Thursday, January 04, 2007

A New Theory of Atheism: The Defective Father Hypothesis

Paul Vitz has written a book titled, ‘Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism’, the first chapter of which is called ‘Intense Atheism’ and can be read online here; it commences with this claim:

“I will begin by addressing the deep personal psychology of the great — or at least the passionate and influential — atheists.”

Vitz continues:

”Is there any reason to believe that there are consistent psychological patterns in their lives? Indeed, there is a coherent psychological origin to intense atheism. To begin, it should be noted that self-avowed atheists tend, to a remarkable degree, to be found in a narrow range of social and economic strata: in the university and intellectual world and in certain professions. Today, as a rule, they make up a significant part of the governing class. (By contrast, believers are found much more widely throughout the entire social spectrum.) Given the relatively small numbers of unbelievers and the limited number of social settings in which they are found, there is certainly an a priori reason for expecting regularity in their psychology.”

There is much that can be disputed in the foregoing, but the final sentence is so egregious in its sophistry that one can be forgiven, perhaps, for overlooking the fact that Vitz produces absolutely no evidence to substantiate any of the claims made therein.

His preamble over, Vitz launches into his analysis of the psychology of atheists, but before doing so states this important caveat:

“First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but can be called, in a general sense, psychological. I am quite convinced that for every person strongly swayed by rational argument, there are countless others more affected by nonrational, psychological factors such as those I will discuss here.”

Nice copout, Paul; leave out the rational arguments for not believing in the xtian god, and then claim that you are ‘convinced’ that only a minority of atheists do not believe in this entity on rational grounds, but do so on irrational, psychological ones, and by those alone.

And just for the record, Paul, where is the statistical data supporting your conviction that those whom you distinguish as ‘rational atheists’ are outnumbered by "countless others" whom you claim are simply ‘non-rational psychological atheists’?

I would also like you to clarify whether you consider that Hindus, for example, are ‘rational atheists’ or ‘non-rational psychological atheists’ with regard to the xtian god? And, since I have mentioned Hinduism, Paul, are you a ‘rational atheist’ or a ‘non-rational psychological atheist’ in relation to their manifold gods?

Despite my comments, Vitz’s work is a clever attack on Freud, and Freudian objections to religious belief, though it should be noted that Vitz’s work is not itself immune from attack. Admittedly, Vitz effectively turns Freud’s arguments around, and offers his own hypothesis for the psychology of atheism, in which he suggests that atheistic beliefs are motivated by anger and disappointment at one’s father. However, whilst his hypothesis creates difficulties for any attempts to dismiss religious belief as pathological that is based solely on motivational factors alone, it fails completely to address the issues referred to here.

In conclusion, there is more to atheism that Vitz cares to concede, and his defence of theism appears to consist solely of attacking specific psychological aspects of atheism, not altogether successfully. To achieve that objective, Vitz has had to make a distinction between ‘rational atheists’ and ‘non-rational psychological atheists’, and that leaves him with an insuperable problem: the distinction suggests that it is equally applicable to theists. Sadly, for him, the fact of the matter is that there are no ‘rational theists’, given that their religious beliefs are founded on bizarrely implausible events which violate logical, physical and biological principles.

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