The Psychoanalytic Roots of Atheism

The pioneer psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an atheist. Lacking an in-depth knowledge of philosophy, he took atheism as a self-evident truth. Religion, specifically the Judeo-Christian religion, he regarded as the mere “longing for a father” complex. He thought the desire for someone to worship was a collective neurosis that needed to be treated, and it seems he hoped to be humanity’s therapist in that regard. Indeed, it was characteristic of his well- documented arrogance in general that Freud would treat all religion with a dismissive flick of the intellectual’s wrist.

Yet he made himself the father that his followers should long for, and thus deified himself while mocking the God of his Jewish ancestors. Even Freud’s younger rival, Carl Jung, in the early period of his relations with Freud, had succumbed to the latter’s fatherly manner and had asked Freud that he view him as his son rather than as his equal. Freud’s warning to Jung that he should not take him for an idol to worship may be taken as tongue-in-cheek. Freud craved adulation and harshly dominated those who questioned his methods.

It was of paramount importance for Freud (his whole psychological system depended upon it) that sex should supplant religion as the foremost driving force in human affairs. This conquest of religion, he thought, would not be possible so long as the Judeo-Christian restraints on sexual freedom prevailed. Near the end of his life Freud identified the Catholic Church as the real enemy of psychoanalysis. For him it was the logical conclusion to a lifetime of supposing that the psychiatrist’s couch could supplant the priest’s confessional.

But what Freudian psychoanalysis certainly could not compete with was the Catholic encounter with guilt and forgiveness, for there is nothing in psychoanalysis that even approximates God’s forgiveness of our sins as a remedy for sexual (or any other kind of) guilt and remorse. It must at some point have been a source of deep frustration for Freud that merely uncovering in the unconscious mind the reasons for our anxieties and manias would not by itself be the way to healing. The psychiatrist could not pronounce for his patient the great words of consolation the priest could pronounce for the sinner in the confessional: “I absolve you from your sins.”

Given the current proliferation of sexual permissiveness and perversity in the Western World, it could be argued that Freud’s influence has triumphed even if Freud himself has lost credibility with many psychologists and the scientific community in general. Freud’s study and interpretation of dreams as symbols of sexual longing early on made him a household name and fun reading for amateur intellectuals worldwide, but more so in the way that Thomas Jefferson found Plato’s Republic fun reading: the entire dialectical exercise of dream interpretation is enormously intriguing, yet in the end credulity is recklessly strained.

As Freud stated in Leonardo da Vinci, “Psychoanalysis … daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down.” Clearly Freud’s atheism is rooted in the breakdown of his own father’s authority since, as Freud himself admitted, Jacob Freud had sufficiently demonstrated to his children that he was both a physical coward and a sexual pervert.

From this it is possible to conclude that Freud himself had “the longing for a father” complex that he stated was the motive for religion in the first place. Very likely the impulsive “rejection of the father” and “longing for father” jockeyed for advantage within Freud’s psyche; perhaps he resolved the issue by declaring himself to be the very father he longed for. This would account for Jung’s complaint that Freud was a dominating father figure to his disciples. Only by dethroning God could Freud become the deified Father he needed to be among his disciples.

By 1907 he had won the “faith” of Jung, his most promising follower, who in a letter to Freud expressed his devotion: “I have the feeling of having made considerable inner progress since I got to know you personally; it seems to me that one can never quite understand your science unless one knows you in the flesh. Where so much still remains dark to us outsiders only faith can help; but the best and most effective faith is knowledge of your personality.”

Yet six years later Jung was able to see through Freud’s pretensions to omniscience. His last letter to Freud contains angry words from a disappointed “son.” “I would point out that your technique of treating your pupils like patients is a blunder. In that way you produce either slavish sons or impudent puppies. I am objective enough to see through your little trick…. If ever you should rid yourself of your complexes and stop playing the father to your sons, and instead of continually taking aim at their weak spots take a good look at your own for a change, then I will mend my ways and at one stroke uproot the vice of being in two minds about you.”

To which Freud replies like an angry father disowning his son. He attacks Jung’s sanity as he complains that it is “a convention among us analysts that none of us need feel ashamed of his own neurosis. But one who while behaving abnormally keeps shouting that he is normal gives ground for the suspicion that he lacks insight into his illness. Accordingly, I propose that we abandon our personal relations entirely.”

Now the psychology of atheism is an immensely complex subject. Let us put Freud aside and ask why some people choose to believe and others choose not to believe in a universal Father. The answer for theists is that it is easy to believe when they look at the universe and our place in it. They see a creation that must have a Creator. And while the Creator may not be seen, his presence may be evident in the reflection of himself throughout the universe. People see benevolent intent behind the creation; so good is life that all cling to it and feel inclined to thank the Great Giver of all that is good.

Then there are the people who do not see that reflection or hint of God anywhere. They think that the absence of undeniable evidence of God’s presence is evidence of the absence of this God, as if God should be clearly visible as one being among the many beings throughout the universe. Yet, as psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz points out in his brilliant tome Faith of the Fatherless, this intellectual excuse for not believing in God has to contend with the fact that if the existence of God cannot be proven to the atheist’s satisfaction, it is equally true that the atheist cannot prove the non-existence of God. So atheism cannot be firmly established merely by the principle of right reasoning. The rationale for atheism should be looked for somewhere else.

The question may also be phrased another way. Why do some people believe? Because they want to believe. Why do other people not believe? Because they do not want to believe. The people who want to believe are comfortable with the idea of a Supreme Father who invites us home at the end of our journey through life, just as a Father would welcome home his prodigal son. People who do not feel comfortable with the idea of such a father might feel just the opposite, just as Freud did not want to believe in a supreme Father because he had learned by personal experience such contempt for his own father.

We come now to the Defective Father Syndrome introduced by Dr. Vitz. According to him, there are three kinds of fathers who are most likely to have atheist children.

  1. The father who is absent, or who abandons his children.
  2. The father who abuses his children.
  3. The non-existent father (dead or never known).

Vitz’s book catalogs a number of famous atheists and explores the relationship between them and their fathers. Let’s look at just three of the many examples Vitz gives of the types of fathers who are likely to have atheist children. We begin with the 19th century German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche and the Dead Father Syndrome.

There are many ways a father can be absent or a weak presence in his child’s life, but the most devastating of these ways is for the father to be dead before the child can come to know him. So it was that Nietzsche’s famous phrase, “God is dead,” makes so much sense coming from him. His own father, with whom he had a warm relationship, died from brain cancer before Nietzsche was five years old. But by the time he was in his mid-twenties, Nietzsche had come to view his father, who was a Christian pastor, as a symbol of the inherent weakness of Christianity since he had been weak and succumbed to death.

In defiant reaction to this childhood experience, Nietzsche developed his well know philosophy of the Superman, the coming of the more highly evolved species of this world that was to be preferred to the species of mankind which is dominated by the death embracing ethic of Christianity. Nietzsche’s God would indeed morph into this idealized Superman creature who would be superior to humans as humans are to the apes. As Vitz puts it, Nietzsche’s idealized Superman was really Nietzsche’s quest for the surviving father figure, the father greater than the one who died when Nietzsche was but a boy; indeed, the father who was greater than the one that Nietzsche’s own father worshipped. Thus the famous hollow phrase by Nietzsche which dominates the modern world: “God is dead.” Long live the Superman, Nietzsche proclaimed. It was perhaps inevitable that thirty-three years following Nietzsche’s death the longed for Superman would be fictionally born at least in the person of the D.C. Comics superhero Clark Kent.

The father of H.G. Wells (author of science fiction novels The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds) is offered by Vitz as the man who illustrates the Weak Father Syndrome. Joseph Wells, it appears, was a lazy man who preferred gambling and playing cricket to making a decent living for his wife and family. In consequence, the burden of running the family business fell upon his wife, who was likewise tasked with raising the children. In due time Wells’ mother and father drifted apart, with the father ready to abandon his family. With the death of Wells’ older sister came the collapse of his mother’s religious sensibilities, which Vitz connects with Wells’ later hatred for God. That hate is illustrated in Wells’ remark, “The greatest evil in the world today is the Christian religion.” More than that, Wells lost all feeling for his father. According to Vitz, even when his father died, Wells’ “account of his father’s death contains no sadness, no expression of loss.”

The third type of father illustrating the Abusive Father Syndrome was the father of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the notorious American atheist who in 1963 sued the Supreme Court to ban Bible reading in the public schools. O’Hair later founded the American Atheists society, became a rabid enemy of all religion, and acquired the reputation of being the most hated woman in America. In 1995 O’Hair, her son and her granddaughter were found butchered and buried on a Texas ranch. They were murdered by a former disgruntled employee of American Atheists.

The hatred between Madalyn and her father was extremely intense according to her son William. As her surviving son William said in his memoirs, he remembered a very ugly fight in which O’Hair tried “to kill her father with a ten-inch butcher knife. She failed, but screamed, ‘I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave!’” Sometime, probably in her youth, Madalyn’s father exercised physical and/or mental abuse that Madalyn suffered from throughout her life, abuse that spurred her to hate not only her father, but just as much her father’s God.

But I think Vitz would argue that the Defective Father Syndrome is not inevitable in its application. Certainly not all defective fathers have produced atheist children. There is the presence of the mother too, who is able to effectively counter the influence of the father. And even the entire absence of the father can be countered by the mother who is able to combine the role of mother and father in her dealings with her children and thus transmit a religious sensibility.

Vitz certainly concedes that there are other reasons why children become atheists later in life. For a while Vitz himself abandoned his own faith in his early years as a psychologist. He attributes that to peer pressure, as he discovered through the period of his education and mentorship by older psychologists (father figures) that atheism was rampant among them. According to one survey, 50% of university psychology professors are atheists. Vitz freely admits that he subconsciously was influenced by the controls and peer pressure in his field to conform to the atheist outlook on life.

And of course there are so many other reasons why people become atheists. Not least among them is the decision to worship something or someone other than God. This can take the form of worshipping power, fame, riches, sex, etc. Many pagan types are what Jacques Maritain called “practical atheists.” They might say they believe in God, but they live as if they believe only in themselves. Their mantra prayer is not the Our Father, but rather “my will be done, on earth as it is in hell.” Indeed, the number of practical atheists may well exceed the number of those who say they do not believe in God.

Go into any prison population and count the few who attend chapel services or religious instruction. This too is an indication of practical atheism flourishing among men without fathers, more victims of the Defective Father Syndrome since most prisoners come from fatherless homes. In Chicago, sometimes dubbed the Murder Capital of America, 80% of black children are fatherless. How many of them will become criminals or victims of crimes because they had no strong father figure to protect and educate them in survival skills is anybody’s guess, but the practice of honoring one’s mother and one’s father has to be rather difficult when the father is absent, dead, abusive, or replaced by a gang leader.

The explosion of the atheist population in modern times has many causes, not least of which, if Vitz is right, would be the increasingly high divorce rate in the Western World. Again, statistics show that divorce more than likely leaves the child fatherless, instigating nationwide instances of the Defective Father Syndrome and any connection that may have with the rise of the atheist population. One has only to compare the rarity of atheists in the general population 100 years ago, when divorce was rare, with the burgeoning population of atheists today, when divorce is common, by some estimates hovering around 50%.

St. Augustine believed that anger was often connected with revenge for some perceived injustice. What could seem more unjust to a child than the loss of a parent; and what better revenge than to spite God by denying that God even exists? Chesterton noted this rising anger a century ago and remarked, “It is still bad taste to be an atheist. But now it is equally bad taste to be a Christian.” According to at least one estimate, the number of atheists in the world will have exceeded the number of theists by mid-century The present Hollywood habit of depicting villainous characters wearing crosses around their necks might be a sign of things to come.

For too many Christians the future prospects of the children of God seem grim. Yet we are told, and we must believe, that the Christian story ends well. Not necessarily soon, but at some distant point Christianity is poised to enter its third great period of historical destiny following the improbable twin triumphs of the Early Church and the Medieval Church. Ultimately all the opposing religions and atheism may well fall before the great and final advent of Christ. Though at present it may seem to many that Christianity is doomed, this could be the dead wrong assessment of what is just as possibly going to be a long and dreadful quiet before the gathering storm.



(Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, Shaw versus Chesterton, The Dilemmas of Atheism, and has published several articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas.)













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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics