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What Would Father Do?

A Review of Faithof the Fatherless by Paul C. Vitz

by Roger Ericson

Image[This review was originally published in Volume 8, Number 2, of Skeptic magazine.]

In Faithof the Fatherless [Hardcover, Paperback], Paul C. Vitz joins the ranks of Michael Behe (Darwin'sBlack Box [Hardcover, Paperback]) and Michael Drosnin (The Bible Code [Hardcover, Paperback]) in his attempt to use science and reason to support his belief in biblical stories. Oddly enough, he actually disproves his own theory without ever seeming to realize it.

According to the book jacket, Vitz is a psychology professor at New York University and a former atheist. The premise behind the book is that adults reject God as the result of being disgruntled children. Not only is this hypothesis insulting to those of us who came to a point of non-belief as the result of careful study and consideration, but Vitz offers little proof for his assertion. Like many Christian apologists, he resorts instead to misrepresentations, poor logic, and ad hominem attacks in which he characterizes atheists as being arrogant and immoral. At one point he even owns up to this by stating that "psychological arguments are all ad hominem."

Nevertheless, as a psychologist, he feels that his argument is warranted so that Christians might genuinely "reach such people" [non-believers]. If the reader is hoping for an objective psychoanalysis of the atheist mind, the preface alone is enough to dispel the notion that Vitz has any intention of putting his religious bias aside. In the first paragraph he clearly reveals his agenda by repeating the popular right-wing myth that "God has been banished...in today's high schools." As a public high school teacher, I know for a fact that this statement is completely unwarranted. God is in abundant supply in public schools. The vast majority of teachers are theists. Jesus T-shirts, WWJD ("What Would Jesus Do?") bracelets, and crucifix jewelry are common place. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Bible Clubs and Prayer-around-the-flag-pole gatherings can be found in many schools, yet Vitz goes on to say, "The rejection of God in our public schools is just one example of the triumph of atheism." A few paragraphs later, Vitz states that "well over" 90 percent of Americans believe in God, yet just a few sentences prior to that, he states that atheism is the "predominant public assumption." Is Vitz unfamiliar with the definition of "atheist"? How can a belief held by less than 10 percent of the public be considered the "predominant public assumption"?

By quoting Voltaire's line, "Don't tell the servants that there is no God, or they will steal the silver," Vitz attempts to support his notion that athiests are immoral. Apparently Vitz is unaware of Voltaire's sarcastic nature, and fails to note that it is not the intelligentsia that Voltaire thinks need a God figure to keep them straight, but the servants, the lower class of his day. Later Vitz tries to prove the rationality of his beliefs by stating that it is logically impossible to prove the non-existence of God. This is certainly true, just as it is true that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of Santa Claus, but I have yet to hear anyone use this as a reason to believe a bearded man traverses the entire world on a single night with the help of eight reindeer.

To support his theory that atheists are simply rebelling against their parents, Vitz begins by creating a twist on Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex. Although finding little merit in any of Freud's work, he does manage to support Freud when it suits his own hypothesis. For instance, he states, "His [Freud] critical attitude towards and rejection of religion are rooted in his personal predilections, and his interpretation of religion is a kind of meta-psychoanalysis, or framework, that is not supported by specifically clinical concepts." Then he goes on to state, "Nevertheless, Freud is quite right to consider that a belief might be an illusion because it derives from powerful wishes or unconscious, childish needs. The irony is that he inadvertently provides a powerful new way to understand an illusion as the psychological basis for rejecting God-that is a projection theory of atheism." To summarize Vitz's projection theory of atheism, it is his assertion that, whereas Freud believed that little boys wanted to kill their fathers, Vitz believes that little boys don't want to kill them, but simply reject them if they are unworthy. He then makes the enormous leap in logic that a child views his father as a god figure, therefore disliking an abusive or absent father will cause the child to become an atheist. So one must wonder, is this theory "supported by specifically clinical concepts?"

If so, then Vitz fails to offer any. Instead he offers a handful of atheist's biographies as his support. In fact when he runs short on atheists, he throws in a couple of deists as well, making it clear that it is not the rejection of every god that Vitz's hypothesis refers to, only the Christian God. Vitz refers to a total of 20 different atheists and attempts to draw parallels among them by offering a one page summary of each. He divides them into two groups. The first group is comprised of atheists whose fathers either died or abandoned the family while the atheist was a child. The second group refers to atheists whose fathers were either abusive or weak. Of course there are numerous problems with this evidence. First, and most apparent is his hasty generalization. Twenty people certainly do not accurately represent a group comprised of millions, and a one page synopsis of a person's life certainly isn't enough information from which to draw a conclusion about his or her entire belief system. In addition, what we find is that only a few of Vitz's atheists share any one aspect of childhood. Perhaps, if he could find a large group of athiests in which all had fathers who abandoned them, or all had fathers who were abusive, then perhaps he could at least show a common denominator, but Vitz mixes children whose fathers died, with those who abandoned the family out of freewill. Does this NYU psychologist really believe that these are equal offenses to a child? Would the average child hold the same animosity toward a deceased parent as to one who had left the family willingly?

Vitz commits the same mistake with the second group as well, combining those who had abusive fathers, with those who were raised by weak fathers. It is also interesting to note what Vitz considers abusive. In the case of Jean Meslier, Vitz claims that his father was abusive because he "forced" him to become a priest. In the case of H.G. Wells, he assumes that because his father was a poor businessmen and weak husband, that the younger Wells rejected him, and he assumes that Voltaire hated his father simply because Voltaire changed his name.

It is interesting that Vitz seems not to have noticed one overwhelming similiarity among the majority of people on his list-most of them were raised by Christians. Would this not be a more appropriate aspect to compare? The average Christian is never aware of the many contradictions, and scientific errors found in the Bible. Most of them have never heard about the heinous and murderous tales committed by Jehovah and his people that are found throughout the Bible. Sunday School teachers tend to overlook these parts, but to a child who has taken the time to really study the Bible, not abandoning it would seem less likely because the Bible does not hold up to honest scrutiny. I find it much more reasonable to believe that this common denominator has far more relevance to the abandonment of the Christian God by such people as Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Butler, David Hume, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, etc., than to think it had anything to do with their fathers.

Even more interesting is that in Vitz's list of famous religionists, he offers as more proof the fact that all these believers had a good childhood. The irony is that many on his list were fatherless at an early age as well. He does make a half-hearted attempt to justify this inconsistency by claiming that each one had a father figure that stepped in and took the place of the missing biological father. The problem is that he completely ignores that the same may have been true of many of the fatherless non-believers as well.

At one point, Vitz uses another old stand-by apologist technique by claiming that atheists aren't really atheists because they worship such things as reason, science, and even themselves. Perhaps I'm out of the loop, but I have yet to come across the local First Science Church, or hear of any religious gatherings comprised of the Southern Reason Convention. Nor have I seen non-theists wearing gold necklace charms depicting themselves being executed on a cross. If Vitz's definition of god is so broad, then certainly anything can be considered a god and therefore none of us have rejected god, which of course makes his hypothesis irrelevent.

Towards the end of the book, Vitz desperately tries one last futile attempt using the guilt by association technique, and claims that Mao Tse-tung and Adolf Hitler were atheists. Not only is this completely irrelevant, but the odd thing is that there is no evidence that this is true. In fact, in Hitler's case there is good reason to assume he was quite religious, considering that in Mein Kampf he makes refernces to his "Eternal Creator," was once an altar boy, and considered Jews to be the killers of God.

In the next to last chapter, Vitz discusses his own former atheism, and states that the cause of his non-belief was due to his desire to "fit in" in college, and to advance his career. If his reasoning for abandoning the religion of his childhood was so shallow, it is no wonder that his logic and reasoning skills now come through as being so poor.

It would be interesting to hear Vitz explain why many atheists have siblings who are believers. According to his theory two children raised in the same environment should choose the same beliefs. Another interesting hole I'd like for him so sew up is why it is that he and other Christians reject a belief in every other god. Should we assume that all monotheists were abused by their fathers simply because of their rejection of Allah, Baal, Zeus or countless other gods? Faith of the Fatherless is yet more evidence that religious indoctrination hinders critical thinking skills. Perhaps if nothing else this book will encourage the reader to study the works of the freethinkers mentioned, such as Voltaire's PhilosophicalDictionary, David Hume's AnInquiry Concerning Human Understanding, or Bertrand Russell's Religionand Science.



The text of this essay is Copyright © 2001, by Skeptic magazine. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission. The Internet Infidels wish to express our deep gratitude to Skeptic magazine for granting us permission to republish this book review.

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