According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost one in three Americans under the age of 30 doubt that God exists, while, in contrast, the figure for Americans over the age of 65 is less than one in ten. Could there be a connection between the fatherlessness of this younger generation and their struggles with faith? According to a theory called “the psychology of atheism,” the answer might well be yes.
But first, some caveats. 1) There are many reasons why people struggle with the issue of faith, so it would be wrong to think that “one size fits all.” 2) The highest percentage of fatherlessness is found in the African American community, and yet African Americans tend to be more religiously oriented than other population sectors. 3) It cannot be denied that a large portion of contemporary American Christianity is often superficial, hypocritical, and powerless (in terms of radical life transformation), and these serious defects certainly account for some of the faith struggles experienced by American young people. That being said, it is important to probe the connection between fatherlessness and faithlessness.
In 1999, New York University professor Paul C. Vitz, a former atheist himself, wrote a book entitled Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. In it, he argued that the absence of a father or the presence of a defective father (say, a weak, cowardly father or an abusive father) often played a major role in the development of the atheism of the child (or grownup). A similar argument was made by journalist John P. Koster, Jr., in his 1989 book The Atheist Syndrome.
To be clear, these authors are not denying that atheists claim to have strong, rational reasons for their atheism. Instead, Vitz and Koster argue that what lies at the root of atheism is often the lack of a solid father figure, thereby allowing unbelief to become dominant later in life (or even in childhood).
According to Vitz, “an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God,” a theory Vitz developed while reading the biographies of well-known atheists. He calls it the “defective father” hypothesis.
Under the category of “Dead Fathers,” Vitz lists famous atheists like Nietzsche, Hume, Russell, Sartre, and Camus; under “Abusive and Weak Fathers” he lists Hobbes, Voltaire, Freud, and Wells, among others. He then compares their stories with the stories of theists like Pascal, Wilberforce, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, Buber, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others, before reviewing apparent exceptions to his theory.