The Psychology of Atheism — Sigmund Freud

Paul C. Vitz: “What I attempt to do here is to show how Freud’s anti-religious beliefs and theories are to be understood as an expression of his own unconscious needs and traumatic childhood experiences. This explanation of Freud’s rejection of religion is not an interpretation restricted only to him; the analysis is general enough to have applicability to the motives of many who reject God today”¹.


This article is a follow-up to The Psychology of Atheism, and it would be helpful if readers were familiar with its contents. If you wish to start here, however, I offer a brief summary.

It was an exploration of Paul Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless², where he noted that “various atheists do not bother to argue whether religious beliefs are true or false. Instead, they ask what motives would lead people to hold such beliefs” (p 143). “Many atheists are famous for arguing that believers suffer from illusions, from unconscious and infantile needs, and from other psychological deficits” (p 4). The argument is therefore about the underlying psychological motivations of the believers, and he points out that “this mode of inquiry is equally applicable to them and their ideas” (p 143). He goes on to develop a theory to explain intense atheism, especially hostility to Christianity, that he calls the Defective Father Hypothesis. Noting that Christianity is distinctive in its presentation of God as a loving father figure, he traces the hostility towards God to events in the early lives of those concerned, thus their personal psychology. He gave several examples which I mentioned. However, his work on Freud, who is the best known name associated with the theory mentioned above, is so extensive that it is worthy of this separate article.

Freud’s critique of religion can be found especially in the two books The Future of an Illusion and Totem and Taboo, but also elsewhere. He wrote that:

Freud is therefore “seen as a pessimistic free-thinker, an unrepentant atheist, a scientist-humanist, a skeptical realist” (p 1). The main purpose of Vitz’s earlier book is, despite these unambiguous statements, to establish Freud’s unconscious attraction to religion, specifically Roman Catholicism. This is very interesting, given his publicly professed atheism and hostility towards religion, but it is not directly relevant to my purpose here. While exploring this, however, Vitz reveals some fascinating biographical details relevant to his theme in Faith of the Fatherless, that intense atheism, especially strong hostility to Christianity, can be traced to rejection of the personal father.

As his biographer Ernest Jones says “Freud has taught us that the essential foundations of character are laid down by the age of three and that later events can modify but not alter the traits then established”⁵. It would therefore be interesting to have a look at the first three years of Freud’s life.

Before considering the role of his father, which is more important for Vitz’s hypothesis, there are other traumatic circumstances in relation to his mother. “Freud must have found his mother, Amalia, relatively unavailable to him from the time he was a little under a year old until he was close to three years old” (p 6). There were two pregnancies, two births, including a sick child who died. (Vitz believes that, because of these circumstances, Freud was deprived of proper breastfeeding.) As if this was not enough to occupy her time, it seems that she also worked in a warehouse.

For all these reasons Freud, from early on, had a nanny or nursemaid named Resi Wittek, until he was at least two years and eight months old, although Vitz believes it was until he was three. She became his primary mother, and strongly influenced him, especially in matters of religion. Vitz says that he loved her “as only a young child can love”. She was then suddenly dismissed for theft, thus removed from his life; he was abandoned “at a most impressionable age”. He was later told that it was for stealing from him, which would have shocked him if he believed it (but that may not have been the real reason, see below). This was a “disappearance that he did not understand. Even if he had understood, it would have made little difference to his feeling of great loss” (p 22). Having been neglected by his own mother, he had now been abandoned, possibly betrayed, by the substitute. Vitz concludes that Freud would have suffered from separation anxiety, and provides some evidence related to his phobia.

Turning now to the main question, Vitz says that “in very fundamental ways, Freud rejected his father” (p 36), who was a great disappointment to him. “Jakob was far from a business success. The poverty of Freud’s early years left a life-long mark on him. Apparently, Jakob lacked real energy and focused drive, since these characteristics did not show in his business (or elsewhere, for that matter)”. He was “not a strong and manly figure”. There was a move from Freiberg to Vienna which “must have been rather shocking”. “In Freiberg Jakob was the head of his own business, and was on a par with other Jewish businessmen… In Vienna, the situation was quite different… (He) was no longer an independent businessman… worked for others… he was not very successful”.

Although it cannot be proved beyond doubt, there are strong reasons to believe that Freud’s mother Amalia was having an affair with her stepson Philipp (Jakob’s son), “and that Sigmund was a (literal) witness to it”. He may even have suspected that his stepbrother was the father of a new baby. If the evidence for the affair is not absolutely conclusive, even though it is strong, Vitz argues that it “was at least psychologically real for young Freud”, and strongly agrees with his source, the writer on Freud Marianne Krüll, “that the reason for the move from Freiberg was that Jakob learned of or began to suspect the affair between Amalia and Philipp. The move was thus motivated to a significant extent by the desire to put a stop to this liaison”. He was perhaps, therefore, unable to assert himself and demand a stop. This leads to “another interpretation of why the nanny was so suddenly fired”. She was “the one adult most likely to know about this affair”⁶. There is therefore a suspicion that she may have been falsely accused of theft in order to get rid of her. If Freud were aware of this at any level, he would have thought of his father as plotting against him, removing the one he loved.

The young Freud was therefore, in addition to being ‘abandoned’ by both his mothers and disappointed by his father, caught up in a family intrigue and scandal, and was powerless at his age to do anything about it. We can only speculate about his feelings, but deep pain and primal anger would be a reasonable conclusion.

The essence of Vitz’s hypothesis, as outlined in Faith of the Fatherless and discussed in my previous article, is that circumstances such as these would unconsciously lead the victim towards atheism, i.e. hatred of the father-figure, the desire to kill him. This is indeed what happened to Freud. “The period of Freud’s academic studies… was a time of great enthusiasm for science — and enthusiasm permeated by an ideological commitment to materialism, rationalism, and determinism. (This ideological kind of science is known as ‘scientism’.) As a student and young scientist, Freud imbibed much of this attitude, and it was one that in important respects remained with him all his life”(p 48). It never seems to have occurred to him, however, that this was an unconscious reaction to his early childhood.

Having examined Freud’s early life, let’s have a look at the ideas that he developed later, the purpose being to show how the former influenced the latter. In general terms, Vitz thinks that this early biography “certainly helps to explain Freud’s persistent interest in sexuality in childhood, in great figures of ambiguous parentage, and in sexual conflict between father and son, as well as to shed light on Freud’s rejection of his father”⁷.

His best-known theory, the Oedipus complex, is worthy of examination in more detail. Its prominent features are a longing in a young boy for sexual union with the mother, and an unconscious desire to kill the father. Vitz interprets the latter personally in respect to Freud: “the central psychoanalytic concept of the Oedipus complex is one powerful expression of this rejection of his father” (p 36). Furthermore, as we have seen, Freud had two mothers, the biological and the nanny. It is therefore interesting that Oedipus, his fundamental preoccupation, also had two mothers: his biological mother, Jocasta, and his functional mother, Merope. As noted above, Freud may have suspected, albeit incorrectly, that his named father was not his real father. “The tragedy Oedipus Rex itself focuses emphatically on the ambiguous parentage of Oedipus”. He is quoted: “My parents again! Wait: who are my parents?” (p 27). Freud was also fascinated by Moses; Michelangelo’s statue was his favourite work of art, and his last book was Moses and Monotheism. Moses also had two mothers, a biological Hebrew, and a functional Egyptian princess. It is also interesting that his real mother was forced to abandon him because of a decree by the Pharaoh that “all male Hebrew babies were to be killed”, which may suggest one of Freud’s unconscious fears.

It would be helpful if this theory had been developed on the basis of Freud’s observations in his clinical experience. I am not sure whether or not he claimed this to be the case. However, he journeyed into even more dubious territory when he developed a highly speculative, bizarre, and therefore controversial theory about early human societies in order to support his theory: “Freud elaborated a cultural-historical model of this complex in Totem and Taboo… proposed an Oedipal and totemic origin of religion”; he suggested an early stage of society as a primal horde⁸.

Vitz says that this model “is thoroughly rejected by anthropologists” because “there is simply no evidence”, referring specifically to the work of Wilhelm Schmidt. “No totemic theory — much less the Oedipal one — can account for the origin of religion. Freud’s theory of how religion arose is a kind of ‘just-so story’ ”⁹. As Vitz had argued in his earlier book, far from being rooted in the ancient human psyche, “Freud’s Oedipus complex would have been derived from a very important core of his own childhood experience. It would have been his older half-brother Philipp — not some remote aborigine — who ‘first’ had the idea of sexually possessing the mother, and by implication of killing the father. And it is Philipp’s behavior that would have raised the Oedipal issue, not Freud’s unprimed unconscious of its own volition. Freud’s introduction to the primal group of sons hostile to the father (as in Totem and Taboo) would have been in his own family, when he was about three years old”¹⁰.

In Faith of the Fatherless, Vitz further exposes the weaknesses in Freud’s position in relation to religion. He points out that “because Freud is the author, somehow the findings of psychoanalysis are assumed to support the theory”. However, this is not the case: “His critical attitude towards and rejection of religion are rooted in his personal predilections, and his interpretation of religion… is not supported by specifically clinical concepts”. Freud is quoted accepting this, but nevertheless implies that “he is very familiar with the psychology of belief in God”, which is not the case: “He never presented publicly any serious psychological evidence for his projection theory or for his other ideas about religion” (pp 9–10).

Because his theories seem so obviously to be based on his personal psychology, Vitz argues that “Freud inadvertently developed a straightforward rationale for understanding the wish-fulfilling origin of the rejection of God. After all, the Oedipus complex is unconscious, it is established in childhood, and above all its dominant motive is hatred of the father (God) and the desire for him not to exist, something represented by the boy’s desire to overthrow or kill the father. Freud regularly described God as a psychological equivalent to the father, and so a natural expression of Oedipal motivation would be powerful, unconscious desires for the nonexistence of God. Therefore, in the Freudian framework, atheism is an illusion caused by the Oedipal desire to kill the father (God) and replace him with oneself. To act as though God does not exist reveals a wish to kill Him… The belief that ‘God is dead’, therefore, is simply an Oedipal wish-fulfillment — the sign of seriously unresolved unconscious motivation” (p 13).

At this point it is appropriate to mention the three authors John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York. In a recent article The Decline of Humanism, I criticized them for misrepresenting the Italian Renaissance as a revival of materialist ideas. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and wondered whether they were merely ignorant, or whether they were deliberately lying. (In a response Jack Preston King assured me that they were lying!) In the same book, Critique of Intelligent Design¹¹, they praise Freud, obviously thinking that he is an authority who should be listened to. They repeat, and treat as truth the ‘primal horde’ theory from Totem and Taboo. Having said that Freud’s influences included Darwin, Haeckel, and J. G. Frazer who, I would say, are very dubious and controversial authorities, they then spend several pages outlining Freud’s theory, and conclude: “Although religion was always, for Freud, an illusion, i.e. a system of belief founded on wish-fulfillment, his history of this illusion in Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism led him to conclude that behind it lay a concrete ‘historical truth’ ” (p 145). This ‘historical truth’ had been exposed by Vitz twenty years earlier as a fantasy emerging from Freud’s personal psychology, and as a just-so story. I would therefore suggest again that these authors are willing to clutch at any straws in order to advance their atheistic ideas.

I’ll end up where I began by quoting Vitz’s preface: “The purpose of this book… is to show how the curious and sometimes traumatic events in the life of one small Jewish boy growing up in Central Europe over 100 years ago have cast a very long shadow over the religious life of the modern West” (P xii).



None of the above prevented the BBC from producing a programme describing Freud as a genius of the modern world!¹² As I suggested in an earlier article, this can only have been because he was an atheist, not because he had any real claim to such praise. This just shows the way the world is going.


I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).



1. Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious, William B. Eerdmans, 1993, Preface, P xii

2. Spence Publishing, 2000

3. quoted by Vitz, as 1, p 1

4. The Future of an Illusion, translated by J. Strachey, Norton, 1961, p 30

5. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Basic Books, 1953, p 13

6. as 1, see pp 36–45

7. as 1, p 44

8. as 2, p 11

9. ibid., p 12–13

10. as 1, p 42

11. Monthly Review Press, 2008

12. first shown June 30th 2016




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

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Graham Pemberton

Graham Pemberton

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

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