March 21, 2005


Intense Atheism: I will begin by addressing the deep personal psychology of the great — or at least the passionate and influential — atheists. (Paul Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism)

Of course, atheism has not simply been the expression of the personal psychology of important atheists: it has received much support from social, economic, and cultural forces. Nevertheless, atheism began in the personal lives of particular people, many of them the leading intellectuals of the modern period, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre. I propose that atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates.

But why should one study the psychology of atheists at all? Is there any reason to believe that there are consistent psychological patterns in their lives? Indeed, there is a coherent psychological origin to intense atheism. To begin, it should be noted that self-avowed atheists tend, to a remarkable degree, to be found in a narrow range of social and economic strata: in the university and intellectual world and in certain professions. Today, as a rule, they make up a significant part of the governing class. (By contrast, believers are found much more widely throughout the entire social spectrum.) Given the relatively small numbers of unbelievers and the limited number of social settings in which they are found, there is certainly an a priori reason for expecting regularity in their psychology.

Nevertheless, the reader might ask if this is not unfair — even uncalled for. Why submit atheism to psychological analysis at all? Is this relevant to the issue of unbelief? Here we must remember that it is atheists themselves who began the psychological approach to the question of belief. Indeed, many atheists are famous for arguing that believers suffer from illusions, from unconscious and infantile needs, and from other psychological deficits. A significant part of the atheist position has been an aggressive interpretation of religious belief as arising from psychological factors, not the nature of reality. Furthermore, this interpretation has been widely influential. In short, the theory that God is a projection of our own needs is a familiar modern position and is, for example, presented in countless university courses. 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.

Finally, a valid reason for exploring the psychology of atheism is to give us some understanding of why certain historical forces common in the modern period have so reliably promoted an atheistic attitude. By identifying psychological factors in the lives of prominent rejectors of God, we will observe how social and economic conditions which fostered a similar psychology also promoted the spread of atheism. By starting with the psychological, we will be able to see how the personal became political. In short, there has been a synchrony between the psychology and the sociology of atheism. [...]

I am well aware that there is good reason to give only limited acceptance to Freud's Oedipal theory. In any case, it is my own view that, although the Oedipus complex is valid for some, the theory is far from a universal explanation of unconscious motivation. There is a need, therefore, for a wider understanding of atheism, especially of the intense kind. Since I know of no theoretical framework other than the Oedipal one, I am forced to sketch something of a new model. But in fact I will develop an undeveloped thesis of Freud himself. In his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, Freud remarks that "psychoanalysis, which has taught us the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God, has shown us that the personal god is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down."

This interesting observation requires no assumptions about unconscious sexual desires for the mother, or even about presumed universal competitive hatred focused on the father. Instead, Freud makes the simple and easily understandable claim that once a child or youth is disappointed in or loses respect for his earthly father, belief in a heavenly father becomes impossible. That a child's psychological representation of his father is intimately connected to his understanding of God was assumed by Freud and has been rather well developed by a number of psychologists, especially psychoanalysts. In other words, an atheist's disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.

There are, of course, many ways a father can lose his authority or seriously disappoint his child: he can be absent through death or abandonment; he can be present but obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect, even if he is otherwise pleasant or "nice"; or he can be present but physically, sexually, or psychologically abusive. I will call these proposed determinants of atheism, taken together, the "defective father" hypothesis and will seek evidence for it in the lives of prominent atheists, for it was in reading their biographies that this interpretation first occurred to me.

This is important if for no other reason than that we realize we should pity and not despise such folk.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2005 12:14 PM

Such tempting bait.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 21, 2005 6:43 PM

Just as many gay bashers are latent homosexuals, I have always thought that many militant atheists are actually closet deists.

Posted by: Vince at March 21, 2005 9:01 PM

I thought Paul Johnson covered the subject pretty well in 'Intellectuals'.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at March 21, 2005 10:50 PM

Still peddling Vitz's psychobabble, I see. Physician, heal thyself!

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 21, 2005 11:11 PM


Hasrd to tar religion with a notion you have no access to absent religion. Of course religion can be used for evil purposes. The point is that atheism can't be used for good ones.

Posted by: oj at March 21, 2005 11:17 PM

Academics hate their fathers in greater proportions than hoi polloi?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 21, 2005 11:20 PM

Of course, otherwise they'd get less effeminate jobs.

Posted by: oj at March 21, 2005 11:23 PM

Why am I not surprised a Catholic prelate would resort to tactics made famous by the totalitarians of the old Soviet Union and make the claim that people who dissent from his orthodoxy are mentally ill?

Posted by: bart at March 22, 2005 7:31 AM

Because they are?

Posted by: oj at March 22, 2005 7:40 AM

Virtually nobody really believes in the tenets of their religion.

They believe in belief. They think belief is a good thing to aspire to. They like going through the motions, the routine of the weekly service and the red letter days. They like singing the hymns. And why not?

But they don't really believe it.

Those that do behave differently. You can spot them a mile off.

Real believers pester you on the street because they're genuinely worried about your soul going to Hell. Or they blow you and themselves up because they think they'll get a bunch of virgins as a reward in Heaven.

They do religion all day every day. Not just on Sundays or in foxholes.

What Freud has to say about them, I don't know.

Posted by: Brit at March 22, 2005 9:08 AM

Or they blog and comment.

Posted by: oj at March 22, 2005 10:12 AM

Disciples comment. The Devil blogs.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 22, 2005 10:40 AM

Oddly, Brit, it is the "real" believer in society that is more likely to be considered mentally ill. You are right about the believer in belief, his faith is a comfortable routine, providing comfort as much for allowing him to fit in and appear normal as for any other reason. Of course, for OJ, fitting in is the true sign of mental health. Isn't it ironic that by his definition, it is precisely those people who don't take their faith seriously that are the most likely to be considered healthy?

OJ, if one were to have his habits put to a test of mental health or masculinity, being a stay at home blogger wouldn't be a strong point for either.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at March 22, 2005 10:47 AM

Someone has to tend the sheep.

Posted by: oj at March 22, 2005 10:56 AM

The sheep are part-time, and they're also highly promiscuous.

(As you know from your college days...)

Posted by: Brit at March 22, 2005 11:49 AM


Atheists may be in error but they are no more mentally ill than were dissidents of the old Soviet Union.

Posted by: bart at March 22, 2005 5:10 PM

Inapposite, as the Soviets were the atheists, and quite disordered.

Posted by: oj at March 22, 2005 5:58 PM