a diminished awareness of the “Big Picture”–a loss of the ability to “connect the dots.” Every overly simplistic solution creates unintended/unanticipated consequences [black swans] that are often worse than the original problem.

          I am an inclusivist. Inclusivists tend to have broader perspectives than exclusivists whose thinking tends to be much more narrow.

          I suspect that the epidemic of ADD in our society has much to do with the cultural wiring of our brains for left brain linear logic at the expense of right brain intuition, imagination and passion. Passion is not evil even though it has a dark side–disorder desires. Passion for a noble cause has been the driving force behind humanity’s greatest accomplishments.

          “Passion, it lies in all of us. Sleeping…waiting…and though
          unwanted, unbidden, it will stir…open its jaws, and howl.

          It speaks to us….guides us….Passion rules us all. And we obey.
          What other choice do we have?

          Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love…the clarity of hatred… and the ecstasy of grief.

          It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow, empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”
          –Buffy the Vampire Slayer!


          I believe that Albert Einstein is a great saint, even though he does not fit the conventional definition of a “religious” person:

          “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man… I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.” — Albert Einstein (The
          World as I See It}

          “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

          ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours
          the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ –A. Einstein

          “You are not thinking. You are merely being logical.” –Neils Bohr

        • Carol

          I just found a website that practices my definition of human spirituality:


          It is in no way sourced from formal religious beliefs, but having them would not be a disqualifier as long as they are inclusive rather than exclusive.
          True religion and true spirituality is always about unconditional and, when appropriate, kenotic love rather than feeding our narcissistic ego needs.

        • “Spiritual” to me implies some sort of intelligence. Spirits (that is, ghosts) are intelligent. And yet your spiritual could be non-sentient.

          You can use “spiritual” anyway you want, but this is confusing.

        • Carol

          The concept of a radical opposition between nature and Grace [or immanence and transcendence] is a Western, especially a 16th century Protestant, mental construct.

          Indigenous native spiritualities, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy recognize a sacramental quality in the natural world.

          The Catholic scholastics teach that grace builds on nature. I prefer the Eastern Orthodox teaching that grace transfigures nature. The dominant modern Western materialistic secularism would not have been possible before the 16th century.

          A sacrament has its own reality, but it also points beyond itself to a greater Reality. When sacraments become ends in themselves rather than a means of connection to a greater Reality, they have become idols.

          Idols, especially modern idols, are usually not evil in themselves. In fact, they are more often a relative *good* that has been absolutized.

          “I have known more men destroyed by the desire to have wife and child and to keep them in comfort than I have seen destroyed by drink and harlots”. ~William Butler Yeats

        • Carol

          Hmm, it would seem that not all people of formal religious faith are as pleased as I am to see the Churches’ monopoly on spirituality challenged:

          Tablet Blog

          Atheists getting spiritual