Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, Paul C. Vitz, Ph.D., Spence Publishing Co, Dallas, 1999, pps. 174, $24.95

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

"Lack of bonding . . . affects the development of spirituality. . . .
Very often children create their image of a god or the universe based
on their relationship with their parents. Cruel parents, cruel gods."
-- Charlotte D. Kasl, Ph.D., Women, Sex and Addiction

Innumerable articles have been written on the mind-set of believers -- all explained by their psychological needs. Dr. Vitz has turned the tables on the atheists by using the same methodology to explain why others have become atheists. He believes that one's decision to believe or not believe is not the result of any rational objective decision but is based on feelings which were the result of a pernicious early childhood environment.

A search for the truth of whether God exists does not explain why a particular person is a theist or an atheist. For this reason, the author believes that it is possible to study the origins of the mind-set of individuals who are unbelievers the very same way that atheists have always used to study the psychological reasons why some believe in God.

Atheists, especially the militant ones, are concentrated in academia, the intellectual world and government. The believers are distributed over a much wider social spectrum. Freud, in The Future of An Illusion, gave his opinion of the origins of belief in God -- the need for security against the unpredictable forces of nature. Freud believed that a person develops a belief in a personal God because of his need for an exulted father. He wrote that when the power of the father breaks down and the child matures, belief in God automatically diminishes.

Professor Vitz has developed an interesting theory of why some become atheists. His hypothesis is that it is often the result of having had a "defective father." This may be a result of absence, death, indifference, hostility, weakness, cowardliness or any characteristic which would make the father deficient.

I would have enjoyed reading case studies of how unconscious psychological mechanisms operate and point the individual into the direction of becoming an unbeliever. The author could have placed more emphasis on how the negative attributes of the missing father can become projected unto God. For example, when the loving father does not exist then neither does God seem to exist, and when the father seemed distant from the person, then so does God, etc.

But, unfortunately, the author spends little time discussing atheism from the unconscious identification of God with a missing loving father or with a father who supplied love and support. Maybe, this might be because the author is an experimental psychologist, rather than a clinical psychologist. Perhaps the clinical material does not exist.

To buttress his "defective father" hypothesis, NYU professor Vitz uses the biographies of famous, well known individuals, who are mostly from the fields of philosophy and the ministry. He begins with interesting short life histories of well-known atheists from the past three hundred years including, Nietsche, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Satre, Camus and Schopenhauer.

Under the heading of "abusive and weak fathers" he includes, Thomas Hobbs, Meilier, Voltaire, d'Alembert, d'Holbach, Feuerbach, Samuel Butler, Freud, H. G. Wells, Carlile, Madalyn Murray O'Hair and Albert Ellis. These were all shown to have negative father/child relationships during their youth.

As a control group the author examines the lives of individuals known for both their piety and their writings defending Christianity or Judaism. Those include, Pascal, George Berkeley, Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, Edmund Burke, Moses Mendelssohn, William Paley, William Wilberforce, Chateaubriand, Schleiermacher, Cardinal Newman, de Tocqueville, Samuel Wilberforce, Kierkegaard, von Hugel, G. K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Buber, Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer and Abraham Heschel.

These individuals were shown to have had positive father/son relationships as there were no early deaths of the father, no abandonment and recorded reciprocal love.

But does the tendency towards atheism get established when a loving substitute father arrives later in the life of the child? The author believes this tendency may be thwarted when such a person enters the child's life. He gives illustrations from the lives of Don Bosco, Hilaire Belloc and novelist Walker Percy.

The lives of Stalin, Hitler and Mao are studied in the "political atheists" section. The three were all known for their condemnation of religion and all had histories of having greatly abusive tyrants as fathers.

All of the above mentioned individuals were men, except O'Hair. Whereas the origin of militant atheism for both men and women is the same, men and women have different concepts of God after rejection by their fathers. Men consider God more as a symbol for order and justice in the world. Women seem to place their relationship with God in the forefront of their feelings based on their relationship with their father. Thus, without a divine relationship, the void is filled by other substitute relationships.

These women with missing or unloving fathers may become interested in a Mother Goddess, such as Gaia. Extreme feminists substitute God the Mother for God the Father. Sometimes maleness in itself is rejected and the world of the "sisterhood" becomes emphasized which can reveal itself in lesbianism. The lives of contemporary feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, Jill Johnson, and Kate Millett are examined to further illustrate the author's theory.

The author writes that there are exceptions to his general theory of bad fathers and gives us short biographies of Denis Diderot and Karl Marx to illustrate that point. He feels that other exceptions can be readily found.

Can atheism be taught by a loving father? The author believes ". . . it is possible that a good father who taught his child atheism would nevertheless inadvertently be a model for a benevolent Father/God. Thus, we might expect the children of good atheist fathers often to find themselves learning toward or even converting to theism."

Atheism is a recent phenomenon, but bad fathers have existed since the beginning of humanity so why is atheism a relatively recent belief? Vitz writes that it takes more than a bad father to produce an unbeliever. The culture into which one is born is an important factor. From history we know that prior to a few hundred years ago, it was physically and economically dangerous for one to proclaim his disbelief in God. Even believing heretics were, at times, severely punished.

Perhaps this is one of the elements which the author had in mind when he mentions cultural factors. Dr. Vitz believes that one's neurotic intellectual act-ins can also turn outward and reveal itself as a obsessive "father hunger." This seems to be becoming more generalized in the U.S. as the percentage of children living in nuclear families diminishes.

The author writes that such psychological factors (and others) may predispose an individual to become an atheist. Professor Vitz believes that one's decision to embrace atheism rather than theism is nonetheless an operation of one's free will. I don't agree that one's will can be considered free if these impediments are in operation. (See section of The Primal Psychotherapy Page Interviews Paul Vereshack, M.D.)

* * *

"God punishes us for what we can't imagine."
--Wireman in novelist Stephen King's, Duma Key

A study of school children separated the attributes of nurturance and power based on parental qualities which were later projected into the attributes of God. It was published five years ago in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by Jane R. Dickie, et als and showed how parents help shape their children's image of God. The study concluded that children think of God the same way they perceive their parents. If the father was nurturing then God was felt to be nurturing. This was the factor that best predicted the projected factor of nurturance. But it was the mother's "power" which was the best predictor of believing that God was powerful.

One would assume that the normal maternal role of nurturing and the paternal role of having power would be more logical because of normal gender attributes, but that was not what the study found.

In my own case, while re-living my birth in primal therapy and holotropic breathwork, I sensed the lack of power and my mother's inability or unwillingness to help in my birth process. These characteristics, which I sensed during birth (probably, incorrectly!) was the set-point about what I later believed were the qualities of God. (See my article My Mother As God, God As My Mother.)

In over twenty-five years of reliving early traumas (mostly birth), I have had very few primal feelings about my father. Of the thousands of primals I have felt, only half-a-dozen concerned him. They were minor and some were positive. I do not believe that my early relationship with my father had any part in my adult decision that God was distant, unsympathetic, and cruel.

Although Dr. Vitz's theory relates to the factors causing belief or non-belief in the existence of God and not to the attributes of God, my experience as well as the results of Jane Dickie's study point to the importance of the maternal influence in one's personal theodicy as it relates to maternal "power."

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