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.
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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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