I recently watched a documentary on Sigmund Freud that told the story of his contempt for his father, Jacob. It originated in an incident when Jacob allowed ruffians to knock his hat off and call him a “dirty Jew.” From the personal antipathy that grew out of this experience, Sigmund argued that the concept of God is merely a wish fulfillment derived from childish needs for protection and security. An infant, he said, receives sustenance and comfort from his parents. But when, according to Freud, he is old enough to realize that parents offer no ultimate answer to life’s needs, he posits the idea of God to ease insecurities.1 Ironically, the theory Freud developed to discount belief in God may be more appropriate to explain atheism. Indeed, like Freud, many famous atheists from the post-Enlightenment period had negative feelings about their human fathers and translated those feelings into religious beliefs. “In other words, an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.”2 So argues New York University psychologist Paul Vitz, in his book Faith of the Fatherless, where he identifies 20 famous atheists from the modern period who had negative experiences with their fathers.
Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, resented his father, Ludwig. Early in Nietzsche’s life the two enjoyed a close relationship, but Ludwig died months before Friedrich’s fifth birthday, leaving the younger Nietzsche feeling that his father was weak and sickly. He retained that feeling all his life and associated it with his father’s Christianity. Not surprisingly, his chief criticism of the Christian God was that He suffered from an absence of “life force.” Thus, Nietzsche spent his career demeaning Christianity as a sign of weakness, a slave mentality.3
Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most famous atheists of the twentieth century, argued that one must discard the idea of God and invent his own values. Underlying that philosophy was deep animosity toward his father, who died when Sartre was only 15 months old. For the rest of his life, Sartre hated fatherhood. He often wrote about fathers as metaphors for burdens and condemned paternity. According to one of his works, “There is no good father, that’s the rule … Had my own father lived, he would have lain on me full length and crushed me. As luck would have it, he died young.”4
The French skeptic Voltaire5 despised his father so deeply that he refused to go by his given name, Francois-Marie Arouet. Though he wrote extensively about his father, he said virtually nothing positive and believed himself to be the illegitimate son of a family friend. Once, his father became so angry at Voltaire for not studying law that he authorized authorities to imprison his son or exile him to the West Indies.6
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was another noted atheist and hater of her father. Once she attempted to kill him with a ten-inch butcher knife. Upon failing, she screamed, “I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave!”7
In his book, Vitz also notes that Stalin, Hitler, and Mao all resented their fathers too. Conversely, 21 famous theists from the same period enjoyed amicable relations with their fathers. They included the likes of Blaise Pascal, William Paley, William Wilberforce, John Henry Newman, and G. K. Chesterton.
Of course, family strife is not atheism’s only cause. And the experience of atheists does not prove that their arguments are wrong. However, if one wishes to reach them personally, he must take psychological realities seriously and note that lack of fatherly love can leave deep scars, making trust in the heavenly Father much more difficult.
1 Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961).
2 Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 16.
3 Ibid., 20-25.
4 Ibid., 30.
5 While Voltaire was an ardent critic of Christianity’s personal God, he did believe in an impersonal God removed from human affairs.
6 Vitz, 39.
7 Ibid., 55.
The power of fatherhood cannot be overstated whether it’s the fatherhood of God or it’s earthly, symbolic, representative which is one of the primary means God uses to influence a child. Salvation is all of grace, but there are means in the grace and fatherhood is a big one.
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