Epitaph July 28, 2013

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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