The Psychology of Atheism

notes from lecture delivered at Columbia University
by Paul C. Vitz, Ph.D.

Many people have psychological reasons for atheism. Factors of upbringing, sins of believers, etc., may be barriers to belief.

Nevertheless, we have freedom of choice. People can choose to move toward God or away from Him. A person with many impediments to faith may move in the direction of God, perhaps over a period of many years, without ever actually arriving at the point of belief. On the other hand, a person with no impediments may nevertheless choose to reject God.

Here are some of the common, superficial reasons for atheism:

1. The belief that atheism is realistic, whereas faith is wishful thinking.

2. Personal motives (I myself was an atheist from age 18 to 38, for personal reasons that had little intellectual or moral justification):

a. The desire for the sophistication of the secular urbanite; embarrassment over one’s provincial background.

b. The desire for acceptance. In my case, it was for acceptance by my psychology professors who seemed to have only two things in common: they were personally ambitious, and they had renounced religion.

c. Personal convenience. It is inconvenient to be a believer in a modern secular society. It involves the renunciation of sexual pleasures and the necessity of committing time and money. We are reluctant to make radical changes in our lifestyle.

Perhaps the above reasons account for the motives of most atheists. Now let us examine some of the deeper reasons for the atheism of some:

According to Freud’s “projection theory”, we developed religion out of a need to defend ourselves against the crushing superior forces of nature. As a child needs a father for protection, so we feel the need to create a protector God.

This, however, is an ad hominem attack, and is applicable to almost anything. It can be used, in fact, to negate psychoanalysis.

Another weakness of this argument is that, if it were true, one would expect all gods to be benevolent father-figures. However, this is not the case with pre-Christian and non-Christian religions.

It is worth noting that there is no support for Freud’s theory within psychoanalysis itself. Psychoanalysis is neutral with respect to the question of God’s existence. The projection theory is an autonomous argument and was first developed not by Freud, but by Ludwig von Feuerbach, a philosopher who was avidly read by the young Freud.

There is another argument that can be made on the basis of psychoanalytic theory, although to my knowledge this argument has yet to be fully developed:

According to psychoanalysis, the child has a desire to kill his father and to lie with his mother. Freud called this the ‘Oedipus complex’. (I personally do not believe that the Oedipus complex is universal.) The argument can be made that, due to this complex, we have an unconscious desire to kill God, the father figure. Atheism is thus merely Oedipal wish fulfillment.

In many prominent atheists in history, we see a strong antipathy toward their fathers. Voltaire was not an atheist, but he rejected the idea of a personal god. He vehemently rejected his own father, to the point of rejecting his surname and assuming the name ‘Voltaire’ (we do not know how he came by his adopted name). Diderot, likewise, was a profound atheist. He once stated that a child, if he had the strength of a man of thirty, would “strangle his father and lie with his mother”.

Freud himself observed that young people tend to lose their religious faith as soon as they lose the authority of their earthly fathers. This can happen in several ways:

1. The father is present, but he is weak, cowardly, unworthy of respect.

2. The father is present, but is physically, psychologically or sexually abusive.

3. The father is absent, whether through death or abandonment.

What of Freud’s own father? Jacob Freud was weak and unable to provide for his family. The money for their support came from his wife’s family. Jacob was also passive in the face of anti-Semitism, whereas his son greatly admired courageous resistance and was himself courageous. Moreover, Sigmund Freud wrote that his father was a sexual pervert. Now, Jacob used to read the bible with his son, and he became increasingly religious over the years.

Another example of a prominent atheist with a poor paternal relationship is Thomas Hobbes. His father was an Anglican clergyman. Although the exact circumstances are unknown, he got into a fight with another man in the churchyard, following which he abandoned his family.

As for Ludwig von Feuerbach, his father abandoned the family and lived with a married woman in the same town, then returned after the woman died. Feuerbach was twenty at the time of his father’s return. It is also to be noted that his father’s nickname was “Vesuvius”.

Schopenhauer was rejected by his mother, and his father committed suicide when Schopenhauer was sixteen.

Nietsche’s father died when he was four. Camus and Hume also lost their father’s in early childhood.

Our contemporary Madeleine Murray O’Hare also had an unhappy family life. She often fought with her father, and on one occasion tried to kill him with a butcher’s knife. We cannot know the reason for her hatred, but it probably was not without cause.

Another well-known living atheist is Albert Ellis, who developed rational emotive therapy. He founded an institute here in New York City. I once engaged in a debate with Ellis, during which I made the same arguments I make here. Afterwards, Dr. Ellis told me that my arguments did not apply to him, as his relationship with his father was fine. I said something about the large number of exceptions to any general truth in the field of psychology. However, some time afterward when I was describing my position to an acquaintance, he exclaimed, “Why, that sounds just like Albert Ellis!” I asked for an explanation.

Ellis grew up in New York. His mother did not function well, and his father was a philanderer who abandoned the family when Ellis was twelve. He and his brother had to take care of their mother and themselves. As an adult Ellis is polite to his father, but we can only guess how great the pain of his childhood must have been.

Dr. Antony Flew is another famous contemporary atheistic psychologist. Some while ago he was at a party and, having had too much to drink, ended up lying on the floor, hitting it and saying over and over, “I hate my father. I hate my father.” (Antony Flew recently changed his mind from Atheism to Intelligent Design as seen in the documentary “Has Science Discovered God?”)

Russell Baker’s father died when he was five. He describes raging against God as a child, and concluding that God was not to be trusted. Since then, by his own account, he has never cried and has never been able to love freely.

In contrast, many famous thinkers who were believers and contemporaries of the atheists named above, had very good relationships with their fathers. This includes Bonhoeffer, Chesterton, Pascal, and Wilberforce.

There are exceptions to my theory. John Stuart Mill was an atheist who was close to his father. However, his father was an atheist, and so it could be said that Mill came by his atheism the natural way. Diderot had a good relationship with his father until adulthood. As for Karl Marx, only a modest case can be made for poor paternal relationship. Kierkegaard had a good relationship with his father in childhood, rebelled against him in college, and subsequently returned to him.

The point of the profiling of atheists is to remove psychological motives from explaining religious belief. The ad hominem attack on theism posits an immature need for support, but there are psychological causes for atheism as well as theism. So when the atheist attacks a theists beliefs for being childish, the theist can counter, ``and so’s your old man!” So, this argument more or less levels the playing field as far as psychological explanations of belief/disbelief are concerned.

In the documentary “Has Science Discovered God?” Dr. Paul Vitz concludes that psychological reasons for believing or not believing in God have nothing to do with the facts and that the actual evidence should be examined instead.

BACK TO: Is there a God in the World?

by  Paul C. Vitz
Posted in: Jewish Beliefs & Philosophy