According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost one in three Americans under the age of 30 doubt that God exists, while, in contrast, the figure for Americans over the age of 65 is less than one in ten. Could there be a connection between the fatherlessness of this younger generation and their struggles with faith? According to a theory called “the psychology of atheism,” the answer might well be yes.
But first, some caveats. 1) There are many reasons why people struggle with the issue of faith, so it would be wrong to think that “one size fits all.” 2) The highest percentage of fatherlessness is found in the African American community, and yet African Americans tend to be more religiously oriented than other population sectors. 3) It cannot be denied that a large portion of contemporary American Christianity is often superficial, hypocritical, and powerless (in terms of radical life transformation), and these serious defects certainly account for some of the faith struggles experienced by American young people. That being said, it is important to probe the connection between fatherlessness and faithlessness.
In 1999, New York University professor Paul C. Vitz, a former atheist himself, wrote a book entitled Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. In it, he argued that the absence of a father or the presence of a defective father (say, a weak, cowardly father or an abusive father) often played a major role in the development of the atheism of the child (or grownup). A similar argument was made by journalist John P. Koster, Jr., in his 1989 book The Atheist Syndrome.
To be clear, these authors are not denying that atheists claim to have strong, rational reasons for their atheism. Instead, Vitz and Koster argue that what lies at the root of atheism is often the lack of a solid father figure, thereby allowing unbelief to become dominant later in life (or even in childhood).
According to Vitz, “an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God,” a theory Vitz developed while reading the biographies of well-known atheists. He calls it the “defective father” hypothesis.
Under the category of “Dead Fathers,” Vitz lists famous atheists like Nietzsche, Hume, Russell, Sartre, and Camus; under “Abusive and Weak Fathers” he lists Hobbes, Voltaire, Freud, and Wells, among others. He then compares their stories with the stories of theists like Pascal, Wilberforce, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Buber, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others, before reviewing apparent exceptions to his theory.
Speaking of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Vitz notes that her son, William, “claims that he did not know why his mother hated her father so much – but hate him she did. In the opening chapter of the book, he reports a very ugly fight in which O’Hair attempted to kill her father with a ten-inch butcher knife. She failed but screamed, ‘I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave.’” Does this remind you of her desire to eliminate God from American life?
Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “I have absolutely no knowledge of atheism as an outcome of reasoning, still less an event; with me it is obvious by instinct.” As a young boy, Nietzsche was very close to his father, who was a pastor, but he died shortly before Nietzsche’s fifth birthday, having suffered the previous year from a brain disease.
In his early teens, Nietzsche wrote about the agony he experienced when his father died, noting that, “In everything God has led me safely as a father leads his weak child. . . . Like a child I trust in his grace.” So, for the teenage Nietzsche, God was just like a loving father. Unfortunately, Nietzsche also remembered his father as weak and sickly, and it was this image, Vitz claims, that Nietzsche “also associated, naturally enough, with his father’s Christianity. . . . It is therefore not hard to view Nietzsche’s rejection of God and Christianity as a rejection of the weakness of his father,” a father who abandoned him by death when he was but a little boy.
As for H. G. Wells, he was raised by an irresponsible and often absentee father (named Joe) and by a mother whose faith collapsed when her 9-year-old daughter died suddenly from appendicitis two years before Wells was born. Vitz notes, “Whether it was Joe the father or God the Father who gave no answer seems to make no difference to Wells, because for him both were equally absent.”
Describing his mother’s faith struggle in his autobiography, Wells wrote, “My father was away at cricket, and I think she realized more and more acutely as the years dragged on without material alleviation, that Our Father and Our Lord . . . were also away, playing perhaps at their own sort of cricket in some remote quarter of the starry universe.”
Returning to our day, the U. S. Census Bureau reports that as of 2011, one third of American children are growing up without their biological father, and over the last 50 years, the number of babies born to unwed mothers has jumped from 5 percent to 40 percent.
Could it be, then, that there really is a connection between the lack of fathers and the lack of faith among young Americans?
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University and has served as a professor at a number of seminaries. He hosts the nationally syndicated, daily talk radio show, the Line of Fire, and his latest book is The Real Kosher Jesus.