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Book review: 'Faith of the Fatherless - The Psychology of Atheism'

By Ben-Peter Terpstra - posted Wednesday, 11 May 2005

First published in 1999, Faith of the Fatherless - The Psychology of Atheism is still likely to ruffle a few sensitive feathers. Why? Because confronting “cool-headed” rational atheists is taboo. Whereas, practicing Christians and orthodox Jews are portrayed by some academics as irrational God-hungry neurotics, very few secularists have come under close scrutiny. But are they beyond and above accountability?

The former atheist, Paul C. Vitz, a professor of psychology at New York University, advances the position that militant atheists need to look closely at themselves. Vitz asserts: “In short the theory that God is a projection of our own needs is a familiar modern position and is, for example, presented in countless university courses. But the psychological concepts used so effectively to interpret religion by those who reject God are double edged swords that can also, indeed easily, be used to explain their unbelief.”

Evidently, there are many fine arguments from both sides of the debate. Yet, at the end of the day (or one’s life) Christians can afford to be wrong. If there isn’t a God, then so what? Atheists, on the other hand, can’t afford the luxury of making a mistake with potential eternal consequences. If God exists, then I’d hate to think about what awaits them in the next life. Vitz is right to question the supposedly unquestionable.


For years, militant atheists thought they had the monopoly on truth and therefore virtue. As such, they persisted in mocking monotheists by portraying them as neurotics. This point can’t be stressed enough. Yet, Vitz looks behind the accusations and convincingly argues that a good many (not all) secular fundamentalists hate God because of their own troubled upbringings. In fact, the psychological source of their militancy stems from the absence of a loving father in the home.

When one looks at famous atheists and their families, a grim picture emerges. Vitz looks at what he calls the “dead father” syndrome. Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche, for example, lost his father at a very young age. Sadly, so too did many evangelical atheists. David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Arthur Schopenhaeur could be added to that list. The biographical evidence is frightening. Is this just a mere coincidence?

Obviously, there were prominent atheist thinkers who didn’t loose their fathers at an early age. Thomas Hobbs, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Jean d’Alembert, Baron d’Holbach, Ludwig Feuerbach, Samuel Butler, Sigmund Freud and H.G. Wells all spring to the author’s mind. Still, when one takes a closer look at the biographical evidence, as Vitz does, we find more disturbing patterns. All of these renowned secularists came from homes with weak or abusive fathers. Again, is this just purely coincidental?

As the reader ploughs through the defective father hypothesis, one wonders how famous Jewish and Christian intellectuals were raised. Do they have any family secrets? Surprise, surprise: we find that 21 of the prominent theistic thinkers came from relatively healthy backgrounds! Blaise Pascal, for instance, was home-schooled by a dedicated father and flourished as an outstanding mathematician and erudite religious writer. Similarly, Moses Mendelssohn, the renowned Jewish scholar, spoke against materialism and fought successfully against punitive German legal traditions and customs. His father was instrumental in nurturing a strong sense of justice within him. Alexis de Tocqueville, Soren Kierkegarrd, G.K. Chesterton and Abraham Heschel are also recognised for their rich lives and contributions, which stemmed from their father-son relationships.

Like all theories, however, there are exceptions to the rules. Vitz wisely provides readers with extensions and qualifications by citing exemplary cases. In any case, the defective father hypothesis fares very well under close scrutiny.

Admittedly, and since 9-11, militant atheists have been a little less vocal in criticising monotheists for fear of offending Muslims. (Note: The hardcover was first published in 1999.) Curiously, they were never shy in attacking Christians and Jews for believing in God. Yet, their “new found sensitivity” has more do with a hatred of America than an appreciation for foreign customs. By now, most practicing Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews know how it feels to be mocked for believing in a power higher than oneself.


History tells us that political atheism tends to be extremely dangerous. Both Hitler and Stalin hated Judeo-Christian values with a vengeance. And it should come as no surprise that both leaders were severely beaten by their fathers. Curiously, a good many of their fawning disciples came from fatherless backgrounds too. Consider for one moment the many ways in which pathetic German men worshipped Hitler. How many of them saw him as a substitute role model after having lost their own fathers in WWI?

To be sure, political atheism deserves its own book. Rabbi Daniel Lapin states that: “In only the twentieth-century, atheism in both its forms of facism and communism, has been responsible for killing far more humans than all the religious wars of the first nineteen centuries.” Alas, an intellectual arrogance surrounds militant atheists. Books like Faith of the Fatherless - The Psychology of Atheism, however, serve as an important counterweight to the many pro-atheist arguments preached by some evangelical secularists on campuses across the West. Thank God for this author.

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About the Author

Ben-Peter Terpstra has provided commentary for The Daily Caller (Washington D.C.), NewsReal Blog (Los Angeles), Quadrant (Sydney), and Menzies House (Adelaide).

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