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.

Drowning, Rabies, Cheetahs, Hepatitis, and Atheism

Hey look, I found some science:

  1. A Proposed Decision-Making Guide for the Search, Rescue and Resuscitation of Submersion (Head Under) Victims Based on Expert Opinion (Resuscitation)
    The really fascinating part, in my opinion, is the difference in survival outcomes between cold water and warm water submersion. One ER doc I met told me about the case of a young girl who was successfully resuscitated after 83 minutes at the bottom of a frozen lake. “It is concluded that if water temperature is warmer than 6°C, survival/resuscitation is extremely unlikely if submerged longer than 30min. If water temperature is 6°C or below, survival/resuscitation is extremely unlikely if submerged longer than 90min.”
  2. Survival after Treatment of Rabies with Induction of Coma (New England Journal of Medicine)
    This is a pretty famous case report, which I only recently learned about after hearing a presentation from one of the authors. It’s basically the first known case of someone surviving rabies without having received immune prophylaxis. You can watch a terrifying video showing the clinical course of rabies HERE. You can watch a documentary detailing this specific case HERE.
  3. Cheetah Paradigm Revisited: MHC Diversity in the World’s Largest Free-Ranging Population (Molecular Biology and Evolution)
    MHC allelic diversity within a species is important for long-term protection against diseases. Even if a given individual is vulnerable to a pathogen, the immunological diversity across a population increases the likelihood that SOME individuals will be protected, and helps to guard against extinction. Humans have thousands of known HLA alleles, but other species (such as the cheetah) have much less diversity. This paper basically shows that free-ranging cheetahs might actually have more MHC diversity than originally thought: “We examined whether the diversity at MHC class I and class II-DRB loci in 149 Namibian cheetahs was higher than previously reported using single-strand conformation polymorphism analysis, cloning, and sequencing. MHC genes were examined at the genomic and transcriptomic levels. We detected ten MHC class I and four class II-DRB alleles, of which nine MHC class I and all class II-DRB alleles were expressed.”
  4. RNA Replication Without RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase: Surprises from Hepatitis Delta Virus (Journal of Virology)
    Hepatitis D is an RNA virus (technically a subviral satellite, since it requires coinfection or superinfection with Hepatitis B). So you would think it would use an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase to replicate its genome, right? Wrong. Turns out Hep D is a unique case. It actually uses host RNA polymerase for the job…and scientists don’t really know how the heck that’s even possible. (Since, you know, host polymerase requires a DNA template). “Hepatitis delta virus (HDV) and plant viroids present an exception which still confounds the conventional thinking. None of them encode an RdRP, and yet they can undergo robust RNA replication autonomously once inside the cells.”
  5. Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to do Terrible Things (International Journal for the Psychology of Religion)
    This study uses a pretty small sample size, so I think it’s important not to overstate the conclusions. Still, the findings are pretty intriguing, and seem to support the Christian view [Romans 1:18-21] that all men possess an awareness of God (even if they’ve suppressed that knowledge…maybe even to the point of no longer being aware that they’re aware). “The results imply that atheists’ attitudes towards God are ambivalent in that their explicit beliefs conflict with their affective response.”