One of the benefits of Science and Psychoanalysis is that it can be applied not just to religion and belief, but also to the lack of religion and the cause of disbelief.
The psychology of how a dead or nonexistent father could lay an emotional base for atheism might not seem clear at first glance. But, after all, if one’s own father is absent or so weak as to die, or so untrustworthy as to desert, then it is not hard to place the same attribute on your heavenly Father.
There is also the early personal experience of suffering, of death, of evil, sometimes combined with anger at God for allowing it to happen. Any early anger at God for the loss of a father and the subsequent suffering is still another and different psychology of unbelief, but one closely related to that of the defective father.
There are, of course, many ways that a father can lose his authority and seriously disappoint a child. Some of these ways — for which clinical evidence is given below — are:
1. He can be present but obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect — even if otherwise pleasant or “nice.”
2. He can be present but physically, sexually, or psychologically abusive.
3. He can be absent through death or by abandoning or leaving the family.
Sigmund Freud, and his critiques of religion, in particular Christianity, is well known. Freud and his thought have been with the question of God and religion. Given the close involvement between the founding of much of psychology and a critical interpretation of religion, it should not be surprising that most psychologists view with some alarm any attempt to propose a psychology of atheism. Psychological concepts used quite effectively to interpret religion are two- edged swords that can also be used to interpret atheism. Sauce for the believer is equally sauce for the unbeliever.
Psychoanalysis, which has taught us the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God, has shown us that the personal God is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks downSigmund Freud
The central concept in Freud’s work, aside from the unconscious, is the now well-known Oedipus Complex. In the case of male personality development, the essential features of this complex are the following: Roughly in the age period of three to six the boy develops a strong sexual desire for the mother. At the same time the boy develops an intense hatred and fear of the father, and a desire to supplant him, a “craving for power.” This hatred is based on the boy’s knowledge that the father, with his greater size and strength, stands in the way of his desire. The child’s fear of the father may explicitly be a fear of castration by the father, but more typically, it has a less specific character. The son does not really kill the father, of course, but patricide is assumed to be a common preoccupation of his fantasies and dreams. The “resolution” of the complex is supposed to occur through the boy’s recognition that he cannot replace the father, and through fear of castration, which eventually leads the boy to identify with the father, to identify with the aggressor, and to repress the original frightening components of the complex.
Freud makes the simple easily understandable claim that once a child or youth is disappointed in and loses his or her respect for their earthly father, then belief in their heavenly Father becomes impossible.
Sigmund Freud’s relationship to his father is an obvious reason for his doubt in God. That Freud’s father, Jacob, was a deep disappointment — or worse — is generally agreed to by his biographers.(For the supporting biographical material on Freud see, for example, Krull, 1979, and Vitz, 1983, 1986.)
Specifically, his father was a weak man unable to financially provide for his family. Instead money for support seems to have been provided by his wife’s family and others.
Furthermore, Freud’s father was passive in response to anti-Semitism. Freud recounts an episode told to him by his father in whom Jacob allowed an anti-Semite to call him a dirty Jew and to knock his hat off. Young Sigmund, on hearing the story, was mortified at his father’s failure to respond, at his weakness.
Sigmund Freud was a complex and in many respects ambiguous man, but all agree that he was a courageous fighter and that he greatly admired courage in others. Sigmund, as a young man, several times stood up physically against anti-Semitism — and, of course, he was one of the greatest of intellectual fighters.
Jacob’s actions as a defective father, however, probably go still deeper. Specifically, in two of his letters as an adult, Freud writes that his father was a sexual pervert and that Jacob’s own children suffered from this. There are also other possible moral disasters.
The connection of Jacob to God and religion was also present for his son. Jacob was involved in a kind of reform Judaism when Freud was a child, the two of them spent hours reading the Bible together, and later Jacob became increasingly involved in reading the Talmud and in discussing Jewish scripture. In short, this weak, rather passive “nice guy,” this schlemiel, was clearly connected to Judaism and God, and also to a serious lack of courage and quite possibly to sexual perversion and other weaknesses very painful to young Sigmund.
Very briefly, other famous atheists seem to have had a similar relationship to their fathers. Karl Marx made it clear that he didn’t respect his father. An important part in this was that his father converted to Christianity — not out of any religious conviction — but out of a desire to make life easier. He assimilated for convenience. In doing this Marx’s father broke an old family tradition. He was the first in his family who did not become a rabbi; indeed, Karl Marx came from a long line of rabbis on both sides of his family.
Let us jump 100 years or so and look at the life of one of America’s best known atheists — Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Here I will quote from her son’s recent book on what life was like in his family when he was a child. (Murray, 1982) The book opens when he is 8-years-old: “We rarely did anything together as a family. Hatred between my grandfather and mother barred such wholesome scenes.” (p. 7) He writes that he really didn't know why his mother hated her father so much — but hate him she did, for the opening chapter records a very ugly fight in which she attempts to kill her father with a 10-inch butcher knife. Madalyn failed but screamed, “I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave!” (p. 8)
Whatever the cause of O’Hair’s intense hatred of her father, it is clear from this book that it was deep and that it went back into her childhood — and at least psychological (e.g. p. 11) and possibly physical abuse is a plausible cause. Besides abuse, rejection, or cowardice, one way in which a father can be seriously defective is simply by not being there. Many children, of course, interpret death of their father as a kind of betrayal or an act of desertion. In this respect it is remarkable that the pattern of a dead father is so common in the lives of many prominent atheists.
Let me conclude by noting that however prevalent the superficial motives for being an atheist, there still remain in many instances the deep and disturbing psychological sources as well. However easy it may be to state the hypothesis of the “defective father,” we must not forget the difficulty, the pain, and complexity that lie behind each individual case. And for those whose atheism has been conditioned by a father who rejected, who denied, who hated, who manipulated, or who physically or sexually abused them, there must be understanding and compassion. Certainly for a child to be forced to hate his own father — or even to despair because of his father’s weaknesses is a great tragedy. After all, the child only wants to love his father. For any unbeliever whose atheism is grounded in such experience, the believer, blessed by God’s love, should pray most especially that ultimately they will both meet in heaven. Meet and embrace and experience great joy. If so, perhaps the former atheist will experience even more joy than the believer. For, in addition to the happiness of the believer, the atheist will have that extra increment that comes from his surprise at finding himself surrounded by joy in, of all places, his Father’s house.
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.