Atheists and Bad Fathers. Again.

I’ve written before about Paul Vitz and his ridiculous argument that we become atheists because we have bad relationships with our fathers. It’s the kind of thing that should cause nothing but laughter for his freshman-psych level of armchair analysis. Kimberly Winston has an article in the Washington Post about it.

“Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism” by Catholic psychologist Paul C.Vitz posits that “intense atheists” throughout history — Nietzsche, Voltaire and Madalyn Murray O’Hair — had absent or rotten fathers. This, he argues, damaged their ability to form a relationship with a heavenly father.

Voltaire, of course, was not an atheist, “intense” or otherwise.

“The rise of militant, evangelical, fundamentalist atheism in our time adds to the pertinence of this book,” said Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, the Catholic publishing house that has reissued the book.

“Some atheists try to equate atheism with rationality. Vitz’s book shows that atheism, like many belief systems, has significant irrational elements.”

*yawn* Yes, our beliefs are contingent at least in part on our emotional and psychological context. Just like everyone else. They act as if this is some great revelation or that it has anything at all to do with the truth of any particular belief.

But atheists are less enthusiastic. “I have a spectacular relationship with my father and consider him to be the most admirable man I’ve ever known,” wrote JT Eberhard, an atheist blogger for Patheos. Many of the comments on his review are unprintable.

Vitz, a Catholic who identified as an atheist in his youth, acknowledges there are exceptions to his theory. He identifies a big one in his book — Sam Harris, a New Atheist who hit the best-seller list with “The End of Faith,” has an apparently healthy relationship with his father, too.

“The best answer I have to explain that is I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t studied them (the exceptions) enough.”

I doubt he has studied any of this enough. Did he actually do a study with a significant number of atheists or did he just cherry pick a few examples of famous atheists? Was there a control group? What other factors were considered and controlled for? This is bullshit armchair psychology. The fact that this man teaches psychology is pretty sad. Imagine the quality of his students’ work if this is what he considers serious scholarship.

I’m with JT, I have a great relationship with my father. My father is largely the reason I’m an atheist, but certainly not because we have a bad relationship. I’m an atheist because he taught me to think for myself, to ask questions and not just accept unsupported answers. He taught me to use my capacity for reason. And even in my teen years when I became a very serious Christian, he never disputed me or tried to talk me out of it. He said he just figured he had raised me to think critically and that I would figure it out for myself. And I did.

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  • John Pieret

    The best answer I have to explain that is I don’t know

    I thinks that sums up the whole thing perfectly.

  • Chiroptera

    This, he argues, damaged their ability to form a relationship with a heavenly father.

    Actually, an abusive deity damaged my ability to form a relationship with my father. So I don’t believe in fathers.

    What? That’s no more ridiculous than what he said!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Kimberly Winston has an article in the Washington Post about it.

    Which they picked up from the Religion News Service. Must be a slow news day.

  • richardelguru

    I’m an atheist, my father was an atheist: that made for a rather good relationship.

  • left0ver1under

    I’m with JT, I have a great relationship with my father.

    To those with good parents and families, I’m glad you had them and I envy you. Mine weren’t. (I’m neither fishing for nor need consolation. My post-family life is great.)

    Am I an atheist because of lousy parents? In part, yes, but mostly because of my curiosity and willingness to read and educate myself, something they discouraged (e.g. burning library books I borrowed). Self-serving hypocrisy, racism, and other…unpleasant behaviour were part and parcel of their hard core religious beliefs. It reinforced what I was reading and learning, proving the authors right.

  • cottonnero

    I’m an atheist at least partly because of my own father’s intense, lifelong search for a religion that was meaningful to him. His search made me hyperaware of religion and religious habits from an early age, and I ended up an atheist because I felt that I had to treat religion at least as honestly, seriously, and critically as he did.

  • Matt G

    I thought these people despised Freud. I guess you’ll use whatever argument gives you the answer you want….

  • matty1

    @5 Burning library books, really? I can imagine destroying a book you bought but how did they explain to the librarians “We wont be returning that book because we set fire to it” and not loose the whole family borrowing privileges?

  • iknklast

    My relationship with my father is somewhat ambiguous – neither good nor bad, but with elements of both. Does that mean I should be an agnostic instead of an atheist? I guess I’ve been misidentifying myself all these years! But, hey, I had a bad relationship with my mother, so that might explain why I reject Hera, Isis, and all the other goddesses, right? Oh, wait, the author rejects those, too (though probably not Mary), so he wouldn’t include that in his book.

  • Matt G

    John Pieret @1 – the trouble is that those who don’t know aren’t shy about opening their mouths and sharing their ignorance….

  • Modusoperandi

    He said he just figured he had raised me to think critically and that I would figure it out for myself. And I did.

    Way to prove his point. A good father would’ve told you what to believe. My father did that, and beat me with a Bible every day, whether or not I followed his instruction, and I ended up just fine, with a good, strong Faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ. And also sleep terrors, but that’s probably on account of The Gays constantly trying to ram their lifestyle down my throat in their bars that I go to only to remind myself of how homosexual I’m not.

  • Abby Normal

    It makes a certain amount of sense. Rather like how people having a bad relationship with their mother leads to becoming a climate change denialist. If you can’t connect with your mother, how can you ever connect with mother earth? Or it’s like how one might deny evolution because they’re repressing sexual attraction for animals. If the human/animal division is a myth then what’s the difference?

    Blood libel with psychology is fun!

  • busterggi

    I’ve read a book (several times in fact) about a boy whose father raped the young girl who was his mother then abandoned her to the care of an other man. The boy apparently had no relationship with his substitute father as there is nothing in the book about them ever doing anything together and he either died while the boy was little or also abandoned him because there is nothing mentioned about him after the boy reached 12 years old. A couple of decades later the boy’s real father executed a plot to torture and kill the now grown boy in the cruelest way possible which was his intention before he even raped the young girl.

    Wish I could remember the name of that book.

  • Larry

    As far as I know, my father never went around killing the first born of our neighbors, unlike some Fathers I could mention…

  • regexp

    Isn’t the “you are x because you had a bad relationship with your father” meme something that is repeatably used by evangelicals to explain everything that is wrong with someone?

  • otrame

    Another atheist with a great dad, here. I am completely indebted to my daddy, who treated his little girl with respect and admiration for her intellect….in the 1950s.

    My dad is lost to dementia now. I find myself wanting to write a letter (full of that nasty unprintable stuff) to that asshole and explain how much I miss my dad, how much he did for me, including teaching me how to think critically, which it seems Vitz never learned.

    My dad was an atheist, but I didn’t find that out until I was in my twenties. My mom was a non-specific Christian and we went to church and sunday school and I sang in the choir (I did that even after I decided the whole god-thing was nonsense). My dad told me years later that he thought it was important to let us kids decide for ourselves what we believe, and that in any case we needed to understand that part of the culture, even if we eventually decided we didn’t believe it.

    To those of you who had bad fathers, I am truly sorry.

  • Rich Stage

    The opposite was true for me. My birth father was an abusive alcoholic. My mother re-married a man who was as abusive, perhaps even more so, even though he didn’t drink. This led me to embrace religion fervently in search of a father-figure to replace the one I never had.

    Of course, that wouldn’t fit the narrative of “bad fathers make people atheists”. I didn’t become an atheist until later in life, after actually reading the Bible.

  • Cynickal

    My father never hugged me enough.

    Now I’m an atheist just like he was.


  • Tobinius

    I didn’t realize that all xians had excellent fathers – it’s almost… unbelievable.

  • Kalli Procopio

    Another person with an extremely close relationship with my father. We continue to be close even to this day even though he is fairly religious and I am not. I attribute my atheism to a healthy level of skepticism.

  • Nemo

    Vitz would take my life as support for his thesis. But I’d frame it a little differently: Most people only buy into religion because their parents teach them to. Lacking respect for my father meant that his devout Catholicism didn’t get that automatic respect, either. So, in a way, maybe it opened a door.

    But ultimately, the reason I can’t “form a relationship with a heavenly father” is just that there isn’t one.

  • Sastra

    This, he argues, damaged their ability to form a relationship with a heavenly father.

    But what about the many religions with a God or Spirit/Force which is NOT like a “heavenly father?” If all atheists were doing was rebelling against a father figure then you’d think we’d become Goddess worshipers, Transcendentalists, or go in to one of the Eastern religions. You get all the reassurance, power, and comfort of religion without any Authority yelling at you to follow a bunch of rules or mow the damn lawn.

    Christian-centric myopia, again.

    I read a few reviews which savaged the methodology of Vitz’s book. In addition to the problems mentioned, Vitz also had a bad habit of taking examples of good Christians who had abusive or absent fathers and then looking to see whether they might have had a compensating benign “father figure” in their life, like a loving uncle or older mentor — and by golly they did!

    Doing a similar search on atheists didn’t occur to him.

  • sinned34

    I recall my youth pastor making this claim back in the early 1990s. I remember agreeing how tragic it was that this latest “fatherless” generation would be turning their backs on God because they couldn’t recognize how important it was to have a father figure in their lives.

    Ironically, my father was pretty much absent from my life, and I eventually became an atheist. Since I became an atheist I now actually have more of a relationship with my Dad then ever before. So how does that fit into Vitz’s little hypothesis?

  • Francisco Bacopa

    I had an emotionally distant father and a domineering mother. I think that means I’m gay, but I’m just not feelin’ it.

  • zmidponk

    Without going into too much detail, my relationship with my father was good when I was really young, then, when I was 12, he started suffering from what I now recognise as severe depression, turned to drink and became a violent, abusive alcoholic, attempted suicide several times, then finally succeeded when I was 17. So does that explain why I am an atheist? Fuck, no. I am an atheist because, a bit later on in life, I decided to critically examine the Christian beliefs I had been taught, and found they simply didn’t stand up to that critical examination.

  • Nathair

    atheism, like many belief systems, has significant irrational elements.

    Like what exactly? Does he offer anything but hand waving about Daddy? I mean, even if we were driven away from religion by poor relationships with our fathers (which is ridiculous) that does not actually say anything about the the validity, truth or rationality of atheism.

  • leonardschneider

    Heh. I misinterpreted the first line; I read it as Vitz saying, “Had a bad relationship with your dad? Become an atheist!” … Like he was offering advice.

    Vitz would have a fuckin’ field day trying to work out my (close-knit, loving) family. Mom and Dad are Unitarian agnostics — although that may be a redundancy — and that’s how I was raised. My oldest sister is agnostic, attending Christmas and Easter services each year at the Methodist church her husband grew up in. My other sister (I’m the youngest) is, believe it or not, something called a ‘Progressive Charismatic.’ Apparently there are Charismatics who have surprisingly liberal social views, and just hold on to the Charismatic style of service. I think it’s one of those things that can only happen in a college town in the South.

    Me? I’m a Deist who attends an Episcopal church, partly for the arguments and free wine.

    So suck on that, Vitz. My immediate family is so spiritually spastic you’ll never work us out!

  • stripeycat

    For reference, my father’s a fairly high-church Anglican, which was the tradition I was brought up in, and my mother’s discreetly deist (with episodes of spiritual-but-not-religious when she needs a comfort blanket), although she pretended conformacy throughout my childhood – I was quite cross when I found this latter out a couple of years ago, as I’d felt terribly guilty about my disbelief.

    My relationship with my parents was sometimes rocky, but still good and loving enough that I could contrast and compare with the Christian god. Even at their absolute worst (blaming me for my own mental illness and domestic violence courtesy of my messed-up younger brother), they were only doing a milder version of typical Godly Love (ie I’ll punish you for your terrible, sinning ways, and maybe love you if you’re good enough). My flawed parents displayed in their worst moments behaviour similar in type to God’s standard practice, but milder in degree. At their best, He couldn’t come close to them. I decided God was monsterous in comparison to normal parenting and reasonable non-parent authority figures when I was 4 or 5 (he reminded me a lot of what my first reception teacher would have been like with supernatural powers and no legal restrictions), then lumped him in with Sauron as thankfully fictional once I was 7. I still had a lot of apostate guilt over the next decade or so (along with other Issues deserving the capital I), but eventually came to the conclusion that the problem was with the system of religion, not with me.

    One thing that’s probably significant: because I was very musical, I went straight into the choir (initially as a sort of mascot, aged about 3), so I escaped all the usual child-targetted indoctrination (the only times I ever went to a sunday school were when we were visiting and attended another church – I was appalled at the dishonesty and disingenuity of the sessions). Instead, I had access to bibles, prayerbooks, and hymnals (and was a precocious reader), and had to sit smartly and pay attention during the lectures and sermons. If you want to destroy belief, read what the Bible actually has to say without anyone telling you what you should be thinking about it. Actually pay attention to the words of the liturgy and some older hymns.

  • Michael Heath

    Religious belief partly depends on fear and ignorance (along with incredibly sloppy thinking). Somebody growing up in household where they have a good relationship with a good dad has the opportunity for critical examination where Christian fear tactics won’t resonate as much. This is a factor in my rejecting faith.

    We observe a strong correlative inverse relationship between financial security and religiosity in many economically developed societies. This is a primary causal reason why Europeans are becoming increasingly secularized; so I’m not surprised someone like me left. Instead I’m surprised more of the smarter ones stay.

    A counter-weight to consider is the threat of being cut-off from the communal advantages of church membership. While I left religion as soon as I turned 18 and left home, I’m fairly confident some of my peers who didn’t leave don’t have hardly any faith at all. Of course they still enjoy the social advantages of being in a relatively large congregation. It’s my observation that’s why these faux-believers are such ardent sports fans; it’s a way to avoid scrutinizing the faith claims of their religion.

  • Crudely Wrott

    Thrice blessed am I.

    Mother, father, step father (for me, my sibs share the same Ma and Pa).

    The closest they ever got to instilling religiousness in me and my five younger siblings was something like “someone is watching out for us”. We took that as a sort of “covers it all clause”. No magic involved; just the way luck works.

    At some point all of us kids grew up without superstition. We are all agnostic if not outright atheist.

    NB — We all were treasured by our parents and treasured them in return. We are all still alive. Our parents are not. Except in our memories and in the ways we emulate them. Emulatable they were and so they remain. We hope that we shall be, too.

  • matty1

    Riffing off 26, one problem is that the term ‘irrational’ can be used in multiple ways. It can mean not guided solely by rational analysis (for instance falling in love) in which case of course atheists are irrational, we’re human. Or it can mean contradicting the results of rational analysis (for instance claiming the evidence supports creationism). Religion promoters love to confuse the two meanings to imply that unless you are Mr Spock all your opinions are based on a leap of faith.

    The other reason this doesn’t work is that atheism isn’t an ideology or worldview it’s a null set, what you get when you subtract belief in a God. There simply isn’t enough content there to be irrational. Now no one is just an atheist, just as no one is just a theist with no opinions about what their god is like and a god-free ideology certainly can be irrational in the second sense but it doesn’t follow that they all are.

  • left0ver1under

    matty1 (#8) –

    @5 Burning library books, really? I can imagine destroying a book you bought but how did they explain to the librarians “We wont be returning that book because we set fire to it” and not lose the whole family borrowing privileges?

    Because they weren’t the types to visit libraries much. She read romance novels and the old man read porn that he thought nobody knew about. As for blame, who do you think the librarians believed, the parents or the “irresponsible kid”?

    It only happened once, but once is enough. Once *I* paid for the cost of the two books, I got privileges back. I learned not to bring home enlightening books anymore, to read them at the library instead.

  • dogfightwithdogma

    I went back and read PZ’s earlier post about Vitz and found this quote:

    Sigmund Freud claimed that once a child or youth is disappointed in or loses respect for his earthly father, belief in a heavenly father becomes impossible.

    Therein lies Vitz’s problem. He relies on Freud. Freud proposed, IMO, so many crack-pot ideas about human pshychology and behavior, that my skeptical alarm rings anytime someone calls upon him as am expert or resource.

  • caseloweraz

    Vitz: But atheists are less enthusiastic. “I have a spectacular relationship with my father and consider him to be the most admirable man I’ve ever known,” wrote JT Eberhard, an atheist blogger for Patheos. Many of the comments on his review are unprintable.

    Funny; I read the 38 comments on the JT Eberhard blog post Vitz refers to and found no comment I would deem unprintable. Of course, Vitz might consider “a hard-on for Freud” to be unprintable, but that’s his problem.

    So either Vitz is lying, is referring to some other Eberhard post, or Eberhard removed the unprintable comments after Vitz read them. IMO the first possibility is most likely.