The Psychology of Atheism — More Philosophers

This article is a continuation of a series. It is an exploration of the work of psychologist Paul Vitz, and his Defective Father Hypothesis. His idea is that intense atheists, those who devote their lives to the cause of atheism, especially those hostile to Christianity, which is distinctive in claiming God to be a loving father, have suffered traumatic events in early childhood. These are most often associated with the father, but there may be other contributory factors in relation to the mother and other figures. Especially significant is the death of a father, and this has the most profound effect when the child is between the ages of three and five.

I have devoted whole articles to Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Camus. (The fathers of Russell and Camus died before they were five; Freud’s father comes under the category of ‘weak or abusive’.) Here I will mention those philosophers singled out by Vitz who have not been mentioned earlier.

Dead Fathers

He is described by Vitz as “probably the world’s most famous atheist… He was deeply preoccupied with religion all his life and repeatedly and obsessively denounced Christian ideas and those who believed in them. In addition, Nietzsche’s biographers agree that his thought is profoundly connected to his own peculiar and complex psychology”. He quotes Nietzsche, conceding this: “every great philosophy so far has been namely the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir”.

His father, who had been suffering from a brain disease, died just before Friedrich’s fifth birthday. This was “a great loss which he never forgot”.

In a recent article on Medium by Zat Rana, he is said to be considered by many “to be the greatest philosopher to write in the English language”. According to Vitz he “was an early atheist or skeptic at a time when outright atheism was socially and politically dangerous”. He raised “many arguments, especially skeptical ones, against religion in any form. Over the course of his career, Hume probably devoted more pages of his writing to the topic of religion than to any other”. He was “a believer as a child…, he was raised as a Scottish Presbyterian. But he lost his faith as a young man…”

His father had died when he was only two.

The most famous existentialist philosopher, and “one of the most famous atheists of the twentieth century”.

His father died when he was only 15 months old. The family then lived with his mother’s parents, thus his grandfather (and tutor) could have become a father substitute, but they were never emotionally close. “Instead, Sartre cultivated a very intimate relationship with his mother”, who was devoted to him and did everything for him, but who then remarried when he was twelve. Unsurprisingly, he strongly rejected his new stepfather. Thus “Sartre’s real father died (abandoned him) very early, his grandfather was cool and distant, and his stepfather took Jean-Paul’s beloved mother away from him”. That was how three ‘fathers’ had treated him. It was probably no great surprise then that Sartre, aged about 13, said to himself: “You know what? God doesn’t exist”. However, he “was obsessed with fatherhood all his life”. (It’s also worth noting that in his philosophy he rejected the whole notion of the Freudian unconscious, thus resisting something which could potentially have helped him to deal with his repressed pain.)

His father committed suicide when Arthur was seventeen, when he jumped out of a third-story window (unless he fell accidentally, which is what his wife claimed — in any event Arthur believed it was suicide and blamed his mother). He had never been loved by her; it was an unplanned pregnancy, and she “saw her child as the cause of a painful loss of personal freedom… He grew to detest her, and they were estranged for most of their lives”. Schopenhauer is quoted: “I reflected even at early age: This world is supposed to have been made by a God? No, much rather by a devil”.

Especially in the light of this last quote, it is not hard to see how all this process works itself out. A young child is told that God is a loving father figure. It is reasonable then to expect a pleasant life. After experiencing distressing, traumatic events, it is not surprising therefore if children later reject the whole idea.

Yet these four figures have gone on to be incredibly influential in the world of ideas, attracting many followers. Why are they so appealing? Could it be because their readership has the same unresolved primal issues?

It is reasonable to conclude that passionate atheism has little or nothing to do with the existence or otherwise of God, much more to do with unpleasant personal circumstances, thus individual psychology.



Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, Spence Publishing Company, 2000, chapter 2. All unacknowledged quotes come from there.



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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships.