For an in-depth review, click here.
THE ATHEISTS DISCUSSED thus far are all scholars. But, of course, not all atheists are academics. Like believers, they can be found in every sphere of society. In fact, some of the more well known atheists are celebrities. Actress Jodie Foster, for example, has spoken openly about her rejection of all things spiritual. In an interesting case of art imitating life, she has noted the similarities between her own beliefs and those of Eleanor Arroway, the astronomer she plays in the film Contact:
I absolutely believe what Ellie believes—that there is no direct evidence [for God], so how could you ask me to believe in God when there’s absolutely no evidence that I can see? I do believe in the beauty and the awe-inspiring mystery of the science that’s out there that we haven’t discovered yet, that there are scientific explanations for phenomena that we call mystical because we don’t know any better.1
The late George Carlin was more emphatic about his atheism, even turning an anti-religion harangue into a comedy bit. Here is an excerpt from his 1999 HBO special:
When it comes to believing in God, I really tried. I really, really tried. I tried to believe that there is a God, who created each of us in His own image and likeness, loves us very much, and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that, but I gotta tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize . . . something is wrong here.War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a Supreme Being. This is the kind of [stuff] you’d expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.2
So Carlin gave up his efforts to believe in God.He opted for atheism “rather than be just another . . . religious robot, mindlessly and aimlessly and blindly believing that all of this is in the hands of some spooky incompetent father figure who doesn’t [care].”3 Notice that Carlin’s and Foster’s reasons for unbelief are founded on the two pillars of atheism discussed earlier. Foster’s rationale for her view reveals a latent positivism, the notion that all knowledge must be verifiable by the senses. Carlin, on the other hand, provides a tart version of the objection fromevil, which is as thought-provoking as it is irreverent.4 But Jodie Foster and George Carlin have more in common than just being thoughtful celebrity atheists. They also share the experience of having lost their fathers while they were young. Before she was even born, Foster’s father left her family.Hermother raised young Jodie, eventually guiding her into the acting career she enjoys to this day. Carlin also grew up fatherless. His mother left his alcoholic, abusive father when George was two months old, and she raised him and his older brother on her own.
Is there any relevance to the fact that these two atheists grew up without a father? Some recent research strongly suggests that there is. In this chapter we will look at evidence for the claim that broken father relationships are a contributing cause of atheism. We will also consider evidence that immoral behavior plays a significant role in motivating views on ethics and religion.We will see how desires often drive a person’s beliefs when it comes to such issues, and I will propose that herein lies the explanation for atheism.
THE FAITH OFTHE FATHERLESS
Paul C.Vitz teaches psychology at NewYork University. Though now a practicing Roman Catholic,Vitz was an atheist until his late thirties. Reflecting on his change of mind, Vitz observes that his “reasons” for becoming an atheist in the first place, during his college years,were not intellectual so much as social and psychological. Eventually, he began to focus his psychological research on atheism, and in 1999 he published the provocative Faith of the Fatherless,which proposes that “atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates.”5 Looking at the lives of numerous renowned atheists,Vitz’s study reveals a stunning link between atheism and fatherlessness. This he expresses as the “defective father hypothesis”—the notion that a broken relationship with one’s father predisposes some people to reject God.
While some might be critical of any attempt to psychologize the phenomenon of atheism,Vitz notes: “We must remember that it is atheists themselves who began the psychological approach to the question of belief.”6 Turnabout, as they say, is fair play.Of course, a principal figure to whom Vitz’s observation applies is Sigmund Freud,whomaintained that religious belief arises out of psychological need.According to Freud, people project their concept of a loving father to the entire cosmos to fulfill their wish for ultimate comfort in a dangerous world.However, it was this same Freud who developed the concept of the “Oedipus complex,” characterized by a repressed sexual desire for one’smother andmurderous jealousy of one’s father.Vitz notes that here Freud inadvertently provides a straightforward rationale for understanding the wish-fulfilling origin of the rejection of God. . . . Freud makes the simple and easily understandable claim that once a child or youth is disappointed in or loses respect for his earthly father, belief in a heavenly father becomes impossible. . . . In other words, an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.7
Thus, Freud’s own theory can be used to explain atheism. And, as Vitz proceeds to show, the empirical data bears out this account.8 The following are several cases from the modern period explored by Vitz that confirm his thesis.
AtheistsWhose Fathers Died:
• David Hume—was two years old when his father died
• Arthur Schopenhauer—was sixteen when his father died
• Friedrich Nietzsche—was four years old when his father died
Bertrand Russell—was four years old when his father died
• Jean-Paul Sartre—was 15 months old when his father died
• Albert Camus—was 1 year old when his father died
Atheists with Abusive or Weak Fathers:
• Thomas Hobbes—was seven years old when his father deserted the family
• Voltaire—had a bitter relationship with his father, whose surname (Arouet) he disowned
• Baron d’Holbach—was estranged from his father and rejected his surname (Thiry)
• Ludwig Feuerbach—was scandalized by his father’s public rejection of his family (to live with another woman)
• Samuel Butler—was physically and emotionally brutalized by his father
• Sigmund Freud—had contempt for his father as a “sexual pervert” and as a weak man
• H. G.Wells—despised his father who neglected the family
• Madalyn Murray O’Hair—intensely hated her father, probably due to child abuse
• Albert Ellis—was neglected by his father, who eventually abandoned the family
While this list is impressive,Vitz’s overall case for his thesis is not limited to these but includes analyses of well-known theists from the same era.These scholars had consistently healthy relationships with their fathers or significant father figures. This confirms by contrast Vitz’s thesis about their atheist peers. Such prominent modern theists include Blaise Pascal, George Berkeley, Joseph Butler, Thomas Reid, Edmund Burke,William Paley,William Wilberforce, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, Soren Kierkegaard, G. K. Chesterton, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Buber, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Heschel. Of course, none of the fathers of these men were perfect moral exemplars. Some, such as the elder Kierkegaard, grieved or disappointed their sons by their misbehavior. Still, the relationships persevered, and resentment did not prevail. In most cases, these men had strong love, admiration, and respect for their fathers or father figures.
To be clear,Vitz’s thesis does not imply that having a defective father guarantees one will become an atheist. He takes care to emphasize this point. This is because, as Vitz puts it, “all of us still have a free choice to accept or reject God. . . . As a consequence of particular past or present circumstances some may find it much harder to believe in God. But presumably they can still choose to move toward God or to move away.”9 In fact, some people with defective fathers do not turn away from God but become vibrant believers and faithful practitioners of their faith.Given the strong majority of religious believers, it appears that most children of defective fathers manage to resist the temptation of atheism. Still others, such as C. S. Lewis and Antony Flew, give up their atheism even after many years of unbelief. So the psychological dynamics of atheism are very complex, but the impact of the father relationship does appear to be profound.
I would add that when it comes to atheism, as with any other behavior, an explanation is not an excuse.To identify a cause of a belief or behavior does not imply that the person is not morally responsible for it. So even if we can causally explain why some people reject God, this does not mean that they aren’t responsible for doing so. Rather, the lesson seems to be that having a defective father presents special challenges to faith, but that this kind of psychological wound can only predispose one to atheism.
Now if Vitz’s theory is correct, we could expect many atheists we know to have a defective father. This naturally raises the question, What about the new atheists? Do they confirm this thesis?We know that Daniel Dennett’s father died in a plane crash in 1947, when Dennett was just five years old. As Vitz notes, losing one’s father at such a young age is particularly devastating, since it is during this developmental period that a child bonds with his or her father.
Christopher Hitchens’ father appears to have been very distant, so much so that Hitchens confesses, “I don’t remember a thing about him. It was all her [his mother], for me.”10 Tragically, when Hitchens was twenty-four his mother killed herself in a suicide pact with a lover. After his mother’s death,Hitchens says, “I no longer really had a family,” which is an especially sad statement considering his father was still alive. As for Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, there is very little information available regarding their relationships with their fathers. Harris, in particular, has maintained such a low public profile that personal information about him of any kind is scant.
Whatever causal role having a defective father plays in one’s becoming an atheist, Vitz has surely uncovered a significant aspect of the psychology of atheism. But why is the father relationship so important that its absence should create such an impediment to belief?We’ve already noted Freud’s inadvertent explanation in terms of the Oedipus complex. But from a Judeo-Christian perspective, the proper explanation goes back to human nature. Human beings were made in God’s image, and the father-child relationship mirrors that of humans as God’s “offspring.” We unconsciously (and often consciously, depending on one’s worldview) conceive of God after the pattern of our earthly father.This is even encouraged in Scripture, as Jesus constantly refers to God as our “heavenly father.”When one has a healthy father relationship and a father who is a decent moral model, then this metaphor and the psychological patterns it inspires are welcome.However,when one’s earthly father is defective, whether because of death, abandonment, or abuse, this necessarily impacts one’s thinking about God. Whether we call it psychological projection, transfer, or displacement, the lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith.
The eminent twentieth-century historian Paul Johnson describes his Intellectuals as “an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.”11 Thus begins a 342-page historical expose that recounts behavior so sleazy and repugnant that one almost feels corrupted by reading it. Most disturbing are not necessarily the details of the sordid lives described by Johnson but the fact that the subjects are often regarded as intellectual heroes. Not merely successful people of letters in their day, they were scholars whose influence was, and continues to be, felt worldwide. They mastered their crafts as novelists, poets, playwrights, and philosophers and set forth ideals and values for ordering society.
So for most readers it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that so many leading intellectuals were selfserving egotists,whose ostensible interest in humankind generally was belied by their callous disregard for those nearest and dearest to them, especially familymembers. Among those examined by Johnson are
Jean Jacques Rousseau—intensely vain and wildly irresponsible; sired five illegitimate children and abandoned them to orphanages, which in his social context meant almost certain early death Percy Bysshe Shelley—a chronic swindler with a ferocious temper; also an adulterer who, with three different women, fathered seven children whom he basically ignored, including one he abandoned to an orphanage, where the baby died at eighteen months Karl Marx—fiercely anti-semitic; egocentric, slothful, and lecherous; exploitive of friends and unfaithful to his wife; sired an illegitimate son, whom he refused to acknowledge Henrik Ibsen—a vain, spiteful, and heartless man, caring only for money; an exploiter of women and contemptuous of the needy, even among his own family Leo Tolstoy—megalomaniacal and misogynistic; a chronic gambler and adulterer; a seducer of women and contemptuous of his wife Ernest Hemingway—ironically named, given that he was a pathological liar; also a misogynistic womanizer and selfdestructive alcoholic Bertrand Russell—misogynistic and a serial adulterer; a chronic seducer of women, especially very young women, even in his old age Jean-Paul Sartre—notorious for his sexual escapades with female students, often procured by his colleague and lover Simone de Beauvoir
The upshot of Johnson’s book is that not only do many leading modern intellectuals fail to live up to their billing as moral visionaries, but their moral perversity should cause us to question the legitimacy of their ideas. This is because one’s personal conduct impacts one’s scholarly projects. And, as Johnson shows, the works of these intellectuals were often calculated to justify or minimize the shame of their own debauchery.
Among the diverse vices that characterize the intellectuals studied by Johnson, brazen sexual promiscuity is the one recurring theme. So it is not surprising that most of these men explicitly rejected the Judeo-Christian worldview. Indeed, many of their scholarly and creative works openly challenged the values of this tradition, which condemns the sorts of lascivious behavior that dominated their lives.
Aldous Huxley, another significant modern intellectual, had much to say on this point. In the following quote he refers to a nihilistic worldview, but this could as easily be supplanted by Marxism, Sartrean existentialism, or Shelley’s vision of a religion-free society:
For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation.The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality.We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.12
Elsewhere in this same essay,Huxley is even more candid:
Most ignorance is vincible ignorance.We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.13
As Paul Johnson argues, the philosophical systems and social ideals of many modern intellectuals were decided by their will to be immoral, not their quest for truth.They wrote the books they did to suit their personal lives, not vice versa. This point is well expressed by E. Michael Jones, who writes, “There are ultimately only two alternatives in the intellectual life: either one conforms desire to the truth or one conforms truth to desire. These two positions represent opposite poles between which a continuum of almost infinite gradations exist.”14
Jones’s fascinating book,DegenerateModerns, continues Paul Johnson’s line of inquiry into the personal conduct of modern intellectuals.However, Jones does much more to show the connection between the academic theories of the scholars and their sexual perversity specifically. Thus, as indicated in his book’s subtitle,modernism is essentially an attempt to rationalize sexual misbehavior. A case in point is anthropologist Margaret Mead, whose Coming of Age in Samoa was a bestseller when it appeared in 1928. In this study she aimed to undermine moral objectivism, the common sense notion that there are absolute moral values which transcend cultures.Mead rejected the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic,which she flouted by suggesting that even seemingly natural sexual standards are merely culturally conditioned. After studying the Samoans, she proclaimed that they “scoff at fidelity” and maintain a sexual ethos in which adultery is common but hardly a threat to their social order. Also, according to Mead, “the idea of forceful rape or of any sexual act to which the participants do not give themselves freely is completely foreign to the Samoan mind.”15 She concluded that Samoans “have no preference for reserving sex activity for important relationships.”16
The impact of Mead’s study was significant in Western culture, both in advancing the cultural relativist thesis as well as in reinforcing the social drift toward sexual permissiveness.However, it wasn’t until five decades later that any scholar attempted to test Mead’s study or corroborate her findings.When New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman finally did so, he found that Mead had badly misrepresented Samoan culture and sexual practice. The truth discovered by Freeman was that Samoans had fairly strict sexual standards and strove to abide by Judeo-Christian values in this area. They regarded adultery as a serious crime, even punishable by death.They highly valued female virginity; even those attempting to seduce virgins were subject to monetary fines. And rape was treated as an egregious crime. How could Mead have erred so wildly in her depiction of Samoan sexual culture? According to Jones and other critics, the answer lies in Mead’s personal values that she read into the data,whether intentionally or not, so as to reinforce her desire for the truth of cultural relativism, a perspective that affords complete sexual license. Lurking in the background wereMead’s own sexual practices that were anything but Judeo-Christian. As her biographers have confirmed, she was a chronic adulteress and had a decades-long homosexual affair with fellow anthropologist and cultural relativist, Ruth Benedict.17 Her biographers, along with her personal correspondence with colleagues, reveal how these predilections impacted her research. Thus, writes Jones, “Mead’s anthropological conclusions were drawn primarily from her own personal unresolved sexual conflicts.”18 Another twentieth-century figure discussed by Jones is Alfred Kinsey, the famed “sexologist” whose Kinsey Reports 19 profoundly changed Americans’ perceptions and attitudes about human sexuality.These publications and the public discourse they catalyzed helped to lay the social groundwork for the sexual revolution of the 1960s.Originally trained as an entomologist, Kinsey’s interests turned to the study of human sexuality in the middle of his career in the 1930s. Desiring concrete data for analyzing his subject, he began to acquire “sex histories” through interviews, which he eventually supplemented with pornographic materials, including his own homemade films.Today the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University still houses tens of thousands of volumes of pornography and hundreds of pornographic films. As an evolutionary biologist, Kinsey brought to his sex studies a heavy emphasis on variation, which had a predictable effect on his research methodology. It is one thing to explore a diversity of samples when studying wasps (an early research interest of Kinsey’s). It is quite another to emphasize variety when reputedly seeking to formulate an accurate picture of human sexual practices. Such “variation,” of course, translated into deviancy in Kinsey’s data acquisition. His preferred groups to interview when conducting his sex histories were prostitutes, prisoners, and homosexuals.And the data they provided maximized variation, thus skewing any account of “normalcy” reported in Kinsey’s books. Or, as Jones expresses it, Kinsey’s special research interests served to “predetermine the results he eventually got.”20
Like Mead, Kinsey devoutly served the paradigm of moral relativism. In his words,
Social forms, legal restrictions, and moral codes may be . . . the codification of human experience; but like all other averages, they are of little significance when applied to particular individuals. . . . Prescriptions are merely public confessions of prescriptionists. . . .What is right for one individual may be wrong for the next; and what is sin and abomination to one may be a worthwhile part of the next individual’s life.21
Elsewhere he asserts, “Individual variations shape into a continuous curve on which there are no sharp divisions between normal and abnormal, between right and wrong.”22 Kinsey’s conclusion here about the relativity of “right” and “wrong” is not only a blatant non sequitur but it transgresses the boundaries of his field as a social scientist.Reasoning aboutmoral values is the domain of the ethicist, not the scientist. Such statements probably reveal Kinsey’s deeper interests,which have less to do with the empirical fact of variation and more to do with, as Jones would say, rationalizing sexual misbehavior. Perhaps it was this radical relativistmindset that enabled Kinsey to justify his—even by today’s standards—controversial data regarding orgasms in children fromthe ages of fivemonths to fourteen years. Critics note that such research could not be conducted without either sexually abusing children or relying on the dubious testimony of child molesters. This is just one of themany controversies haunting the Kinsey sex research to this day.
As for Kinsey’s own sexual conduct, this remained shrouded in secrecy for many years, but recent biographies have disclosed what reasonable people suspected all along—that Kinsey himself exemplified the sorts of sexual “variations” that he sought to discover in his “scientific” research. Biographers report that Kinsey was bisexual, that he sometimes engaged in masochistic practices, and that he encouraged his graduate students to engage in orgies and other sexual activities.23
While Kinsey and his colleagues were working to break downmoral and social barriers to sexual deviancy, across theAtlantic another intellectual group had been championing a much broader vision for their sexual rebellion.The famed Bloomsbury group consisted of a wide range of writers and artists who have had a lasting impact onWestern culture.Many members of the group, including novelists E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, painterDuncanGrant, economist JohnMaynard Keynes, and biographer and critic Lytton Strachey were either homosexual or bisexual, and the liaisons between themweremultifarious.They saw their sexual practice as part and parcel of their broader moral-aesthetic vision that informed their scholarly and creative works. As Jones puts it, “For Bloomsbury . . . homosexuality and modernism were inextricably intertwined.”24 Keynes himself sometimes referred to modernism as “The Higher Sodomy.”25
As with Mead and Kinsey, the Bloomsbury group recognized that their sexual practices could only be rationalized in terms of a relativistic ethic. Keynes represents the opinion of the group as follows:
We entirely repudiated a personal liability on us to obey general rules.We claimed the right to judge every individual case on its merits, and the wisdom, experience and self-control to do so successfully. This was a very important part of our faith, violently and aggressively held, and for the outer world it was our most obvious and dangerous characteristic.We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom.We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists.26
Whether Keynes’s choice of terminology in confessing that Bloomsbury was a collection of “immoralists” is completely sincere or intended as irony, it is nonetheless accurate. Theirs was a remarkable unity of thought and practice, the latter driving the former as much as the other way around.
In addition to Mead, Kinsey, and the Bloomsbury Group, E. Michael Jones explores an assortment of other twentieth-century intellectuals, including Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, and Anna Quindlen. In each case, as with the figures discussed in Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals,we see whatmight be called an historicalpsychological confirmation of theApostle Paul’s thesis in Romans 1: God delivers the sexually immoral over to a depravedmind. Jones sums it up well: “Sexual sins are corrupting. . . . The most insidious corruption brought about by sexual sin, however, is the corruption of themind.Onemoves all too easily fromsexual sins, which are probably the most common to mankind, to intellectual sins, which are the most pernicious.”27
THE WILLTO DISBELIEVE
Let’s review my account of atheism to this point. In the previous chapter, we noted the “biblical diagnosis” of atheism as resulting from a hardening of the heart (Ephesians 4:18) and the suppression of truth by wickedness (Romans 1:18). In this chapter we have considered Paul Vitz’s thesis that a broken relationship with one’s father is often involved in this process. But this is at most a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition, for atheism. It appears that the psychological fallout from a defective father must be combined with rebellion—a persistent immoral response of some sort, such as resentment, hatred, vanity, unforgiveness, or abject pride.And when that rebellion is deep or protracted enough, atheism results.
An especially devastating form of rebellion is chronic sexual misbehavior.Historical studies by Paul Johnson and E. Michael Jones corroborate Aldous Huxley’s claim that the desire to justify one’s immoral sexual practices has motivated many scholars to embrace cultural relativism and religious skepticism. Some noteworthy scholars have even gone so far as to fabricate data and otherwise transgress scholarly standards to win support for these views,which permit or even encourage yet more immoral indulgence.This is a formula, if ever there was one, for producing “a depraved mind” (Romans 1:28), as the Apostle Paul puts it, which is capable of even “exchang[ing] the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:25).
But what of the role of the will when it comes to atheism? Recall Paul Vitz’s emphasis on freedom when it comes to moving toward or away from God. Recall also Huxley’s remark that “We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence.” Although Vitz and Huxley have little else to say on the subject, there are good reasons to emphasize this point. One great American scholar who would affirm this emphasis is William James, the nineteenth-century Harvard philosopher and champion of human free will.
William James was one of the most fair-minded intellectuals in modern history. He seemed wired to resist extremes and deal even-handedly with every perspective. This quality served him well at a time and place in American history that was rife with extremes, from the emotional tumult of religious fanaticism to the cool-headed skepticism of scientific empiricism. Meanwhile, somewhere in the middle was James, applying a pragmatic method of analysis to every question under the philosophical sun.
No doubt it was in part because of James’s gift for fair-mindedness that he was invited to present the 1901–02 Gifford Lectures on that most controversial of all subjects—religious experience. These lectures, published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, became a classic text and over a century later remain the definitive psychological treatment of the subject. Perhaps what is most remarkable about James’s study is that, despite his empirical bent, he not only remained open to the veracity of the hundreds of reports of spiritual encounters chronicled in his research, but he actually concludes by noting his belief in the supernatural:
The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world. Name it the mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose. So far as our ideal impulses originate in this region . . . we belong to it in a more intimate sense than that in which we belong to the visible world.28
James’s openness to the supernatural irked his fellow pragmatists, most notably his hardcore naturalist colleague John Dewey, who remained a firm atheist until the end. But it wasn’t only positive evidence for the supernatural that persuaded William James. There was a more basic psychological insight that drove him. James argued that there are significant truths in life,many of them practical in nature,which cannot be seen or understood until one believes. Likewise, one may willfully refuse to believe certain truths, even when there is strong evidence for them.
James makes his point using the illustration of a mountain climber who is unsure as to whether he can make it safely across a difficult pass. If he succeeds, he will go on to safety. But if he fails, death awaits.Can he make it? He will never know either way until he actually ventures. Jamesmakes a similar point aboutmany philosophical issues,where the evidence alone is inconclusive. The lesson he draws is that faith is practically necessary. He concludes: “In the average man . . . the power to trust, to risk a little beyond the evidence, is an essential function. . . .We cannot live or think at all without some degree of faith.”29
James’s insight on the practical necessity of faith points to the crucial role played by the will and personal desires when it comes to belief. One of the absurd dogmas of the modern period—which, alas, remains alive and well in the academy today—was that the will is or, at any rate, can be perfectly neutral when it comes to the formation of belief.As a master psychologist, James saw the foolishness of this notion. In his short but influential essay, “TheWill to Believe,” James explains how this is especially the case when it comes to belief in the reality of moral values. He declares, “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.”30
More than a century after these words were penned, James’s insight is not very controversial, especially in our postmodern intellectual milieu, which prizes the diminution of reason in the formation of beliefs. But, of course, the new atheists are anything but postmodern. In fact, they are fierce modernists who regard the scientific method as the final tribunal of all truth claims. To them, James’s thesis about the will to believe (or to disbelieve) is no doubt bothersome. How much more so, then, must be the words of fellow atheists who confess this psychological dynamic in themselves when it comes to God. Recall the candid reflections of philosopher Thomas Nagel: “I want atheism to be true. . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I’m right about my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”31 Nagel is to be commended for his honesty, though it is a shame that as a philosopher he should so blatantly subjugate his quest for truth to his personal desires. One can only wonder why he doesn’t want the universe “to be like that.”
There is also the popular author and educator Mortimer Adler, who recognized that the nature of religious belief is such that it “lies in the state of one’s will, not in the state of one’smind.”Adler rejected religious commitment because it “would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for. . . . The simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person.”32 Happily, Adler did not reject the faith his entire life but converted to Christianity in his eighties.
Recently Slate editor David Plotz provided another confirmation of James’s thesis. Reflecting on his reading of the Old Testament, Plotz says, “How do I as a Jew cling to a God who seems to be so unmerciful so much of the time and so cruel so much of the time? That’s very troubling.Do I want such a God to exist? I don’t know that I do.”33 In one sense, Plotz’s point is quite understandable. Who wants to believe in an unmerciful and cruel deity? But notice his apparent willingness to reject belief even if such a deity does exist.This is a conscious choice on his part and another case in point when it comes to the will to deny God.
To the frank testimonies of these intellectuals we can add many of the cases chronicled by Johnson and Jones that well illustrate the “will to believe”—or, in this case, the will to disbelieve—when it comes to God and religious faith. Atheists ultimately choose not to believe in God. But, as we have seen, this choice does not occur in a psychological vacuum. It is made in response to deep challenges to faith, such as defective fathers and perhaps other emotional or psychological trials. Nor is the choice made in a moral vacuum. Sin and its consequences also impact the will in significant ways (as will be discussed further in the next chapter).These moral-psychological dynamics make it possible to deny the reality of the divine without any (or much) sense of incoherence in one’s worldview.This constitutes the general pattern of the rejection of God and all things religious.
Therefore, however much an atheist scholar, celebrity, or layperson might insist that his or her foundational “reason” for rejecting God is the problem of evil or the scientific irrelevance of the supernatural or some other “rational” consideration, this is only a ruse, a conceptual smokescreen to mask the real issue—personal rebellion. Admirably, some thinkers, such as Nagel and Adler, have admitted that their spurning of faith is based in the will, not reason.Most atheists refuse to admit this. However, as we will see shortly, there are factors involved in the psychology of atheism that make it surprising that anyone would recognize their own will to disbelieve.
1. Interview with Jodie Foster by Dan McLeod, The Georgia Straight (July 10–17, 1997), 43.
2. From George Carlin’s HBO special, “You Are All Diseased,” recorded live at New York City’s Beacon Theater (February 6, 1999).
4. Not surprisingly, George Carlin majored in philosophy in college, as did many other well-known comedians, including Steve Martin, Dennis Miller, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, Jimmy Kimmel, and Woody Allen.
5. Paul C.Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 1999), 3.
6. Ibid., 4.Author’s emphasis. The first scholar to attempt a psychological deconstruction of theism was Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872).
7. Ibid., 13, 16.
8. Freud’s concept of an Oedipus complex is notorious for its lack of empirical support. Freud essentially built the theory upon his own personal experience. Although inspired by this theory, Vitz’s defective-father hypothesis about atheism does not depend on it or suffer the same evidential difficulties.
9. Vitz, 5.
10. “Christopher Hitchens,” Alexander Linklater, Prospect (May 2008) http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/article_details.php? id=10157.
11. Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), ix.
12. Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means: An Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for Their Realization (New York: Harper & Bros., 1937), 316.
13. Ibid., 312.
14. E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Misbehavior (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 11.
15. Quoted in Jones, 27–28.
16. Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1928), 222.
17. See, for example, Jane Howard, Margaret Mead: A Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984) and Hilary Lapsley, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict: The Kinship of Women (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press: 2001).
18. Jones, 37.
19. Specifically, these were two volumes, co-authored with Wardell Pomeroy and others, published under the titles Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).
20. Jones, 96.
21. Cornelia Christenson, Kinsey: A Biography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 6–7.
22. Ibid., 9.
23. See James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (New York: Norton, 1997) and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).
24. E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns, 54.
25. Robert Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes (New York: Viking, 1983), 54.
26. John Maynard Keynes, Two Memoirs: Dr. Melchior, a Defeated Enemy, and My Early Beliefs (London: Har Davis, 1949), 97–98.
27. E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns, 12.
28. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Books, 1958), 424.
29. William James, “The Sentiment of Rationality,” The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications, 1956), 91, 95.
30. William James, “The Will to Believe,” The Will to Believe, 23.
31. Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford, 1997), 130.
32. Mortimer Adler, Philosopher at Large (New York: Macmillan, 1977), 316.
33. Sarah Pulliam, “Blogging the Bible: A Harvard-Educated Reformed Jew Grapples with the Old Testament,” Christianity Today (April 2009): 64.