Atheism and Fatherhood

“It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father.” 

– Pope John XXIII

_____

I posted the following on Facebook the other day:

OWS

Someone responded by suggesting that the lack of a godly father might leave certain individuals searching for a substitute – in the form of government.

This immediately brought to mind previous studies that I’ve read showing a link between fatherlessness and atheism. (Atheism and statism often overlap, but that’s a topic for another day. It’s interesting to note, however, that political liberals are far less likely than political conservatives [55% versus 82%] to accept the statement, “God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today.”)

According to a large-scale Swiss study published in 2000, “It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.” The statistics are pretty eye-opening. In families where both parents were regular churchgoers, 33% of children grew up to become regular churchgoers. In families where the mother was a regular churchgoer and the father was nonpracticing, only 2% of children grew up to become regular churchgoers. In families where the father was a regular churchgoer and the mother was nonpracticing, 44% of children grew up to become regular churchgoers.

In “Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism,” Dr. Paul Vitz (a professor of psychology at NYU, with a Ph.D. from Stanford) makes a case for the “defective father hypothesis”. He begins by looking at the biographical information of the world’s most influential atheists – past and present – essentially asking what they have in common. What he finds is that nearly all of them experienced broken relationships with their biological fathers (whether through death, conflict, abandonment, or abuse). Furthermore, “a survey of the leading intellectual defenders of Christianity over the same period confirms the hypothesis, finding few defective fathers.”

faith of the fatherless

This observation isn’t limited to famous atheists, either. The following excerpt is taken from the chapter “Atheists: A Psychological Profile” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (HT Triablogue and Wintery Knight):

“In representative surveys of the U.S. population in the 1970s and 1980s, the unaffiliated were found to be younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienated in terms of the larger society (Hadaway and Roof 1988; Feigelman, Gorman, and Varacalli 1992)…

Findings regarding those who come from religious homes and then give up religion show that they have had more distant relations with their parents (Hunsberger 1980, 1983; Hunsberger and Brown 1984). Caplovitz and Sherrow (1977) found that the quality of relations with parents was a crucial variable…

Does losing a parent early in life lead one to atheism? Vetter and Green (1932–33) surveyed 350 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, 325 of whom were men. Among those who became atheists before age twenty, half lost one or both parents before that age. A large number in the group reported unhappy childhood and adolescence experiences.”

atheism

While these statistics are sobering and saddening, they shouldn’t be surprising.

Many of the basic claims of Christianity (the existence of God, original sin, etc.) can be deduced and defended using reason alone. However, as Thomas Aquinas argues in Summa contra Gentiles, there remain certain Christian teachings (the doctrine of the Trinity, for example) which must be accepted by placing faith in the authority of Scripture. On an even more basic level, accepting Christianity entails having faith (that is, confidence) in the authority of God the Father.

For obvious reasons, this sort of confidence might come less naturally to someone who grows up without a trustworthy father figure.

And this is exactly why Christians need to engage in – rather than withdraw from – shaping our culture. This is why we need to defend the institution of marriage by opposing no-fault divorce laws. Put bluntly, a country where only 64% of children live with married parents is going to be less receptive to evangelism than it otherwise could be.

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “Atheism and Fatherhood

  1. “Many of the basic claims of Christianity (the existence of God, original sin, etc.) can be deduced and defended using reason alone.”

    No, they really can’t. I know you think they can. But you’re wrong.

  2. Matt,
    My own work with the fatherless confirms what you are saying here. I want to take it further though. Atheists are certainly fatherless in many cases. but what I find intriguing and disturbing is that many Christians struggle here to. So much of what I have done in my ministry is simply to help believers move beyond their flawed fathers and to the great Father and his flawless Son. It opens the heart and mind like nothing else. It is the deepest wellspring of our redemption.

  3. It is facts such as these that leave me even more concerned when my single female friends—all Christian—still speak of adopting a child “even though I haven’t found anyone”. I admire and understand their desire to raise children, but to do so intentionally without a father simply seems wrong to me, and facts like this appear to explain (at least in part) my discomfort with the idea.

  4. “It is the religious practice of the father of the family that, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children.”

    So “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love”, but throw in an absent father and you’re doomed.

    Doesn’t all these statistics that show that, for the overwhelming majority, children simply follow the religion of their parents, tell you that a child’s adherence to a religion has nothing to do with truth and is simply an inheritance of behavioural traits? If God knows an absent father is likely to prevent one of his precious children from knowing him, wouldn’t he do more to put situations in front of them to even out the odds? The fact that external factors influence an individuals chances of salvation, shows that although God supposedly loves every person and desires ALL to come to know him, petty actions from fallible people foil his plan.

    “Findings regarding those who come from religious homes and then give up religion show that they have had more distant relations with their parents”

    I think most people would testify that the distant relationship with their parents was at least partly caused by their religious views, not the other way round.

  5. I have often thought that atheists and agnostics are not so much drawn to their positions by reason, as by irrational, emotional and personal influences. Your exploration of the correlation between absent or flawed fathers more proof that rationalists tend toward materialism due to non-rational influences in their personal lives.

    • To quote Pascal,

      “Willing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their heart, God so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given indications of himself which are visible to those who seek him and not to those who do not seek him. There is enough light for those to see who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”

  6. Reblogged this on Navigating by Faith and commented:
    This interesting study in the affect of absent or flawed fathers and the incidence of atheism in that population is another indication to me that people, even rationalists, are often influences by non-rational, emotional and personal factors in arriving at their worldviews. I explored these things in The Idol of the Mind previously. I certainly do not claim that Christians or theists are less influenced by other than rational factors, but we do not claim to be rationalists. Rational thought is not antithetical to faith in God – far from it; rational thought is, however, not the sum of all things for the Christian. There is a realistic and honest understanding that we are finite beings; that we, perhaps, are incapable of getting our arms and minds around the vastness of the universe and should not presume to think that the wisps of mist that we are in the eons of time can expand to the beginning and end of time and space and prove (or disprove) the existence of a Creator of it all. But, intuitively, the necessity of a Creator seems elementary.

Comments are closed.