A number of years ago psychology professor Paul Vitz wrote a book with the title Faith of the Fatherless. In it he pointed out that many atheists maintain that religious belief arises from psychological factors.
Sigmund Freud, for instance, saw belief as a form of wish-fulfilment, an illusion deriving from powerful wishes or unconscious infantile needs.
The irony of this “projection theory”, Vitz says, is that it actually provides us with an explanation for unbelief rather than faith. According to him, it “provides a powerful new way to understand an illusion as the psychological basis for rejecting God — that is, a projection theory of atheism.”
A case in point: The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously proclaimed that “God is dead”. What few people know is that his father was a Lutheran minister who passed away a few months before Nietzsche’s fifth birthday. His conclusion might very well have been a way of dealing with his childhood loss – code for “Dad is dead”.
Nietzsche’s case is by no means an exception. Jean-Paul Sartre, Bertrand Russell, David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer and Albert Camus were all atheistic philosophers who lost their fathers at a young age. Vitz mentions that many other famous unbelievers also had troublesome relationships with their fathers. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Freud, Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Butler and H.G. Wells all had abusive or weak fathers.
We can learn a number of things from Vitz’s book. More important than the insight into unbelief is the disturbing, yet glorious truth of how our children are affected by our actions. We fashion their understanding of God.
This may provide one reason why the Bible is so concerned with the plight of orphans. Where there is no parent to represent God to a little one, Christians should be ready to step in and fill the void.