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.

Roger Scruton Quotes

“Deprive young people of a rite of passage into the social order and they will look for a rite of passage out of it…The effect of current policies has been to subsidize out-of-wedlock births, to remake marriage as a contract of cohabitation, and to drive religion, which is the true guardian of rites of passage, from the public sphere. Those policies have been embarked on with the best of intentions, but with a remarkable indifference to what we know of human nature.”

“When everything is permitted, it is vital to forbid the forbidder.”

“Popular culture today is bent on exalting the trivial, the indecent, the sarcastic, over the deep, the committed and the virtuous. It is difficult for us to envisage that Mozart’s music, in its day, was part of popular culture”

roger scruton

“The misuse of drink in our society is one aspect of the general misuse of pleasure…Public drunkenness, of the kind that led to prohibition, arose because people were drinking the wrong things in the wrong way.”

“We must recognize that liberty is not the same as equality, and that those who call themselves liberals are far more interested in equalizing than in liberating their fellows.”

“It is impossible for modern adolescents to regard erotic feelings as the preliminary to marriage, which they see as a condition of partial servitude, to be avoided as an unacceptable cost. Sexual release is readily available, and courtship a time-wasting impediment to pleasure. Far from being a commitment, in which the voice of future generations makes itself heard, sex is now an intrinsically adolescent experience. The transition from the virgin to the married state has disappeared, and with it the ‘lyrical’ experience of sex, as a yearning for another and higher form of membership, to which the hard-won consent of the other is a necessary precondition. All other rites of passage have similarly withered away, since no social institution demands them – or if it does demand them, it will be avoided as ‘judgemental’, hierarchical or oppressive.”

“Beauty is assailed from two directions – by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life.”

“That is what religion promises: not a purpose, necessarily, but something that removes the paradox of an entirely law-governed world, open to consciousness, that is nevertheless without an explanation: that just is, for no reason at all. The evangelical atheists are subliminally aware that their abdication in the face of science does not make the universe more intelligible, nor does it provide an alternative answer to our metaphysical enquiries. It simply brings enquiry to a stop. And the religious person will feel that this stop is premature: that reason has more questions to ask, and perhaps more answers to obtain, than the atheists will allow us. So who, in this subliminal contest, is the truly reasonable one? The atheists beg the question in their own favour, by assuming that science has all the answers. But science can have all the answers only if it has all the questions; and that assumption is false. There are questions addressed to reason which are not addressed to science, since they are not asking for a causal explanation.”

Capstone Marriages and Cornerstone Marriages

My wife and I belong to that peculiar, sometimes-applauded, often-scorned, steadily-shrinking club of “Christian kids who married young”. We’d both turned 21 within a few weeks of the wedding. So naturally I’ve taken a passing interest in the recent controversy over youthful marriages (sparked, I think, by the “Knot Yet” report and Karen Swallow Prior’s article in The Atlantic).

In her article, “The Case for Getting Married Young”, Prior points out that the average age for marriage has reached historic highs (29 and 27 for men and women, respectively). She cites some interesting statistics (“unmarried twenty-somethings are more likely to be depressed, drink excessively, and report lower levels of satisfaction than their married counterparts”), then explains how the prioritization of education and career objectives has led to a shift in society’s conception of marriage:

“The religious framework for marriage is also crumbling. Marriage has become, therefore, to use Thompson’s apt term, “hedonistic,” based on the exponential amount of pleasure—material, emotional, sexual, familial, you name it—that can be derived from the coupling of two individuals.”

Like myself, Prior rejects this modern view of marriage, in which young people are encouraged to spend the first decade of their adult lives “finding themselves”…attaining an education and career, clubbing and barhopping, traveling the world, experimenting with multiple romantic relationships, cohabitating, and eventually getting married once they “figure out who they are”. Instead, like myself, Prior views marriage as a “cornerstone” rather than a “capstone”.

“We invested the vigor of our youth not in things to bring into the marriage, but in each other and our marriage.”

Although I’m not arguing that everyone should marry young (or even that everyone should marry, period), I do think there’s something to be said for navigating the challenges of early adulthood with a teammate.

In another recent article on Slate, Julia Shaw illustrates this point:

“Marriage wasn’t something we did after we’d grown up—it was how we have grown up and grown together. We’ve endured the hardships of typical millennials: job searches, job losses, family deaths, family conflict, financial fears, and career concerns. The stability, companionship, and intimacy of marriage enabled us to overcome our challenges and develop as individuals and a couple.”

…as does Collin Garbarino over at First Things:

“I married relatively young and managed to get three graduate degrees while married. Marriage provided my wife and me an anchor that helped us focus on our goals while we were in our twenties.”

Again: I’m not saying that everyone should get married at 21 like myself. I think the real issue here, rather than “age”, is the attitude that one brings into marriage (the “cornerstone model” vs. the “capstone model”).

In light of my own experiences, I’m actually opposed to one-size-fits-all statements like “everyone should marry young” or, to quote one of the feminist responses that I read, “women, don’t marry young”. Given the advances women have made in education and career opportunities, I think most people are quick to recognize the injustice of telling a young woman “you need to give up (or postpone) your career in order to marry and raise a family”…but are less quick to recognize the injustice of telling a woman, “you need to give up (or postpone) marriage in order to first pursue your career.” Shouldn’t feminists be encouraging the prototypical young woman to decide for herself what’s important to her?

But I digress. I’ll close with an excerpt from a 2009 report from sociologist Mark Regnerus:

“[The] age at which a person marries never actually causes a divorce. Rather, a young age at marriage can be an indicator of an underlying immaturity and impatience with marital challenges — the kind that many of us eventually figure out how to avoid or to solve without parting. Unfortunately, well-educated people resist this, convinced that there actually is a recipe for guaranteed marital success that goes something like this: Add a postgraduate education to a college degree, toss in a visible amount of career success and a healthy helping of wealth, let simmer in a pan of sexual variety for several years, allow to cool and settle, then serve. Presto: a marriage with math on its side.

Too bad real life isn’t like that. Marriage actually works best as a formative institution, not an institution you enter once you think you’re fully formed. We learn marriage, just as we learn language, and to the teachable, some lessons just come easier earlier in life. “Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth,” added Tennyson to his lines about springtime and love.”