by Bill Nugent
New York University psychology professor Paul C. Vitz has taken a close look at the life stories of prominent atheists and found a common thread of fatherlessness. His book, Faith of the Fatherless – the Psychology of Atheism gives a poignant look at the often tragic upbringings of the leaders of intellectual and political atheism.
Vitz uses the term “dead father syndrome” to describe how people who were denied their father’s affection and love tend to reject the biblical teaching about God as a loving father. The biographical evidence is both frightening and compelling.
Intellectual philosophical atheists including Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Arthur Schopenhaeur lost their fathers at a very young age.
Those who had weak or abusive fathers include Thomas Hobbes, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Jean d’Alembert, Baron d’Holbach (called the first intellectual atheist), Ludwig Feuerbach, Samuel Butler, Sigmund Freud and H. G. Wells. Of particular note is Sigmund Freud who apparently despised his father whom he regarded as weak and possibly a pervert. Father rejection (Oedipus Complex) claims a prominent place in his psychological system. In his later years Freud wrote a book, The Future of an Illusion, which promoted atheism.
The political atheists fared no better. Joseph Stalin hated his abusive father. Hitler also had an abusive father who died when Adolf was fourteen. China’s Mao Zedong likewise suffered under a tyrannical father. American atheist political activist Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s relationship with her father was so poisonous that at one point she tried to kill him with a butcher knife.
The flip side is also revealing. Vitz studied the lives of prominent intellectuals who believed in God. These include Blaise Pascal, Moses Mendelssohn, Abraham Heschel, Alexis de Tocqueville, Soren Kierkegaard and G. K. Chesterton. These Christian and Jewish intellectuals experienced positive father son relationships that nurtured a trusting faith in God.
There are exceptions of course. We know from our own experiences that some people who come from backgrounds of father abandonment nevertheless gloriously receive the revelation of the truth of the Gospel. We also can name people who had relatively healthy relationships with their fathers yet reject God. Father rejection is no excuse for unbelief and father nurturing is no guarantee of faith.
All told however, Vitz’s “dead father syndrome” holds up well under analysis. Father abandonment imperils millions into alienation from God.
I am reminded of how our own 21st century civilization groans under the burdens of family breakdown. Statistics show that virtually every social vice is driven by fatherlessness. Studies of prison populations and juvenile delinquency show an overwhelmingly disproportionate percentage of fatherless people in these categories.
I think of the well meaning public assistance programs that paid benefits to single mothers yet cut off those benefits when they married. This unintentioned reward for father absence caused millions of children to be raised with no father figure.
The Bible is once again vindicated by social phenomena. The Bible’s teachings on family life provides a solid foundation for the family as the basic social unit. The Bible strictly forbids fathers from straying from the biblical monogamous family unit. Families based on the biblical model create a nurturing environment in which children are cared for by both parents. Children from such stable homes go on to become happy, productive adults.
“Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD; And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Malachi 4: 5-6)