Catholics explain why atheists exist

It’s as bad as you might guess. It’s all about selective psychoanalyzing. We’re atheists because we have daddy issues.

There may be lots of reasons for atheism’s recent prevalence, but it is clear that the rise in atheism has taken place alongside the fall of the family. Is there a connection between the two? In his book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, psychologist Dr. Paul Vitz answers in the affirmative.

Specifically, Vitz argues that a father often exerts a powerful influence on his child’s concept of God. (Since his original book was published in 1999, other studies have provided support for this point.) Dr. Vitz takes a biographical tour of modern atheists and discovers a relatively consistent thread: “Looking back at our thirteen major historical rejecters of a personal God, we find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case.” Of course, it is not true, nor is Vitz making the case, that every atheist had a bad father—or that the mere absence of a father must propel one to atheism. It would also be a fallacy to claim that each atheist’s fundamental reason for embracing atheism is his paternal relationship. But to Vitz’s point (and consistent with the findings of other studies), it is legitimate to argue that some persons may be predisposed to atheism because of their family circumstances.

So a guy who’s writing a book that has the thesis that fatherlessness is the basis of atheist psychology found seventeen atheists who had a weak, dead, or abusive father — in every case. All seventeen cases.

This analysis is just incompetent. I want to know what proportion of atheists had a problematic relationship with their father — I know for a fact that it is not all — and I also want to know what proportion of Catholics, and the general population, have poor paternal relationships. Citing a couple of cherry-picked anecdotal individuals is not data.

The backing off of the claim at the end of that paragraph is just weaseling. It’s probably true that some persons may be predisposed to atheism because of their family circumstances, but it’s a statement so vague and lacking in numbers that it is meaningless. I could just as well say that some Catholics may be predisposed to leave the faith because their priests are rapists — without data beyond some personal testimonies, however, it gaves us no insight into why people become atheists. Some because they were diddled by Father, but some is not a useful measure.

But he has another authority: the pope!

In his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI makes an interesting point along the same lines, alluding to the connection between fatherhood and faith. Pointing out that the “Our Father” is a great prayer of consolation, insofar as it recognizes and professes God as our Father with Whom we have a personal relationship, Pope Benedict XVI notes that consolation is not experienced by everyone:

It is true, of course, that contemporary men and women have difficulty experiencing the great consolation of the word father immediately, since the experience of the father is in many cases either completely absent or is obscured by inadequate examples of fatherhood.”

As Pope Benedict suggests, the idea of God as a father can be a painful reminder that their own father did not, could not, or would not love them. Thus, the idea of spending fifteen minutes, much less eternity, with a “father” is remarkably unpleasant.

First, who cares what the Pope says? He has no particular qualifications or special insight into family psychology and sociology. Invoking an unmarried, childless celibate on family life has zero relevance.

Second, it is true that some people have crappy relationships with their fathers. It’s a problem in every religious denomination as well as among the godless. Again, we have a recitation of a non-statistical statistic.

Third, it is all kind of fucked-up to suggest that the invocation of an invisible intangible being in church is in any way similar to a real relationship with a real caring father. It suggests that real fathers are an incomprehensible enigma to these Catholics.

Fourthly, a counter-example (since all they have is vague unsourced anecdotes, that’s fair): me. I had a great relationship with my father. I trusted him, he was reliable, he was dedicated to his family, we respected and loved him. His death was a painful loss, and I think of him about every day.

I cared enough for him that I’ll make the Catholics a deal. If you could give me those 15 more minutes with my dead father (my real father, not your imaginary psychopath), I’ll convert to Catholicism in a flash. It would be worth it.

But one thing I’m certain about: you can’t do that. All you can do is lie and make false promises.


  1. Erp says

    “”some persons may be predisposed to atheism because of their family circumstances”

    Is true if the family circumstances are that most in the family are atheist. On the whole most people tend to follow their family in religious (non)belief

  2. consciousness razor says

    We’re atheists because we have daddy issues.

    Magic sky daddy doesn’t exist. It’s true, that is sort of an issue.

    But to Vitz’s point (and consistent with the findings of other studies), it is legitimate to argue that some persons may be predisposed to atheism because of their family circumstances.

    If your argument is that I’m predisposed to things, then you can legitimately make that case, if you have evidence for it about me (you know, to support the argument) and not about other “rejecters.” But that’s not what any of this condescending bullshit is for. In which arguments would this play a legitimate role? Certainly not ones that provide valid reasoning and evidence of the existence of a god.

    I have an idea. The most obvious reason why some people don’t believe in gods is because they’re not convinced by the reasoning and evidence. And the most obvious reason some people are happy that none of the assorted Christian deities are real is because they all sound like a bunch of sadistic fucking demons. Have you considered those possibilities, rather than your stupid fucking theory?

    About the author:

    John Clark is an author and speechwriter. His first book Who’s Got You? reached #1 in the Amazon Kindle “Fatherhood” category and his new book How to Be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford A Decent Cape was just released by Guiding Light Books. He has written hundreds of articles and blogs about Catholic family life and apologetics in such places as Seton Magazine, Catholic Digest, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. A graduate of Christendom College, John and his wife Lisa have nine children and live in Virginia.

    I’m noticing a pattern….

  3. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 consciousness razor
    I’m noticing a pattern….
    Indeed, nothing but the most reputable peer-reviewed journals.

    One of the links in the original article that PZ linked also takes one to a Mormon news-site which was stressing the importance of daddy showing up to whatever Mormons do.

    I wonder if the same thing applies for Shinto fathers?

  4. says

    “Our Father” is a great prayer of consolation, insofar as it recognizes and professes God as our Father with Whom we have a personal relationship

    On the contrary, “Our father which art in Heaven” is the beginning of one of the most craven statements of cowering, kowtowing moral submission to the idea that might makes right which I know of.

  5. says

    Their god is referred to as “Father” and is massively abusive (“Love and obey me or you will suffer!”) and they’re saying atheists are the ones with daddy issues?

  6. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Our father was (and is) neither weak, nor dead, nor abusive. He used to drive us to Sunday school (and our mother to church) at the United Church of Christ–one of the more liberal cults. I think he must have had some sort of pact with my mother because, as an atheist himself, he never actually went in. We really never heard much discussion of religion from our parents, either positive or negative, and all five of us ended up as atheists.

  7. Holms says

    Uh-oh, they might be on to something! I’m an atheist, and – gasp – I have never met my father! Theory proven!

    Except my parents’ divorce was explicitly caused by my father’s christianity: he was the sort that believed the man is the head of the household, with the authority to issue orders that the wife must obey. My mum had no truck with that, and good on her. Consequently they split shortly before I was born, and so if my atheism is caused by his absence, his christianity is the root cause of that.

  8. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Also, my wife was born in Franco’s Spain, and while neither of her parents were terribly religious (her mother is definitely anti-clerical), they did go to church out of fear of what others would say, and she spent time in Catholic summer camps and schools. It was her experience with nuns that really turned her off the church.

  9. says

    I don’t love my father anymore, don’t especially feel bad about it, but back when I realized I was an atheist, it was years before neglect and abuse had worn out the affection. He was pretty nice back then, so nice he didn’t bother to bring any hammers down on me for professing a belief he disagreed with – just laughed in mild condescension, ho ho ho. Of course, that’s weak in the xtian book, so zing! Anecdote 18, so tasty.

  10. robro says

    I’m another counter example. I had a good relationship with my father. Not perfect but we stayed on good terms. He was caring when I was a child, and never abusive. He was a Christian, although not into churches particularly or ideology. He became an active Mason later in life which was his religion. His biggest flaw was racism but that modulated as he got older. We were in touch until he passed away, and I was with him at the time. My relationship with my mother is good, too.

    I have a friend who was separated from his father for many years. My friend moved from England to California to be near his father who died a few years later. They managed to reestablish their relationship before then. I don’t know if my friend’s father was religious, but my friend is an atheist.

    So, I don’t see any connection between family relationships and god belief. I’m sure it can play a part, but there are lots of factors in this equation. This is just more self-rationalizing crap from sloppy non-thinkers.

  11. says

    Hmm. My dad was there, wasn’t abusive, lived until I was 36, and was an atheist himself. His dad was there, wasn’t abusive, and lived until Dad was 64. Checkmate, theists!

  12. Ed Seedhouse says

    Maybe we need an atheist perspective on the psychology of religious belief. I think Christians have weak fathers and therefore look to the Big Daddy in the Sky to tell them what to do. My evidence is (waves hands).

  13. kevinv says

    I was raised catholic, my father was a firm believer in both god and catholicism all his life. He died when I was in my late 40’s. I was an alter boy, went to catholic grade school and high school. I was pretty anti-religious institutions by the time I got out of high school and was atheist by the time I graduated from college. I was never abused either by my father or any priests, he was far from negligent, I got my love of both computers and classical music from him.

    Honestly I’d say the firm grounding in science and learning the Jesuits gave me in high school far more played into my becoming an atheist than anything my father did or didn’t do. I’m not sure if he knew, I never mentioned it but it wouldn’t surprise me, but he sure as heck would’ve been disappointed in me if he did.

  14. chigau (違う) says

    I’m thinking that it is legitimate to argue that most persons may be predisposed to *whatever* because of their family circumstances.

  15. chigau (違う) says

    I have no intention of reading Vitz’s book.
    Who were these thirteen or seventeen atheists?

  16. chrislawson says

    Stories about my father.

    I remember when my first son was very young, my father told me to cut my son’s throat. I was about to go through with it when he stopped me and told me it was enough that I had shown I was willing to kill my own child. Later, another young son of mine got a bit cheeky and called him “baldy”. My father got so angry that he took my son and his friends into the wilderness and threw them to wild animals who tore them apart. Much later, one of my father’s acquaintances made a bet with him that the only reason I loved him was because my life was so good. So my father murdered my wife and children, burnt my business to the ground with my employees still inside, and infected me with boils. I was upset at first, but when I continued to love him anyway and acknowledge his unaccountable superiority and respect his disposition to genocidal rages, he cured my pox, gave me a new wife and a new business, allowed me to have more children without killing them, and everything was fine after that.

    With such a strong, caring father it has always been a mystery to me why I am an atheist.

  17. charley says

    I’ll add to our anecdotal tally. Maybe we can beat 17. I had a a wonderful dad who was very loyal and dutiful regarding the church. All us kids got the whole nine yards – Christian school, church twice on Sunday, catechism, church version of boy scouts, devotions at the dinner table, etc. One of the last things he said to me before he died was to lament my leaving the faith. Definitely not his fault.

  18. The Mellow Monkey says

    Blaming “daddy issues” is a classic gaslighting move.

    …[I]f a man is telling a woman she has daddy issues, and that’s the reason the relationship isn’t working out, she should question him rather than look to herself as the problem.

    If your partner uses the word “you” over and over again when describing issues within your relationship, it could be possible he or she is evading the real issue at hand, particularly his or her responsibility in it.

    Look out for those signs before pointing to yourself as the only issue in a partnership.

    It’s not me, Catholicism. It’s you.

  19. Zeppelin says

    I mean…the Christian god-as-father relationship is modelled after the traditional style of despotic fatherhood, which is rather going out of fashion in the West…and I can imagine that growing up under a controlling, judgmental, wrathful father might predispose you to a conspiracy theory that posits that the whole world is run by one…so in that sense, maybe Clark has a point. The “fall of the family”, as perceived by Catholicism, may contribute to a decline in prevalence of that particular neurosis.

    There. Now where’s my book deal?

  20. methuseus says

    I grew up Catholic, and i can say this: Catholicism is the very definition of daddy issues.
    Of course I have some issues with my father, but they’re no more than anyone else does. We have a fairly good relationship, so I wouldn’t say I have daddy issues in any shape or form.

  21. consciousness razor says

    I’ll add to our anecdotal tally. Maybe we can beat 17.

    I’m from a big Catholic family. I could probably do it just with myself and some cousins. Plus, among the rest, there would be quite a few rather dysfunctional relationships to add to the Catholic pile. I didn’t even need to wade through all of recorded history to find them.

    But perhaps it would seem more scholarly if we started listing all of the goddists ever with “a weak, dead, or abusive father.” It might be a tricky question in some cases. Jesus would count, right? Who knows, maybe he dabbled in atheism. I mean, his dad was sort of an absentee, and if he was around he had to be awfully weak or abusive, to let him go through all of that utterly gratuitous punishment and whatnot…. And let’s not forget the relationship he had with the mother. What a fucking asshole that guy must have been.

  22. rietpluim says

    I would also want to know what proportion of atheists do not have a problematic relationship with their father. This group of seventeen does not seem to be a representative sample.

  23. vucodlak says

    Wow, he really nailed it down with me!

    “Our Father” was never comforting to me in the slightest. Yeah, my dad could be kind and caring and comforting, but he could also be threatening to throw me through the wall, or grabbing me hard enough that I thought my arms would break while screaming in my face, or hitting me because I said I was tired, or… you get the picture. I was terrified of my father, and I was terrified of God in exactly the same way.

    However, one day I stood up to father as he was (verbally) abusing my mother (by screaming at her and waving a hammer around). I took everything he dished out- the screaming, the threatening with a weapon, the grabbing of my throat and snarling “I OWN YOU.” I realized I wasn’t afraid of him, anymore. After my little ‘encounter’ with the local Nazis a few years earlier, there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to truly frighten me. I stood there and told him a calm, almost bored, tone: “Calm down.” I said that three times, and when he kept on screaming I just walked away. He kicked my ass, literally, but I just kept walking. I was tired, too tired for his bullshit anymore.

    God still terrified me, but I was sick of his shit too. I started looking for another religion. Eventually, I came to see that the evidence was more or less the same for all of them. I became an atheist, albeit one with a pronounced love of blasphemy. I was pissed at having given up so much for a lie.

    But wait! I’m not an atheist anymore! After seven or eight years of atheism, I ‘found god.’ Not the god I was raised with (for I still despise the God of Abraham and I’m pretty sure I always will), but I am happier in my newfound faith than I ever was as a Christian. She’s not my daddy OR my mommy, either. Wonder how that would fit in to Dr. Vitz’s study?

  24. blf says

    Xians have a rather public crucification fetish. There are artworks of a (usually almost-)naked man being tortured to death all over the place, out in public.

    There is a strand of p0rn based on fantasy crucifications of (historically more accurate) usually naked people.

    From this we can conclude most or all xians are into kinky sexual fantasies. We can hope it’s all consensual, but given the well-documented activities of the xian authoritarian hierarchy, we also know not all is consensual, and some is underage (impossible to be consensual).

    From this we can conclude — “proven” by carefully selecting for convicted xian child molesters — and using the same “logic” as the supposed study in the OP, that many xians are child rapists.

    Incidents of non-consensual sex in the holey babble only prove the point; to wit, Xians have an underage torture sex fantasy.

    </snark> (In case anyone’s confused.)

  25. says

    My father has possibly become an atheist because my grandfather was an abusive asshole. Of devotely religious, catholic persuasion. AFAIK out of five siblings two grew up into atheists, two are believers and one I do not know which side he turned.

    My father is not a perfect man, but I would not describe him as either weak or abusive, and he was not absent during my childhood. I grew up into an atheist simply because the topic of religion never really came up in our family until I was about 12 years old, and even then only because I learned to my suprise that some of my uncles and aunts are believers, which totaly baffled me at the time. And because I came to inform myself about religion only after my reasoning faculties were developed, I did not become indoctrinated.

  26. demonax says

    This Doctor Diaiforus who write the tripe about fathers, believes, evidently, that Bread is flesh and that stories are proof and that his Sky-God is the right one. Bit much for one day.

  27. sharpblue says

    This is a little like the findings of the alien probe Starglider in Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Fountains of Paradise”, which discovered that only species with strong parental care develop a belief in God.

  28. zetopan says

    Religious fanatics are so fantastically irony impaired that they even claim that the people who do not take Adam and Eve literally and demonic possession seriously must be psychologically impaired. Voluntary Brain death is considered a positive virtue by these willfully ignorant fools.

  29. Paolo says

    Azz’, my godless family is a living disprovement of this “study”. Both my brothers and me are atheists, not even baptized (which is quite unusual in Italy, even for non-believers: everytime we mention the fact it’s generally followed by “aaaah” and “ooooh” of amazement), and our father is neither absent nor abusive.
    My parents are both atheists, and religious discussions were virtually unheard of when we were kids (actually, they’re unheard of even now); my paternal grandfather, who’s still alive, has never been absent or abusive. My mother’s the only exception since she didn’t have a happy relationship with her own father, but that’s probably due to the fact that he was an old-style sicilian father very close to the neo-fascist movement, while my mother was radical-left (at least from an anglo-saxon point of view) and quite rebellious in her teens.

  30. cartomancer says

    Perhaps they should hold off on speculating why atheists exist and come up with some kind of evidence for why their god exists instead?

  31. says

    You should be careful how you talk about other people. You very easily end up telling them more about yourself than you intended. This guy is a textbook example of that.

  32. says

    My good father was nominally UCC, but I never saw him attend church and he was generally disparaging towards religion; my mother is Lutheran, not that she ever attends church either. In addition to being good parents, they were very casual about religion — I think we went to Sunday school more because it gave them a break from 6 kids for an hour or two.

    Parental attitudes towards religion might be a more significant factor than just this vague crap about ‘bad dads’. We learn from our upbringing. You can be influenced by your parents’ good examples, or repelled by their bad examples, so an abusive Catholic father might raise little atheists, but a loving godless father might also. And religious parents who are not abusive probably do a better job of perpetuating the faith.

  33. Sastra says

    I remember reading some rebuttals of this book after it came out. Iirc one of the many complaints re Vitz’s methodology was that he treated the two groups differently. When he discovered a believer who had no father, he looked to see if there had nevertheless been a strong “father figure” in the child’s life — an uncle, a priest, a family friend. If so — into the Good Paternal Relationship pile goes this particular bit of data. Needless to say, he didn’t bother to do that with the atheists.

    CS Lewis once wrote about a hypothetical nightmare psychiatrist who explains your belief that you have butter in your refrigerator by bringing up your upbringing, your neurosis, your life goals, your mother. Not once does he look into your refrigerator to see if maybe the butter IS there, and you believe it’s there because you bought it and put it in and use it for toast each morning.

    I expect this analogy was directed at atheists who psychoanalize believers — but it works better the other way around. If god’s existence was so obvious that atheism is in the same category as psychological delusions, then they wouldn’t be making such a big song and dance about faith, faith, faith. I don’t wrestle with the temptation to believe maybe the butter in my refrigerator is but a figment of my imagination, and then congratulate myself when I nobly venture into the land of Hope and resist it.

  34. rietpluim says

    Does Vitz’ argument also explain why Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Lutherans, baptists, evangelicals, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, Wiccan, Hindus, Orthodox Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Liberal Jews, Conservative Jews, and countless others exist?

  35. feministhomemaker says

    As I explained when I shared this post on my Facebook page, my husband and I both had fathers in our homes whom we loved, and we are atheists! In addition, other ridiculous explanations for who atheists are and what our effect on our communities is have come from religious politicians. Our recent past mayor in San Antonio announced in public remarks during our recent election that poverty is caused by godlessness. My husband and I looked at each other, incredulous, for we were both raised in Catholic households living in the midst of poverty. We both were raised in large poor families. It was only after we became adults and atheists that we gained financial security, raising two boys in a non-religious household. They remain financially secure as adults and they are free to be atheists or not. These types of analyzing are insulting and disgusting, contributing nothing to people understanding who their neighbors really are. They instead implant biases against and disdain for neighbors. No decent, reasonable person would do that. These bozos are nincompoops or malicious. BYW–we voted that mayor our and voted in a progressive mayor.

  36. whheydt says

    I will concede that my father died….but I was 26 at the time and already lacked faith. I still miss him 42 years later, but no god is a substitute.

  37. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    There’s also this: I can’t say whether I’m weak as a father, but I’m not abusive, and definitely not dead. We never discussed religion much with our kids, but they both ended up atheists.

  38. Knabb says

    I think my favorite part about this argument is the implication that bad and absent parents are somehow a recent development. It’s not like the middle ages and early modern periods (where the church was at its strongest) ever had bad fathers, or fathers who were away because they were fighting in or had died in a war, or fathers who had died of disease, or anything else like that. No, absent fathers are a totally new phenomenon, and until very recently every father was a good one. Because that makes sense.

  39. dragon says

    I am another counter-example, and so is my father. As I grew up, my father was always there. Always willing to help us out, but let us learn independence. As an adult, he was always willing to give me good advice. He never abused my mom or sister. About the only complaint I could possibly muster was that he worked a lot. Even there he included us in every family activity related to work that he could. He came to so many of my academic and athletic events. He even drove me to my hockey games at 3::30 to 6:00 am every Saturday (hard to find ice time). I learned how to be a real man, not a toxic one, from him. He taught me honesty and honor. He taught me that all people should be treated equally, regardless of color or sex. We never really talked about homosexuality then. He was always an atheist from the moment I knew him. He now suffers from dementia.
    His father was a generally good man. He was a Christian growing up, but not a particularly committed one. My aunt converted to LDS and converted my grandfather. But I never recall any proselytizing from him and only a little from her. He grew up with the casual racism of his days, and I recognized it in him in my early teens. I recall hearing my grandfather make derogatory comments about all kinds of ‘others’, and yet he had friends among them. I asked him about a black friend one day as a young adult, and he mentioned that his friend was different than the rest. So I asked him if he had ever met a black person who was just like the stereotype and he admitted that he had not. After a bit more conversation he admitted that every black person he had bothered to get to know was just fine. I told him that might led me to think the stereotype was not accurate. He admitted he would have to think about that.
    So, neither my dad or I had any daddy issues. We had strong fathers, strong in a good way. They weren’t absent fathers, abusive or neglectful. I have continued that, and my children are one Buddhist and two Atheists.
    Perhaps my problem, as Dr. Vitz would see it, is that I cannot envision the tyrant from the Bible as anything like the wonderful father I happily experienced.

  40. Timberwoof says

    This is just warmed-over leftover Freudian weak-father-causes-the-gay stew. In other words, it’s your fault that your child left the Psi Corps—I mean the Mother Church and the Holy Father.

  41. octopod says

    Zeppelin at #21 nailed it.

    Oh, and to add to the pile of anecdata: my partner and I are both atheists, and our little monkey is extremely lucky in having two awesome grandpas who love him very much.

  42. whheydt says

    Re: Knabb @ #42…
    My paternal grandfather died when my father was 7 (tuberculosis in 1917). My father appears to have bonded a fair amount with his grandfather, though. Said great-grandfather (relative to me) lost his father when he was 10 (which would have been in 1853), so they had that in common.

  43. Firestarter says

    If we’re going to do the anecdote thing: my father’s father died when he was very young. He doesn’t even have any memories of him being a part of daily life because my dad was that young at the time. My dad is very Christian. On the other hand, my dad is a wonderful, strong man who has been there for me my entire life. I’m don’t have any supernatural beliefs whatsoever.

  44. palefury says

    Actually I am an athiest because my father died. My Dad was an adamant athiest, but I guess I was raised agnostic (my Mum is Anglican but wasn’t practicing at the time). He was diagnosed with a salivary gland tumour when I was 7 weeks old. He went through multiple bouts of metastasis (several lung mets and then brain mets towards the end). He died when I was 14 years old. The cancer spread thoughout his whole body and he suffered a great deal towards the end. I found myself completely unable to believe in the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god, my mother now more fervently subscribes to. My father was a good man, a loving husband and father. He never complained about what he went though despite all his suffering. An incredible number of people suffer as much or more than he did. This is not consistent with the existance of a loving god. And if god(s) exists (for which there is no evidence, anyway), that would let this kind of thing happen to people, I for one would not be worshipping it. Either god is nonexistant or an asshole, either way he is not a part of my life.

  45. davidc1 says

    Hi doc ,you must have heard of Philip Henry Gosse ?.
    Victorian naturalist /god botherer and inventor of the Sea water Aquarium,his son had a terrible
    childhood ,although there is some doubt nowadays .
    And he wrote a book about his childhood.
    My late father is supposed to have told my older brothers he was raised catholic ,but they are
    free to believe whatever they wanted .

  46. screechymonkey says

    If you’re an atheist who has suffered, then you’ll be told that you’re just angry at god for the bad things that have happened to you.
    If you’re an atheist who hasn’t suffered much, then you’ll be told that if only things got tough for you, you’d come around (no atheists in foxholes, and all that).

    If you’re an atheist who had a religious upbringing, you’re just engaging in adolescent rebellion.
    If you’re an atheist who didn’t have a religious upbringing, then you’ve never given faith a chance.

    Heads I win, tails you lose.

  47. says

    I miss my father terribly, and became an atheist after studying for the Christian ministry. Am I person number 18? I’m ‘predisposed’ to atheism because I couldn’t stop thinking about the enormity of the universe in space, time, and complexity, and our place in it. A bronze-age religion sized to fit in the ancient world couldn’t stretch that thin.

  48. mary says

    So, a family with TWO loving, supporting fathers must be optimum and totally supported by the catholic church.

  49. rcurtis505 says

    My dad was a fine and gentle man. He was a “Protestant” and my mom was a “Catholic”, ie in name only. My brothers and I were expected to go to Catholic Mass and Sunday school, because…well, because. One day (I was maybe six) my dad and I were driving somewhere and he said to me, “You know, if I hadn’t met your mom, your name wouldn’t be Bobby”. That’s all it took for an inquisitive kid to start questioning everything he knew! So my wonderful non-atheist dad made me an atheist, not by being abusive, but by (inadvertently, I think, as he was not an outwardly introspective guy, if that makes sense) expanding my thinking with one well-placed, unanswerable, question. My daughter is an atheist, and I flatter myself by thinking that I and her mother have done something similar for her.

  50. Akira MacKenzie says

    My father is a gay-hating, abortion opposing, ex-Altar Bay, Parochial School graduate who has had to change parishes several times when the priest expressed an opinion he found too “liberal.” He uses his religious beliefs to back up just about everyone of his repugnant far-right-wing positions. He’s a mean, bigoted, hateful excuse for a human being.

    In short, he’s everything that the Vatican would expect from a model Catholic.

  51. Matt G says

    Do these Freud-haters see any irony here? I’m pretty sure they don’t. More anecdotes: my grandfathers were pretty awesome and produced atheist kids, who also produced kids (my brother and me), and my brother has at least two atheist kids. My grandfathers seemed uninterested in religion but I don’t know their theologies. Counter-anecdote: my girlfriend’s kids are atheists and have an asshole for a father.

  52. some bastard on the internet says

    You know, I was going to post a long spiel about how my father, for all his faults, did his damnedest to treat us right (as well as my mother, funny how these asses don’t often talk about dear mum’s contributions to our character).

    But, maybe because the loss of my father is still very fresh (I buried him in March), all I can can give is a big hearty “FUCK YOU!!!” to Vitz.

  53. Owlmirror says

    Vitz argues that a father often exerts a powerful influence on his child’s concept of God.

    I think it’s important to break this down right here. Why should a father influence a child’s concept of God? After all, our concepts of real people are formed by our interactions with them. Even our concepts of fictional people are formed by how they are portrayed as acting in the narratives about them.

    Of course, if one has not had experiences with someone, such as the father of a friend, one might form the concept of that father from one’s own father. I recall the amusing anecdote of how Charles Darwin’s son George asked a friend where the friend’s father “did” barnacles. It’s amusing because we understand the naiveté: George’s concept of what fathers did or were like was influenced by Charles Darwin obsessively studying barnacles, but of course, George was generalizing from one rather extreme outlying example. Yet George would not have made such a generalization if he had had more experience with other fathers from an earlier age, and presumably would have ceased making such generalizations once he had more experiences with other fathers.

    I think it’s reasonable to argue the following:

    No-one can form a concept of God from direct experience for the simple reason that God is imaginary — and those imaginings, as recorded in the texts of the bible and the teachings of church dogma, are so full of such conflicting and contradictory ideas about God that it is impossible to form a coherent concept of the imaginary God from out of those ideas.

    When Vitz and Clark and the other scholars they cite argue that people might form their concepts about God from their own father, they do so because that’s one out of the few real persons whose behaviors people can actually experience on an ongoing basis. But the hidden implication is that no-one has direct experiences of God, which really only makes sense if God is not real and never has been real.

  54. consciousness razor says


    But the hidden implication is that no-one has direct experiences of God, which really only makes sense if God is not real and never has been real.

    Well, I think you’re racing through this a little too quickly. Their implication is that God isn’t physical, which is what theists would generally want to say anyway.

    Your experiences are of material things moving around in spacetime. It’s not too counterintuitive that your experience is about such things, when it concerns tables and chairs, planets, thermometers, and so forth. But it’s harder to come to grips with that when the objects in question are living organisms, people, their mental activities, etc. At any rate, that’s actually what they’re about. With the sort of approach you’re taking, this is where their concepts of “fathers” comes from: experiencing physical things (specifically, “fathers”) and making inferences about them. That’s what you have to work with, about things of which you don’t have direct experiences, like your expectation that sun will rise tomorrow, fathers that you haven’t observed, and nearly everything else. You don’t come built with a priori concepts of such things, you can’t deduce them from any combination of strictly non-empirical things, so you fundamentally need empirical stuff to come up with it and make use of it. That’s what somebody like Hume would say, at least.

    I think that is basically how people come up with (imaginary) father-figures like gods: extrapolating or generalizing from the fathers they’ve already experienced. And (when pressed) many theists would claim those fathers aren’t entirely physical either: they have souls which somehow interact with their physical bodies. Gods are essentially the same, except that they don’t have (or need) bodies like organisms do — without them, they just somehow interact directly/immediately with the rest of physical universe (when creating the whole thing, causing miracles, or whatever gods are supposed to do). It’s just a big soul that can do fancier tricks than the one you happen to have. But how do any of them do any of those tricks? This is the part that doesn’t get explained — at least for now sciences don’t satisfactorily close the gap either, but believers seem to think that postulating non-physical entities will do the job. I would say it clearly hasn’t done anything of the sort, but this is what we’re left with after many centuries of smart people thinking hard about it.

    So, I agree that this doesn’t make a ton of sense and isn’t supported by the evidence…. But I don’t think they’re implying that, according to their own theory, God isn’t real and never has been. They’re starting out with a bunch of supernatural ideas, very different from ours, and on that basis making inferences about unobserved things (like we ordinarily do all of the time, but they’re doing it very badly). If that were the true story or something close to it, gods would fit into place just fine, because many other parts of (what they consider to be) reality are also loaded up with the same magic, including the parts which are supposed to have motivated their idea of gods as father-figures and creators and so forth. I’m magic, you’re magic, everything’s magic — so they’ve got (badly interpreted and weak) evidence of magic and are proceeding from there.

    Anyway, it seems like you could tell an internally-consistent story like that. The serious problems with it have to do with how weak the evidence is and how it isn’t a satisfactory explanation of what it’s purporting to explain. If it’s not exactly meant to be explanatory in the way that naturalistic theories are, as theists often insist, it’s still not doing a decent job of helping you understand how it all hangs together in the broadest possible sense. It’s not a helpful worldview, except maybe in the sense that it provides some people some kind of comfort (because god loves them, they’ll live forever, etc.) or participating in a religion helps to strengthen social bonds or some such thing. Or it’s supposed to be “helpful” in the sense that it’s a very easy claim to make, so they can very recklessly dispense with difficult philosophical issues and move on with their lives. It “helps” you ignore the problems or to paper over them with any old convenient bullshit you like. Of course, many atheists also have that kind of attitude about a lot of things, and to the extent they do, this sort of objection sounds pretty arbitrary coming from them.

  55. Owlmirror says


    Well, I think you’re racing through this a little too quickly.

    Maybe! Let me see if I can unpack it a bit more.

    Their implication is that God isn’t physical, which is what theists would generally want to say anyway.

    No, I don’t think the physicality of God is relevant here. They might well claim that God is non-physical, but they nevertheless also claim that God can interact with the physical (i.e., miracles and revelations). And at least some of those interactions must have taken place with sundry prophets and saints.

    Would any theist argue that Moses’ ideas about his human father had anything to do with the Burning Bush that talked to him, or his writing of the laws on Mt. Sinai?

    But I don’t think they’re implying that, according to their own theory, God isn’t real and never has been.

    But that isn’t quite what I wrote.

    I wrote that the implication is that God doesn’t interact with anyone. Otherwise, why would anyone get their ideas about God from their human fathers rather than God himself?

    My further argument was that this “really only makes sense if God is not real and never has been real.” OK, maybe that needs further unpacking.

    Theists posit that God certainly can interact with people directly, but has only actually done so with a very small number of people, mostly prophets and saints and similar (but also to those like Adam, Eve, Cain, Job’s comforters, and so on, who are directly condemned or scolded). So my phrasing could be qualified as “no-one (except prophets, saints, and other biblical characters) has direct experiences of God”.

    The bible also directly compares God to a human father. Matthew 7, verses 9-11: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

    But real human fathers don’t show the kind of extreme favoritism of the very limited interaction model. Real human fathers interact with all of their children, not a limited few that are given authority over the others.

    Clark’s article talks about God’s paternal love, but this love cannot be real, because real fathers that love their children actually interact with those children.

    Now, theists might well make excuses for why God doesn’t interact directly with most people, but there is still nonetheless a contradiction between the claim that God is like a human father who loves his children (and therefore would interact with them), and the claim that God does not interact directly with most people, which is connected to the claim that most people get their concepts of God from their own real fathers rather than directly from God.

    Given that contradiction, God not being real makes more sense. My point is not that this is directly implied, but is a hidden implication, given additional reasoning. One could argue that my argument doesn’t rule out any possible God or Gods that aren’t like a human father, at all. But the original article was about a father-like God.

  56. consciousness razor says

    Would any theist argue that Moses’ ideas about his human father had anything to do with the Burning Bush that talked to him, or his writing of the laws on Mt. Sinai?

    It seems like you’re focusing too narrowly or specifically on that one thing. Ideas of creators and lawmakers (human ones) arise naturally, and in a similar way they are also extrapolated into a supernatural creator/lawmaker. Maybe you can think of other examples, but the simple point is just that a variety of natural things influence how people think of gods — and I don’t think you’d dispute that.

    Of course, a father could be thought of as a sort of lawmaker, in the sense that they are considered authorities in your family. And he is a creator in the sense of being your immediate ancestor. (It was, and for some still is, typical to think of mothers as passive receptacles for what a father creates.) I wouldn’t say the common thread running through all of these is just coincidental. But in any case, I don’t think these people are saying it’s just fatherhood, all by itself, which informs all of the concepts people have about gods. Other types of creators (like artists and engineers), as well as other types of lawmakers (like kings and official muckety-mucks of all sorts), of which people also have many ordinary experiences to build upon, can play a similar role too. When it’s a child we’re talking about, they don’t typically have many vivid experiences of engineers and kings and such to build upon, so they tend to work with people who are (very literally) familiar to them — that doesn’t seem implausible to me at all, although I’m sure it’s only explaining one small part of the story.

    I wrote that the implication is that God doesn’t interact with anyone. Otherwise, why would anyone get their ideas about God from their human fathers rather than God himself?

    They would certainly dispute that, as you know. If you don’t personally have an experience of a god (as you surely don’t), then you can still rely on stories of god intervening at other times and places. You just believe what other people said their experiences were like. There isn’t a claim being made here that no such experiences ever happened to anyone, as you went on to admit about “prophets, saints, and other biblical characters.” I mean, yes, of course, they’re being extremely credulous about it all, but none of this commits them to agreeing with us that they shouldn’t be.

    Now, theists might well make excuses for why God doesn’t interact directly with most people, but there is still nonetheless a contradiction between the claim that God is like a human father who loves his children (and therefore would interact with them), and the claim that God does not interact directly with most people, which is connected to the claim that most people get their concepts of God from their own real fathers rather than directly from God.

    Well, I agree that’s contradictory. Some might say that when they get to heaven, their relationship will finally come to fruition, in some more meaningful sense. Of course, that’s just more pretending, which isn’t necessary with normal parents who’ve been interacting with you your whole life. But if they’re feeling alienated or doubtful or whatever, then this is the kind of thing people can tell themselves.

    Anyway, as far as where their ideas come from (which don’t depend on the actual properties/actions of a god or even the existence of one), I think it’s true that those are often modeled on parental relationships, along with many other types of experiences as I said. We seem to agree that people ought to think it’s wildly inappropriate that “a father often exerts a powerful influence on his child’s concept of God.” But the fact is just that many theists don’t believe it’s so confused (or at least baseless) to think that way.

  57. mark4nier says

    I don’t think you should ever expect most believers to understand atheists, because to understand an atheist there is a good chance you will become one. To quell their doubts, the faithful must discount our reasons for not believing. Taking these reasons seriously is dangerous. As Martin Gardener (who was a fideist) said, atheists have all the best arguments. But the worst part is that we have not only logical reasons for being atheists, but moral reasons.

    On the subject of daddy issues, though, it has occurred to me that the reason that 80% of evangelicals are devoted to Trump might be that their God is, like Trump, a feckless narcissistic thug. They don’t expect any better because their religion has told them they have no right to expect it.