Featured Article

How important are fathers?

Exploring the role of fathers on one's faith life.

By Harold Takooshian, PhD

How important are fathers?1 Are dads less important than moms? This essay briefly reviews this question, based on some surprising revelations from recent psychological research on attachment theory and the role of fathers in our faith life—a connection between our earthly and heavenly fathers.

Inspiring Fathers

On Father's Day 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama surely touched people's hearts with his own candid message: "I never really knew my own father... I still wish I had a dad who was not only around, but involved." Scripture surely emphasizes the importance of a virtuous father. In Ephesians 6:4, Paul counsels, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In his book “In Other Words,” Pastor Peter Doghramji (2004, pp. 215-216) uses this sentence for his Father's Day message—that like Christ Himself, the ideal father teaches his children by example to love the Lord—with love, not reproof.

Yet U.S. popular culture does not emphasize fathers. In the United States, Mother's Day has been celebrated since President Woodrow Wilson's administration in 1914, but Father's Day has been celebrated only since President Richard Nixon administration in 1972—a gap of half a century.

Pastor D. James Kennedy told this story, which is well-known in Christian circles: A missionary back home in the U.S. did not want to overlook local needs, so just before Mother's Day he brought 200 Mother's Day cards with envelopes for the 300 inmates in a nearby prison. He was both happy and sad when every prisoner quickly used a card, but he was 100 short, so he decided to return before Father's Day with 300 more cards. But on his return, these cards went unused. Prisoners explained they either had no use for their father or did not even know who or where he was.

Of course, a close reading of this story does not show the unimportance of fathers but rather their vital importance. Our prisons are full of men who lacked a loving father as a guide, protector or role model. In 1996, author David Blanckhorn reported that a man raised without a father is 20 times more likely to be in prison. One former prisoner himself, Charles Colson, founded Prison Fellowship to help prisoners turn their eyes upward to discover the Heavenly Father who loves them so much.

Behavioral Research

It is only in recent years that psychological science has gone beyond motherhood to document the immense importance of fathers, which goes beyond their own family to impact all of society. Consider the little-known but stunning discoveries that psychologist Paul Vitz of New York University reported in his book “Faith of the Fatherless” (1999). Here, using attachment theory, we review three disparate facts, which become awesome when linked:

  • Bloody. The 20th century was by far the bloodiest century in human history, with over 160 million people killed in armed conflicts—more than in all past centuries combined.
  • Atheism. Unlike religious wars in past centuries, this modern violence was perpetrated by radical atheists—Nazis, fascists, Bolsheviks, Chinese communists, Japanese militarists.
  • Fathers. If we look closely, we see one thing these atheist leaders clearly shared—their hatred for their earthly father.

Unlike agnostics who question the concept of a supreme being, radical atheists hate the idea of God. In his book, Vitz simply recounts the childhoods of a score of radical atheists and finds a clear picture of sons raised by abusive or absent fathers. Four clear examples are offered here.

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was raised in Austria by Alois Schickelgruber (1837-1903), an alcoholic civil servant, who routinely beat his wife Clara and two sons so severely that Adolf's younger brother ran away from home, leaving Adolf to fend off these beatings. Adolf so hated his father that he adopted his beloved mother Clara Hitler's surname, and his atheist Nazi movement was an enemy of the church.

Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was raised in Georgia by Vissarion Djughashvili (1850-1909), a shoemaker who beat his family regularly, to the point where Josef tried to defend his family by physically attacking his father. His beloved mother planned his career in the priesthood, but Josef rebelled, changing his surname to Stalin (Russian for "steel"), and becoming a violent Bolshevik atheist.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was raised in China by his wealthy and unloving businessman father, Mao Yichang (1870-1920), who often chastised his son as a lazy good-for-nothing, to the point that the son hated his father as much as he adored his protective mother. He became a violent Marxist enemy of religion and capitalism.

Between these three atheist leaders, the killing of civilians was estimated at over 130 million souls: 14 million in Hitler's Europe, 43 million in Stalin's Russia and 75 million in Mao's China. If historian Thomas Carlyle was correct that "The history of humanity is the history of great men writ large," we can barely comprehend the devastation these three abusive fathers had on humanity.

In dozens of examples like these three, Vitz' attachment theory found that a youngster naturally transfers his feelings towards his earthly father to a Heavenly father. A fourth example may be the most revealing of all.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was the son of the Reverend Carl Ludwig Nietzsche (1813-1849) in Prussia. As an adult philosopher, Nietzsche was known for his strident anti-Christian philosophy of the ubermensch (superman) that provided a philosophical basis for Nazism and Aryan supremacy. Unlike other fathers, Reverend Carl Ludwig Nietzsche was adored by all around him, especially young Friedrich, who suddenly felt abandoned and unloved when Carl died suddenly when Friedrich was just five years old. Those familiar with Nietzsche's philosophy know its core mantra: "God is dead!" Like Vitz, we can only guess if this passionate philosopher ever saw any connection between his youthful loss of his beloved father and his later "God is dead!" philosophy.

In his lectures, Vitz provides a contemporary example that is also telling. Albert Ellis (1913-2013) is widely known among fellow psychologists for his rational emotive behavior therapy, which actually debunks one's belief in God as a sort of irrational thinking that causes pathology. When Vitz and Ellis debated this issue, Ellis described himself as a clear exception to Vitz' findings, since he was an atheist who felt warm towards his father. It was only much later that Vitz spoke with Ellis' publisher, who was surprised and noted that Ellis' biography described how he despised his father—an open adulterer known for mistreating his wife and family.

Vitz' narratives reveal a clear trend—that youngsters who hated their fathers became God haters. Another set of Vitz' biographies reveal the opposite—that devout theists tend to love their fathers. Time will tell how much our more systematic survey research confirms this anecdotal trend. Meanwhile, we can look around us to see how much this trend fits the celebrities and leaders we see around us today.

1 How a child relates to their earthly father is a powerful force to shape how they later relate to their heavenly father. A good or bad father impacts not only his children but all of society. In the 20th century, this fact was the subtle but overpowering source of worldwide havoc, as the ruptured paternal relations of a handful of disturbed world leaders fomented so much misery and mayhem.

About the Author

Harold Takooshian, PhDHarold Takooshian, PhD, has served on the faculty of Fordham University since 1975, where he is also the director of the Organizational Leadership Program and the Fordham Institute, which consults on research for industry and government. He is past president of the American Psychological Association Div. 52 (International Psychology) and a psychology representative to the United Nations headquarters in New York City.  Additional information is available at Takooshian's website.


Blanckenhorn, D. (1996). Fatherless America. New York: Harper Collins.

Doghramji, P.B. (2004). In other words. New York: Armenian Evangelical Church of New York.

Vitz, P.C. (1999). Faith of the fatherless. Dallas, TX: Spence.