There are a number of theists out there that take it as a matter of plain fact that the real causes of atheism are psychological or social in nature. We are just averse to authority and hate being told what to do. And we want to sin. Oh, the sinning we want to do. Or we must have just had a bad experience with hypocrites in the church. Or we are mad at God for some silly reason.
Often these psycholigizations involve inferences that this all must have something do with our relationships with our fathers. Maybe the reason we don’t like being told what to do is because we resent our fathers. Maybe the reason we’re mad at God and hate authority figures is because we’re confusedly thinking of God as though he’s our remote or overbearing father who either abandoned us or hounded us cruelly. We just emotionally don’t know how to understand that God is a loving father. If only we could get that truth to melt our icy hearts we would return to Him and find true happiness. A hack Freudian has even written a book cherry picking famous historical atheist thinkers with either bad fathers or absent fathers and wildly unscientifically extrapolated that conclusion that atheism inherently stems from one’s problems with one’s father as its real psychological source.
So, treating all our arguments as merely cover for real personal issues, a lot of theists will shoo away devastating intellectual challenges and ask instead to learn our story. Who hurt you? Why are you mad at God? What was your relationship with your dad like? Do you ever dream of having sex with your mother?
And I really really resent this when it’s done to me, especially as an evasive tactic or, worse, as an indication that the Christian I am talking to is so extremely closed minded that he or she is not even going to try to consider, or even try to refute, my arguments but instead is just sitting there psychoanalyzing me, dismissing my thoughts as pathological, and never allowing the possibility that I am actually just being logical.
Nonetheless, putting aside for a moment the maddening prejudices and behaviors of self-satisfied, unreflective, hypocritical, intellectually incurious apologists, the question of how our views of our fathers affect our views of God is psychologically interesting in its own right. So are the panoply of interrelated questions about what social, familial, and emotional factors influence whether or how one winds up an atheist or a theist.
So, in the interest of psychological speculation about how theologies form or are undone, I want to explore the various kinds of relevance people’s psychologies related to their fathers and their gods have. And, in this context, I’ll do what intrusive, condescending apologists want, lay down on the couch myself, and talk about my own dad and how my perception of him related to my feelings on God.
First of all, since none of us see God and only have alleged stories of his words and deeds in history and the numerous theological speculations of others to use in fashioning our ideas of God, it makes sense that when we are believers and we start thinking that we know what God’s attitude towards us is, we inevitably start having to project some stuff from our own imaginations. And those imaginations are quite possibly going to draw on our experiences with authority figures who play some kind of approximate role as God would. And, even being referred to constantly as “Father”, it is most natural of all that we might model our idea of God to some significant extent on our own dads if we knew them and experienced them as authority figures, or even if we didn’t know them and felt them as missing authority figures.
This all makes sense. But none of it directly explains either belief or apostasy. People who love their fathers and have a positive view of authority can deconvert and those who hate their fathers and have a negative view of authority can convert. Sometimes you really can have an intellectual concept of God which you wish was true as (a little depressingly to me) many atheists actually report. I meet frustrated atheists who wish God was real. And there are certainly terrified believers convinced God is real and who are afraid He will be merciless with them. Having no faith that God will treat you well is not at all the same thing as having no faith that God exists.
In fact, as I read the Old Testament, no one in it ever seems to have crises of faith over whether God exists. All the tests of faith assume God exists and examine people’s willingness to rely on Him to come through in tangible ways when they stick their necks out. Faith rarely if ever is a matter of belief in the existence of God but rather a matter of trust that He is on one’s side.
What can happen is that emotionally scarring experience with an abusive father or other authoritarian authority figures can create a heightened realization that the God depicted in the Bible and much of Christian tradition would be horrific to deal with were He real. This is a moral realization that the God of Christianity, as typically conceived, is not at all substantively morally perfect and that it is perverse and dangerous when Christians define morality around that God’s implicit and explicit standards. This emotional sensitivity to the wickedness of what is going on in Christian stories and ideas is a rational basis to infer that it is impossible that God be both morally good and be as depicted by much of the Christian tradition.
Since the Christians are not just claiming any old god exists but that their God exists and that their God is morally perfect, showing that their God is not morally perfect rationally means showing that their God is either non-existent or not as they conceive Him. It may take emotional experiences with bad people who are like that God to impress upon someone the full moral unacceptability of what such a person would be like, but that does not make the inferences irrational any more than, say, getting shot might impress someone with the full horror of gun violence but their judgment that gun violence is bad is still legitimate.
Also there seems to be some evidence that if people have positive relationships to their parents they are more likely to adopt their beliefs and values, including religious or irreligious ones. This means that liking your dad may mean you stay his faith or adopt his lack of faith if he’s an atheist, and not liking him may mean rejecting either his faith or his lack of faith as part of rejecting what doesn’t seem to work about him more generally. None of this directly correlates with belief content.
Still others just generally are curious about the other side of the fence. Some people are so well adjusted and secure in themselves that they are emotionally stable enough to challenge themselves intellectually and emotionally. Some people raised lovingly and without faith seek out religion as an attempt to just add something they might be missing, no appreciably any different than taking a new interest in a skill or craft or hobby. Some emotionally grounded believers are so stable “spiritually” that they don’t find intellectual dalliance with philosophical challengers threatening to the core of who they are and they venture out of the safety zones of their faith, in ways that more clingy believers can’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if any number of the clingier believers were using their faith in an idealized Heavenly Father as a substitute for a bad or absent real world father. And on the flip side some of those secure emotionally precisely because their real world fathers and/or mothers were so supportive and loving are not at all afraid to go doubt their Heavenly Father. They may actually need Him less.
And some people who were never indoctrinated and pressured to believe can the most easily of anyone look at the existence of evil and religious claims about God’s goodness and make the simple connection–I know what a loving father is like firsthand (or what I missed in one) and can tell, no loving Father is on the side of the victims of atrocities and excruciating torments as these things destroy them. That’s an illogical, last ditch fantasy of the desperate and nothing more. Knowing in a clear-eyed way what a good father is like can just as well show you the ways the Christian God simply can’t be considered one.
And many a believer probably clings to their belief a good God guides the universe because their own father was indeed good to them and they transfer their certainty about his goodness straight over to God emotionally and are unshakeable in their convictions about an imaginary God’s love as they would be about their own dad’s love.
Also it is possible that some people who feel like their parents’ values make so much sense and guide their lives so very well that they find it easy to imagine that those values come from a heavenly father who made it so those values are simply the absolute best for everyone. It may be easy for them to hastily and illogically leap from their own parents being trustworthy authorities for them to thinking they conveyed a supremely trustworthy parent’s will for all. And it very well could be some others who felt bereft of parental guidance ,for one reason or another, emotionally felt like there were no absolute authorities one could rely on and emotionally resonated with the idea that we have to create our own values and moral codes without absolute guidance from some external source; an idea with a fair degree of truth to it in that it is up to us humans to work out values and morality for ourselves, though I would hasten to add this is a rational and not an arbitrary process.
There are just so very many ways that people’s psychologies might both lead them to shape an idea of God and emotionally attach to it or detach from it. Some of the emotions might help one resonate with actual good reasons to not believe or to believe, and some of the emotions might provide misleading enticements to believe or not to believe. The reasons of one’s positions and perceptions must always be the deciding factor in what to believe, irrespective of your emotional journeys to them biographically.
So what about my dad and my former faith and my eventual apostasy?
When I was little I, pardon the pun, idolized my dad and clung to my mom. Though I could tell not everyone else always liked my dad, I emulated him when I was little and thought he knew everything (and routinely irritated other adults, like my mom’s parents, by correcting them to tell them what my dad says and why that makes them wrong). They loved me enough that I have always felt emotionally secure and loved in the very core of my being even when weathering gut-wrenching rejections or mistreatments that might make others cynical. They gave me the greatest gift any parent (and often only a parent) could give–a reservoir of emotional security that very well could last a lifetime. And that’s my often fierce independence and emotional self-sufficiency possible. And it didn’t make me overweaningly attached to either of my parents. By eleven years old I was healthily drawing boundaries to keep my mom from smothering me and my whole life I have had a mind of my own independent from both of them. The sense that I am unconditionally loved has itself, as far as I can tell, always made me free to not be dependent on my parents.
My brothers were from my mom’s first marriage. I saw them as fully my brothers (not “half”) but nonetheless grew up with a consciousness of being the golden son. My brothers helped with this by resentfully complaining that I was favored and spoiled. My parents went easier on me than them. For one thing, they were around and, at 8 and 9 years older respectively, were more capable of doing the chores, no matter what they were. And my parents had mellowed as many parents do by the third child’s arrival. They had also tried very hard to have me. And being my dad’s flesh and blood probably gave me an advantage over my brothers in his heart. Or, at least, they and I assumed as much.
So, when I was brought to Sunday School and learned that we were all God’s children but Jesus was God’s only begotten Son, that made total sense to me. In my childish little brain I thought Jesus was God’s only begotten Son the way I’m my dad’s only begotten son and everyone else is God’s child the way my brothers are my dad’s children. A theological mystery (read: inanity) solved before it was ever puzzling by an elementary school theologian thinking of everything through his own family.
When my mom and one of my brothers converted to evangelical Christianity but my dad didn’t, I wound up being brought to church starting at 5 for indoctrination. And it took mightily and for the next fifteen years I thought of my dad’s always quiet, never argued for, deferent skepticism as a lamentable fact about him. He was frustrating. He would never ever explicitly contradict my faith or discourage my zeal for it. He would just get really quiet when I would prattle on about it and effectively wait me out until I would just shut up and move on to something else.
When I was 14 and my parents divorced and my dad moved to Florida, my mom wanted me to blame him but I was okay with it. I had felt well-raised and capable of living without a dad in the house already. I didn’t want him to stay for me and I loathed the prospect of moving to Florida. He would, I think guiltily, start telling me he loved me each phone call during this period. Which I really appreciated. We wound up talking on the phone for an hour or so every week. We had great visits together (at least until his new wife came into the picture and was jealous for his attention even when I had just a couple weeks of the year with him).
I was already very devoutly Christian when he moved. But my brother’s best friend became our new youth minister and he became the first of two ministers to become additional father figures, spiritual ones, who would meet with me and just a couple other teens from the youth group together. And through their enormous influence upon me a great deal of my Christian morality was solidified and my philosophical doubts burgeoning with adolescence were allayed. Also, the simultaneous timing of my parents’ divorce and my minister brother’s new perfect Christian marriage made me start seeing my brother far more as my explicit role model than my dad. His way was the way I wanted to go religiously, ethically, and for purposes of life satisfaction. You know, “God’s way”.Through all this, I always projected God as loving me as unconditionally as my parents did. I never emotionally doubted God’s grace for a second. Like a good Protestant, deep in my guts I knew I never needed to do good works to earn salvation. I was motivated the right way to do as God wished and to beecc moral, purely by love of God and the good. All the hemming and hawing by Protestants about the balance between being saved by faith and having to do good works was an easy Gordion knot to cut. No one of faith would be looking for any loopholes to get out of serving God on account of it. If you really loved God, you would just want to do as He required and as was right and that was the end of the story. So, I never had a moment’s anxiety about my salvation. I was bought my the blood of Jesus thanks to God’s generous mercy. I never saw any reason not to be obedient to God and His will.
Thinking about God and intuiting God’s will psychologically was essentially just hearing my internal voice of conscience and misinterpreting it as my sense of what God wanted. And when I would assess myself, it was by the standards I presumed were Gods and emotionally I sort of felt like you would if you were to imaginatively think through what a friend or your loving father would think, based on what you know of his values. I would do that but, just assuming God saw it all, thought about it in terms of what God did think. And God’s opinions were generated as a cross between my dad’s emotional love that both wanted me to do and be my best but would never go away or be harsh when I failed, and my church’s theology that filled in God’s concrete values (which were not necessarily my dad’s).
When I deconverted my dad or my feelings about him played no role. I had no negative feelings about God. I had been raised by my dad deliberately to feel comfortable expressing myself honestly and to pursuing my heart’s desires in my career. He was very anxious not to ever dissuade me from a path I wanted but just to help me think as well as possible about how to take it shrewdly. He never interfered with my faith. He gently steered me to take philosophy classes right away for my theology major. He gave silent dissent in the form of a lack of enthusiasm when I would gush religiously. But even for that he was a good sport and accompanied me on a mission trip to Costa Rica when my heart was set on it and my mom wouldn’t let me leave the country without a parent when I was 15. He also made sincere attempts, despite being an ecclesiastical skeptic since his Catholic youth put off by the Church’s corruption, to adopt the faith for a while since it was so important to my mom. He even took classes from a Bible college and got baptized at one point (to bewilderment on my mom’s part and mine).
Finally, when I told him I no longer was a Christian but an agnostic. He asked what that was. When I explained, he said he must be an agnostic too.
Ever since we freely express our cynicism and incredulity about inane religious beliefs and politics. But he enjoys religions more and is put off by anti-theism, doesn’t take any interest in explicit atheism, enthusiastically participates in his wife’s Jewish rituals, and once badmouthed an atheist participant in an interfaith event.
So, that’s the story. Did my perception of my dad influence my positive disposition towards God and authority? I think most likely, yes. When you come from a good home it’s easy to be deceived the world is a good and just place ruled by a loving person whose only demands of you are genuinely for your own good. Did that have anything do with me becoming an atheist? No, I thought the good God just didn’t exist for other reasons. The problem of evil didn’t seriously come across my plate and I never had a bad view of God.
Did my dad’s disbelief make me an atheist? No, I differed with Dad all through high school and most of college and would have continued to had I made it work. My youth minister and brother played spiritual father roles. It was nice eventually agreeing with dad and my skeptical brother about religion but the cost of that was being partially alienated from my father-figure-minister-brother and my religious mother, so emotionally that was all a wash.
Did my dad’s leaving make me feel abandoned and fear God would abandon me? Not in the slightest. I stayed a-okay with dad and with God and judged dad on God’s behalf. Nary a hiccup in my faith there. If anything I doubled down on “God’s way” as role modeled by my brother for fear of ending up divorced like my dad one day.
No matter how I slice it, my dad is in no way the cause of my atheism. If anything, my rationally grounded belief in his love transferred into an irrational faith in God’s love and kept me blind to its refutation and the non-existence of God for way too long.
Before becoming an atheist I was a devout Evangelical Christian. I am slowly telling the story of my former life as a believer, how I came to deconvert and become an atheist, what it all meant and where I went from there personally and intellectually. Below are links to all the pieces I have written so far. While they each contribute to an overall narrative, individual installments are self-contained and can valuably be read on its own without the others. So feel free to read starting anywhere, according to your interest.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
After I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion: