What Psychological Factors Lead to Atheism?
What psychological factors could lead someone to become an atheist? This question is an interesting one since it is the converse of what many atheists, such as Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Feuerbach, asked about theists. Freud argued that theists believe in God out of a desire for an idealized father figure. Paul Vitz, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at New York University, turns this explanation on its head. Vitz, who was an atheist until his late 30s, presents his psychological analysis of atheists in Faith of the Fatherless. His work is summarized as follows.
Professor Vitz argues that psychoanalysis actually provides a more satisfying explanation for atheism. Disappointment in one’s earthly father, whether through death, absence, or mistreatment, frequently leads to a rejection of God. A biographical survey of influential atheists of the past four centuries shows that this “defective father hypothesis” provides a consistent explanation of the “intense atheism” of these thinkers. A survey of the leading intellectual defenders of Christianity over the same period confirms the hypothesis, finding few defective fathers. Professor Vitz concludes with an intriguing comparison of male and female atheists and a consideration of other psychological factors that can contribute to atheism.
Professor Vitz does not argue that atheism is psychologically determined. Each person, whatever his experiences, ultimately chooses to accept God or reject him. At the same time, the cavalier attribution of religious faith to irrational, psychological needs is worth challenging by pointing out the psychological factors that can predispose people to accept atheism.
Paul C. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, Second edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013).