You may sure that all who cease to understand their own people and lose their connection with them at once lose to the same extent the faith of their fathers, and become atheistic or indifferent.—Dostoyevsky, The Possessed
It was while reading Dostoyevsky’s novel about Russian radicals that I was reminded of Paul C. Vitz’s book Faith of the Fatherless, which I reviewed a few years ago. The author begins by re-evaluating Sigmund Freud’s psychological criticism of religion. The Freudian theory “that God is a projection of our own needs” seeks to prove or disprove the existence of God purely on the basis of personal motive. “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.”
What famous atheists like Baron d’Holbac, H. G. Wells and Joseph Stalin had in common was a dysfunctional upbringing. Very often the father was absent—either physically or psychologically. Vitz concludes that disappointment with one’s natural father because he was absent, weak or abusive, has often led individuals to reject God, the ultimate father figure. Some men, such as Friedrich Nietzche, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre, had fathers who died while they were quite young. In the case of the French existentialist, he lost his father shortly after birth and was emotionally rejected by his step-father. Joseph Stalin’s father “drank heavily and beat his wife” and “had great difficulty making a living.” In all instances, the paternal role model was missing. Nor did any surrogate father figure fill the gap.
Contrasted with these examples are men who had positive father-son relationships and became religiously committed as adults. Faith of Fatherless is, however, careful to deny anything deterministic about an individual’s religious choices. Like an honest investigator, Dr. Vitz makes room for exceptions and acknowledges the complexity of human nature. There are individuals who, bereft of a father at a young age, found other morally formative figures in their lives. Still others may have had a benevolent paternal influence and nevertheless opted for a radical rejection of the divine father. Denis Diderot and Karl Marx fit into this latter category.
Without divesting individuals of personal responsibility, this book makes it clear that dominant social predilections tend to create the expressions of heterodoxy which individuals adopt. For Vitz, “the intellectual basis of atheism… appears in retrospect to be much more of a shallow rationalization than an objective rationale.” No amount of environmental influence can force a person to hate God. Hence the common denominator of militant unbelievers is, in fact, excessive ambition and arrogance as reflected in a “political atheist” like Adolf Hitler. In such cases atheism is adopted because it suits an individual’s prior moral choices and provides a comforting mantle of intellectual superiority and respectability, thereby disguising underlying “selfish or narcissistic needs.”