Atheists and Their Fathers
Written by Kerby Anderson
How does one become an atheist? Does a person’s relationship with his earthly father affect his relationship with his heavenly Father? These are some of the questions we will explore in this article as we talk about the book Faith of the Fatherless by Paul Vitz.
Vitz is a psychologist who was an atheist himself until his late thirties. He began to wonder if psychology played a role in one’s belief about God. After all, secular psychologists have been saying that a belief in God is really nothing more than infantile wish fulfillment. Dr. Vitz wondered if the shoe was on the other foot. Could it be that atheists are engaged in unconscious wish fulfillment?
After studying the lives of more than a dozen of the world’s most influential atheists, Dr. Vitz discovered that they all had one thing in common: defective relationships with their fathers. The relationship was defective because the father was either dead, abusive, weak, or had abandoned the children. When he studied the lives of influential theists during those same historical time periods, he found they enjoyed a strong, loving relationship with a father (or a father substitute if the father was dead).
For example, Friedrich Nietzche lost his father (who was a pastor) before his fifth birthday. One biographer wrote that Nietzche was “passionately attached to his father, and the shock of losing him was profound.” Dr. Vitz writes that Nietzche had a “strong, intellectually macho reaction against a dead, very Christian father.” Friedrich Nietzche is best known as the philosopher who said, “God is dead.” It certainly seems possible that his rejection of God and Christianity was a “rejection of the weakness of his father.”
Contrast Nietzche with the life of Blaise Pascal. This famous mathematician and religious writer lived at a time in Paris when there was considerable skepticism about religion. He nevertheless wrote Les pensées (Thoughts), a powerful and imaginative defense of Christianity, which also attacked skepticism. Pascal’s father, Etienne, was a wealthy judge and also an able mathematician. He was known as a good man with religious convictions. Pascal’s mother died when he was three, so his father gave up his law practice and home-schooled Blaise and his sisters.
Here we are going to look at the correlation between our relationship with our earthly father and our heavenly Father. No matter what our family background, we are still responsible for the choices we make. Growing up in an unloving home does not excuse us from rejecting God, but it does explain why some people reject God. There may be a psychological component to their commitment to atheism.
Nietzche and Freud
Friedrich Nietzche is a philosopher who has influenced everyone from Adolph Hitler to the Columbine killers. His father was a Lutheran pastor who died of a brain disease before Nietzche’s fifth birthday. He often spoke positively of his father and said his death was a great loss, which he never forgot. One biographer wrote that Nietzche was “passionately attached to his father, and the shock of losing him was profound.”
It seems he associated the general weakness and sickness of his father with his father’s Christianity. Nietzche’s major criticism of Christianity was that it suffers from an absence, even a rejection, of “life force.” The God Nietzche chose was Dionysius, a strong pagan expression of life force. It certainly seems possible that his rejection of God and Christianity was a “rejection of the weakness of his father.”
Nietzche’s own philosophy placed an emphasis on the “superman” along with a denigration of women. Yet his own search for masculinity was undermined by the domination of his childhood by his mother and female relatives in a Christian household. Dr. Vitz says, “It is not surprising, then, that for Nietzche Christian morality was something for women.” He concludes that Nietzche had a “strong, intellectually macho reaction against a dead, very Christian father who was loved and admired but perceived as sickly and weak.”
Sigmund Freud despised his Jewish father, who was a weak man unable to support his family. Freud later wrote in two letters that his father was a sexual pervert, and that the children suffered as a result. Dr. Vitz believes that Freud’s Oedipus Complex (which placed hatred of the father at the center of his psychology) was an expression of “his strong unconscious hostility to and rejection of his own father.” His father was involved in a form of reformed Judaism but was also a weak, passive man with sexual perversions. Freud’s rejection of God and Judaism seems connected to his rejection of his father.
Both Nietzche and Freud demonstrate the relationship between our attitudes toward our earthly father and our heavenly Father. In both cases, there seems to be a psychological component to their commitment to atheism.
Russell and Hume
Bertrand Russell was one of the most famous atheists of the last century. Both of Russell’s parents lived on the margin of radical politics. His father died when Bertrand Russell was four years old, and his mother died two years earlier. He was subsequently cared for by his rigidly puritanical grandmother, who was known as “Deadly Nightshade.” She was by birth a Scottish Presbyterian, and by temperament a puritan.
Russell’s daughter Katherine noted that his grandmother’s joyless faith was “the only form of Christianity my father knew well.” This ascetic faith taught that “the life of this world was no more than a gloomy testing ground for future bliss.” She concluded, “My father threw this morbid belief out the window.”
Dr. Vitz points out that Russell’s only other parent figures were a string of nannies to whom he often grew quite attached. When one of the nannies left, the eleven-year-old Bertrand was “inconsolable.” He soon discovered that the way out of his sadness was to retreat into the world of books.
After his early years of lost loves and later years of solitary living at home with tutors, Russell described himself in this way: “My most profound feelings have remained always solitary and have found in human things no companionship . . . . The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places, mean more to me than even the human beings I love best, and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God.”
Another famous atheist was David Hume. He was born into a prominent and affluent family. He seems to have been on good terms with his mother as well as his brother and sister. He was raised as a Scottish Presbyterian but gave up his faith and devoted most of his writing to the topic of religion.
Like the other atheists we have discussed, David Hume fits the pattern. His father died when he was two years old. Biographies of his life mention no relatives or family friends who could serve as father-figures. And David Hume is known as a man who had no religious beliefs and spent his life raising skeptical arguments against religion in any form.
Both Russell and Hume demonstrate the relationship between our attitudes toward our earthly father and our heavenly Father. In each case, there is a psychological component to their commitment to atheism.
Sartre, Voltaire, and Feuerbach
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the most famous atheists of the last century. His father died when he was fifteen months old. He and his mother lived with his maternal grandparents as his mother cultivated a very intimate relationship with him. She concentrated her emotional energy on her son until she remarried when Sartre was twelve. This idyllic and Oedipal involvement came to an end, and Sartre strongly rejected his stepfather.
In those formative years, Sartre’s real father died, his grandfather was cool and distant, and his stepfather took his beloved mother away from him. The adolescent Sartre concluded to himself, “You know what? God doesn’t exist.” Commentators note that Sartre obsessed with fatherhood all his life and never got over his fatherlessness. Dr. Vitz concludes that “his father’s absence was such a painful reality that Jean-Paul spent a lifetime trying to deny the loss and build a philosophy in which the absence of a father and of God is the very starting place for the good or authentic life.”
Another philosopher during the French Enlightenment disliked his father so much that he changed his name from Arouet to Voltaire. The two fought constantly. At one point Voltaire’s father was so angry with his son for his interest in the world of letters rather than taking up a career in law that he “authorized having his son sent to prison or into exile in the West Indies.” Voltaire was not a true atheist, but rather a deist who believed in an impersonal God. He was a strident critic of religion, especially Christianity with its understanding of a personal God.
Ludwig Feuerbach was a prominent German atheist who was born into a distinguished and gifted German family. His father was a prominent jurist who was difficult and undiplomatic with colleagues and family. The dramatic event in young Ludwig’s life must have been his father’s affair with the wife of one his father’s friends. They lived together openly in another town, and she bore him a son. The affair began when Feuerbach was nine and lasted for nine years. His father publicly rejected his family, and years later Feuerbach rejected Christianity. One famous critic of religion said that Feuerbach was so hostile to Christianity that he would have been called the Antichrist if the world had ended then.
Each of these men once again illustrates the relationship between atheism and their fathers.
Burke and Wilberforce
British statesman Edmund Burke is considered by many as the founder of modern conservative political thought. He was partly raised by his grandfather and three affectionate uncles. He later wrote of his Uncle Garret, that he was “one of the very best men, I believe that ever lived, of the clearest integrity, the most genuine principles of religion and virtue.”
His writings are in direct opposition to the radical principles of the French Revolution. One of his major criticisms of the French Revolution was its hostility to religion: “We are not converts of Rousseau; we are not the disciples of Voltaire; Helevetius has made no progress amongst us. Atheists are not our preachers.” For Burke, God and religion were important pillars of a just and civil society.
William Wilberforce was an English statesman and abolitionist. His father died when he was nine years old, and he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle. He was extremely close to his uncle and to John Newton who was a frequent visitor to their home. Newton was a former slave trader who converted to Christ and wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” Wilberforce first heard of the evils of slavery from Newton’s stories and sermons, “even reverencing him as a parent when [he] was a child.” Wilberforce was an evangelical Christian who went on to serve in parliament and was instrumental in abolishing the British slave trade.
As mentioned earlier, Blaise Pascal was a famous mathematician and religious writer. Pascal’s father was a wealthy judge and also an able mathematician, known as a good man with religious convictions. Pascal’s mother died when he was three, so his father gave up his law practice and home-schooled Blaise and his sisters. Pascal went on to powerfully present a Christian perspective at a time when there was considerable skepticism about religion in France.
I believe Paul Vitz provides an important look at atheists and theists in his book Faith of the Fatherless. The prominent atheists of the last few centuries all had defective relationships with their fathers while the theists enjoyed a strong, loving relationship with a father or a father substitute. This might be something to compassionately consider the next time you witness to an atheist.
©2002 Probe Ministries
About the Author
Kerby Anderson is National Director of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of “Point of View” (USA Radio Network) and regular guest on “Prime Time America” (Moody Broadcasting Network) and “Fire Away” (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.
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