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The Psychology of Atheism

Many people have psychological reasons for atheism. Factors of upbringing, sins of believers, etc., may be barriers to belief.

Nevertheless, we have freedom of choice. People can choose to move toward God or away from Him. A person with many impediments to faith may move in the direction of God, perhaps over a period of many years, without ever actually arriving at the point of belief. On the other hand, a person with no impediments may nevertheless choose to reject God.

Here are some of the common, superficial reasons for atheism:

1. The belief that atheism is realistic, whereas faith is wishful thinking. Yet, some of the same people happily believe in star signs, horoscopes and other supernatural or paranormal phenomena.

2. Personal motives (for personal reasons that have little intellectual or moral justification):

a. The desire for the sophistication of the secular urbanite; embarrassment over one's provincial background ie. semi-literate Sikh farmers.

b. The desire for acceptance with those whose company you keep. There are specific reasons why Sikhs are encouraged to be part of the Sangat and not part of materialist, egotistic and/ or ritualistic groups.

c. Personal convenience. It is inconvenient to be a believer in a modern secular society. It involves the renunciation of sexual pleasures, giving up materialism and the necessity of committing time and money. We are reluctant to make radical changes in our lifestyle. Some people prefer short term pleasures even though they know their human lives are temporary.

d. The need to rebel against estabished thoughts and practices. Its a way of hitting back and asserting independance and authority. However, rebellion can cause people to rebel against their own self-interests - rejecting things that are good for them and others around them.

Although the person thinks rebellion is an act of independence, it actually never is. It is really an act of dependency. Rebellion causes the person to depend self-definition and personal conduct on doing the opposite of what other people want.

That's why the antidote for rebellion is the true independence offered by creating and accepting a challenge - the person deciding to do something hard with themselves for themselves in order to grow themselves. The one who finds a lot of challenges to engage with, and who has parents who support those challenges, doesn't need a lot of rebellion to transform or redefine him or herself.

To what degree a young person needs to rebel varies widely. In his fascinating book, "Born to Rebel" (1997), Frank Sulloway posits that later born children tend to rebel more than first born. Some of his reasoning is because they identify less with parents, do not want to be clones of the older child or children who went before, and give themselves more latitude to grow in nontraditional ways. So, parents may find later born children to be more rebellious.

Perhaps the above reasons account for the motives of most atheists. Now let us examine some of the deeper reasons for the atheism of some:

According to Freud's "projection theory", we developed religion out of a need to defend ourselves against the crushing superior forces of nature. As a child needs a father for protection, so we feel the need to create a protector God.

This, however, is an ad hominem attack, and is applicable to almost anything. It can be used, in fact, to negate psychoanalysis.

Another weakness of this argument is that, if it were true, one would expect all gods to be benevolent father-figures. However, this is not the case with Sikhi.

It is worth noting that there is no support for Freud's theory within psychoanalysis itself. Psychoanalysis is neutral with respect to the question of God's existence. The projection theory is an autonomous argument and was first developed not by Freud, but by Ludwig von Feuerbach, a philosopher who was avidly read by the young Freud.

There is another argument that can be made on the basis of psychoanalytic theory, although this argument has yet to be fully developed:

According to psychoanalysis, the child has a desire to rebell against figures of authority ie. like their parents.

In many prominent atheists in history, we see a strong antipathy toward their fathers. Voltaire was not an atheist, but he rejected the idea of a personal god. He vehemently rejected his own father, to the point of rejecting his surname and assuming the name ‘Voltaire' (we do not know how he came by his adopted name). Diderot, likewise, was a profound atheist. He once stated that a child, if he had the strength of a man of thirty, would "strangle his father".

Freud himself observed that young people tend to lose their religious faith as soon as they lose the authority of their earthly fathers. This can happen in several ways:

1. The father is present, but he is weak, cowardly, unworthy of respect.

2. The father is present, but is physically or psychologically abusive.

3. The father is absent, whether through death or abandonment.

What of Freud's own father? Jacob Freud was weak and unable to provide for his family. The money for their support came from his wife's family. Jacob was also passive in the face of anti-Semitism, whereas his son greatly admired courageous resistance and was himself courageous. Now, Jacob used to read the bible with his son, and he became increasingly religious over the years.

Another example of a prominent atheist with a poor paternal relationship is Thomas Hobbes. His father was an Anglican clergyman. Although the exact circumstances are unknown, he got into a fight with another man in the churchyard, following which he abandoned his family.

As for Ludwig von Feuerbach, his father abandoned the family and lived with a married woman in the same town, then returned after the woman died. Feuerbach was twenty at the time of his father's return. It is also to be noted that his father's nickname was "Vesuvius".

Schopenhauer was rejected by his mother, and his father committed suicide when Schopenhauer was sixteen.

Nietsche's father died when he was four. Camus and Hume also lost their father's in early childhood.

Our contemporary Madeleine Murray O'Hare also had an unhappy family life. She often fought with her father, and on one occasion tried to kill him with a butcher's knife. We cannot know the reason for her hatred, but it probably was not without cause.

Another well-known living atheist is Albert Ellis, who grew up in New York. His mother did not function well, and his father was a philanderer who abandoned the family when Ellis was twelve. He and his brother had to take care of their mother and themselves. As an adult Ellis is polite to his father, but we can only guess how great the pain of his childhood must have been.

Dr. Antony Flew is another famous contemporary atheistic psychologist. Some while ago he was at a party and, having had too much to drink, ended up lying on the floor, hitting it and saying over and over, "I hate my father. I hate my father." (Antony Flew recently changed his mind from Atheism to Intelligent Design as seen in the documentary "Has Science Discovered God?")

Russell Baker's father died when he was five. He describes raging against God as a child, and concluding that God was not to be trusted. Since then, by his own account, he has never cried and has never been able to love freely.

In contrast, many famous thinkers who were believers and contemporaries of the atheists named above, had very good relationships with their fathers. This includes Bonhoeffer, Chesterton, Pascal, and Wilberforce.

There are exceptions to the theory. John Stuart Mill was an atheist who was close to his father. However, his father was an atheist, and so it could be said that Mill came by his atheism the natural way. Diderot had a good relationship with his father until adulthood. As for Karl Marx, only a modest case can be made for poor paternal relationship. Kierkegaard had a good relationship with his father in childhood, rebelled against him in college, and subsequently returned to him.

The point of the profiling of atheists is to remove psychological motives from explaining religious belief. The ad hominem attack on theism posits an immature need for support, but there are psychological causes for atheism as well as theism. So when the atheist attacks a theists beliefs for being childish, the theist can counter, 'and so are you!' So, this argument more or less levels the playing field as far as psychological explanations of belief/ disbelief are concerned.

notes from lecture delivered at Columbia University, by Paul C. Vitz, Ph.D.

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