Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism By Paul C. Vitz.
If Sigmund Freud had not existed, modern man would have had to create him. It was Freud, of course, who popularized the notion that God is a “projection” of unconscious infantile needs, and thus only a comforting illusion — a theory recently articulated by the Governor of Minnesota, Jesse “the Body” Ventura. But Sigmund “the Brain” Freud beat Ventura to the punch in contending that God is a delusion and a crutch for the feeble, but even earlier than Freud, as Vitz points out, was Feuerbach, on whom Freud depends heavily in his dismissal of faith as neurotic wish-fulfillment. Nietzsche was perhaps too abstruse to become a popular phenomenon like Freud, but Vitz, a professor of psychology, puts him on the couch as well. “Intense atheism,” as Vitz calls the creed of militants such as Freud and Nietzsche, is pervasive among today’s intellectuals, and the prevalent argument against theism is still the Feuerbach-Freud one.
Faith of the Fatherless turns Freud’s “projection theory” on its head, arguing that the theory provides more insight into atheism than theism. This reversal is supported by the biographical evidence Vitz has collected, showing that the childhoods of prominent atheists were marked by absent or defective fathers. Freud’s father was apparently weak, sexually deviant, and religious. Friedrich Nietzsche loved his father, a Lutheran clergyman, but the beloved father, never in good health, died when Friedrich was five years old. Later, Nietzsche, the philosopher, attributed this to a deficiency of “life force,” associating his father’s weakness and illness with Christianity, which he claimed actively rejects the “life force.” The Dionysian excesses of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his obsession with power are, in this view, the projection of psychological preoccupations.
The list of prominent atheists with “defective fathers” (dead, neglectful, or abusive) is long. Marx vigorously rejected his father’s bourgeois values, including his superficial conversion to Christianity; Hitler and Stalin, atheists who were also tyrants, were repeatedly beaten and humiliated by their fathers; and Mao Zedong hated his autocratic father. Vitz examines a veritable Who’s Who of modern atheism, including Voltaire, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, H.G. Wells, Camus, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Ellis. Perhaps even more telling than the biographical sketches of atheists are the counterpoised sketches Vitz has compiled of well-known believers and their fathers. Prominent believers in the fatherhood of God, Vitz finds, have generally had very good relations with their earthly fathers.
This book is an engaging analysis of psychological factors in religious belief and disbelief. Vitz also has material on the history and anthropology of religion that refutes the idea that the history of religion resembles Oedipal development as propounded in Freudian theory. And glib assertions about the evolution of religion, Vitz shows, are patently false. This adds force to Vitz’s argument that atheism is motivated by factors other than theism’s ostensible lack of credibility.
As long as we keep in mind that none of this subjective material has any bearing on whether there actually is a God, it seems to be useful to correlate belief and unbelief with feelings about the world formed during childhood, and Vitz reminds his readers that there are likely to be “painful memories” underlying an atheist’s “rationalization of atheism.”
Vitz takes no pleasure in the record of childhood abandonment, abuse, and betrayal that correlates with rejection of God. Much as we welcome his exposure of the foibles of the crankish doctor who imagined a dubious Oedipal drama in the psyche of every five-year-old boy, it is saddening to learn that some of the antagonists we encounter in our efforts to be forthright about Christian faith are atheists because the world is to them a forlorn place. Very early in life, apparently, some people get a view of their prospects for salvation, however they might imagine it, that is dismal. Barbed rejoinders to expressions of contempt for religious faith are not the best way of dealing with atheists. Kindness, gentleness, self-control, and other virtues commended by St. Paul will probably be more effective.