Around 10 years ago Paul Johnson wrote an interesting book entitled Intellectuals. In it he looked at the personal lives of some famous Western thinkers, such as Rosseau and Marx. He noted that many of these great intellectuals had private lives that left a lot to be desired. He noted, in other words, a connection between belief and behaviour.
In this new book Paul Vitz provides a similar kind of study. He examines the lives of a number of well known atheists, and discovers that most of them had an absent or abusive father. He argues that those who have had poor relations with their earthly father also tend to have had a poor image of their heavenly father.
Vitz first examines those atheists whose fathers died when they were relatively young; atheists such as Nietzsche, Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Then he assesses atheists who had weak or abusive fathers, eg., Voltaire, Feuerbach and Freud. Finally, as a control group, he studies some notable theists and their fathers; men such as Edmund Burke, Pascal, Chesterton and John Henry Newman.
These psychological profiles make a strong case for his main thesis: fathers matter, and the worldview we carry with us into adulthood is largely determined in childhood. With the resurgence of the fatherhood movement, especially in America, this is all the more timely. Ideas do have consequences, and our ideas are heavily influenced by our upbringing. Thus the importance of a good upbringing: one that includes a mother and a father.
Vitz warns about over-simplification, and recognises that there are a multitude of factors that explain or determine how we develop. However, the fact that so many atheists have similar background does make for an intriguing hypothesis. And the details Vitz provides are quite revealing. Consider but a few examples.
H.G.Wells was contemptuous of both his father and God. He wrote this in his autobiography: “My father was always at cricket, and I think [mum] realized more and more acutely as the years dragged on without material alleviation, that Our Father and Our Lord, on whom to begin with she had perhaps counted unduly, were also away: playing perhaps at their own sort of cricket in some remote quarter of the starry universe”.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s father died when he was just 15 months old. Throughout much of his adult life he mentions fathers, and denigrates fatherhood. His philosophy promotes the idea that man can become God, that we are self-made men. More than one biographer has noted his obsession about fathers and his atheism may well tie in to his own absent father.
According to her son (who later became a Christian), Madalyn Murray O’Hair intensely hated her father. In his memoirs, he records an ugly fight in which she tried to kill her father with a ten-inch butcher knife. She failed but screamed, “I’ll see you dead. I’ll get you yet. I’ll walk on your grave!” Her son says he does not understand why she so hated her father.
While Vitz does note some exceptions to the pattern, he emphasises the fact that this missing ingredient of fatherhood does have a profound impact on the way a person develops and what they believe in. Vitz concludes: “Since both believers and nonbelievers in God have psychological reasons for their position . in any debate as to the truth of the existence of God, psychology should be irrelevant”. Truth, facts, and the evidence should decide that question, not personality. However, “it seems clear from the kinds of evidence I have cited that many an intense personal ‘reason’ lies behind the public rejection of God. . . . Aside from the common superficial reasons, most serious unbelievers are likely to have painful memories underlying their rationalization of atheism. Such interior wounds are not irrelevant and need to be fully appreciated and addressed by believers”.
As this book makes clear, there is a real correlation between personal psycho-history and belief systems. Of course such childhood backgrounds are not fully determinative: people can and do change, rising above their circumstances and backgrounds. However, this book helps us to understand the passion and vehemence of some atheists, and shows us that philosophies can be as much a product of our social background as of hard reasoning.