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Atheism and Fatherlessness | A Review of Paul Vitz's Faith of the Fatherless | Father Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism,
by Paul C. Vitz, was published in 1999 but deserves to be recalled frequently
with renewed attention.
The crisis of
fatherlessness is partly cultural. We experience it acutely in the United
States. Teachers and pastors witness its devastating effects every day. An
abnormal ideological feminism at times enters the vacuum created by
fatherlessness. Fatherlessness also can generate homoeroticism or a frantic
search for some "spirituality of masculinity."
Indeed, both boys and
girls need a wise father who encourages them and strengthens them, and provides
what a mother cannot. In society today, the need for true fathers has become
desperate, though by the grace of God generous grandfathers have stepped forward
to care for the young. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote
movingly about this in My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir, published earlier this year.
Vitz takes a broad
historical sweep of atheists from the Enlightenment to our own day. In most
cases alienation from God was a reaction to an absent or defective father.
Similarly, a survey of staunch believers of the last two centuries shows that
most of them had a close relationship with their father or instead enjoyed an
effective father substitute.
An example is the life
of Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), whose father died when Hilaire was two. Henry
Edward Cardinal Manning of Westminster was a real father figure to the young
Hilaire, and Belloc matured in the way men do whose biological fathers helped
them along the way.
As an Anglican
clergyman, Manning lost his wife, so he knew the sorrow of widowhood
personally. Later as a Catholic, when he became cardinal-archbishop, he
maintained his role as father and found time to spend with the teenage Belloc
despite the many pressing duties of office.
Vitz gives us an
autobiographical section in which he explains his own "superficial"
atheism as a young American academic. His atheism was more a social conformity
and a career need than a damaged relationship with his father. A positive
father relationship probably helped him overcome temporary atheism and made
possible his serious adult conversion to the Catholic faith.
Faith of the
Fatherless does not mention the
strong rumors that the dying Jean-Paul Sartre converted to theism, and it was
written before the aging Antony Flew converted from philosophical atheism to
philosophical theism. And of course Vitz wrote well before atheist Philip
Pullman's The Golden Compass
became so well known. We eagerly await information on Pullman's relationship
with his father.
But Vitz's selection
of authors to analyze is interesting and adequate. On the atheist side we study
29 intellectuals or world leaders from the 18th century to the present. These
include those who suffered from deceased fathers, weak fathers, absent fathers
or abusive ones.
On the theist side we
get thumbnail sketches of 24 examples of believing Christians and Jews. Some,
such as Don Bosco, who himself became an effective substitute father to hundreds
of industrial-age orphans, found effective substitute fathers. There are
exceptional cases as well as cases with qualifications, but these tend to
support the hypothesis.
This book is short and
readable. High school teachers could use it for class. The book would actually
introduce students to western civilization by way of the "glue" that
has traditionally held it together—religion.
Students could draw
their own conclusions as to what happens when a failed father fuels atheism,
especially the atheism of great thinkers, artists and leaders. And the
"decline of the west" makes more sense when we consider the
consequence if the role of the father decays.
The psychology of unbelief
is a fascinating field, and according to Vitz it is mostly about
fatherlessness. This field is a corollary to the traditional Christian teaching
on marriage and family.
This article was originally published on December 21, 2007 by St. Louis Review and is reprinted here
by kind permission of St. Louis Review and Father Van Hove.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
AtheismForChildren.com | Website for
Pied Piper of
Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy, by Sandra Miesel and Pete Vere
The Obfuscation of the New Atheism | Dr. Jose Maria Yulo
Professor Dawkins and the Origins of
Religion | Thomas Crean, O.P.
Are Truth, Faith,
and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Ratzinger
Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Evil? Secularism's Pride and Irrational Prejudice | Carl E. Olson
Introduction to Atheism | Carl E. Olson
Case for Christianity | An Interview with Richard Purtill
Paganism and the Conversion of C.S. Lewis | Clotilde Morhan
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview
with Dr. Benjamin Wiker
The Mythological Conflict
Between Christianity and Science | An interview with Dr. Stephen Barr
The Source of Certitude | Fr. Thomas
Deadly Architects | An Interview with
Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker
The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
Father Van Hove, S.J., is on staff at the White House Retreat in South County (St. Louis, Missouri).
Faith of the Fatherless is available
in both hardcover and paperback, and was published by Spence Publishing.
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