Are We Atheists Because We Have Terrible Fathers?

Are We Atheists Because We Have Terrible Fathers? January 14, 2014

In what appears to be a serious bit of ad hoc armchair psychology hackwork, Paul Vitz has a book called Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism in which he applies psychoanalytic theories to influential dead atheists and theists (whom he never even professionally interviewed therapeutically) and based on this tiny sample of cherry picked famous people draws astoundingly broad conclusions about just how much atheism is really just an emotionally based response to a bad relationship with one’s father.

Vitz’s book is not new (it was originally published in 1999), but it was expanded and re-released this past fall to incorporate new baseless digs at the New Atheists who have come to recent prominence. And to, hilariously, admit that even with his tiny selection sample, Sam Harris doesn’t fit his account at all. And apparently, if I’m reading this Washington Post article correctly, to attribute Dawkins’s supposed problems not actually to problems with his father> but with a “clergyman” who briefly fondled him as a child (when in reality this was a schoolmaster and Dawkins has very famously/infamously stressed that he was fortunate not to be very much traumatized by the incident). So, apparently a bad encounter with any authoritative male figure can make you an atheist too now. It’s very devastating science. I am going to now restore my (actually pretty good) relationship with my dad and become a theist again.

My friend and Patheos colleague JT Eberhard’s post on Vitz’s hypothesis was quoted in the WP article. JT said, “I have a spectacular relationship with my father and consider him to be the most admirable man I’ve ever known.” I would caution to remind readers that anecdotes are not data so JT vouching for his dad does not mean much. But then, I’d also have to remind you Vitz’s entire psychological claim is based on cherry picked anecdotes from centuries’ worth of history and so doesn’t mean much either.

Since I encounter questions from theists (including yesterday during my radio interview with right wing talk show host Jesse Lee Peterson) about my relationship with my dad and its possible connections to my atheism, I have written about all the ins and outs of the relationship between me and my dad and my faith and loss of faith in the post: Before I Deconverted: My Dad and My God. (You can also try your own hand at psychoanalyzing my deconversion based on my relationship with my dad using these posts about it:

When I Deconverted: I Came Out To My Family
Happy Birthday Dad!
Before I Deconverted: My Parents Divorced 
My Fundamentalist Preacher Brother, His Kids, And Me

I also intend to go over Vitz’s attempt to pin Nietzsche’s atheism on his relationship with his father.

In the meantime, below I have taken the liberty of transcribing for you the fantastic podcast segment fisking Vitz done by Reasonable Doubts (whom you should, er, religiously listen to as I have begun to recently–marathoning them while I packed and unpacked for my recent interstate move). If you want to know what actual relevant research actually exists on this topic of atheism and relationships to parents, listen to the segment or read the transcript. The episode was posted on February 28, 2011 and the segment on Vitz starts at 16:45 and is driven by the insights of Luke Galen, a psychology professor at Grand Valley State University, who is steeped in the research on psychology of atheists and religious people and does original work in the area.


Dave Fletcher: We now present for you another edition of “God Thinks Like You”. So, Luke, I have a bad relationship with my father. And I’m an atheist.

Luke Galen: Well, case closed! We know where you got that! I was going to examine your beliefs and the reasons that you have for thinking that you do, but I don’t need to do that because you’ve just explained why you were [an atheist].

Dave Fletcher: Right. Okay. Okay good because that’s what I thought. Because I was just listening to an interview with Paul Vitz and he made that exact same argument that atheists are atheists because they have bad relationships with their dads.

Luke Galen: Yeah, you know I ran across this Vitz reference actually in my Psych of Religion textbook.

Dave Fletcher: Really!

Justin Schieber: Hmm.

Luke Galen: Because this is a 4th edition textbook and there are some changes from the third one. They added a bunch of this stuff on “could atheism be caused by… and they were talking about various things and one of them was a neurotic…

Dave Fletcher: “Caused by”, like it’s a disease… I love that…

Luke Galen: No the way they phrased it was a “neurotic rejection of God.”

Dave Fletcher: Oh!

Justin Schieber: Hmm.

Luke Galen: They talked about principled atheism vs. a neurotic rejection of God and under that paragraph cited people I had never heard of before like this Dr. Vitz.

Dave Fletcher: Is he a doctor?

Luke Galen: He’s a “psychologist”, supposedly from Stanford. (I’m using airquotes.)

Dave Fletcher: So’s Dobson isn’t he?

Luke Galen: That’s all you had to say, Dave, that’s all you had to say. But the more I poked into some of these readings I found out that he has a book out, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism,

Justin Schieber…which I’m going to be reading soon and am excited about.

Dave Fletcher Because if he’s as good as he is in interview, I can’t wait.

Luke Galen…so I was looking up research, found the interview of which you spoke and sure enough he lays out his theory, based on…

Dave Fletcher: Can we call it a theory because that has some scientific ideas behind it…

Justin Schieber Right. He lays out his guess.

Luke Galen: If you consider theory in the sense of hypothesis… You can call it a hypothesis.

Dave Fletcher: There you go, the colloquial sense of theory.

Luke Galen: …Which is based, and if listeners want to go look him up, he bases it on a psychoanalytic reading of historical figures, both atheist and theist, and then compares them. Like Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin…

Dave Fletcher: …Freud…

Luke Galen: …Freud, and then theists like Pascal and Lewis, and finds that in his analysis of history that these atheists actually had bad relationships with their father, either their fathers were tyrannical and cruel or rejecting and that they

Dave Fletcher: Or dead, in some cases.

Luke Galen: Or dead–they disappointed them. And therefore atheism itself, as the title Atheism: Faith of the Fatherless suggests, is caused by crappy father relationships and good father relationships preserves theistic belief.

Dave Fletcher: Yeah, it’s interesting listening to him spell out this argument. It’s like playing a game of spot the logical fallacy.

Luke Galen: I didn’t even know where to start with…

Dave Fletcher: It’s unbelievable.

Luke Galen: It was a very “target rich environment”.

Dave Fletcher: Yeah, first and foremost, of course, he’s cherry picking, he’s data mining and just going with the figures that fit into this idea of his.

Luke Galen: So, why those atheists? That is, if you can come up with, maybe Nietzsche did, I don’t know much about Nietzsche, but let’s say he was disappointed with his weak and ineffectual father.

Dave Fletcher: Yes.

Luke Galen: But does Richard Dawkins have a poor relationship with his father? My understanding is he was a fine man. And why those theists? That is, if we can, for every Pascal who loved and admired the father, there’s a–I’m Lutheran, or I was raised Lutheran, so, Martin Luther’s father was known for being a tyrannical abusive person who beat him and didn’t even want him to be a priest, so why not pick those ones? And if you listen to his interviews, he actually comes out with counterexamples, like Marx for example. Well Marx, he says, and this is a quote! “Marx was an exception but that makes me think there must have been something very important in his relationship with his father that we have no record of because he spent his life rejecting his father’s social class and the way of life, the capitalist class, so therefore something might have been going on that we don’t know about.”

Dave Fletcher: It had to have been about his father, but we don’t know how!

Luke Galen: Or Ayn Rand who apparently admired her father

Dave Fletcher: Yes! Very much so! But he was an atheist, or a skeptic at least.

Luke Galen: Yes.

Dave Fletcher: And because of that, because she had a strong skeptical father that also made her…

Luke Galen: He said that “She identified with her father who was interesting, stimulating, and skeptical, and that would account for the atheism being passed on through a positive father figure…”

(Justin and Dave laugh)

Luke Galen: “…Her atheism would have been passed on through identification with a skeptical father whom she admired.” Well!

Dave Fletcher: Good father, bad father, either way! And I loved his excuses for the Christians who had bad fathers. Because, yes, maybe they had bad or absent or weak fathers but they sought out father figures.

Luke Galen: Father substitutes. Yes. So, the sort of speculative tone goes throughout the whole thing. Like for example with Madelaine Murray O’Hair, who was an atheist. He acknowledged that she–and again, I don’t know her history, but apparently she had big fights with her father and he said maybe her father abused her. Do we know that her father abused her? Maybe he did, but it seems to me that if you’re taking a… This is not an, like you said, this is not an empirical study, these are cherry picked aspects. But his assessment of atheism also is that, right at the beginning of the interview he said, and again, this is a quote, “it’s more convenient to be an atheist in our culture. There are no restraints on your sexual behavior or your time commitment to others. You don’t have to worry about other things. If you feel needy and you want to help people, you can always vote Democratic and have the government take care of you…”

(Justin and Dave laugh)

Luke Galen: “…so superficial atheists enjoy the relative freedom of not being a believer.”

Justin Schieber: Wow.

Dave Fletcher: I love that he gets his political agenda mixed right in there too, that, Oh yeah, Democrats are needy and they want to help other people. Ugh! Shame on them!

Luke Galen: But there’s also a certain level of irony with this theory because it explains Freud’s atheism by resorting to Freudian theories of development. Now correct me if I’m wrong but if Freud is an emotional based thinker, and not rational, should his theories be given credence to exploit his–explain his own…?

Dave Fletcher: It’s self-defeating.

Luke Galen: So there’s a psychoanalytic tone here where, for example, he talks a lot about the importance of the father. He says “fathers are important for encouraging thinking. Mothers are important and foundational for emotional development…”

Dave Fletcher: Right!

Luke Galen: “…but fathers are important in child[hood]/adolescence… The commonest ways in which bad fathers promote…is their sons become criminals because our prisons are filled with fatherless boys.”

Dave Fletcher: Which, you know, I’ll give him that point. There are a lot of people in prison who don’t have fathers, but you know what?

Luke Galen: Not a lot of atheists in prison.

Dave Fletcher: Not a lot of atheists in prison.

Luke Galen: A lot of Christians in prison there. So the analytic theory though–I think I’ve mentioned in a lot of previous podcasts, I don’t know the number, but I’ve mentioned the attachment theory of development which suggests that children form, based on John Bowlby’s model of secure and insecure attachments, it’s an evolutionary model of development, that if you have a caregiver and you’re securely attached, that means you develop a close relationship where you rely upon the caregiver, that that sets up certain temperaments throughout childhood. Whereas if you’re insecurely attached, if, let’s say, mom is unpredictable or crazy or cold then the child has an insecure attachment. It’s similar to the analytic theory but there’s more of a research basis because you can actually test and measure things like “is the child securely or insecurely attached?”, they have tests. But that actually does predict that if you have a secure attachment with your parent that does predict that values become more easily transmitted from parent to child, that is if your, if your parent…And contrary to that, if you have an insecure attachment, you tend to not have transmission from parental to the next generation of values.

Dave Fletcher: So does that suggest that a lot of us apostates, people whose parents were religious, who were raised religious and then became non-religious, are people who had less strong relationships with their parents and conversely people who find religion later in life…?

Luke Galen: Ah, yes, so here’s the thing, what you’ve picked up on is two things. One is, the second one first, this applies to not only to religious parents and having apostate kids but also to having non or nominally religious parents and having convert, religious, kids. That is, attachment theory has shown, this is I think what we talked about in earlier episodes, that if you have an insecure attachment to your parent, there is a more likelihood that the child will undergo a religious conversion to religion later on, and that’s been longitudinally established, as opposed to a stable, a secure attachment would lead to more or less a steady state. So the other thing though, so it doesn’t apply, this sort of poor relationship with parent, to changes of status of religion [only], it goes both ways. It’s not just religious parents create non-religious apostate kids. The other thing that you mention though is that there’s a difference between being a convert or apostate to atheism, if you want to think of a conversion that way, and being a steady state atheist–parents who aren’t really religious and the kids aren’t really religious. So this whole theory of saying “well if people are atheists it’s because they had crappy parental relationships”, that doesn’t explain anything at all about people who never had religion to begin with. Say like the country of Denmark that has a lot of [ir]religious; are they all crappy fathers in Denmark? Or people who are raised and not, the examples we just talked about that he gave of Ayn Rand or that you have non-religious skeptical parents producing skeptical kids because they’re good parents!

Dave Fletcher: Because they’re good parents. So does this mean that if my kids grow up to become religious this could be a condemnation of my parenting skills?

Luke Galen: It means you screwed something up.

Dave Fletcher: Aw man.

Luke Galen: The fights are the same at 16 they’ll say “Screw you, man, I’m going to church!” “You are not going to ch–sit down! Come back here!” It’s the same thing that happens. I’ve also talked about on the show the studies of that looked at people who, the amazing apostate, amazing believer series of studies where Altemeyer and Hunsberger looked at people who report that they either have high or low religiousness at college but had the opposite as children, that is, grew up in a non-religious household and became religious and actually it turns out that the amazing apostates did report that they had family conflict. But here’s the thing, they’re unable to determine whether the conflict that they report with their parents was a cause of or a result of the apostasy. That is if this whole “faith of the fatherless” analytic theory is true you have crappy parenting and then the kid does the opposite because of some sort of “I don’t have a good parent figure and I need…” or, the other hypothesis is that, as you would imagine, with the strongly religious family with the teen who comes home and says “I have doubts, here’s a book by Richard Dawkins”, that that would actually cause, “No you’re not, come back here young man!” and that that sort of bad relationship would be the result of. Or some combination of those two things. So what the amazing converts study Altemeyer and Hunsberger study found was that the majority of the apostates showed that the problems with their parents occurred after…

Dave Fletcher: After!

Luke Galen: …they started the process of apostasy.

Dave Fletcher: Of course, of course. That makes sense.

Justin Schieber: And Luke, when you published that book about 2,000 years ago, that Gospel you wrote…

Luke Galen: Heh heh! That’s me!

Justin Schieber:? Here's a little excerpt, "if any man come to me and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea and his own life also, then he cannot be my disciple." Luke Galen: So Jesus was relying on people having crappy relationships with their fathers?

Justin Schieber: That’s right. When your god–when your dad sends you on a suicide mission, then… And Jesus was one of the most devout believers in the world.

Luke Galen: That’s something Bart Ehrmann pointed out, that if you actually read the Gospels without a lot of a priori knowledge Jesus does not look like the most adoring ideal son in the world, saying things like, “Get thee away from me woman!” and “who am I to you?” when they come and the family is worried about Jesus being crazy actually and send people in saying maybe we should take him away…

Justin Schieber: Even though they would have known about the miraculous birth…

Luke Galen: Ha! Yeah and–

Justin Schieber: So that’s always kind of confusing

Luke Galen: That is confusing. So the whole thing that’s laughable I think about some of these theories is that they sort of try to eliminate any debate about the reasons somebody might have for being non-religious or an apostate or an atheist. That is, let’s say there was an emotional… One of the sort of titles he, this Vitz guy, puts on his work is that “lack of belief has an emotional, not a rational basis”. Now let’s say that it were true that maybe on some level I disliked my father, which I don’t, but let’s just say that I did and that’s what caused me to apostasize. Okay, but you’re still left with, then, if that’s true and we can’t at all trust why we believe what we believe because it’s emotionally based, let’s say believers and atheists are emotionally based, we’re still left with the factual arguments.

Dave Fletcher: So just leave the emotional stuff aside for both sides.

Luke Galen: So, Charles Darwin, they make the argument, let’s say he was angry at his dad, and ran off and became an atheist and amassed a mountain of evidence that evolution was in fact occurring through natural selection.

Dave Fletcher: It doesn’t matter. He was mad at his dad. It doesn’t count.

Luke Galen: So are you going to tell me

Dave Fletcher: Throw out the finches…

Justin Schieber: Forget the burden of proof…

Luke Galen: So I’m going to burst into a meeting of threatened creationists, saying, wait we don’t have to argue against evolutionists because he was mad at his father! So we can just take the book away…

Justin Schieber: It’s a very convenient dismissal.

Dave Fletcher: Yeah, yeah and just listening to that interview, and we will post the link, it’s just absurd the hoops he jumps through to make this make sense. And my question to you Luke is, and I think I know the answer, has there been a study on this. Do we have a study on this, do we have actual numbers on poor relationships with fathers in comparison with levels of atheism. Do we have that study?

Luke Galen: What we have are the studies that I mentioned on apostates.

Dave Fletcher: Right. But that’s not the whole picture!

Luke Galen: But we don’t really have that many studies and I know that they’re in the works, because I have gotten a lot of e-mails from people who are actually amassing greater and greater databases of atheist people, not just apostates, including apostates, but atheists, asking more questions about their social, family type relationships so that information is forthcoming. But what I think that we really lack is, especially with the increase in percentages of non-religious people, are more recent studies of people who are non-religious. Some of these things were done back–they used to have in the ’70s these theories testing the adolescent rebellion hypotheses,

Dave Fletcher: Right, right.

Luke Galen: And these were people who came of age during the ’60s and ’70s so, so I’m not exactly sure, [when] like 2% of the population maybe who labeled as atheists, I’m not exactly sure that’s really relevant to people, the percentage is now, 6, 7, 8, 10% of people who are atheists and agnostics now.

Luke Galen: What I did was I looked through my CFI data surveys, the ones I had talked about earlier in the show in various parts…

Dave Fletcher: The data that you got yourself…

Luke Galen: Yes, that I published…

Dave Fletcher: Whoah whoah whoah, now Vitz did this by not doing any data, it sounds like his way is a lot easier…

Luke Galen: Yeah, you know, I could speculate and just get some historical figures, that’s what I should have done…

Dave Fletcher: Exactly. He got a book…his book is already published, my friend. His book is already published.

Luke Galen: Hey I have a whole pitched lined up, so… But what I did was actually, the study that I talked about earlier in the show was I compared our 300 and plus local CFI members and 300 plus church members as a comparison. And actually what I found was when I looked at the childhood religious environment of people, it was true that the secular group members who had high childhood religions but now were secular members reported had poorer relationships with their families than people who were raised in non-religious environments, but then again so did the church group members who grew up in non-religious households.

Dave Fletcher: Right.

Luke Galen: That is–

Dave Fletcher: It becomes post hoc.

Luke Galen: Yes, so in other words it’s all, the poor relationship thing, this is simplistic but of course you’re going to have poor relationships if whatever your belief is now, whether religious or non-religious is at odds with your family of rearing environment

Dave Fletcher: That goes for politics and other issues as well

Luke Galen: Absolutely. If you were a young Republican as a high school student and you became a hippy in college, and your family is still a Republican [one] of course you’re going to have conflict but that doesn’t mean it produced your values. It’s just relative of where you are now versus where you grew up in.

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