In examining the reasons for believers to embrace faith, and Christianity in particular, it is not unusual for theories to be trotted out — often asserted without supporting evidence — supposing that belief stems from this-or-that psychological “need” or impulse.
Claims that Christians are motivated by irrational fear, unwarranted guilt feelings, or manipulation by the adults who shaped their lives are among theories typically floated for why Christians would stubbornly hold to their “obviously irrational” belief.
Since it is “fair game” to probe the motives for belief, why not inquire about what psychological precursors (if any) are consistent with unbelief?
That’s exactly what Psychologist and New York University professor Paul Vitz did. In fact, his study took a cue from a statement by Freud suggesting a loss of respect for one’s natural father often triggers a young person’s rejection of God.
From that, starting point Dr Vitz proposed the “defective father hypothesis”, in which he posited that “a father, if he is ‘defective’ [explained later] sets up a strong pressure — not a total determining one — but a strong pressure toward atheism on the part of his children”.
The criterion of “defective” could be met in 3 ways.
1) Father rejecting abandoning his family.
2) Father is abusive/hostile.
3) Father is absent through death. (This is further explained.)
A “defective father”, in this hypothesis, makes it very difficult to believe in God.
To test his hypothesis, Dr Vitz compared the personal lives of some the most prominent, influential and rigorously committed atheists of history to the lives of similarly prominent, influential and committed believers (Protestant, Catholic and Jewish), paying particular attention to the relationships they had with their fathers.
He was only interested in the deeply committed, “intense” atheists for whom their unbelief was psychologically important. He put forward a list of prominent atheist thinkers and their contemporary theistic counterparts — and he describes what he found, namely that there is a strong correlation of “strong” atheism with the failures of their fathers.
To describe it with pop-culture lingo, “daddy issues” can have a significant part to play in unbelief.
The source article went on to corroborate Dr. Vitz’s theory by including statistical results of a Swiss study of paternal influence upong the belief or unbelief of their children.
Dr. Vitz’s video is here: