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:


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.”


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.

The Paradox of Moral Intuition

In this blog’s inaugural post – Origins of the Moral Law – I made a case for the well-known Argument from Morality. I argued that Theism (specifically, the Christian narrative) provides the best account for our innate sense of right and wrong.

Although I stand behind what I wrote in that post, there’s an important issue that I failed to account for. If the Moral Law is ingrained in each of us, then why do people seem to have genuine disagreements over specific moral questions? Or put another way, why is it that some people regard certain behaviors as immoral, and others don’t?

The answer, I believe, is that humans are masterful at redefining right and wrong within the context of their own desires. These desires actually become integrated into one’s “moral intuition” – perhaps as a consequence of original sin. Right is replaced by “what feels right” and wrong is replaced by “what feels wrong”.

I say this from personal experience. If it were entirely up to me, there are plenty of biblically sinful behaviors that I wouldn’t have chosen to consider sinful (pride, gluttony, etc.). Of course, that’s really the entire point. What kind of relationship can we have with a personal God if we’re unwilling to let Him contradict our own desires and opinions?

So on the one hand, morality often seems intuitive and clear (a reflection of objective morality). On the other hand, we can’t necessarily rely on our own moral intuition being correct all the time. In other words, there exists a need for guidance, obedience, and a willingness to conform one’s conscience to some kind of external moral standard.

This is obviously very controversial, even among professing Christians. It directly clashes with the modern humanist’s advice to “follow your heart” – a maxim based on an optimistic (but incorrect) belief in mankind’s innate goodness.

The major branches of Christianity may disagree over whether this “moral standard” consists of Scripture alone, or includes Sacred Tradition. The important point – at least as it pertains to this discussion – is that there must be an external source of moral authority to take precedence over our flawed moral intuition.

“Does God Pose an Authority Problem for You?”

While reading a recent post from Wintery Knight, I stumbled upon an excellent little article from Tough Questions Answered. I’m just passing this along third-hand, so I definitely recommend checking out the entire thing:

“Many of the people I know who reject God or who have crafted a God that makes no demands on them have a fundamental problem with authority.  They don’t want anybody telling them what to do.

For a person who wants complete autonomy, who chafes at the thought of anyone having authority over them, a creator God who makes demands is way inconvenient.

Many people who believe in God, but also have this authority hang-up, create their own version of God.  This God gives them what they want when they want it.  He approves of everything they do, as long as they are just trying to be happy.  He encourages them to follow their desires, wherever they lead.  C. S. Lewis compared this God to a senile, old grandfather who never says “no” to his grandchildren.  You want chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  No problem!” (continue reading here)

This resonated with me because I, too, have observed a correlation between those who reject traditional Christianity (either by adopting a very flimsy, self-centered, humanistic kind of theology, or by turning to atheism or agnosticism), and those who have difficulty accepting authority in general. This seems particularly true for my own generation.

I was also reminded of a college class I took in which we studied the book of Genesis. My classmates came from very diverse backgrounds, so this opened the door for some interesting discussions (to say the least). One of the most prominent themes in Genesis is the idea of “faithful obedience”. Just think about Adam and Eve being instructed by God not to eat from a specific tree; think about Noah being instructed by God to build an ark; think about Abraham being instructed by God to leave his homeland, and later being told to sacrifice his son Isaac.

In every case, the individual is being asked to submit to God’s authority as an act of faith. Quite honestly, this is a virtue that isn’t widely recognized by society today (nor was it regarded as such by most of my fellow students). From the time we’re children, we’re constantly being taught to question all forms of authority – to analyze and critically examine the world around us. I mean, let’s face it: to most people, words like “rebellion” and “independence” carry a lot more appeal than the word “obedience”. The thought of putting aside our own reason and placing our trust in God’s authority is often regarded as a sign of ignorance, weakness, even foolishness.

Yet if we take the Bible seriously, we see that this kind of obedience really is a virtue. I would even go so far as to say that humble obedience to God is the most basic and fundamental form of good. After all, it’s the exact opposite of pride – arguably the most basic and fundamental form of evil.