Is Atheism in Men Caused by Bad Father/Son Relationships?

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Is Atheism in Men Caused by Bad Father/Son Relationships?

A few years ago, my cousin informed me that his minister delivered a sermon on atheism. The minister indicated that in men, the best predictor of atheism is bad relationships with their fathers. “YOU had a bad relationship with YOUR father and now YOU are an atheist!” This bothered me, because it was true. And, while I was certain that there was no causal relationship between my atheism and conflicts I had with my father, I could completely understand how this coincidence might inspire a compelling sense in my cousin that his minister had nailed it.

I looked for research on atheism and father issues and found a piece called “The Psychology of Atheism,” by Paul C. Vitz, a psychology professor at NYU.[1]  Dr. Vitz admits to a brief period of atheism in his youth which he attributes to social conformity (Interestingly, he does not attribute his subsequent Catholicism to social conformity). I have great respect for information yielded from well-controlled scientific studies in the field of psychology. However, “The Psychology of Atheism” doesn’t cite a single scientific reference. Not one! To my knowledge, no supporting scientific evidence exists for Dr. Vitz’ theory.

Vitz’ essay presents an anecdotal argument that since Hobbes, Voltaire, Freud, Zedong, and Hitler all had fathers who were weak, unloving, or not present, then father issues must have caused their atheism. In fact, while all of these men questioned dominant religions, Hobbes was a Christian[2], Voltaire a Deist[3], Zedong a Buddhist/Taoist[4], and Hitler a Catholic. Pope Pius XI negotiated the Reichskonkordat agreement, which actually lent moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime in Germany.[5] And, Hitler made his views on God very clear, “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter."[6]

Freud was an actual atheist and did a good deal of philosophical writing on the topic.  In “The Future of an Illusion,” he reasoned that as children, we are weak, ignorant, and helpless by nature. We are comforted through childhood by parents whom we consider strong, knowledgeable, and invulnerable. As adults, when we realize the imperfections of our parents, we would once again be thrown into a deep sense of fallibility. Freud believed it an adaptive evolutionary trait to invent invisible, magical parents who were all-knowing, all powerful, and immortal. Like our terrestrial parents, the magical ones protect us from danger, punish us when we are bad, reward us when we are good, and have the answers to all of our questions.[7] 

Let’s stop here and ask a question. Which argument seems more reasonable? Freud’s argument that man invented God to fill in the gap left by Earthly parents, or Vitz’ argument that the atheist is angry at his Heavenly Father because of a bad relationship with his Earthly one? Neither argument was based in scientific research, but one will “feel” more true to you depending on your own pre-existing beliefs.

There are obviously many rational problems with making assumptions about an enormous and diverse population like the atheists based on the idea that Freud and I had bad relationships with our fathers. Vitz cannot assume that this is the case for other atheists, since no supporting data exists. It is likely that many men have rocky relationships with their fathers. Some of them happen to become atheists while others happen to become theists.

Without evidence, neither can we assume that Freud is accurate in his assumption that all religious people have needs for safety and answers. In this case, however, scientific evidence abounds. The fight or flight response is present in all animals, including humans.[8] Likewise, curiosity is an intrinsic human motivator.[9] A 2003 article cites 74 studies from scientific journals supporting Freud’s basic assertions that religious thought is a natural by-product of brain function[10].

Discerning and using objective evidence to determine accuracy is a relatively new development in humans. Making broad assumptions without sufficient evidence is much more characteristic of the way humans think. In simple terms, the mind is a machine that takes tiny amounts of information, makes sweeping generalizations, then “feels” these generalizations are accurate and reasonable. This is a fundamental cognitive error responsible for much death and suffering across the ages.

Tendencies towards making sweeping generalizations are hard wired into us and are essential to navigating human life.[11] Imagine having to consider the universe of potential outcomes prior to every decision you make. NOT making sweeping generalizations based on small amounts of information would completely paralyze us!

So, we work within our inherent limitations and try our best not to screw up. One way to avoid screw ups is the choice to consciously override gut feelings whenever reason and overwhelming objective evidence disputes said feelings. In other words, if the majority of scientific evidence says one thing and my gut says the opposite, my gut has a high likelihood of being wrong. Science is never able to provide the absolute answer, only the best possible answer according to evidence available at a given time.

Just for kicks, I researched the best predictors of atheism. What I found brought a broad smile to my face. Turns out a primary predictor of atheism is… IQ.[12]


[1] "Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism Paperback – October 18, 2013." Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism: Paul C. Vitz: 9781586176877: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[2] Fuller, Timothy "The Idea of Christianity in Hobbes’s Leviathan." JSTOR (n.d.): n. pag. JSTOR, 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[3] "Voltaire - Biography." Voltaire. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[4] "Religion - East and Southeast Asia - Modern China." - Mao, Religious, Daoist, and Zedong. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[5] Peter Hebblethwaite; Paul VI, the First Modern Pope; Harper Collins Religious; 1993; p.118

[6] Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)

[7] "The Future of an Illusion Paperback – June 30, 2011." The Future of an Illusion: Sigmund Freud: 9781614270867: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[8] "The Enduring Importance of Animal Models in Understanding Periodontal Disease." Taylor & Francis. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[9] "The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation  ." Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[10] Boyer, Pascal. "Religious Thought and Behaviour as By-products of Brain Function." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7.3 (2003): 119-24. Web.

[11] "Cognitive StudiesVol. 10 (2003) No. 1 P 76-92." Developmental and Computational Neuroscience Approaches to Cognition: The Case of Generalization. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.

[12] Zuckerman, M., J. Silberman, and J. A. Hall. "The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations." Personality and Social Psychology Review 17.4 (2013): 325-54. Web.

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Comment by Edward Teach on February 20, 2015 at 2:10pm

Daniel W Michael Penn tom sarbeck Many thanks for your insightful comments. Interesting stuff! My Earthly father passed away after having gone ten years without speaking to me. My Heavenly father away after having gone an eternity without speaking to anyone ;-)

Comment by tom sarbeck on February 17, 2015 at 3:15am

I don't remember if my dad's violence, the use of a leather belt to enforce his demands for silence, started before or after he put me into Catholic schools. From puberty and until my mid-40s I wanted to beat him up. IQ test scores put me just inside the top two percent and in college I studied math and science. When I first heard atheist students deny the existence of god I wanted evidence. They had none so I chose agnosticism.

Fifteen years later I realized that I no longer felt a need to beat my dad up. He died three years later and I didn't care. For another 34 years, 52 in all, I lived an agnostic’s life. Then, in a Toastmasters club, another member gave me an opportunity to choose atheism and I did so.

In my case a bad relationship with my dad and a high IQ resulted in agnosticism.

Edward might see validity in his thesis -- that if the majority of scientific evidence says one thing and his gut says the opposite, his gut has a high likelihood of being wrong.

Though he and I might define 'gut' differently, I believe ignorance plus curiosity drive science so I value what my gut tells me.

For instance, a majority accept the Big Bang myth. There's a market for science fiction and some BB folk are imaginative enough to turn out some good work.


Comment by Michael Penn on February 14, 2015 at 12:45pm

Edward, what you have brought out here is more than your title reveals. I see analogies to the parent/child relationship that explains why mankind has a "god" to worship. I can also see why the religious person assumes an atheist is "angry at god" because of a bad relationship with his father. To believers you have to have a good relationship with your "heavenly father" that they call god. It's almost as if to say the adult did not understand the parent/child relationship from his youth fully, anger or no anger. If mistakes were made on either side in the upbringing, you can rectify this as an adult by having an imaginary "heavenly father." What never became reality in that early growing up relationship that you wanted to be perfect can become reality now for you as an adult. In the afterlife it can become perfect reality.

I never knew my own father. I saw pictures but fear that I was well hidden from him. I had a step father whom I get along with. I call him on the phone but we are not great friends.

I don't know what others are getting from your post, but I read it again and I can almost see why mankind invented religion and why this is inevitable.

Comment by Edward Teach on February 12, 2015 at 8:24pm
Good point. I think the combination of high IQ and a deep commitment to logic and evidence will always lead to atheism.
Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on February 12, 2015 at 7:41pm

Something I've been telling my colleagues and friends for decades now, is that, give a person with a high IQ, a rational, well balanced education and you will have an atheist.

Though on the other hand, indoctrinate a child with a high IQ, severely and you may have yourself an extreme fundamentalist.

Because some studies suggest that having a high IQ, can also mean you are easily led into false beliefs as a child, because they provide the wrong answers to all your questioning, with no resources for the correct answers.

Hitler appears to have had a high IQ, yet, he was led astray by the anti-semetic movements that indoctrinated him into believing that Jews caused the Germans to lose the first war.

There was not enough evidence to counter this indoctrination, so Hitler strongly believed that Jews were the enemy of Germany.



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