Nearly one-fourth of all children in the United States today live in homes without a father. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves atheists is rising. Author Paul Vitz predicted the joint cultural trends in a 1999 book that’s gaining new attention for its prophetic warning.
Prompted by the rise of atheism, Ignatius Publishing released an expanded edition of Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism in October. Vitz employs psychological theories and case studies to demonstrate that children growing up with absent fathers are more likely to embrace atheism as adults.
Atheists frequently wield psychological models insisting that Christians invented God to serve their own need for security or to compensate for a poor attachment to a parent during childhood. Vitz contends that those same psychological theories actually explain why atheists do not believe in God: “But the psychological concepts used so effectively to interpret religion by those who reject God are double-edged swords that can also, as we will see, be used to explain their unbelief.” Vitz believes adults who did not have an attachment to a father in childhood often have difficulty attaching to the idea of a Heavenly Father.
Jared Pingleton, the clinical director of counseling for Focus on the Family, agrees that people tend to project images of their fathers onto God. If the father is absent, God will be viewed as absent as well. In Pingleton’s 37 years as a Christian psychologist, he has worked with many people who came to faith out of atheism. Without exception, he said, each one has had to grapple with relationship difficulties with their father.
Much has changed since the first publication of Vitz’s book in 1999. The New Atheist movement sprang to prominence in the secular world in 2004 with the publication of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris, the first in a series of atheist books to hit the bestseller list. New Atheism is a social and political movement contending that religion should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.
New Atheists are quick to speak out against Vitz’s book. Hemant Mehta, chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and author of The Young Atheist's Survival Guide, states on the New Atheist’s website, “This whole time, Vitz ignores the main reason most of us become atheists: There’s just no proof of God’s existence. We thought about the issue, decided God was just a fairy tale, and that was that. Our relationship with our fathers had nothing to do with it.”
Yet data from the past few years backs up Vitz’s theory. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who consider themselves atheists rose from 1.6 to 2.4 between 2007 and 2012. At the same time, the presence of fathers in the home has declined significantly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of children living with two married parents dropped from 77 to 64 percent between 1980 and 2012.
Pingleton believes the rise in atheism should serve as a renewed call for discipleship and relationship-based theology. More important than why some people turn to atheism is how to train Christian men to become godly, loving fathers.
“It is important to keep in mind that the absence of a father in childhood is formative, not determinative,” Pingleton said.