The Psychology of Atheism


In this article, I’m going to try to examine the claim that Religion is nothing more than a type of comfort blanket that people hold on to in order to face the hardships of everyday life. It is a common claim made by many prominent Atheists today, and it is a claim that ought to be seriously examined. What I aim to show is that if religion is indeed a mere comfort blanket for believers around the world, then, by the atheist’s own criteria, atheism itself has deep psychological roots that manifest themselves in the atheist’s rejection of the divine.

The argument about religion

The argument that religion is a projection of our subconscious desires into the word itself originates from the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach, in essence, argued that “what man misses- whether this be an articulate and therefore conscious, or an unconscious, need- that is his God” (p. 33) He argued that “man projects his nature into the world outside himself before he finds it in himself.” (p. 11) and that “to live in projected dream-images is the essence of religion. Religion sacrifices reality to the projected dream”(p.49). The essence of his teaching is that humanity constructed its own religious ideals for its own convenience and consolation.

However, it wasn’t until Sigmund Freud’s The Future of an illusion that this view gained wide popularity. Here he wrote that “Religious ideas have arisen from the same needs as have all the other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushingly superior force of nature.”(p. 21) Therefore, religious beliefs are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection-for protection through love-which was provided by the father . . .Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life” (p. 30).

The first thing one should note when one reads Freud is that, as I pointed out in my previous blog, he commits the Genetic fallacy. This line of argumentation goes something like this:

(1) The development of the human mind through natural history has provided those minds with a number of special properties

(2) When considering the natural and social world, these properties encourage humans to believe in gods

(3)Therefore, the development of human minds has produced belief in gods (i.e., God

(4) Therefore, belief in gods is false. An accident of Evolution).

Truth or falsity of a belief

This type of reasoning aims to argue for the truth or falsity of a belief simply from considerations of the origin of the belief itself. But, of course, perfectly true beliefs can emerge even from crazy sources. To see that this reasoning is faulty, imagine you telling someone that you believe democracy is the best system of government. The person you’re talking to, however, replies that the only reason you believe that is because you were born in a democratic country, and thus, democracy is not the best system of government. Of course, this line of reasoning is invalid, and so too is the type of reasoning used against the existence of God based on how it is that you arrived at your beliefs. One quick point on this should suffice, and this is one point made by William Lane Craig “Let’s look at the argument again, taking out the underlined word ‘Gods’ and replacing it with any of the following: ‘human minds, rocks, rainbows, the past, that science can discover the truth’, etc. Surely the conclusion of the argument in each case seems wrong. Human minds naturally form beliefs in those things and in doing so, we think, they get things right. So why not conclude that they get things right when it comes to belief in God? What makes this case different? One could say: “Well because religious belief is false.” But that is not much of an argument, it just begs the question.”

No God SignSo, we can see that Freud’s argument does nothing to answer the question of the existence of God. At most, what he has engaged with is religious epistemology, that is, he has at most explained how it is that we could have acquired a belief in a God, but he hasn’t actually done anything to show why belief in the existence of God isn’t warranted, and neither has he shown that God’s existence is improbable or impossible. He has simply started out with the assumption that God does not exist, and proceeded to argue full circle until he came back to his starting assumption.

However, even if we ignore his fallacious reasoning, isn’t it possible that belief in God really is caused by a longing for a father figure? After all, I know many people who have personally admitted to me that their belief gives them strength, that without God, their lives would crumble and would lose
all meaning. So it seems like there is some truth to what Freud observed. Yet, we can ask, is it possible that atheism itself comes from a deep, unconscious childish longing? The psychologist Paul Vitz argues yes.

Oedipus Complex

One of the central concepts in Freud’s work was the so-called Oedipus complex. In psychoanalytic theory, the Oedipus complex is a group of largely unconscious (dynamically repressed) ideas and feelings which center around the desire to possess the parent of the opposite sex and eliminate the parent of the same sex. The essential features are as follows: “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.

According to Freud “The Oedipus complex is never truly resolved, and is capable of activation at later periods-almost always, for example, at puberty. Thus the powerful ingredients of murderous hate and of incestuous sexual desire within a family context are never in fact removed. Instead, they are covered over and repressed. Freud expresses the neurotic potential of this situation: The Oedipus complex is the actual nucleus of neuroses . . . What
remains of the complex in the unconscious represents the disposition to the later development of neuroses in the adult. In short, all human neuroses derive from this complex. Obviously, in most cases, this potential is not expressed in any seriously neurotic manner. Instead, it shows up in attitudes toward authority, in dreams, slips of the tongue, transient irrationalities, etc.

What the psychologist Paul Vitz argues is that “In postulating a universal Oedipus complex as the origin of all our neuroses, Freud inadvertently developed a straightforward rationale for understanding the wish-fulfilling origin of rejecting God. After all, the Oedipus complex is unconscious, it is
established in childhood and, above all, its dominant motive is hatred of the father and the desire for him not to exist, especially as represented by the desire to overthrow or kill the father. Freud regularly described God as a psychological equivalent to the father, and so a natural expression of Oedipal motivation would be powerful, unconscious desires for the nonexistence of God. Therefore, in the Freudian framework, atheism is an illusion caused by the Oedipal desire to kill the father and replace him with oneself. To act as if God does not exist is an obvious, not so subtle disguise for a wish to kill Him, much the same way as in a dream, the image of a parent going away or disappearing can represent such a wish: “God is dead” is simply an
undisguised Oedipal wish-fulfillment.”

He goes on to argue that the Oedipal dream is not only to kill the father and possess the mother or other women in the group but to also displace him, and we can see evidence of this in certain humanistic philosophies that place man at the top and as the sole arbiter of what is good and evil. (I’m
aware that not all humanistic philosophies elevate man, for example, Peter Singer is an Atheist and he argues vehemently that any attempt to
elevate man above the animals is speciecism that must be done away with), yet still, one can see the outcome of this desire to replace the father figure and put man at the top in many non-theistic religions and secular philosophies.

Much of Vitz’s scholarly work has been on this psychoanalytic theory of atheism, which he calls “The theory of the defective father” One should note that it was Freud, not Vitz, who made the connection between one’s father and God. Freud wrote:

“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 down”

Vitz comments that “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. 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.

In order for his hypothesis to work, he must find instances in the lives of many prominent atheists in which they expressed their dislike, hatred, or talked about the absence of their fathers in their homes, and Vitz finds many in the lives of some of the biggest names in the history of atheism. I will not over all of them to save space, but if however reads this is interesting, I’ll post the citations to his published work so you can read more on this.

A few examples should suffice: “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.

Ludwig Feuerbach’s father did something that very easily could have deeply hurt his son. When Feuerbach was about 13, his father left his family and openly took up living with another woman in a different town. This was in Germany in the early 1800s and such a public rejection would have been a scandal and deeply rejecting young Ludwig-and, of course, to his mother and the other children.

Madalyn-Murray-OHairLet 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. The hatred between my grandmother 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!”

The names are many, Baron d’Holbach (Orphan by the age of 13), Bertrand Russell (his father died when he was 4 years old), Nietzsche (his father died when he was 4 years old), Sartre (his father died before he was even born), Camus (his father died when he was a 1 year old).

Of course, much more evidence would be needed in order to provide strong credence to this theory, but the point is absolutely clear, if belief in God is nothing more than a desire for a father figure, then atheism is nothing more than a desire to kill that father figure.

“Finally, 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.”

The reason this view struck so close to home is that it is something that I slowly came to realize. One of the biggest motivators in my life
for rejecting belief in God did not start out as intellectual exercises, but an emotional rejection of God. As some of my friends know, my father suffered from a stroke when I was six years old. I remember that day vividly, I remember the precise spot I was standing in when I saw him being put in an ambulance, and my not knowing what was going on. I remember then being in the hospital on the day they let him go, and seeing his left arm and left leg paralyzed. I remember falling asleep with him in his bed in the following weeks knowing that he couldn’t get up to say goodnight to us in our own rooms. At the time I was too young to ever think about God, or interpret this in any kind of religious connotation. I just remember being thankful he was still alive. My father told us that when he was in the hospital he was given a mere 3 hours to live, but somehow miraculously he survived. This he has always attributed to a miracle, and from that day, he dedicated his entire life to Jesus and to serve only him. My father was a pianist for a big name artist in South America, and for him to turn his back on all that (he made a lot of money) and instead choose to use his gifts
to play in a church band was quite a big thing. I remember in my teenage years becoming quite a rebellious kid, with a particular grudge with God. No longer was I happy that my father was alive, I was pissed off at the thought that my father, such a devout believer did not receive a miracle from God. To this day his left arm and left leg are paralyzed. In my mind, if ever there was one person that deserved a miracle, it was my dad. I was always pissed off every time I heard stories of people being miraculously healed of silly things like colds and back pains whereas here was my dad, in genuine need of a miracle, and nothing. I have to admit that this was one of my principal reasons for first becoming angry at God, and this anger then manifested itself in my intellectual rejection of God. The story of my de-conversion is very complex, but in the back of my mind, that hatred for a God who stood by while one of his servants was incapacitated and could barely walk was one of the biggest reasons for my rejecting Christianity.

This could apply to some atheists, whereas to some other atheists, it may have nothing at all to do with their childhoods, but this is just the same as the claim that belief in God is a desire for a father figure, or a desire for a comfort blanket. Many people have no such desire, many people actually find that religion makes life not easier, but it introduces a dynamic to a life full of obligations towards one another, it provides certain guidelines which no person would willingly choose to impose upon themselves such as restrictions and limitations in your sex life, etc. You cannot have a one size fits all description of why belief in God arises, but once psychologists and atheists start theorizing and speculating, one can find that those very same theories can account for the origin of rebelliousness against a divine figure, a rebelliousness against authority.

As Allister McGrath comments: “Feuerbach argued that humanity constructed its own religious ideals for its convenience and consolation; in Milozs’ argument, we can see the recognition that both beliefs in God and a refusal to believe in God are themselves the result of human longings; the former a consolation and a longing for immortality, and the latter a longing for autonomy and a lack of accountability. Both are opiums of the people, different groups of people, but both needing their respective opiums.”

When it comes to the God question, Thomas Huxley pointed out no decision may be reached on the basis of the evidence available, forcing us to reach one of two conclusions: either no decision can be reached (agnosticism), or a decision is reached on other grounds. A decision Blaise Pascal called ‘reasons of the heart’. It seems to me like Pascal was right.

Ultimately this proves nothing, the actual question of God’s existence cannot be solved by looking at how we ourselves come to believe or disbelieve in him, but it does show that none of us is free from deep psychological influences that can sway our dispositions to either believe or disbelieve. The best we can do is be honest with ourselves and try to judge the evidence on its own merits. There are many people on both camps who have completely closed themselves off to the possibility of their being wrong, and this blog is not meant for them, it is for those who genuinely care about these issues and want to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, not to settle a personal vendetta we may deeply hold for some reason.

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