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.