Psychology of atheism

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The perverse and cruel atheist Marquis de Sade in prison, 18th century line engraving. See: Atheism and morality

Concerning the psychology of atheism, there are a number of causes of atheism.

The history of the atheist community and various studies concerning the atheist community point to moral decline being a causal factor for atheism (see: Atheist population and immorality and Atheism and morality).[1]

The Christian Post reports about the Christian philosopher James S. Spiegel's book The Making of an Atheist:

Spiegel, who converted to Christianity in 1980, has witnessed the pattern among several of his friends. Their path from Christianity to atheism involved: moral slippage (such as infidelity, resentment or unforgiveness); followed by withdrawal from contact with fellow believers; followed by growing doubts about their faith, accompanied by continued indulgence in the respective sin; and culminating in a conscious rejection of God.[2]
See also: Atheism and unforgiveness

The atheist philosopher Michael Martin declared in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism:

Continuity and discontinuity in any identity may be a function of interpersonal networks, especially involving intimate relations. Apostasy and conversion can both be seen as a rejection of parental identity and parental beliefs. It “might well be symptomatic of familial strain and dissociation... apostasy is to be viewed as a form of rebellion against parents” (Caplovitz and Sherrow, 1977:50).[3]

In 2012, a Georgetown University study was published indicating that only about 30 percent of those who grow up in an atheist household remain atheists as adults.[4] See also: Atheism and its retention rate in individuals and Atheism and marriage

A troubled/non-existent relationship with a father is theorized to influence a person to become an atheist.[5]

The Daily Mail reported that a study conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Religion News Service found that "children raised by divorced parents are more likely than children whose parents are married to be non-religious as adults."[6]

Dr. Paul Vitz wrote a book entitled Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism in which he points out that after studying the lives of more than a dozen leading atheists he found that a large majority of them had a father who was present but weak, present but abusive, or absent.[7][8] Dr. Vitz also examined the lives of prominent theists who were contemporaneous to their atheist counterparts and from the same culture and in every instance these prominent theists had a good relationship with his father.[9] Dr. Vitz has also stated other common factors he observed in the leading atheists he profiled: they were all intelligent and arrogant.[10]

Vitz argues that the defective/absent father theory as a cause of atheism best fits cases where people are militant/intense atheists and that his theory applies in at least 50% of these instances (Vitz does believe in free will and therefore a person with a defective father is not necessarily going to become an atheist).[11][12][13]

The book Atheist Persona: Causes and Consequences by John J. Pasquini, Th.D. indicates that many of the prominent atheists (and prominent practical atheists) who had dysfunctional/absent fathers that he lists in his book also had dysfunctional/absent mothers.[14] See also: Atheism and poor relationships with parents and Irreligion and domestic violence

The General Social Survey (GSS) data on atheism uses a broad definition of atheism which can include agnostics.[15]

The abstract for journal article An Assessment of the Role of Early Parental Loss in the Adoption of Atheism or Irreligion by Frank L. Pasquale indicates:

Early parental loss or trauma has been proposed by some as a significant factor in the adoption of atheist, non-theist, or irreligious worldviews. Relevant empirical data, however, have been limited, impressionistic, methodologically questionable, or limited to historically prominent figures. Survey data from the GSS and a study of affirmatively non-theistic and irreligious secular group affiliates in the U.S. do not provide evidence of disproportionately high rates of early parental loss among individuals who describe themselves as “atheist(ic)” or “anti-religious,” reject belief in God, or express strong anger about religion. Loss of a parent or other loved may play a role in turns toward, as well as away from, God and religion for some. There is also evidence of comparatively high rates of parental loss in the lives of historically prominent figures, both religious and non-religious. Present results, however, do not support the hypothesis that early loss is a disproportionately frequent experience in the lives of (“ordinary”) atheistic or irreligious people.[16]

As far as Pasquale's study and his conclusions, as noted above, Vitz indicates that his defective/absent father theory best fits intense atheists and that his theory is not universally applicable to all atheists.

Psychology of atheism: Lack of significant study by psychologists about atheism

Dr. Melanie Brewster gave a talk entitled Why is Psychology Silent When it Comes to Atheism? and she indicated there is a general reluctance of psychologists to study the atheist population.[17]

Dr. Paul Vitz on the psychology of atheism

Dr. Paul Vitz indicates these are the primary factors involved relating to the psychology of atheism: social and personal motives (general socialization, specific socialization, personal convenience) and psychoanalytic motives.[18]

In addition, Vitz declares in an essay entitled The Psychology of Atheism:

The title of this paper, "The Psychology of Atheism," may seem strange. Certainly, my psychological colleagues have found it odd and even, I might add, a little disturbing. After all, psychology, since its founding roughly a century ago, has often focused on the opposite topic-namely the psychology of religious belief. Indeed, in many respects the origins of modern psychology are intimately bound up with the psychologists who explicitly proposed interpretations of belief in God.

William James and Sigmund Freud, for example, were both personally and professionally deeply involved in the topic. Recall The Will to Believe by James, as well as his still famous Varieties of Religious Experience. These two works are devoted to an attempt at understanding belief as the result of psychological, that is natural, causes. James might have been sympathetic to religion, but his own position was one of doubt and skepticism and his writings were part of psychology's general undermining of religious faith. As for Sigmund Freud, his critiques of religion, in particular Christianity, are well known and will be discussed in some detail later. For now, it is enough to remember how deeply involved 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. At the very least such a project puts many psychologists on the defensive and gives them some taste of their own medicine. Psychologists are always observing and interpreting others and it is high time that some of them learn from their own personal experience what it is like to be put under the microscope of psychological theory and experiment. Regardless, I hope to show that the 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.

Before beginning, however, I wish to make two points bearing on the underlying assumption of my remarks. First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but-in a general sense- can be called psychological. I do not wish to offend the many distinguished philosophers-both believers and nonbelievers-in this audience, but I am quite convinced that for every person strongly swayed by rational argument there are many, many more affected by nonrational psychological factors.

The human heart-no one can truly fathom it or know all its deceits, but at least it is the proper task of the psychologist to try. Thus, to begin, I propose that neurotic psychological barriers to belief in God are of great importance. What some of these might be I will mention shortly. For believers, therefore, it is important to keep in mind that psychological motives and pressures that one is often unaware of, often lie behind unbelief.

One of the earliest theorists of the unconscious, St. Paul, wrote, "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it . . . I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind . . ." (Rom. 7:18, 23). Thus, it seems to me sound theology as well as sound psychology that psychological factors can be impediments to belief as well as behavior, and that these may often be unconscious factors as well. Further, as a corollary it is reasonable to propose that people vary greatly in the extent to which these factors are present in their lives. Some of us have been blessed with an upbringing, a temperament, social environment, and other gifts that have made belief in God a much easier thing than many who have suffered more or have been raised in a spiritually impoverished environment or had other difficulties with which to cope. Scripture makes it clear that many children-even into the third or fourth generation-suffer from the sins of their fathers, including the sins of fathers who may have been believers. In short, my first point is that some people have much more serious psychological barriers to belief than others, a point consistent with the scriptures' clear statement that we are not to judge others, however much we are called to correct evil.

My second point as qualification is that in spite of serious difficulties to belief, all of us still have a free choice to accept God or reject Him. This qualification is not in contradiction to the first. Perhaps a little elaboration will make this clearer. One person, as a consequence of his particular past, present environment, etc., may find it much harder than most people to believe in God. But presumably, at any moment, certainly at many times, he can choose to move toward God or to move away. One man may start with so many barriers that even after years of slowly choosing to move toward God he may still not be there. Some may die before they reach belief. We assume they will be judged-like all of us- on how far they traveled toward God and how well they loved others-on how well they did with what they had. Likewise, another man without psychological difficulties at all is still free to reject God, and no doubt many do. Thus, although the ultimate issue is one of the will and our sinful nature, it is still possible to investigate those psychological factors that predispose one to unbelief, that make the road to belief in God especially long and hard.[19]

Sigmund Freud's view of religion

Sigmund Freud in his laboratory

See also: Sigmund Freud's view of religion

Psychologist Sigmund Freud was a proponent of atheism who argued that theism was detrimental to mental health.[20] Oxford Professor Alister McGrath, author of the book The Twilight of Atheism, stated the following regarding Freud:

One of the most important criticisms that Sigmund Freud directed against religion was that it encourages unhealthy and dysfunctional outlooks on life. Having dismissed religion as an illusion, Freud went on to argue that it is a negative factor in personal development. At times, Freud's influence has been such that the elimination of a person's religious beliefs has been seen as a precondition for mental health.

Freud is now a fallen idol, the fall having been all the heavier for its postponement. There is now growing awareness of the importance of spirituality in health care, both as a positive factor in relation to well-being and as an issue to which patients have a right. The "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School in 1998 brought reports that 86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of HMO professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process.[20]

Freud remains popular among postmodern literary academics, who use his anti-Christian pseudoscience as a basis for their own anti-Christianity and moral relativism, even though his theories were disproved decades ago.

Books on the psychology of atheism

See also: Books on the causes of atheism

  • Atheist Persona: Causes and Consequences by John J. Pasquini, Th.D, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Published: April 15, 2014, ISBN 0761863311; ISBN 978-0761863311
  • The Psychology of Atheism by R. C Sproul, Bethany Fellowship; 1st edition (1974), ISBN-10: 0871234599
  • Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism by Paul Vitz, Ignatius Press; 2 edition (October 18, 2013), ISBN-10: 1586176870

See also

External links

Videos on the psychology of atheism:


  1. Christian Philosopher Explores Causes of Atheism
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin, page 302, published in 2006
  3. Study: Atheists Have Lowest 'Retention Rate' Compared to Religious Groups
  5. Children who grow up with divorced parents 'are less likely to be religious', Daily Mail
  6. Vitz, Paul, The Psychology of Atheism, September 24, 1997 (lecture notes taken by an audience member).
  7. Anders, Kerby, Atheists and Their Fathers (Probe Ministries)
  10. Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism
  11. Psychology of Atheism by Paul Vitz (lecture at Veritas Forum)
  12. This Father’s Day, hug an atheist! by Joy Overbeck, Centennial Institute, Colorado Christian University
  13. Atheist Persona: Causes and Consequences by John J. Pasquini, 2014, University Press of America, page 3
  14. How Many Americans are Atheists? Fewer than You Might Think by Bradley Wright, January 26, 2012
  15. An Assessment of the Role of Early Parental Loss in the Adoption of Atheism or Irreligion by Frank L. Pasquale1
  16. Why is Psychology Silent When it Comes to Atheism? - Dr. Melanie Brewster - Skepticon 7
  17. Psychology of atheism by Paul Vitz
  18. Psychology of atheism by Paul Vitz
  19. 20.0 20.1 McGrath, Alister (February 28, 2005). "The twilight of atheism". Christianity Today website. Retrieved on May 23, 2015.