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Fathers Affect How We See God: Stories from Famous Atheists

Have you ever received a gift at Christmas which was so strange you didn’t really know what to say? The famous neurologist Sigmund Freud gave the world a few things like that.

For example, it was Freud who gave us the idea that male children have a deep desire to kill their fathers and marry their mothers (known as the Oedipus complex, after a mythical figure who accidentally did just that). I just don’t remember ever having those feelings. Freud also gave us the idea that religion is just a wish fulfillment. We wanted God to exist, and therefore we created God to meet our needs for a father figure.

Freud gave us another idea which most people haven’t heard about. He connected atheism with having a bad relationship with one’s father. Here’s a quote from Freud:

“Psychoanalysis, which has taught us the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God, has shown us that the personal god is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down.”[1]

In other words, with the connection between the earthly and heavenly father being so interwoven, it makes perfect sense that once a child loses respect for dad, belief in God will quickly evaporate.

After studying the biographies of the leading champions of atheism,[2] psychology professor Paul Vitz concludes that Freud was actually onto something.

In surprising uniformity, their stories exemplify “how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down.”[3]

Vitz defines the “defective father” whose overhead authority vanishes, leaving clear skies: “He can be absent through death or abandonment; he can be present but obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect, even if he is otherwise pleasant or ‘nice,’ or he can be present but physically, sexually, or psychologically abusive.”[4]

The research reveals that it is not just a few atheists whose upbringings fit the “defective father” hypothesis. This is nearly an entire who’s who list of famous skeptics and atheists:

  • Atheist existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche’s father, who, according to Nietzsche, had a “pervasive lack of life force,” died when Nietzsche was four.[5]
  • The skeptic David Hume was two when his father died.
  • Atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell was four when his father died.
  • Atheist existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was fifteen months old when his father died, and when a stepfather entered twelve-year-old Jean-Paul’s family, the boy strongly rejected the interloper.
  • Atheist existentialist Albert Camus was one when his father died.
  • Richard Carlile and Robert Taylor, who teamed up for an “infidel missionary” tour of England, had dads who died when Richard was four and Robert was six or seven.
  • The great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was seventeen when his father apparently committed suicide, a time upon which Schopenhauer later reflected, “As a young man, I was always very melancholic, and on one occasion, I was perhaps eighteen years old then, I reflected even at early age: This world is supposed to have been made by a God? No, much rather by a devil.”
  • Skeptic Thomas Hobbes’s father was an Anglican vicar described as “ignorant, of a choleric temper, and given to cardplaying,” even falling asleep during his own church services. After striking a parishioner in a fight, he fled, and his family never heard from him again.
  • The cage-rattling religious cynic Voltaire’s relationship with his father was battered by scorching argument and suspected illegitimacy, such that he eventually changed his name.
  • At his birth, French philosopher Jean d’Alembert was abandoned by his mother in a wicker basket at a church. The unmarried father found him, entrusted him to someone else’s care, never officially claimed him, and died when Jean was twelve.
  • Though his father was living, French philosopher Baron d’Holbach was sent to live with his uncle, whose name he took.
  • Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s father, nicknamed “Vesuvius” after his temper, abandoned the family for another woman when Ludwig was nine, returning home after the mistress died nine years later.
  • Novelist Samuel Butler’s clergyman-father beat him, with the result that young Samuel “considered that his father never liked him; he, in return, could recall no time when he did not fear and dislike his father.”
  • Sigmund Freud himself recalls his father as being too passive in the face of anti-Semitic harassment, as well as being sexually perverse.
  • Novelist H.G. Wells had a callous, detached father who would rather play cricket and gamble away what little money he earned than doing what he could to comfort his grieving wife at their tragic loss of a child. Wells connects the absenteeism of both fathers: “My father was away at cricket, and I think [my mother] realized more and more acutely as the years dragged on without material alleviation, that Our Father and Our Lord, on whom to begin with she had perhaps counted unduly, were also away—playing perhaps at their own sort of cricket in some remote quarter of the starry universe.”
  • British philosopher John Toland was the illegitimate son of a Roman Catholic priest.
  • Though the reason for the estrangement is unknown, atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair once attempted to kill her father with a butcher knife, and, without success, screamed, “I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave!”
  • Psychologist Albert Ellis’s father abandoned the family in Albert’s teens.
  • Joseph Stalin’s father drank heavily and beat his wife as well as young Joseph, who would later change his name from his father’s to the Russian word for “steel.”
  • Mao Zedong’s father was described as a “family tyrant” whom Zedong clearly hated.
In short, Freud predicted and the biographies confirm “how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down.”[6]

Now, Vitz is advancing a psychological hypothesis, not a scientific law. Without doubt, there are exceptions. For example, Vitz mentions Denis Diderot and Karl Marx as having fathers who did not seem to have contributed to their atheism.

And the far more important question to ask in the first place doesn’t have to do with psychological desires, but with evidence. In order to debate atheism VS Christianity, we need to ask, not “What do we want to be true?” but rather “What evidence is there for God?”

However, there is an interesting pattern which implies something that should not be all that alarming: defective earthly fathers pave the way for interpreting the heavenly Father as defective.

As Vitz puts it, “An atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.”[7]

Praise God that fathers who go to God with the humble attitude of a learner will receive incredible parenting tools such as wisdom, courage, kindness, and gentleness. Fathers who can admit their everyday need for God’s grace will be opened to receiving grace and passing grace onto kids who are thirsty for unconditional love.

All of the above encourages us to pray earnestly on behalf of today’s fathers:

Lord, in their innocence, our children grew up trusting us. Sometimes we live up to that trust, and sometimes we don’t. We ask you to fill us with both courage and humility, strength and gentleness. We pray that we represent You well so that we don’t become a stumbling block in our children coming to trust You.

[1] Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999), 15

[2] Some of these “champions” might have been deists instead of atheists, but they were clearly atheistic and antagonistic with regard to the God of Christianity. All the thinkers listed below were without doubt champions of the cause of unbelief toward Christianity. Moreover, they should be distinguished from merely “famous” atheists, for they were thinkers selected by Vitz particularly for their contribution to the atheistic cause.

[3] Vitz, 15.

[4] Vitz, 16.

[5] These stories are found in Vitz, 21-107.

[6] Vitz, 15.

[7] Vitz, 16. Weekly Emails

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