In this issue

Response to “What are Fathers For”

A critique of “What are Fathers For” from the Summer 2016 issue.

By Joseph Langston, MA

I have two primary disagreements with the recent entry of Harold Takooshian. First, Takooshian mentions that the work of psychologist Paul Vitz on atheism is “little-known”; perhaps this is because it is also little-supported, empirically speaking (Pasquale). Vitz was intent upon turning Freud on his head. His book offers a defective father hypothesis (DFH). Instead of our belief in God being a matter of unconscious wish projection and fulfillment, atheism is a result of the template (or in the language of attachment theory, internal working model) upon which our belief in God is based: our earthly father. Bad or absent fathers thus lead to a break in our relationship with a heavenly father.

Obviously, one cannot get very experimental in terms of assigning individuals to have or not have a father. Yet, there are statistical indicators which could establish a link between bad or absent fathers and atheism. One would be a moderately strong correlation between presence/absence of father in early childhood and present belief/nonbelief in God. Another would be a regression analysis using the former variable to predict the latter, something that I myself tried to establish in a previous (unpublished) manuscript, using the General Social Survey, but with no positive results. Ultimately, empirical studies have failed to turn up evidence of a link between absent or poor father figures during childhood and atheism (see also Baker, 2016).  If this relationship existed, we would find it at the level of population statistics. But we don't.

Five additional points that cast doubt on DFH will suffice. First, statistically speaking, men are more likely to be atheists (a roughly 1:2 ratio in America); is there sufficient evidence that men, more often than women, have bad or absent fathers? Second, in America, fatherlessness tends to be a disproportionate social problem in the African-American community, and yet, African-Americans evince proportionately lower rates of atheism than whites. Third, given that most children wind up with their mothers in the event of a divorce, do we find some “expected” difference in the divorce rates for parents of self-declared atheists and theists? Fourth, while dominant concepts of God are masculine, a number of traits often ascribed to God are arguably more associated in the popular imagination with a feminine construct (i.e. compassionate, comforting, merciful). Among those for whom a feminine construct of God is more dominant, would we find a defective mother hypothesis?

Fifth, in Chapter 10 of "Faith No More," sociologist Phil Zuckerman discusses the reasons his respondents (only some of whom were atheists, the others being nonreligious apostates) gave for the rejection of faith, broadly categorized as: “parents; education; misfortune; other cultures/other religions; friends, colleagues, lovers; politics; sex; Satan and hell; and malfeasance of religious associates.”  If bad or absent fathers played a strong role, this would emerge as a more exclusive or major theme in self-reports. It isn't persuasive to say that bad/absent fathers' influence on atheism cannot be detected at conscious level but somehow exerts a substantial effect at the unconscious level. That is, if so few people ever consciously express the role of their bad or absent father as a reason for their atheism, it becomes harder to suspect that this is operative at the unconscious level.

My second primary disagreement with Takooshian concerns his lack of historical depth, lack of terminological specificity, and outright inaccuracy, fleshed out here in four points.  First, when we estimate deaths from global and historical “multicides” (see Table 1; White, 2012), we discover that most deaths aren't due to violent or dictatorial regimes led by atheists. This is not some veiled way of saying that religious figures, regimes, or ideologies are more responsible, but rather, it is to say that once we consider a more holistic context, we discover other factors that need to be taken into account, such as ideology, status, oppression and political and military power.  Pointedly, there is no way to know if certain men cited by Takooshian would not have led their followers to the same course of action had they in fact not been atheists. (As a relevant side note, Ellis and Nietzsche were not despots, so it strikes me as odd to add them to the same "line up" as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong, all three of whom were national leaders with immense political and military power).


Table 1. History's Top 12 "Multicides"

Multicide Type Estimated No. of Deaths (in millions)
World War II (1931-45) world war


reign of Chinnggis Khan, Mongolia (1206-27) regional war 40
reign of Mao Zedong, China (1949-76) institutional oppression 40
British India famines (18th-20th centuries) commercial exploitation 27
fall of Ming Dynasty, China (1635-62) failed state 25
Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) messianic uprising 20
reign of Joseph Stalin, Russin (1928-53) institutional oppression 20
slave trade, Mideast (7th-9th centuries) commercial exploitation 18.5
reign of Timur, Central Asia (1370-1405 regional war 17
slave trade, Americas (1452-1807) commercial exploitation 16
conquering of the Americas (after 1492) colonial conquest 15
World War I (1914-18) hegemonial war 15
Total   319.5

Second, there is no explicit or definitive evidence that Hitler was an atheist, and certainly a majority of the men under his military command were not.  Thus, the implication of an “atheist Nazi movement” is historically unsustainable. Third, it is not clear what a “radical” atheist is, or how they would be different from “non-radical” atheists; such a qualifier seems too subjective and underspecified to be useful in this specific discourse. For example, perhaps the culprit factor behind acts of atrocity is whatever makes one a “radical” anything, rather than atheism per se. One might be a radical atheist, Christian, Marxist, Communist, animal rights activist, etc. Bluntly speaking, “radicalism” does not bear a necessary connection to anything. Finally, there is a semantically bankrupt connection between “hating God” (“God-haters,” in Takooshian's phrasing) and atheists. If one only hates God, one is not an atheist, even if one self-labels as such. Such a phrase also erroneously implies that there are no atheists who wish there were a God but simply cannot bring themselves to believe for whatever reason.

One's religious socialization in childhood tends to be a strong predictor of future religious affiliation and commitment. Not having parents or guardians can lead to a significant weakening or break in religious socialization; the quality of such socialization also matters a great deal. If one grew up with a present and warm, loving father who wasn't actively invested in religious socialization, then this child may become nonreligious, or even an atheist. Of course, there are other trajectories to atheism where strong father-child relationships remain part of the picture. To the extent that parent-child relations influence later religious belief and identity, this is a more promising way to think about things than is the DFH. In the end, Freud attempted, quite inaccurately and with much motivated reasoning, to develop pathological explanations of religion and belief in God. Why revisit this same error upon him and similar theorists, much for the same reasons? The kind of "faith" that Takooshian, and Vitz, confer on the DFH is misplaced, if mainly because a qualitative glance into a limited and cherry-picked sample alone doesn't constitute a best-evidence practice any more than armchair musing about God and the unconscious.

About the Author

Joseph Langston, BS, BA, MAJoseph Langston, BS, BA, MA, is a research associate in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the United States Air Force Academy. His research interests include sociology and psychology of religion/atheism, the history of atheism and the origins and effects of atheism and religious belief. His prior research focused on testing explanations of the origins or causes of atheism, and on the atheist movement and its organizations in America. In fall 2014, he served his first academic post as lecturer of religion in society at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. His current research examines how and why American atheists convert to Christianity.


Baker, M. (2016).  The atheist personality: Why some people are more likely to give upGod. UsefulCharts Publishing.

Pasquale, F. L. (2010). An assessment of the role of early parental loss in the adoption of atheism or irreligion. Archive for the Psychology of Religion 32(3), 375—96.

White, M. (2012). The great big book of horrible things: The definitive chronicle of history's100 worst atrocities (pp. 529; 543—54). New York: W.W. Norton.

Zuckerman, P. (2015). Faith no more: Why people reject religion. Chicago: Oxford University P.