left biblioblography: Oedipus Rex Revisited - Id, Ego, and Superego And The Ongoing Efforts of Ontological Atheism

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Oedipus Rex Revisited - Id, Ego, and Superego And The Ongoing Efforts of Ontological Atheism

I have been reading a paper by one Professor Paul C. Vitz, entitled The Psychology of Atheism.

For the most part, I find it terribly casuistic - riddled with presuppositionalism, fallacies, and drawing extensively on Freudian pathos. He keeps the biblical quotes to a discreet minimum, but as this is a diatribe directed at the non-religious, some were bound to slip in. His full book on Freud can be found on the first link supplied above.

(This is a really long one - my apologies.)

First, the intro.

The title of this paper, "The Psychology of Atheism," may seem strange. Certainly, my psychological colleagues have found it odd and even, I might add, a little disturbing. After all, psychology, since its founding roughly a century ago, has often focused on the opposite topic-namely the psychology of religious belief. Indeed, in many respects the origins of modern psychology are intimately bound up with the psychologists who explicitly proposed interpretations of belief in God.

Personally, I find it more than a bit odd, that after thousands of years, no one can seem to pinpoint a more exacting definition of this deity, let alone prove that it exists.

William James and Sigmund Freud, for example, were both personally and professionally deeply involved in the topic. Recall The Will to Believe by James, as well as his still famous Varieties of Religious Experience. These two works are devoted to an attempt at understanding belief as the result of psychological, that is natural, causes. James might have been sympathetic to religion, but his own position was one of doubt and skepticism and his writings were part of psychology's general undermining of religious faith. As for Sigmund Freud, his critiques of religion, in particular Christianity, are well known and will be discussed in some detail later. For now, it is enough to remember how deeply involved Freud and his thought have been with the question of God and religion.

Anybody who scans William James' works can glean that he was far more than simply 'sympathetic': he even experimented on himself (with psychotropic's, no less) in an effort to plumb the depths of mysticism. So there's strawman #1.

Given the close involvement between the founding of much of psychology and a critical interpretation of religion, it should not be surprising that most psychologists view with some alarm any attempt to propose a psychology of atheism. At the very least such a project puts many psychologists on the defensive and gives them some taste of their own medicine. Psychologists are always observing and interpreting others and it is high time that some of them learn from their own personal experience what it is like to be put under the microscope of psychological theory and experiment. Regardless, I hope to show that the psychological concepts used quite effectively to interpret religion are two- edged swords that can also be used to interpret atheism. Sauce for the believer is equally sauce for the unbeliever.

That's all fine and dandy. One might note that not all psychologists are atheists: the methodology is more often materialistic, but I think there's a false dichotomy in there somewhere.

Before beginning, however, I wish to make two points bearing on the underlying assumption of my remarks. First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but-in a general sense- can be called psychological. I do not wish to offend the many distinguished philosophers-both believers and nonbelievers-in this audience, but I am quite convinced that for every person strongly swayed by rational argument there are many, many more affected by nonrational psychological factors.

He qualifies it - a distinct effort to seem bipartisan.

The human heart-no one can truly fathom it or know all its deceits, but at least it is the proper task of the psychologist to try. Thus, to begin, I propose that neurotic psychological barriers to belief in God are of great importance. What some of these might be I will mention shortly. For believers, therefore, it is important to keep in mind that psychological motives and pressures that one is often unaware of, often lie behind unbelief.

The rational proposition, as I see it, is not to believe or disbelieve - it's to weigh whatever evidence is on the table, and decide. It's a two-edged sword, as Vitz says: there are also motives and pressures that lie behind belief itself as well.

One of the earliest theorists of the unconscious, St. Paul, wrote, "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it . . . I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind . . ." (Rom. 7:18, 23). Thus, it seems to me sound theology as well as sound psychology that psychological factors can be impediments to belief as well as behavior, and that these may often be unconscious factors as well. Further, as a corollary it is reasonable to propose that people vary greatly in the extent to which these factors are present in their lives. Some of us have been blessed with an upbringing, a temperament, social environment, and other gifts that have made belief in God a much easier thing than many who have suffered more or have been raised in a spiritually impoverished environment or had other difficulties with which to cope. Scripture makes it clear that many children-even into the third or fourth generation-suffer from the sins of their fathers, including the sins of fathers who may have been believers. In short, my first point is that some people have much more serious psychological barriers to belief than others, a point consistent with the scriptures' clear statement that we are not to judge others, however much we are called to correct evil.

Right out the door, he quotes the bible. An appeal to authority from someone who, by all rights was not a 'theorist of the unconscious'. He bypasses all the corollary evidence of people who have actually lived and thrived in these 'blessed' environments, who have come to their unbelief via rational means.

My second point as qualification is that in spite of serious difficulties to belief, all of us still have a free choice to accept God or reject Him. This qualification is not in contradiction to the first. Perhaps a little elaboration will make this clearer. One person, as a consequence of his particular past, present environment, etc., may find it much harder than most people to believe in God. But presumably, at any moment, certainly at many times, he can choose to move toward God or to move away. One man may start with so many barriers that even after years of slowly choosing to move toward God he may still not be there. Some may die before they reach belief. We assume they will be judged-like all of us- on how far they traveled toward God and how well they loved others-on how well they did with what they had. Likewise, another man without psychological difficulties at all is still free to reject God, and no doubt many do. Thus, although the ultimate issue is one of the will and our sinful nature, it is still possible to investigate those psychological factors that predispose one to unbelief, that make the road to belief in God especially long and hard.

The hypothesis (which remains all throughout the treatise) that his deity does indeed exist - hence, my accusation of presuppositionalism. I understand that this is an approach from belief, it is (to this point) entirely one-sided, and decidedly unscientific.

The Psychology of Atheism: Social and Personal Motives

There seems to be a widespread assumption throughout much of the Western intellectual community that belief in God is based on all kinds of irrational immature needs and wishes, but atheism or skepticism is derived from a rational, no- nonsense appraisal of the way things really are. To begin a critique of this assumption, I start with my own case history.

Well, we can compare case histories. The major problem with this approach is confirmation bias - which is why anecdotal evidence is considered sketchy at best.

As some of you know, after a rather weak, wishy-washy Christian upbringing, I became an atheist in college in the 1950s and remained so throughout graduate school and my first years as a young experimental psychologist on the faculty at New York University. That is, I am an adult convert or, more technically, a reconvert to Christianity who came back to the faith, much to his surprise, in my late thirties in the very secular environment of academic psychology in New York City.

I am not going into this to bore you with parts of my life story, but to note that through reflection on my own experience it is now clear to me that my reasons for becoming and for remaining an atheist-skeptic from about age 18 to 38 were superficial, irrational, and largely without intellectual or moral integrity. Furthermore, I am convinced that my motives were, and still are, commonplace today among intellectuals, especially social scientists.

This is an old canard: 'I used to be one of them, ergo, this qualifies me to diagnose them.' I might add, that there are quite a few more theists-to-atheists than the reverse. Ipse dixit.


General socialization. An important influence on me in my youth was a significant social unease. I was somewhat embarrassed to be from the Midwest, for it seemed terribly dull, narrow, and provincial. There was certainly nothing romantic or impressive about being from Cincinnati, Ohio and from a vague mixed German-English-Swiss background. Terribly middle class. Further, besides escape from a dull, and according to me unworthy, socially embarrassing past, I wanted to take part in, in fact to be comfortable in, the new, exciting, even glamorous, secular world into which I was moving.

So he faults peer pressure? I have always felt, that those who bow to the wishes of those around them, are oftentimes the weakest of individuals. A true philosopher isn't a sycophant - rather, a person of strong words and character.

I am sure that similar motives have strongly influenced the lives of countless upwardly mobile young people in the last two centuries. Consider Voltaire, who moved into the glittery, aristocratic, sophisticated world of Paris, and who always felt embarrassed about his provincial and nonaristocratic origin; or the Jewish ghettos that so many assimilating Jews have fled, or the latest young arrival in New York, embarrassed about his fundamentalist parents. This kind of socialization pressure has pushed many away from belief in God and all that this belief is associated with for them.

Ahem: Voltaire was many, many things, but an unbeliever wasn't one of them. He was renounced by some of the Encyclopediasts of the time for believing in a god of any sort. Hardly an atheist, and the hidden comparison of Vitz juxtaposed with Voltaire is terribly lame. To assume that he fell under the influence of peer pressure is to negate everything he accomplished. He spoke against not only organized religion, but against much of the common folklore - he was even exiled from France. So no, poor analogy.

I remember a small seminar in graduate school where almost every member there at some time expressed this kind of embarrassment and response to the pressures of socialization into "modern life." One student was trying to escape his Southern Baptist background, another a small town Mormon environment, a third was trying to get out of a very Jewish Brooklyn ghetto, and the fourth was me.

Embarrassed about where they came from? Sounds terribly neurotic to me, but I'm no psychologist.

Specific socialization. Another major reason for my wanting to become an atheist was that I desired to be accepted by the powerful and influential scientists in the field of psychology. In particular, I wanted to be accepted by my professors in graduate school. As a graduate student I was thoroughly socialized by the specific "culture" of academic research psychology. My professors at Stanford, however much they might disagree on psychological theory, were, as far as I could tell, united in only two things-their intense personal career ambition and their rejection of religion. As the psalmist says, ". . . The man greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord. In the pride of his countenance the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, 'There is no God'" (Psalm 10:3-4).

This, I might point out, is Stanford. However, I note that there's no name-dropping or finger-pointing: a nice, generalized broad brush is applied.

In this environment, just as I had learned how to dress like a college student by putting on the right clothes, I also learned to "think" like a proper psychologist by putting on the right-that is, atheistic-ideas and attitudes.

More peer pressure. Ho-hum.

Personal convenience. Finally, in this list of superficial, but nevertheless, strong irrational pressures to become an atheist, I must list simple personal convenience. The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to be a serious believer in today's powerful secular and neo-pagan world. I would have had to give up many pleasures and a good deal of time.

And here he applies yet another broad brush: the world at large is by no means secular or neo-pagan. A brush-up on current events would be useful here. Very simply, it's the old canard: "You just don't want to give up your hedonistic ways!" As evidenced by the following paragraph.

Without going into details it is not hard to imagine the sexual pleasures that would have to be rejected if I became a serious believer. And then I also knew it would cost me time and some money. There would be church services, church groups, time for prayer and scripture reading, time spent helping others. I was already too busy. Obviously, becoming religious would be a real inconvenience.

As opposed to, say, a pan-satyrical lifestyle, with all the liver failures, STDs, and shortened life-spans? Please.

Now perhaps you think that such reasons are restricted to especially callow young men-like me in my twenties. However, such reasoning is not so restricted. Here I will take up the case of Mortimer Adler, a well known American philosopher, writer, and intellectual who has spent much of his life thinking about God and religious topics. One of his most recent books is titled How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan (1980). In this work, Adler presses the argument for the existence of God very strongly and by the latter chapters he is very close to accepting the living God. Yet he pulls back and remains among "the vast company of the religiously uncommitted" (Graddy, 1982). But Adler leaves the impression that this decision is more one of will than of intellect. As one of his reviewers notes (Graddy, 1982), Adler confirms this impression in his autobiography, Philosopher at Large (1976). There, while investigating his reasons for twice stopping short of a full religious commitment, he writes that the answer "lies in the state of one's will, not in the state of one's mind." Adler goes on to comment that to become seriously religious "would require a radical change in my way of life . . ." and "The simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person" (Graddy, p. 24).

Strawman #2: Mortimer Adler's motives are not every atheist's motives. Adler became fervently religious about one year prior to his death (perhaps there are no 'psychologists in foxholes').

There you have it! A remarkably honest and conscious admission that being "a genuinely religious person" would be too much trouble, too inconvenient. I can't but assume that such are the shallow reasons behind many an unbeliever's position.

Really. It's terribly inconvenient to be an atheist in this day and age. We forego the intense religious social networks that have been built over the ages, we take the risk of being exiled, banished, social pariahs, etc. Really, these fallacies of the unrepresentative samples are just...embarrassing.

In summary, because of my social needs to assimilate, because of my professional needs to be accepted as part of academic psychology, and because of my personal needs for a convenient lifestyle-for all these needs atheism was simply the best policy. Looking back on these motives, I can honestly say that a return to atheism has all the appeal of a return to adolescence.[2]

If you bend to public demand, I can't say you have very strong character, but that's just me.

The Psychology of Atheism: Psychoanalytic Motives

"As is generally known, the central Freudian criticism of belief in God is that such a belief is untrustworthy because of its psychological origin. That is, God is a projection of our own intense, unconscious desires; He is a wish fulfillment derived from childish needs for protection and security. Since these wishes are largely unconscious, any denial of such an interpretation is to be given little credence. It should be noted that in developing this kind of critique, Freud has raised the ad hominem argument to one of wide influence. It is in The Future of an Illusion (1927, 1961) that Freud makes his position clearest:

"[R]eligious ideas have arisen from the same needs as have all the other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature. (p. 21)"

Observation as ad hominem: what a surprise.

Therefore, religious beliefs are:

illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest

and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As we

already know, the terrifying impression of

helplessness in childhood aroused the need for

protection-for protection through love-which

was provided by the father . . . Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life. (p. 30)

Let us look at this argument carefully, for in spite of the enthusiastic acceptance of it by so many uncritical atheists and skeptics, it is really a very weak position.

It's hardly weak - I'd say it was evolutionary.

In the first paragraph Freud fails to note that his arguments against religious belief are, in his own words, equally valid against all the achievements of civilization, including psychoanalysis itself. That is, if the psychic origin of an intellectual achievement invalidates its truth value, then physics, biology, much less psychoanalysis itself, are vulnerable to the same charge.

This is simply ridiculous. Religion hardly qualifies as an achievement, for one: for another, it's the equivalent of damning astronomy for having its roots in astrology. How physics and biology stem from childhood neuroses is a mystery indeed.

In the second paragraph Freud makes another strange claim, namely that the oldest and most urgent wishes of mankind are for the loving protecting guidance of a powerful loving Father, for divine Providence. However, if these wishes were as strong and ancient as he claims, one would expect pre-Christian religion to have strongly emphasized God as a benevolent father. In general, this was far from the case for the pagan religion of the Mediterranean world-and, for example, is still not the case for such popular religions as Buddhism and for much of Hinduism. Indeed, Judaism and most especially Christianity are in many respects distinctive in the emphasis on God as a loving Father.

Wow, Vitz's strong suit is obviously not religious history. Atum-Ra? Ahriman? Brahma? Judaism had emphasis on God as a loving father? Talk about confirmation bias.

However, let us put these two intellectual gaffes aside and turn to another understanding of his projection theory. It can be shown that this theory is not really an integral part of psychoanalysis- and, thus cannot claim fundamental support from psychoanalytic theory. It is essentially an autonomous argument. Actually, Freud's critical attitude toward and rejection of religion is rooted in his personal predilections and is a kind of meta psychoanalysis-or background framework which is not well connected to his more specifically clinical concepts. (This separation or autonomy with respect to most psychoanalytic theory very likely accounts for its influence outside of psychoanalysis.) There are two pieces of evidence for this interpretation of the projection theory.

As I've amply demonstrated (I, an undegreed layman, no less!), these are by no means 'intellectual gaffes'. Onwards.

The first is that this theory had been clearly articulated many years earlier by Ludwig Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity (1841, 1957). Feuerbach's interpretation was well-known in European intellectual circles, and Freud, as a youth, read Feuerbach avidly (see Gedo & Pollock, 1976, pp. 47, 350). Here are some representative quotes from Feuerbach which make this clear:

What man misses- whether this be an articulate and therefore conscious, or an unconscious, need-that is his God. (1841, 1957, p. 33)

Man projects his nature into the world outside himself before he finds it in himself. (p. 11)

To live in projected dream-images is the essence of religion. Religion sacrifices reality to the projected dream. . . (p. 49)

Many other quotes could be provided in which Feuerbach describes religion in "Freudian" terms such as wish-fulfillment, etc. What Freud did with this argument was to revive it in a more eloquent form, and publish it at a later time when the audience desiring to hear such a theory was much larger. And, of course, somehow the findings and theory of psychoanalysis were implied as giving the theory strong support. The Feuerbachian character of Freud's Illusion position is also demonstrated by such notions as "the crushing superior force of nature" and the "terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood," which are not psychoanalytic in terminology or in meaning.

Wait: you can't declare either 'notion' as devoid of meaning, unless you can demonstrate that. Calling an oxen a cow doesn't mean it metamorphs into the label. As to 'a superior force of nature', I'm sure any of us can name at least one. As to 'helplessness in childhood' - has this professor ever suffered as a child at the hands of a larger bully? What errant crap.

The other piece of evidence for the nonpsychoanalytic basis of the projection theory comes directly from Freud, who explicitly says so himself. In a letter of 1927 to his friend Oskar Pfister (an early psychoanalyst, and believing Protestant pastor), Freud wrote:

Let us be quite clear on the point that the views expressed in my book (The Future of an Illusion) form no part of analytic theory. They are my personal views. (Freud/Pfister, 1963, p. 117).

There is one other somewhat different interpretation of belief in God which Freud also developed, but although this has a very modest psychoanalytic character, it is really an adaptation of Feuerbachian projection theory. This is Freud's relatively neglected interpretation of the ego ideal. The super-ego, including the ego ideal is the "heir of the Oedipus complex," representing a projection of an idealized father-and presumably of God the Father (see Freud, 1923, 1962, pp. 26-28; p. 38).

So now hold on here: earlier, Vitz claims that atheism is at the root of all psychoanalysis, goes on at length about Freud, but Sigmund stipulates in his own words that his views on religion (and I quote) "Form no part of analytic theory". Confused yet? So am I.

I might also note, that the dear professor seems to be guilty of quote-mining:

From the The Future of an Illusion Wiki entry:

"Freud, who spent his life trying to destroy illusions and complete what Max Weber called the "disenchantment of the world," seems to hesitate when it comes to the future of religious phenomena. He says he is in favor of "retaining the religious doctrinal system as the basis of education and of man's communal life." Just as Charles Maurras at the time defended Catholicism as an element of political order in spite of his naturalist positivism, Freud, in spite of his atheism, defended Christian education (the teaching of religion was required in Austrian schools) "which is so important for the safeguarding of civilization."

The difficulty here is that the ego ideal did not really receive great attention or development within Freud's writings. Furthermore, it is easily interpreted as an adoption of Feuerbach's projection theory. Thus, we can conclude that psychoanalysis does not in actuality provide significant theoretical concepts for characterizing belief in God as neurotic. Freud either used Feuerbach's much older projection or illusion theory or incorporated Feuerbach in his notion of the ego ideal. Presumably, this is the reason Freud acknowledged to Pfister that his Illusion book was not a true part of psychoanalysis.

Ummm...newsflash: projection is a valid psychological modality. So all this is idle speculation. Note that there's no valid debunking of Feuerbach (just a brief speculative sketch, later), just Freud (the latter whom, by the way, is very much in disrepute anyways, even being that he was the father of psychoanalysis).

Atheism as Oedipal Wish Fulfillment

Nevertheless, Freud is quite right to worry that a belief can be an illusion because it derives from powerful wishes- from unconscious, childish needs. The irony is that he clearly did provide a very powerful, new way to understand the neurotic basis of atheism. (For a detailed development of this position see Vitz and Gartner, 1984a, b; Vitz, 1986, in press.)

'Turnabout is fair play', I suppose

The Oedipus Complex

The central concept in Freud's work, aside from the unconscious, is the now well-known Oedipus Complex. In the case of male personality development, the essential features of this complex are the following: Roughly in the age period of three to six the boy develops a strong sexual desire for the mother. At the same time the boy develops an intense hatred and fear of the father, and a desire to supplant him, a "craving for power." This hatred is based on the boy's knowledge that the father, with his greater size and strength, stands in the way of his desire. The child's fear of the father may explicitly be a fear of castration by the father, but more typically, it has a less specific character. The son does not really kill the father, of course, but patricide is assumed to be a common preoccupation of his fantasies and dreams. The "resolution" of the complex is supposed to occur through the boy's recognition that he cannot replace the father, and through fear of castration, which eventually leads the boy to identify with the father, to identify with the aggressor, and to repress the original frightening components of the complex.

Most of this, as I've said before, has fallen into disrepute. For something that Vitz stipulates as the core of Freud's atheism, old Sigmund devoted very little of his writings to it. For a more exacting, nuanced version on the Oedipus Rex Complex (herein referred to as ORC), read here. Whether Vitz was indulging in simplistic reductionism, or was encapsulating for a brief talk remains unclear: I'd ascribe the latter, but for his obvious bias.

It is important to keep in mind that, according to Freud, the Oedipus complex is never truly resolved, and is capable of activation at later periods-almost always, for example, at puberty. Thus the powerful ingredients of murderous hate and of incestuous sexual desire within a family context are never in fact removed. Instead, they are covered over and repressed. Freud expresses the neurotic potential of this situation:

The Oedipus-complex is the actual nucleus of neuroses . . . What remains of the complex in the unconscious represents the disposition to the later development of neuroses in the adult (Freud, 1919, Standard Edition, 17, p. 193; also 1905, S.E. 7, p. 226ff.; 1909, S.E., 11, p. 47).

In short, all human neuroses derive from this complex. Obviously, in most cases, this potential is not expressed in any seriously neurotic manner. Instead it shows up in attitudes toward authority, in dreams, slips of the tongue, transient irrationalities, etc.

Now wait just a minute: can the good professor make up his mind? He ascribes all neuroses to the ORC, when Freud, by his own words stipulates that it wasn't anywhere near being a core value. I've searched for this quote online - and it only appears in Vitz's writings. It is possible that Freud said it, but I'd like to confirm it within context.

Now, in postulating a universal Oedipus complex as the origin of all our neuroses, Freud inadvertently developed a straightforward rationale for understanding the wish-fulfilling origin of rejecting God. After all, the Oedipus complex is unconscious, it is established in childhood and, above all, its dominant motive is hatred of the father and the desire for him not to exist, especially as represented by the desire to overthrow or kill the father. Freud regularly described God as a psychological equivalent to the father, and so a natural expression of Oedipal motivation would be powerful, unconscious desires for the nonexistence of God. Therefore, in the Freudian framework, atheism is an illusion caused by the Oedipal desire to kill the father and replace him with oneself. To act as if God does not exist is an obvious, not so subtle disguise for a wish to kill Him, much the same way as in a dream, the image of a parent going away or disappearing can represent such a wish: "God is dead" is simply an undisguised Oedipal wish-fulfillment.

That is strawman #3, see the commentary above this paragraph.

It is certainly not hard to understand the Oedipal character of so much contemporary atheism and skepticism. Hugh Heffner, even James Bond, with their rejection of God plus their countless girls, are so obviously living out Freud's Oedipal and primal rebellion (e.g., Totem and Taboo). So are countless other skeptics who live out variations of the same scenario of exploitative sexual permissiveness combined with narcissistic self-worship.

Oh, no doubt. I wonder where Dennet, PZ Meyers, Dawkins and their cohorts secrete their little harems? Who historically had harems, anyways? Solomon springs to mind. Some ancient caliphs, no doubt. Mormons. Statistics show that religious folks have more morality issues than non-religious. (Psst! James Bond is a fictional character.)

And, of course, the Oedipal dream is not only to kill the father and possess the mother or other women in the group but also to displace him. Modern atheism has attempted to accomplish this. Now man, not God, is the consciously specified ultimate source of goodness and power in the universe. Humanistic philosophies glorify him and his "potential" much the same way religion glorifies the Creator. We have devolved from one God to many gods to everyone a god. In essence, man-through his narcissism and Oedipal wishes-has tried to succeed where Satan failed, by seating himself on the throne of God. Thanks to Freud it is now easier to understand the deeply neurotic, thoroughly untrustworthy psychology of this unbelief.

And of course, Old Scratch Hisself rises from this lop-sided analysis, whispering his sweet nothings in our collective ears. Obviously, this is the Tu Quoque writ large: that is, accusing the opposition of like behavior. Most atheists I'm aware of posit that we are the repository of all things good, but only in relation to our own species, hardly the universe. I'm with Feuerbach on this one: we're just projecting ourselves onto the universe, and trying to remake it in our own image.

One interesting example of the Oedipal motivation proposed here is that of Voltaire, a leading skeptic about all things religious who denied the Christian and Jewish notion of a personal God-of God as a Father. Voltaire was a theist or deist who believed in a cosmic, depersonalized God of unknown character.

Nice to qualify that post ex facto. I say it's pretty easy to depersonalize someone who never makes an appearance, but what do I know?

The psychologically important thing about Voltaire is that he strongly rejected his father-so much that he rejected his father's name and took the name "Voltaire." It is not exactly certain where the new name came from but one widely held interpretation is that it was constructed from the letters of his mother's last name. When Voltaire was in his early twenties (in 1718), he published a play entitled "Oedipus" (Edipe), the first one of his plays to be publicly performed. The play itself recounts the classic legend with heavy allusions to religious and political rebellion. Throughout his life, Voltaire (like Freud) toyed with the idea that he was not his father's son. He apparently felt the desire to be from a higher, more aristocratic family than his actual middle-class background. (A major expression of this concern with having a more worthy father is the play Candide.) In short, Voltaire's hostility to his own father, his religious rejection of God the Father, and his political rejection of the king-an acknowledged father figure-are all reflections of the same basic needs. Psychologically speaking, Voltaire's rebellion against his father and against God are easily interpretable as Oedipal wish fulfillment, as comforting illusions, and therefore, following Freud, as beliefs and attitudes unworthy of a mature mind.

Voltaire, as I've stated before, didn't reject the concept of a father-god: instead, he relegated it to an abstract concept, which is hardly the same as outright denial.

Diderot, the great Encyclopaedist and an avowed atheist-indeed he is one of the founding brothers of modern atheism-also had both Oedipal preoccupation and insight. Freud approvingly quotes Diderot's anticipatory observation:

If the little savage were left to himself, preserving all his foolishness and adding to the small sense of a child in the cradle the violent passions of a man of thirty, he would strangle his father and lie with his mother (from Le neveau de Rameau; quoted by Freud in Lecture XXI of his Introductory Lectures (1916- 1917), S.E., 16, pp. 331-338).

How odd it is, that there's no dissection of Diderot's filial affiliations: probably because of embarrassment, since Denis was raised by Jesuits. Oh, wait! He was an orphan too! Hold on: aren't the Jesuits notoriously draconian? Hmmm...

The Psychology of Atheism: The Theory of Defective Father

I am well aware of the fact that there is good reason to give only limited acceptance to Freud's Oedipal theory. In any case, it is my view that although the Oedipus complex is valid for some, the theory is far from being a universal representation of unconscious motivation. Since there is need for deeper understanding of atheism and since I don't know of any theoretical framework-except the Oedipal one-I am forced to sketch out a model of my own, or really to develop an undeveloped thesis of Freud. In his essay on Leonardo Da Vinci, Freud made the following remark:

Psychoanalysis, which has taught us the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God, has shown us that the personal God is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down (Leonardo Da Vinci, 1910, 1947 p. 98).

Ah, so now he posits that Freud's ORC theories were underdeveloped. Really, burying this deep within the central thesis instead of defining it at the outset is really...disingenuous. I've not read the abstract, but as I understand it, Freud was analyzing Da Vinci in an effort to see if the man was gay.

Short version: the OCR is uni-directional, and directed only at atheists.

This statement makes no assumptions about unconscious sexual desires for the mother, or even about presumed universal competitive hatred focused on the father. Instead he makes the simple easily understandable claim that once a child or youth is disappointed in and loses his or her respect for their earthly father, then belief in their heavenly Father becomes impossible. There are, of course, many ways that a father can lose his authority and seriously disappoint a child. Some of these ways-for which clinical evidence is given below-are:

  1. He can be present but obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect- even if otherwise pleasant or "nice."
  2. He can be present but physically, sexually, or psychologically abusive.
  3. He can be absent through death or by abandoning or leaving the family.
Taken all together these proposed determinants of atheism will be called the "defective father" hypothesis. To support the validity of this approach, I will conclude by providing case history material from the lives of prominent atheists, for it was in reading the biographies of atheists that this hypothesis first struck me.

So, by using Freud's theories, the attack on atheism begins.

We begin with Sigmund Freud's relationship to his father. That Freud's father, Jacob, was a deep disappointment-or worse-is generally agreed to by his biographers. (For the supporting biographical material on Freud see, for example, Krull, 1979, and Vitz, 1983, 1986.) Specifically, his father was a weak man unable to financially provide for his family. [...]The connection of Jacob to God and religion was also present for his son. Jacob was involved in a kind of reform Judaism when Freud was a child, the two of them spent hours reading the Bible together, and later Jacob became increasingly involved in reading the Talmud and in discussing Jewish scripture. In short, this weak, rather passive "nice guy," this schlemiel, was clearly connected to Judaism and God, and also to a serious lack of courage and quite possibly to sexual perversion and other weaknesses very painful to young Sigmund.

I'm skipping over some of this (hence, the ellipsis), as I have

  1. No desire to develop an apology for Freud,
  2. I adhere more closely to Jung than Freud, and
  3. Freud was a coke addict: thus, his preoccupation with sexuality as a core value.

Very briefly, other famous atheists seem to have had a similar relationship to their fathers. Karl Marx made it clear that he didn't respect his father. An important part in this was that his father converted to Christianity-not out of any religious conviction-but out of a desire to make life easier. He assimilated for convenience. In doing this Marx's father broke an old family tradition. He was the first in his family who did not become a rabbi; indeed, Karl Marx came from a long line of rabbis on both sides of his family.

That's nice: I put no stock in Marx either.

Ludwig Feuerbach's father did something that very easily could have deeply hurt his son. When Feuerbach was about 13, his father left his family and openly took up living with another woman in a different town. This was in Germany in the early 1800s and such a public rejection would have been a scandal and deeply rejecting to young Ludwig-and, of course, to his mother and the other children.

This 'it's all an emotional response' is so...Freudian.

Let us jump 100 years or so and look at the life of one of America's best known atheists-Madelyn Murray O' Hair. Here I will quote from her son's recent book on what life was like in his family when he was a child. (Murray, 1982) The book opens when he is 8-years-old: "We rarely did anything together as a family. Hatred between my grandfather and mother barred such wholesome scenes." (p. 7) He writes that he really didn't know why his mother hated her father so much-but hate him she did, for the opening chapter records a very ugly fight in which she attempts to kill her father with a 10-inch butcher knife. Madelyn failed but screamed, "I'll see you dead. I'll get you yet. I'll walk on your grave!" (p. 8)

Whatever the cause of O'Hair's intense hatred of her father, it is clear from this book that it was deep and that it went back into her childhood-and at least psychological (e.g. p. 11) and possibly physical abuse is a plausible cause.

Note that Vitz doesn't delve any deeper into the subject past two centuries or so. Madelyn Murray O' Hair - obviously an American phenomenon, obviously not someone I hold in high esteem.

Besides abuse, rejection, or cowardice, one way in which a father can be seriously defective is simply by not being there. Many children, of course, interpret death of their father as a kind of betrayal or an act of desertion. In this respect it is remarkable that the pattern of a dead father is so common in the lives of many prominent atheists.

Everyone dies, sport. Are there some feelings of betrayal for some of us? Sure - but until you do an in-depth study of more than a few famous folks (like say, modern-day atheists), this is idle speculation and gossip.

Baron d'Holbach (born Paul Henri Thiry), the French rationalist and probably the first public atheist, is apparently an orphan by the age of 13 and living with his uncle. (From whom he took the new name Holbach.) Bertrand Russell's father died when young Bertrand was 4-years-old; Nietzsche was the same age as Russell when he lost his father; Sartre's father died before Sartre was born and Camus was a year old when he lost his father. (The above biographical information was taken from standard reference sources.) Obviously, much more evidence needs to be obtained on the "defective father" hypothesis. But the information already available is substantial; it is unlikely to be an accident.

I might point out Josh McDowell's rather longish description of his own father and their relationship - how his dad was such a disgusting drunk, they had to tie him up in the barn when company came over. McDowell is now a Bible literalist. Psychoanalyze that, if you please.

The psychology of how a dead or nonexistent father could lay an emotional base for atheism might not seem clear at first glance. But, after all, if one's own father is absent or so weak as to die, or so untrustworthy as to desert, then it is not hard to place the same attribute on your heavenly Father.

That same deity that refuses to manifest itself here in our lives? Deadbeat deity, I always say.

Finally, there is also the early personal experience of suffering, of death, of evil, sometimes combined with anger at God for allowing it to happen. Any early anger at God for the loss of a father and the subsequent suffering is still another and different psychology of unbelief, but one closely related to that of the defective father.

It's easy to see said father as defective or absent, especially when the world seems blind and less than benign.

Some of this psychology is captured in Russell Baker's recent autobiography. (Baker, 1982) Russell Baker is the well-known journalist and humorous writer for the New York Times. His father was taken to the hospital and died there suddenly when young Russell was five. Baker wept and sorrowed and spoke to the family housekeeper, Bessie:

. . . For the first time I thought seriously about God. Between sobs I told Bessie that if God could do things like this to people, then God was hateful and I had no more use for Him.

Bessie told me about the peace of Heaven and the joy of being among the angels and the happiness of my father who was already there. The argument failed to quiet my rage.

"God loves us all just like His own children," Bessie said.

"If God loves me, why did He make my father die?"

Bessie said that I would understand someday, but she was only partly right. That afternoon, though I couldn't have phrased it this way then, I decided that God was a lot less interested in people than anybody in Morrisonville was willing to admit. That day I decided that God was not entirely to be trusted.

After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone's God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five I had become a skeptic . . . (Growing Up, p. 61).

First steps shouldn't be confused with the underlying root in all cases.

Let me conclude by noting that however prevalent the superficial motives for being an atheist, there still remain in many instances the deep and disturbing psychological sources as well. However easy it may be to state the hypothesis of the "defective father," we must not forget the difficulty, the pain, and complexity that lie behind each individual case. And for those whose atheism has been conditioned by a father who rejected, who denied, who hated, who manipulated, or who physically or sexually abused them, there must be understanding and compassion. Certainly for a child to be forced to hate his own father-or even to despair because of his father's weaknesses is a great tragedy. After all, the child only wants to love his father. For any unbeliever whose atheism is grounded in such experience, the believer, blessed by God's love, should pray most especially that ultimately they will both meet in heaven. Meet and embrace and experience great joy. If so, perhaps the former atheist will experience even more joy than the believer. For, in addition to the happiness of the believer, the atheist will have that extra increment that comes from his surprise at finding himself surrounded by joy in, of all places, his Father's house.

So, summary: there's a 'some Christian must've hurt you deeply in the past' buried inside the Freudian ORC (which is a joke wrapped inside an absurdity, in my humble opinion), a distinctly one-sided application of a theory that was never fully fleshed out by its originator. True, Vitz is actually somewhat credentialed in his field, but my next question would be, is he a member of the APA? What is his stance on that association? I might also note, that there is (although not in every case) possibly 'superficial' as well as 'deep and disturbing psychological sources' for being religious as well. I'd be interested in his psychological profiles of such 'false' Christians like Manson, Jones, etc.

Of course, in today's pop-psychology (read: pseudo-quackery), everyone's a 'bruised inner child', and 'mommy/daddy didn't hug me enough', or the disappointment one feels when they discover their heroes had/have feet of clay, this sort of pablum passes as 'insightful' when in fact, it really isn't. When atheism is inserted into the DSM, I might be a little more inclined to listen to him, but not much.

Ticking off the logical fallacies:

Poisoning the well
Strawmen (at least three that I can count)
Tu quoque
False dichotomy
Appeal to authority
Ipse dixit
Appeal to numbers
Petitio Principii
Frozen Abstraction (rejection of god)
Context dropping
False cause (post hoc ergo propter hoc)

Let me know if I missed any.

Till the next post, then.

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Chris Bradley said...

I'm actually sure there are some people who are atheists not because of a measured and rational rejection of god-woo but because of psychological trauma. Some kid gets raped by a priest and they decide to "hate god" -- their hatred derives from their abuse and trauma. They have arrived to a correct proposition for the wrong reasons.

However, what this guy is ignoring is that psychology is a science. Yes, it's presuppositionalist. God has no scientific proof and psychology is a science. Therefore, a scientist can't go around presuming god exists, regardless of the field (at least insofar as science goes). Psychology acts like there are no gods for a reason -- they are scientifically undemonstrated, either in proof or theory.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Chris - oh, I'm sure that there are a few atheists that came to it via psychological trauma. I know 1, in fact.
Likewise, there's many people who come to religion BECAUSE of psychological trauma. There are those who adhere to it in hopes of seeing their loved ones who've passed away.

Vitz's belief seems to overlap into his scientific life. I wonder if he practices, & if so, he keeps his religion out of it?

beepbeepitsme said...

My brain hurts. That was a long post, not sure my brain is up to it.

remy said...

My brain is full. But you did warn us. I haven't much to say except that I especially liked the Phallic list at the end.;)

Krystalline Apostate said...

Well, I did warn y'all - & the word-bytes sometimes fail to go deeper into a subject. I thought this 1 was fairly worth delving into outside of a quick jab. Understanding the other side is crucial, if we're to change minds, win hearts, or deflate stereotypes.
This oedipal rex complex is something that's making the rounds (google it in connection w/atheists, you'll find it almost everywhere).

Chris Bradley said...


Oh, totally, yeah. The number of people who are religious because of abuse is, I'm sure, dwarfs the number of atheists who are that way -- just utterly dwarfs them, not just in raw numbers but in percentages, too. Atheism is not, after all, that comforting, hehe. (It might open doors to beliefs that ARE comforting, from transhumanism to existentialism, but raw atheism isn't going to give most people comfort at night.) And it is my experience that most atheists are atheists not because of trauma (I, myself, was never traumatized by the church) but because religion doesn't make any damn sense, and in a world where sense is valued so much it's hard to stay religious. Absolutely.

I was just trying to say it COULD BE science to study atheists who are atheists because of emotional trauma. It's fair to do that, and even humanitarian, if you're trying to relieve them of their pain.

Of course, this guy isn't doing that. He's writing an apologia for the existence of god in psychological jargon and joins the ranks of intelligent designers as one more crank using pseudo-science to justify his religious beliefs. Nothing to see, here. ;)

beepbeepitsme said...

It is something that many atheists suspect and that is that god belief is a way towards easing existential angst. (Certainly, I have suspected it anyway.)

Once a culture has accepted a method to relieve this existential angst, it is like trying to take Linus' blanket away. Unfortunately, what is not recognized is that Linus wouldn't need the blanket in the first place if he hadn't been convinced that he couldn't survive without it in the first place.

Trying to remove the blanket, just increases the existential angst because Linus can't remember a time when he wasn't dependent upon the blanket to salve his psychological problems.

Krystalline Apostate said...

chris - well, I'm all for a study of those of us who came to it the hard way. Of course, the reverse is true: a study of theists as well.

BBIM - well, there's sufficient EA involved. Most folk want to be immortal.

Mesoforte said...

Very briefly, other famous atheists seem to have had a similar relationship to their fathers.

I think the "atheists have bad relaitonships with their fathers" is a dog that's been kicked one too many times. Its been getting old for a long time.

Leadership U is a super pro-Christian site. Its articles have made so many irrational jumps that it was mentally painful.

Krystalline Apostate said...

MF - yeah, the stereotypes are ridiculous.
We's got a long, long road ahead.

remy said...

Understanding the other side is crucial,

I think I am beginning to understand the xian mind.

I have been listening to a lot of xian radio and, while painful in the extreme, I have confirmed that many are masocistic, others are simply afraid and would rather suspend critical thought in favour of the warm fuzzy feelings imbedded in the breathless prayers they continuously utter. The joy they feel by giving it all to god is a very difficult obstacle to overcome. If one were to judge by a couple of them on NGB, I would bet that it's impossible in some cases.

I even listened to the "music" which I must say was far more painful than the proselytizing. It is full of phrazes about being filled up and through and in. It all has a cult feel to it; it frightens me.

beepbeepitsme said...


Needless to say I consider that religions are cults. This doesn't automatically mean that cults are by definition "bad" or "wrong."

What it does suggest is that cult mentality precludes the idea that the cult may be wrong.

I am willing to accept that I may be wrong about many issues, including that of god belief. Those who demonstrate cult mentality are unable to accept that they might be wrong. It is the inability to accept this, which makes any form of cult mentality dangerous to those who do not share it.

I merely don't believe because I haven't been convinced. If theists had better arguments, there wouldn't be atheists.

Chris Bradley said...

The joy they feel by giving it all to god is a very difficult obstacle to overcome.

This might be one of the key thoughts to really destroying the influence of religion. We should find a way that more efficiently gives them what they need, that joy in feeling religious, and have it be safe and rational. ;)

remy said...

I am a wee but surprised by: This doesn't automatically mean that cults by definition are "bad" or "wrong."

You will have to give me your definition of cult before I can form an opinion here. I think we may have a diferent view.

On a Sadie topic, gawd may have spreken to me: KA caused a hair-line crack in in her carapace and her somewhat petulant departure seems to me to indicate that she has been infected by logic.

Chris, As to theists finding joy in rationality; 't ain't never goin' happen.;)

beepbeepitsme said...


I say this - "This doesn't automatically mean that cults by definition are "bad" or "wrong."- because the word "cult" hasn't always historically had a negative implication to the people who belonged to them.

I think that the Greeks and the Egyptians had many religious cults which the members themselves probably had no difficulty in describing as a cult. The word "cult" in that sense was probably used to infer a kind of exclusivity and to define themselves from other cults.

It may have been in more modern times that the word has an automatic unsavoury meaning. Maybe because it was used by christians to define all those other groups which did not have the "one true religion."

So, believers today who consider that there is only ONE right religion, tend to use the word religion to differentiate themselves from all the other groups which they refer to as cults.

Where there was in places like greece and egypt many gods and therefore many cults, a cult wasn't a negative description. They were just the Cult of Osiris, the Cult of Demeter etc etc.

In cultures where it was accepted that there was many gods and goddesses and many cults - and less of a cultural push to choose the "one and only true cult" - the word wasn't imbued with negative meaning.

Now, I could be completely talking out of my asp, but this is the impression I have about the original use of the word "cult."

remy said...

I completely understand. I have obviously succumbed to the modern notion of "cult".

Your reference to ancient cults reminded me of how the Romans were just fine with the various religious cults including the xians, until they claimed that everyone ought to follow them. Despite their despotic interests, the Romans were quite Liberal. Then again, one had to be of a certain class. Oh, the good old days.

Zac Hunter said...

Chris Bradley:
This might be one of the key thoughts to really destroying the influence of religion. We should find a way that more efficiently gives them what they need, that joy in feeling religious, and have it be safe and rational. ;)

But wouldn't that be all the stuff the bibble tells us not to do? I always found that sloth, coveting and premarital sex did the trick.