Monday, May 4, 2009

The Psychology of Atheists

from Rob R

I have heard from a couple of sources of a study that demonstrated that many prominent atheists hated their fathers.

I shared this with a small group from my church and I was challenged on the notion to support this claim. I don't know if this is the source but it's pretty good. This video is of Paul Vitz who's a psychologist who wrote Faith of the Fatherless which is a record of his study of 72 major proponents of atheism and their relationships to their parents, particularly their fathers.

Here is an hour long lecture by the author. I admit I have not yet seen it all.




I would just highlight a couple of claims made by Vitz.

He isn't saying this is true of all atheists. He distinguishes between mild atheists, who don't view their atheism as central to their identity and don't make a big deal about it, and intense atheists who do and who have a major axe to grind against religion. His hypothesis is mainly about intense atheists. And of course upbringing does not determine one's religious outlook. You're going to have exceptions such as intense atheists who have a good relationship with their father like John Stuart Mill. No doubt your going to have people who've had a rough relationship with their fathers and are theists. Billy Wayne, a preacher who spoke at our church came to mind, though Billy is reconciled to his formerly abusive father who has come to faith.

As for the significance of this, of course Vitz rightfully notes that this does not directly reflect on the truth claims at stake with theism vs. atheism. He notes that what he is doing is turning the tables on atheists who have tried to use psychology as a weapon against religion in these matters.

Of course in and of itself, the psychological reasons behind a worldview may be emphasized to the point of ad hominem attack. This is to be avoided but at the same time, that such a psychologically unhealthy situation should be fairly consistently linked to a set of beliefs should make one wonder.

Vitz has further comments here though I am not sure that there is information here that wasn't in the video.

17 comments:

Masoni said...

This video proves exactly nothing about atheism or the "psychology" thereof. I could claim that people DO believe in god simply because they're afraid of the unknown, and that would doubtless be true of many theists, but it proves nothing about theism or the other theists who believe in god because of the logic or evidence.

The same is true of atheists. Saying that some atheists had problems with their fathers, and saying that this may have been a contributing factor to their non-belief, doesn't mean anything for the rest of us atheists. It's probably true about people and their fathers, but it's irrelevant and silly to care about it. M.

Rob R said...

This video proves exactly nothing about atheism or the "psychology" thereof. I could claim that people DO believe in god simply because they're afraid of the unknown,.
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Well, I guess it proves nothing if evidence doesn't count for much, if social sciences aren't worthy pursuits, despite the fact that such matters are an undeniable part of life.

The author calls his suggestion a hypothesis because he feels it is still at that stage which is probably correct though the evidence he offered was pretty good (finding large consistency across many historical figures). Now I don't know that he offered everything that he has studied, but his primary study is from his book which examines the lives of 72 prominent atheists and contrasts it with the lives of many prominent theists. Normally, this would be a small figure, but as far as historically significant persons goes, it's no doubt far from insignificant and it demonstrates a pattern that is nothing less than scientifically irresponsible to ignore. If we cannot observe patterns and draw conclusions, then absolutely everything in science is a waste of time because science is all about observing patterns and drawing conclusions.

I could claim that people DO believe in god simply because they're afraid of the unknown, and that would doubtless be true of many theists, but it proves nothing about theism or the other theists who believe in god because of the logic or evidence.You could claim that. You could seek to put it on a par with what Paul Vitz has done. That would require evidence. You are downplaying this fact. I have no idea why you would do that when you like most atheist claim to value science.

Furthermore, to make your suggested claim parallel to what Vitz said you would have to drop "simply" from your phrase "...people DO believe in god simply because..." because Vitz didn't say that everyone who has these psychological precursors for atheism holds their atheism simply for these reasons and not for any rational ones.

The presence of such psychological precursors is not a showstopper, but it is relevent and it deserves to be taken seriously. To not take them seriously is to be nothing short of careless because psychological precursors, while not forbidding and preventing of rationality can still become obstacles and they can become blinders. They can and no doubt have.

Next, while these issues do not settle the issues of atheism vs theism, Vitz's point stands (and was unfortunately ignored) that these considerations have a history where it was the atheists first, specifically Freud, though others followed in his footsteps who used psychology as a weapon against Christians and religious people in general. Vitz emphasized that he was leveling the playing field noting that the psychological consideration cuts both ways pointing out that even atheists have psychological precursors to their beliefs, and they are quite severe in this case.

Everyone has psychological considerations in terms of what they believe, whether what they believe is rational and true or not, but those who refuse to deal with that are at the most risk of being blinded to those issues. Even I have psychological precursors to many of my beliefs. Birth order (which has psychological/sociological effects) for instance I believe plays a significant role in many of the issues I champion.
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saying that this may have been a contributing factor to their non-belief, doesn't mean anything for the rest of us atheists..
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From an atheist point of view, it really doesn't mean much because nothing really matters to begin with since whether one believes in God or not is not much more significant ultimately speaking than what kind of pie one likes. You may disagree, but that's just your preferred flavor of belief. Other atheists may disagree and it wouldn't be clear that your opinion is more valid than theirs on the subject. The observation as far as I can tell is pretty neutral to atheism, but it is not neutral for Christianity but rather fits very well with it where such a tragic relationship of brokenness lines up rather consistently with such profound spiritual brokenness.

Barb said...

And what about your father, Masoni?

Rob R said...

You don't have to answer that. I don't intend this as a basis to get personal where someone doesn't want to and I assume nothing about peoples personal lives. As already mentioned, psychological precursors do not determine these things (because influence is not determination).

Christian Apologist said...

The playing field never needed to be leveled. A claim that someone believes or disbelieves in God for some psychological reason is an ad hominem attack in the first place, and therefore no response is neccesary. rebutting ad hominem with ad hominum is not leveling the playing field, it is childish.

Barb said...

CA, are you saying that the professor is being childish? I think not. I think atheists should wonder about the possible connection ---that there is an authority and respect lack arising out of conflict with one's father--whether or not the father is religious.

as for a level playing field, I don't know who said it here without reviewing -- the prof? his point would be that cynics about religion, atheists, etc., do suggest that there are psychological "weaknesses" in people which incline them to be believers. They believe because they fear death without hope; they believe because they are simply afraid not to. They believe because they need a crutch through life. ETC.

As for fear, I agree that "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." And truly we all do NEED the Savior and His forgivness, crutch or not.

But now we see this strong common denominator in the famous atheists. Are we to put NO stock in it? say it bears no relevance to the topic?

Rob R said...

The playing field never needed to be leveled..
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I suppose not. Nothing wrong with doing so though.
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A claim that someone believes or disbelieves in God for some psychological reason is an ad hominem attack in the first place,.
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no, a relevent ad hominem attack would be to say that because someone has psychological reasons for what they believe (regardless of other reasons) they are automatically wrong. Vitz didn't make that argument. As Vitz explained, some atheists may have rational thought processes behind their atheism, but that doesn't mean that the non-rational ones aren't there. We should also be especially interested in the role that psychological processes play in leading someone to pursue the reasons behind one thought system or another.

I have psychological reasons for some of the things I believe and have believed (birth order is relevent). But I would insist that much of what I assert is supported by rational reasoning as well.
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rebutting ad hominem with ad hominum is not leveling the playing field, it is childish.Vitz and I would agree and we've made clear that these issues should not be extended in an ad hominem way. If you think we have, that would have to be demonstrated.

Christian Apologist said...

I think the real question you should ask yourself Rob is whether or not this is a good apologetic. If you are going to bring it up in a discussion with an athiest you should ask yourself whether it is affective towards winning the heart and mind of the other person over to your point of view. As Ravi Zacharias likes to say "It is pointless to offer someone a rose after you have cut off their nose." Bringing someones relationship with their father into the equation of a philosophical debate is one sure way to evoke anger in the other person. Once a person is angry at you they are no longer listening to what you have to say. So in the end whether the assertion is true or not it is pointless and destructive to bring it up.

Barb said...

I'm not sure any of us would bring this up in a witnessing exchange with an atheist --I can imagine, however, if the talk was friendly and mutually respectful that one might ask, "Do you get along with your father?" And then explain that this condition of dislike for one's father has been noticed as common among atheists.

The statistical conclusion that many prominent atheists lacked respect for their fathers may contribute to someone's self-knowledge and insight and ultimately his faith. It makes sense to ask, "Why don't I believe?" as much as to ask, "Why do I believe?"

Jeanette said...

I don't have the patience or time to watch an hour video on the computer, so I admit to not watching it. I just get bored watching something on a computer for that long and it has nothing to do with this post.

I find that the people I am unable to witness to effectively are atheists. If someone is an agnostic or had religious training as a child and left for some reason, I can talk to them and reason with them.

I've led people to Christ and have had people tell me I was their role model for Christianity. If only they really knew how weak in the flesh I am.

I don't understand their scientific arguments and can't answer with a scientific answer because I accepted Christ just the way I was. I was young and strayed or backslid a couple of times, but always someone was there to put me on the straight and narrow path. I praise God for that. He wouldn't let me go.

But, I cannot relate to someone who has made up his mind God is just a figment of our imagination, so I have to leave that to people who have been there or who have a gift I do not possess.

I never had a father until I was 54 years old, and by then I was already saved. I did have wonderful people who raised me and made sure I went to every church service even if I was sick.

I remember one Sunday I got up with an upset stomach. I was told I had to go to church, and I sat next to one of the prominent members of our community while she held me to her side. She was an elderly woman. All of a sudden, I vomited all over her brand new coat. She didn't get angry at me, but she got angry at my great-aunt for sending me to church sick.

I don't know who or how they cleaned up the mess, but my great-aunt had to pick up the cleaning bill. But I digress, and do that often. :-)

Rob R said...

I think the real question you should ask yourself Rob is whether or not this is a good apologetic..
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I think it can be a helpful part of a defense of the faith, but of course defending the faith doesn't speak to our whole task of knowing God, ourselves, and the situation we find ourselves in, and to that it is a very potentially helpful observation.

Reasons for this have been mentioned. 1) it shows one possible connection between our relationships and our spirituality. 2) It demonstrates that even those who assert themselves as champions of reason have psychological reasons behind their allegedly rational beliefs. Again, that's not to say that they are irrational, but whether they are or aren't, their beliefs nevertheless have an emotional component that should be examined.
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If you are going to bring it up in a discussion with an athiest you should ask yourself whether it is affective towards winning the heart and mind of the other person over to your point of view..
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I can't know what will win the heart and mind of any particular atheist. And as surely as they have free will, no argument made can guarantee a change, and no botched discussion can fully hold the blame for their outlook. Furthermore, everyone's different. This may be helpful for some. It may not be immediately helpful. But if they have this in their background, full redemption will entail at least forgiveness for their father and better yet, reconciliation as well.Best of all would include redemption of the father as well. Perhaps if they seek to make amends with their fathers first, living for God may become more of a live possibility. I think it could go that way, though some emphasis on depravity would suggest otherwise.
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Bringing someones relationship with their father into the equation of a philosophical debate is one sure way to evoke anger in the other person..
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It isn't necessary to bring that person's father into the debate. We know that psychological precursors and the lack of them do not always determine what they may typically lead to. This has all been general. Now if speaking of the generalities leads one to reflect on his own situation, there's nothing wrong with that and there's everything right with that. It's not always enough to go over the reasons for which one perceives to be behind their conclusions. Often, it's also important to see how our beliefs fit within the narratives of our lives.

Of course I don't advocate shouting at someone "well, you hate your father!" Just about any truth can be used destructively and again, for that individual, it may not be true.
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Once a person is angry at you they are no longer listening to what you have to say..
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Sometimes this is true sometimes not. What inflames a person one day may still be pondered in the late hours of the night and may contribute to new possibilities in their personal journey.

Rob R said...

Jeanette, you can follow the link at the end of my post for a write up on much of Vitz's picture.

Also, much of the middle of the video is a lot of biographical evidence demonstrating Vitz's picture. I think you could get a lot out of this video if you just at least the first 15 to 20 minutes, take a break and watch the last 20 -25 minutes.

AndThenSome said...

Perhaps I can make things interesting from the outset by saying I am an atheist who has a "less than ideal" relationship with my father.

I think Barb is right in saying we shouldn't discount our relationship with our father or parents as a factor in our psychological development. One should always be willing to understand who we are and how we came to be that way, and what our true motivations are for a particular point of view or attitude.

I'm not saying that my relationship with my father lead to atheism; I think it's much more complicated than that, and most people, I think, would agree. It is an interesting connection, however, that hopefully will be investigated more thoroughly.

While a troubled relationship with one's father is regrettable, if the result is the tendency to reject supernatural claims and superstition, there may be a silver lining after all.

Rob R said...

Thanks for your thoughts and your open mind to this.
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While a troubled relationship with one's father is regrettable, if the result is the tendency to reject supernatural claims and superstition, there may be a silver lining after all..
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I would thinks it's a thin silver lining though. Given that relationships are a major part of what gives our lives meaning and given the importance of the relationship of parent to children, even if atheism were true, I suspect that it would be better to be a deceived theist with a good relationship with one's parents than have knowledge of the atheistic claim and a significantly troubled relationship with one's father.

Then again, knowing the truth gives our lives meaning, and that may balance things out, but I would suggest that not just any truth would give the same degree of meaning. The claim that there is nothing more than matter and energy is not the wellspring of meaning that the claim that we are designed after a divine pattern and that the designer has much more in store for us including healing for the injuries of our scarred relationships.

Barb said...

for andthensome

Without looking up definitions --I think superstitions are not grounded in reality or truth --whereas supernatural claims might be.

Rejecting supernatural claims would not be a silver lining to a poor father-child relationship if there is essential truth in the supernatural claim, would it?

kateb said...

Atheism is one of the strongest forms of faith out there. It is the faith and the doctrine that there is no deity.

Some confuse Agnosticism with Atheism. Agnostics arenot committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god. (information from m-w.com)

But I always get a little giggle when an Atheist attacks people of 'faith' because they are as fervent in their beliefs as Christians are. The difference is that Christians have a rule that they are not permitted to force their religion on others. Many Atheists are abusive in forcing their faith on others.

I guess it's an issue of respect. Some have respect for others and differing view points and some people are just disrespectful and intolerant.

Barb said...

The issue of "forcing faith" is confused with proseletyzing and sharing one's faith. Atheists do want to impose a rigid secularism on public events and public property --to please themselves --to favor THEIR non-belief, their UN-religion--in the name of a twisted view of church-state separation. They are VERY irritable in the presence of believers and their beliefs --to the point of hostility, insults and legal harrassment via ACLU and PAW lawsuits.