Faith of the fatherless: the psychology of atheism by Paul Vitz

Book cover: Faith of the FatherlessPsychologist Paul Vitz is a senior scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and professor emeritus of psychology at New York University. An atheist until his late 30s, he has written extensively on the psychology of religion, and Faith of the Fatherless: the psychology of atheism is his latest work. Given my interest in theology and psychology I knew I’d be interested in what he has to say but found the book even more illuminating than I had expected.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book itself by giving too much away, but here is what I found interesting:

Vitz begins by looking at the projection theory of belief in God as well as Sigmund Freud’s ideas about religion. Vitz argues that the same approach (of critical psychological evaluation) can and should be taken to the atheist ideas. If theist’s belief in God is “simply” a projection of his desire for there to be God (according to Freud), atheist’s denial of God can also be “simply” a projection of desire for a Godless universe. Next Vitz asks what predisposes people to being atheists or theists, and discovers some very interesting facts, namely that atheists tend, in general, to have absent or “defective” fathers or father figures – and he presents a historical survey of famous atheists from different times to illustrate his theory. Of course the above is a gross oversimplification of his work, so if you want to find out the details and psychology behind this all read the book!

Edgar is studying for a Bachelor of Divinity with the University of London International Programmes, with academic direction from Heythrop College.

6 thoughts on “Faith of the fatherless: the psychology of atheism by Paul Vitz

  1. What an insulting thesis for a book. Extremely unscientific as well. We note that the author picks famous atheists and theists and then examines their background. We don’t know how he selected which people to examine. Wouldn’t it have made sense to survey a reasonably sized group of theists and atheists and then examine their background?

    My favourite part about the book is his mention of Christopher Hitchens, probably one of the world’s most famous atheists. He makes no mention of his brother Peter who is a theist. But I guess that would not support his argument.

    There are many theories as to why we as a species have created gods. Whether one individual accepts their existence has everything to do with when you were born and where, and little to do with whether your father was nice to you.

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  2. Me too. Great father, stable family, atheist and anti-theist.

    I don’t buy theories like this explaining why individual people have or don’t have belief in a god. I think a lot could be said, however, about why humans as a species have created various gods. We have always wanted explanations for various things and before we actually had the answer, we invented one. Gods explained why volcanoes erupt, why people get diseases, gods have explained earthquakes, and even the origins of man. These explanations have fallen away as we learned about magma, germs, tectonic plates and evolution. These discoveries are credited to science, not revelation.

    The only unexplained phenomenon to which the religious cling is the origin of the cosmos, the creation of the universe and the cause of the big bang. Physicists are studying this and looking to the skies for clues that might explain how everything got started. We’ve been able to look back to milliseconds after the big bang. We don’t have an answer yet but some are content to say we don’t know and will continue to look for a solution.

    Others, like the William Lane Craigs of the world will say “god did it”.

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