oh father, where art thou

What do Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Schopenhauer, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Jean d’Alembert, Baron d’Holbach, Ludwig Feuerbach, Samuel Butler, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, John Toland, Robert Taylor, Richard Carlile, Albert Ellis, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens all have in common?

Well, actually they have at least two things in common.

First, they all rejected the belief in God. Some, like Voltaire rejected any semblance of a personal God. Most rejected the belief in God altogether – often with great vigor.

The second thing that they all have in common is that they had completely absent, abusive, or terribly weak fathers.

Paul Vitz turns Freud on his head in his book Faith of the Fatherless. He argues that atheism “is an illusion caused by the oedipal desire to kill the father (God) and replace him with oneself” (15). Unbelievers – especially men – typically have an insecure attachment to their fathers. For instance, a study was conducted by Vetter and Green on 350 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. Members of this group were disproportionately likely to describe having lost a parent during childhood or to have poor relations with one or both parts. They also reported very much higher rates of unhappy childhood and unhappy adolescence.

As evidence for his theory, Vitz tells the story of each one of these prominent atheists focusing especially on their father relationships. Each relationship was broken in some substantial way – sometimes by abandonment, sometimes by abuse, often by death early in the child’s life. One of the best examples is of Nietzsche. His father, a Lutheran pastor, died when Nietzsche was not quite five-years-old. This trauma clearly affected him for the rest of his life and had a direct impact on Neitzsche’s unique, macho philosophy:

His search for masculinity was further undermined by the domination of his childhood, after his father’s death, by his mother and female relatives: he lived in a very Christian household with his mother, his younger sister, his paternal grandmother, and two paternal aunts until he went away to school at age fourteen. It is not surprising, then, that for Nietzsche Christianity and its morality were something for women–a sign of weakness, a slave mentality.

Vitz balances the stories from prominent atheists with stories from prominent theists who lived in roughly the same cultural settings, men like Pascal, Berkeley, Butler, Reid, Burke, Mendelssohn, Paley, Wilberforce, Schleiermacher, Chesterton, Schweitzer, Buber, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Heschel. Each one of these men had the presence of a godly father (or a male surrogate) throughout their childhoods.

Most of the examples given throughout the book are male since theism is much more common among men. 70% of atheists are men compared to just 46% of Protestants. But the dynamics of belief/unbelief also seem to be different between males and females.

For men, God seems to function primarily as a principle of justice and order in the world–and secondarily as a person with whom one has a relationship. Reason, logic, and God’s law and providential control seem to be central aspects of belief for me. For women, by contrast, it is their relationships with persons and especially a positive emotional relationship with God that are primary, while God as a principle of reason and order, though important, is typically seen as secondary.

He closes the book with a chapter on autism and unbelief. As a dad with a high functioning autistic son, this chapter was very disconcerting. Instances of atheism are higher among HFA men in part because they struggle with metaphorical and relational thinking.

So what should we make of a book like this? I have a few thoughts:

  1. A severed relationship with a father is no guarantee of atheism any more than a good relationship with a father guarantees faithfulness. In fact, a great many believers have ruptured father relationships. The majority of later-life conversion stories have some sort of relationship break in their past. But as Vitz points out, these believers will often struggle with a fair amount of instability in their faith compared to those growing up with healthy relationships with godly parents. Those whose faith thrives are generally those who combine conversion with deep, abiding relationships especially with a mentor.
  2. Autistic kids will require a different approach to faith than non-autistic kids. Making an appeal based on metaphor and relationship is not likely to be as meaningful with HFA people – and it may be counter-productive. Upon reflection, traditional apologetics – rooted in science, history, and philosophy – may actually be more effective among HFA people.
  3. Similarly, boys and girls will generally not regard their relationships with God in the same way. As boys are being increasingly left behind in our schools, I am fearful that we are also leaving them behind in our churches.
  4. Parenting matters. DADS MATTER. It is a deception from our enemy seeping into every area of contemporary life that the unique, masculine contributions of a dad on his child’s (particularly his son’s) life are inconsequential (and maybe even toxic). Many of the great atheists in history grew up in the Victorian Era where men were more typically disconnected from their families – emotionally and physically. I wonder what future generations will say of fathers in this era who are generally more present emotionally and physically but who also have lost their sense of unique purpose in the family.
  5. Youth ministry matters. There are a lot of boys growing up without dads in our communities and churches. I am shocking by the number of seventh-grade boys that I work with every Wednesday who have very little male presence in their lives. From school to home – there is a general lack of male influence. (As an aside, this is one of the greatest benefits of youth sports in my opinion. It is one of the few opportunities for a lot of boys to spend time being influenced by an adult male.) This is all an opportunity for the church – especially for those who work with youth. The effects of a broken relationship with an earthly father can be undone (in part) with the early intervention of a loving relationship with a surrogate.
  6. Those who have rejected God are quite often deeply broken people. Surely the causes for unbelief are complex. Vitz acknowledges that his theory is, at best, around 60% true. But it seems safe to say that very rarely is unbelief simply an intellectual conclusion. Most of the time there are hidden, or not-so-hidden, emotional and relational wounds that lead to unbelief. This requires much more than just apologetics. It also requires a good amount of pastoral care, concern, and counseling.

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