Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism,

By Paul C. Vitz, Ph.D., (Spence Publishing Co, $24.95 U.S., 174 pages)

Should religious beliefs be subject to psychological analysis? Psychology should be irrelevant. Dr. Paul Vitz, a professor of psychology at New York University and at the Institute for Psychological Sciences in Virginia, bases the entire premise of Faith of the Fatherless, the Psychology of Atheism on a platform that seemingly contradicts the irrelevance of psychology in religion, or the lack thereof. Vitz explains that when discussing the intricacies of religion and the positions of believers and nonbelievers in respect to the truth of the existence of God, psychology cannot be considered in this debate as it deals primarily with the person presenting the evidence, rather than the evidence in and of itself; yet the pattern established by lives of famous historical figures in the text seems to support a different conclusion. The public rejection of God by atheists would appear to have foundations that are motivated by intensely personal reasons. And the very fact that atheists themselves began the psychological approach to questioning belief, would give the author license to prove that in certain aspects psychology is significant to the argument at hand.

Vitz proposes a simple hypothesis: atheism is linked to “defective father” relationships. The argument is laid out in a concise format, atheists vs. theists, and those who might be considered exceptions.

Beginning with nonbelievers, specific trends quickly become obvious. Using the biographies of figures such as Nietzsche, Hume, Hobbes, Voltaire, and Sartes among others, common psychological factors present themselves; each of these men lost their fathers at an early age, were abandoned, or were forced to endure abusive or weak fathers. Most people would agree that the relationship children have with their parents, formed during the first years of life, is significant in the longevity of its effects. There are critical windows of opportunities in which a child bonds with his/her parents, and these filial bonds require nurturing over the duration of a lifetime.

None of the men described by Vitz in the core atheist group had the good fortune of having strong parental bonds, and seemingly as a consequence of the rejection their earthly fathers, they in turn reject the possibility of a benevolent, loving heavenly father, namely, God.

The second group Vitz examines is that of the Theists (an individual who believes in the existence of a personal God). With the lives of Pascal, Reid, Newman and Chesterton, to name a few, a strong filial relationship demonstrates an acceptance, openness and support of the possibility God. In the instance where theists have fathers who abandoned them, or died, it is clear that each person had a substitute father figure emerge, whether it be a teacher, priest or male relative, and play a central role in their theological advancement.

The entire first half of the book focuses primarily on males, which would bring into question whether or not the defective father hypothesis would apply equally to women. Historically there are no records of female atheists prior to Madyln Murray O’Hair. All the examples of females as portrayed by Vitz who fit the description of atheists are self-described feminists. But like the men, all these women rejected their fathers, or were rejected by their fathers – which subsequently led to their atheistic views. To be noted, the responses vary for men and women after their rejection of God: for men, God functions first and foremost as a principle of justice, and secondarily as person with whom one would have a relationship. For women, the relationship is primary, while God as the principle of justice and order is secondary. Hence, men will replace God with some alternative, intellectual principle, such as science, reason, humanism, socialism or communism. For women, the vacuum created by the loss of the divine paternity is replaced by other relationships.

For these people, the intensely personal becomes intensely political. Atheists try to find a political platform for their personal beliefs and opinions. In the past most of the views were published, but coincidentally, today politicians are frequently lobbied for socialist causes, scientific endeavors, and more recently, huge homosexuals agendas, among other things.

Taking the examples provided into consideration and the social climate in the past century, one might assume that modern society is a breeding ground for atheists, or at the very least skeptical attitudes towards God. Given that almost fifty per cent of marriages end in divorce, it might be fair to assume that some children would feel abandoned by their fathers (as most children stay with their mothers after a divorce). Add to that the fact many mothers, as a result of the divorce, might imply that the father is weak, a failure, especially if he is negligent in his parental or fiscal responsibilities towards his family. Cynicism and hostility towards one’s father can be easily transferred to any figure in authority.

Conversely many children do enjoy a strong patriarchal relationship. In some of these cases the father holds atheistic views, and due to the healthy relationship, the children adopt their father’s beliefs. The father’s role in the spiritual formation of children should not be trivialized, nor diminished; their contribution to the spiritual development is both significant and lasting. Do they not say that imitation is the highest form of flattery?

Vitz concludes his argument by cautioning oversimplification of this defective father hypothesis, by naively stating that in light of the pain of the rejection they have felt they become atheists. Each case is individual and complex. One must not dismiss that every individual who journeys down the path of atheism does so with intelligence, ambition and, ultimately, free will. There are numerous motivations a person may have for questioning their belief in the existence of God, but at the end of the day each and every one will make a conscious decision.

Vitz gives a Christian perspective to what seems to be an otherwise godless science. Laying out his arguments clearly and concisely, he provides us with a text that is enlightening and intuitive, not from the bias of a Christian, but instead from the very lives of those whose principal objectives were to discredit and disprove the existence of God. Clearly, there are undeniable patterns which would indicate an underlying psychology, that apart from superficial reasons of most nonbelievers, contribute to the rationalization of atheism, thus rendering psychology relevant.