109 The Atheist Syndrome

While finishing his Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford University, Paul Vitz settled into a comfortable, confirmed atheism–as much for its fashionability as its demonstrability, for the great “taboo” academicians studious respected was “any reference to God” (p. xii). Immersed in a pervasively atheistic academic culture, he simply embraced it. Years later, teaching psychology at New York University, he abandoned his atheism to embrace what he considers a more coherent and meaningful Christian theism. His own journey enables him to evaluate thinkers such as Freud and Nietzsche, Russell and Sartre in Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999).

Vitz upends the “projection” theories of prominent atheists, beginning with Feuerbach, arguing “that atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates” (p. 3). If theism might be a projection of inner longings, of pie-in-the-sky fantasies, so too might atheism. Indeed, one of Freud’s most celebrated ideas, the “Oedipus complex,” provides Vitz a tool whereby one may understand “the wish-fulfilling origin of the rejection of God. After all, the Oedipus complex is unconscious, it is established in childhood, and above all its dominant motive is hated of the father (God) and the desire for him not to exist, something represented by the boy’s 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 (God) and replace him with oneself. To act as though God does not exist reveals a wish to kill Him, much in the same way as in a dream the image of a parent going away or disappearing can represent such as wish. the belief that ‘God is dead,’ therefore, is simply an Oedipal wish-fulfillment–the sign of seriously unresolved unconscious motivation” (p. 13).

Fathers alienate their children in multitudinous ways. Some die, as did the fathers of Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus. Others desert their families. Some collapse in cowardice, frequently allowing their wives to dominate the household. Thomas Hobbes, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Ludwig Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud, and H.G. Wells, had abusive and weak fathers. Vitz labels “these proposed determinants of atheism, taken together, the ‘defective father’ hypothesis” (p. 16), and he explores the biographies of eminent atheists to see if they share this paradigm.

Though most of the thinkers Vitz examined are men, atheistic women such as Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, Madeline Murray O’Hare, and Kate Millett seem similarly affected. There are sexual differences, however. “For men, God seems to function primarily as a principle of justice and order in the world–and only secondarily as a person with whom one has a relationship” (p. 109). Women, on the other hand, primarily treasure relationships, so a poor father debilitates their relationship with God. “We can predict,” Vitz says, “that women will find interpersonal abuse, betrayal, or abandonment by male religious figures (ranging from their fathers, to teachers, ministers, priests, and rabbis) far more disturbing on the average than would men. By contrast, men would be more disturbed at fathers who are weak or unprincipled, at religious or church hypocrisy–at the failure of principle. Thus, theological controversies should be, relatively speaking, more of a masculine preoccupation, while controversies over church policies as they affect lives directly should have a stronger impact on women” (pp. 111-112).

One of modernity’s most influential atheists, Friedrich Nietzsche, lost his father (a Lutheran pastor) shortly before he reached his fifth birthday. Young Nietzsche was deeply attached to his father and was devastated by his death, later lamenting that he “‘missed the strict and superior guidance of a male intellect'” (p. 22). Yet he also despised his father’s physical weakness, tied in his mind with his Christianity. “It is therefore not hard to view Nietzsche’s rejection of God and Christianity as a rejection of the weakness of his father” (p. 23). He thus compensated by celebrating the “will-to-power” and hardness of the “blond beast”–the Ubermensch–illustrating his longing for the strong father he never knew.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s father died which he was 15 months old. Like Nietzsche, he grew up in a largely feminine household. When his mother re-married, when Sartre was 12, he was devastated–and he almost immediately declared that God did not exist. His atheistic existentialism flows from his acknowledgment that: “‘If one discards God the father, there has to be someone to invent values. . . . To say that we invent values means nothing else but this: life has no meaning a priori. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning you choose'” (p. 28). So central was this to Sartre that one of his biographers, Robert Havery, titled his study Search for a Father: Sartre, Paternity and the Question of Ethics.

Prominent theists, on the other hand, enjoyed healthy relationships with admirable fathers, though they lived in precisely the same eras as did their atheistic counterparts. Apparently the times do not dictate metaphysics! Blaise Pascal, home-schooled by his father, astounded both his contemporaries and subsequent generations with his genius. In Pascal one finds one of the most articulate and perennially persuasive presentations of theism. So too George Berkeley! Alexander Pope declared that Berkeley possessed “‘every virtue under heaven'” (p. 61), and no one can question his intellectual prowess. A long list of English theists, including Berkeley, Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, Edmund Burke, William Paley, William Wilberforce, John Henry Newman, and G.K. Chesterton not only shaped their worlds but enjoyed warm relationships with their fathers.

Neither theists nor atheists, of course, are totally shaped by their fathers! A variety of other factors must be considered, not the least being free choice. But Vitz’s thesis, amply illustrated, certainly helps explain part of the atheist syndrome.

Though not acknowledged by Vitz (who’s probably blissfully unaware of evangelical scholarship!), R.C. Sproul argued essentially the same thesis 25 years earlier in The Psychology of Atheism (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., c. 1974). “The central thesis of this book,” he says, “is this: The ‘attractive features of the Christian God that might incline a person to project His existence as a bromide or narcotic to help him face the threatening character of life are not only equalized and neutralized by the threatening features of God but are overwhelmingly outweighed by the traumatic experience of encountering God. Though man may desire and create for himself a deity who meets his needs and provides him with innumerable benefits, he will not desire a God who is holy, omniscient, and sovereign” (p. 10).

After providing a helpful overview of the development of modern atheism, Sproul builds his case upon the classic logical “law of contradiction,” insisting (in accord with Aristotle) that “A cannot be A and non-A at the same time. That is to say “there cannot be God and no God at the same time” (p. 28). At this point, it’s either/or! If God be not, He’s a projection of the human psyche, as Feuerbach and Freud declared. If He truly IS, as theists believe, He exists as the one, ultimate, objective Reality. Atheists who deny God’s reality often project (via subtle theories) their desire to live free from His requirements. For the Christian God, far from resembling a kindly, always affirming grandfather, “is repugnant to man and is not the focus of desire or wish-projection” (p. 57). To avoid this righteous God, sinners repress their natural knowledge of Him and resist revealed truths concerning Him. St Paul asserted that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Rom 1:19), but sinners ignore and look away from what’s plainly evident.

Sproul examines the arguments of Feuerbach, Freud, and Neitzsche, persuasively arguing that the very psychological processes of repression and substitution which they use to discount theism apply with even greater weight to atheism. We’d rather explain away God than submit to Him. We suffer a fundamental “trauma of holiness,” a fearful blow to our pride and self-esteem, when we encounter the God of the Bible. “Absolute holiness, purity, and innocence cannot be tolerated because they are dangerous and destructive” (p. 100). So, with Adam, we turn away from Him, try to hide from Him, deny His authority, flaunting an American Revolutionary War slogan, “We Serve No Sovereign Here!” (p. 137). Free from a Sovereign Lord, we’re free to do as we please! We swallow “the serpentine promise–the promise of blessing that goes with autonomy–sicut erat dei, ‘you will be as god’! This is the essence of the primordial temptation–to be like God–to have no restraints, no limits, no crowding of self-desire by the rule of another. To be autonomous–that’s the temptation” (p. 148).

As Dostoevsky understood, if there is no God all we desire is permitted. If God’s not Sovereign, we’re autonomous, self-sovereign lords of our own lives. “Paul Roubiczek [in Existentialism For and Against. p. 32] comments: ‘In The Possessed, Kirillov is convinced that there is no God, and concludes: “If God exists, all is His will and from His will I cannot escape. If not, it’s all my will and I am bound to show self-will. . . . If there is not God, the I am God.” Or, as Nietzsche puts it: “If there were gods, how could I bear it to be no god myself? Therefore, there are no gods. . . .” Man, deprived of the divine, is bound to reach out for powers once considered divine'” (p. 140). Nietzsche’s Ubermensch necessarily follows his denial of God’s existence.

Contradicting all such claims to human autonomy, Christians ever set forth an “ethic of theonomy” (p. 142). They acknowledge, with Jonathan Edwards, that “Men Are Naturally God’s Enemies.” In truth, men “‘have an inbred distaste and disrelish of God’s perfections'” (p. 153). They don’t want to admit that He is “an infinitely holy, pure, and righteous Being, and they do not like him upon this account; they have no relish of such kind of qualifications; they take no delight in contemplating them'” (p. 154). Rather than submit to such a God, sinners simply deny His existence. “In a word,” Sproul says, agreeing with Edwards, “natural man suffers from prejudice. He operates within a framework of insufferable bias against the God of Christianity” (p. 154).

Whereas Sproul provides a critique of modern atheism, Merold Westphal, in Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (New York: Fordham University Press, c. 1998) urges us to use Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud for a “Lenten penance.” Great atheists’ insights and critiques, Westphal argues, breed a healthy humility in believers who rightly read them, for they help us plumb the subterranean pathways of original sin. Freud, like great Christian theologians, “locates original sin in our innermost self,” the Id–an amoral “‘cauldron full of seething excitations'” (p. 79). “Perhaps,” Westphal writes, “we need to see Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, along with Luther and Barth, as expressing a Promethean protest against all the zeuses of instrumental religion, the piety that reduces God to a means or instrument for achieving our own human purposes with professedly divine power and sanction” (p. 6). Importantly, Westphal says, linking up with postmodernist thought, suspicion must be distinguished from skepticism. Skepticism discounts “facts, while suspicion seeks to uncover the duplicity of persons” (p. 13). Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud help us do the latter, so Christians must first make no effort “to refute or discredit them. It is to acknowledge that their critique is all too true too much of the time and to seek to discover just where the shoe fits, not ‘them’ but ourselves” (p. 16). Insofar as any religion, Christianity included, portrays God as a powerful Being dedicated to insuring our own success and happiness, it must be deconstructed.

Freud’s trenchant suspicions, powerfully illustrated by the illusions he discerned in man’s religions, ever remind us, Westphal says, of how easily “We represent God to ourselves, no in accordance with the evidence available to us but in accordance with our wishes; in other words, we create God in our own image, or at least in the image of our desires. Now we have three things to ashamed of: (1) the desires that govern this operation, (2) our willingness to subordinate truth to happiness, and (3) our hybris in making ourselves their creator and God the creature” (p. 62). Westphal finds equally valuable material in Marx and Nietzsche, though his analysis of them is significantly slimmer. Nevertheless, as Calvin College philosopher Kelly James Clark says, in the book’s Forword, “Westphal’s book is quite simply the best exposition and critical discussion of Marx’s, Freud’s and Nietzsche’s views on religious belief available. And it is one of the best expositions and critical discussions of these thinkers, period” (p. ix). Clearly there is much to be learned from these thinkers, and from Westphal’s sympathetic discussion of them.

Taking a distinctively different approach, in The Atheist Syndrome (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, c. 1989), John P. Koster seeks “to show why Darwin, Huxley, Nietzsche, Freud, and their followers twisted science into an attack on religion; why they concocted the theory of scientific atheism to begin with; why they ignored all available evidence that contradicted their dead-end materialism in their own era; and why their worshipers continue to ignore this information today” (p. 8). Binding it all together, Koster argues, is a remarkably “lovelessness.” Their experiences in life, their biographies, rather than their theorizing, give us important clues as to their passionate atheism.

Militant atheists generally illustrate a “son-victim” status. First, “as a child and student, he tended to be weak, submissive, an under-achiever, and unsure of his goals and desires” (p. 17). Next, “As an adolescent and a young adult, the picture of the son-victim changed dramatically. As soon as an opportunity arose, he attempted to flee, to put as much distance as possible between himself and the family he hated and wanted to escape from” (p. 17). Third, at about the age of 40, he discovers himself resembling his detested father, leading to self-hatred and psychosomatic illnesses. Finally, he finds relief from “symptoms of depression by one sure-fire method: raving against Christianity” (p. 18).

To develop his case, Koster devotes substantial chapters to the “big four”: Darwin, Huxley, Nietzsche, and Freud. Darwin’s physician father was both physically and psychologically powerful. Young Charles seemed weak and unremarkable, so his free-thinking father sent him to Cambridge to study for the ministry–a safe refuge from the realities of life! At Cambridge, Charles developed his interest in biology, which led in time to his journey on the HMS Beagle, where his ideas of evolution took form. While robust and strong during his great sea-faring adventure, when he returned home, at the age of 30, he began suffering immobilizing health problems which rendered him a semi-invalid, able to work only three hours a day. No organic basis for disease was ever discovered, and evidence suggests he suffered a severe, debilitating depression which underlay his progressively dismal condemnations of Christianity.

“Darwin’s Bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, found a career defending his mentor and coined the term “agnostic” to describe his religious position. Like Darwin, he disliked his father and found little love in his home. He became a physician but disliked dealing with sick patients, so he volunteered to serve as assistant surgeon on HMS Rattlesnake and explored the South Pacific, meeting his future wife while in Australia. Back in England by 1850, he wrote a scientific paper which established his reputation as a scientist. Reading Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 confirmed many of his own notions, and he lept to the defense of the theory of evolution when controversy concerning it erupted, gaining fame for his debate with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. That very year Huxley’s son, Noel, died of scarlet fever. Huxley was devastated, and in his anger jettisoned any faith in a good, loving God. “For the rest of Huxley’s career–he lived until 1895 and traveled and lectured widely–he defended Darwin’s ideas, and the godless universe Darwin came to believe in during the forty-year bout of clinical depression, as the only worldview worthy of a free man and a scientist” (p. 73), a fervent footsoldier in the “Crusade against Christianity.” Yet throughout this time, he suffered constant ill-health, suffering “from the same collection of maladies that had afflicted Darwin” (p. 74).

Nietzsche and Freud, Koster says, largely duplicate the biographical details of Darwin and Huxley: disturbed childhood; energizing flight and subsequent creativity; final physical or psychological collapse. Their atheism developed less as a reasoned conclusion than as an emotional, psychological rationalization–the “atheist syndrome.” Subsequently, a host of influential atheists illustrate the same phenomenon. In the United States, Robert Ingersoll and Clarence Darrow proclaimed it. In Germany, Adolf Hitler absorbed and implemented it. Marx, Lenin, and Stalin incarnated it within their communist endeavors. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus gave it literary power. In various ways, they enable us to “understand the atheist syndrome as hostility toward hard fathers and a brutal pattern of childhood that turned into hostility toward God and toward belief in immortality” (p. 188).

Koster’s work provides a readable overview of the subject, rich with biographical data and hypotheses. Typical of such a wide-ranging work, it lacks depth and subtilty, and his efforts to shove various atheists into a tidy “syndrome” can easily be challenged and, at points, refuted. Nevertheless, joined to the other works I’ve considered, The Atheist Syndrome provides historical, personal details which suggest a certain consensus concerning they personalities and perspectives of the atheists studied.

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