Intense Atheism


I will begin by addressing the deep personal psychology of the great — or at least the passionate and influential — atheists.

Of course, atheism has not simply been the expression of the personal psychology of important atheists: it has received much support from social, economic, and cultural forces. Nevertheless, atheism began in the personal lives of particular people, many of them the leading intellectuals of the modern period, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre. I propose that atheism of the strong or intense type is to a substantial degree generated by the peculiar psychological needs of its advocates.

But why should one study the psychology of atheists at all? Is there any reason to believe that there are consistent psychological patterns in their lives? Indeed, there is a coherent psychological origin to intense atheism. To begin, it should be noted that self-avowed atheists tend, to a remarkable degree, to be found in a narrow range of social and economic strata: in the university and intellectual world and in certain professions. Today, as a rule, they make up a significant part of the governing class. (By contrast, believers are found much more widely throughout the entire social spectrum.) Given the relatively small numbers of unbelievers and the limited number of social settings in which they are found, there is certainly an a priori reason for expecting regularity in their psychology.

Nevertheless, the reader might ask if this is not unfair — even uncalled for. Why submit atheism to psychological analysis at all? Is this relevant to the issue of unbelief? Here we must remember that it is atheists themselves who began the psychological approach to the question of belief. Indeed, many atheists are famous for arguing that believers suffer from illusions, from unconscious and infantile needs, and from other psychological deficits. A significant part of the atheist position has been an aggressive interpretation of religious belief as arising from psychological factors, not the nature of reality. Furthermore, this interpretation has been widely influential. In short, the theory that God is a projection of our own needs is a familiar modern position and is, for example, presented in countless university courses. But the psychological concepts used so effectively to interpret religion by those who reject God are double-edged swords that can also, indeed easily, be used to explain their unbelief.

Finally, a valid reason for exploring the psychology of atheism is to give us some understanding of why certain historical forces common in the modern period have so reliably promoted an atheistic attitude. By identifying psychological factors in the lives of prominent rejectors of God, we will observe how social and economic conditions which fostered a similar psychology also promoted the spread of atheism. By starting with the psychological, we will be able to see how the personal became political. In short, there has been a synchrony between the psychology and the sociology of atheism.

Before beginning, I wish to make two points bearing on the underlying assumptions of the present analysis. First, I assume that the major barriers to belief in God are not rational but can be called, in a general sense, psychological. I am quite convinced that for every person strongly swayed by rational argument, there are countless others more affected by nonrational, psychological factors such as those I will discuss here. One of the earliest theorists of the unconscious, St. Paul, wrote: "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it .... I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind" (Rom. 7:18, 23). Hence, it seems to me sound psychology (as well as sound theology) to accept that psychological factors can be impediments to belief and that these factors are often unconscious. The human heart — no one can truly fathom it or know all its deceits, but it is the proper task of the psychologist at least to try. I propose, then, that irrational, often neurotic, psychological barriers to belief in God are of great importance.

Second, in spite of various difficulties, all of us still have a free choice to accept or reject God. This qualification is not a contradiction of the first. A little elaboration will make this clearer. 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. Likewise, those born without psychological barriers to belief can choose either path. Although the ultimate issue is one of the will, it is nonetheless possible to investigate those psychological factors that predispose one to unbelief, that make the path toward God especially difficult.1

The Projection Theory of Belief in God 2

As is generally known, Freud's criticism of belief in God is that such a belief is untrustworthy because of its psychological origins. That is, God is a projection of our own intense, unconscious desires. He is a wish-fulfillment derived from childish needs for protection and security. Since these wishes are largely unconscious, any denial of such an interpretation is to be given little credence. It should be noted that in developing this kind of critique, Freud raises the ad hominem argument to a new importance. It is in The Future of an Illusion that Freud makes his position clearest: "Religious ideas have arisen from the same need as have all the other achievements of civilization: from the necessity of defending oneself against the crushing superior force of nature."3 Therefore, religious beliefs are "illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind .... As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection — for protection through love — which was provided by the father .... Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life."4

Looking at this argument carefully, we see that in spite of its enthusiastic acceptance by so many, it is very weak. In the first passage, Freud fails to note, his own words notwithstanding, that his arguments against religious belief are equally valid against many of the achievements of civilization, including psychoanalysis itself.

In the second passage Freud makes another strange claim, namely that the oldest and most urgent wishes of mankind are for the loving protection and guidance of a powerful father. However, if these wishes were as strong as he claims, one would expect the religions that immediately preceded Christianity to have strongly emphasized God as a benevolent father. In general, this was not the case for the pagan religions of the Mediterranean world and is still not the case for such major religions as Buddhism and Hinduism. Indeed, Christianity is in many respects distinctive in its emphasis on God as a loving Father. (This emphasis on the father is also characteristic of many of the most primitive religions.)

Let us set aside the preceding weaknesses and turn to another aspect of Freud's projection theory. It can be shown that his theory is not really a part of psychoanalysis — and hence cannot claim support from psychoanalytic theory. To put it differently, Freud's argument is essentially autonomous. His critical attitude towards and rejection of religion are rooted in his personal predilections, and his interpretation of religion is a kind of meta-psychoanalysis, or framework, that is not supported by specifically clinical concepts. Indeed, the lack of theoretical connection of the projection theory to psychoanalysis probably accounts for its wide general influence outside the psychoanalytic world. There are two strong pieces of evidence for this interpretation of the projection theory.

First, Freud's theory had been clearly articulated many years earlier by Ludwig Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity.5 Feuerbach's interpretation was well known in European intellectual circles, and Freud, as a youth, read Feuerbach avidly.6 Illustrative quotations from Feuerbach's work make his influence on Freud clear: "What man misses — whether this be articulate and therefore conscious, or an unconscious need — that is his God"; "Man projects his nature into the world outside himself before he finds it in himself"; "To live in projected dream-images is the essence of religion. Religion sacrifices reality to the projected dream."7 Throughout the work, Feuerbach describes religion in "Freudian" terms such as "wish-fulfillment" and the like. What Freud did, years later, was to revive Feuerbach's position, articulate it more eloquently, and publish it at a time when the audience for such a theory was much larger. (Between 1841 and 1927, atheistic attitudes had made substantial headway in Western society.) And because Freud is the author, somehow the findings of psychoanalysis are assumed to support the theory. The Feuerbachian character of Freud's position in Illusion is also revealed by his use of such key phrases as the "crushing superior force of nature" and the "terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood," which are not psychoanalytic, either in terminology or in meaning.

Second, Freud himself admits that projection theory does not arise from psychoanalytic evidence. In a letter of 1927 to his friend Oskar Pfister (an early psychoanalyst and believing Protestant pastor) Freud wrote: "Let us be quite clear on the point that the views expressed in my book [The Future of an Illusion] form no part of analytic theory. They are my personal views."8

Nevertheless, Freud implies in Illusion that he is very familiar with the psychology of belief in God. Such, however, is not the case. In fact, Freud had very little psychoanalytic experience with patients who believed in God or were genuinely religious.9 None of his published cases deals with a patient who believed in God at the time of the psychoanalysis. That is, nowhere did Freud publish a psychoanalysis the belief in God based on clinical evidence provided by a believing patient. He never presented publicly any serious psychological evidence for his projection theory or for his other ideas about religion. Instead, Freud's peculiar personal obsession with religion is primarily focused on texts and issues drawn from anthropology, history, and literature — not from any cited psychoanalytic experience. In short, Freud's general projection theory is an interpretation of religion that stands on its own, unsupported by psychoanalytic theory or clinical evidence.

It is important to add that, to the best of my knowledge, there is no systematic empirical evidence to support the thesis of childhood projection being the basis of belief in God. Indeed, the assumption that religious belief is neurotic and psychologically counterproductive has been substantially rejected. Instead, there is now much research showing that a religious life is associated with greater physical health and psychological well-being.10

Freud's Unacknowledged Theory of Unbelief

Nevertheless, Freud is quite right to consider that a belief might be an illusion because it derives from powerful wishes or unconscious, childish needs. The irony is that he inadvertently provides a powerful new way to understand an illusion as the psychological basis for rejecting God — that is, a projection theory of atheism.11

The central concept in Freud's work, aside from the unconscious, is the well-known Oedipus complex. In the case of male personality development, the essential features of this complex are the following. Roughly at age three, the boy develops a strong sexual desire for his mother. At the same time, he develops an intense hatred and fear of his father and a desire to supplant him — a "craving for power." This hatred is based on the boy's knowledge that his father, with his greater size and strength, stands in the way of his desire. The child's fear of his father may be explicitly a fear of castration by the father, but more typically it has a less specific character. The son does not really kill his father, of course, but patricide is assumed to be a common preoccupation of his unconscious fantasies and dreams. The "resolution" of the complex is supposed to occur through the boy's recognition that he cannot replace his father and through fear of castration which eventually leads the boy to identify with his father — with the aggressor — and to repress the original frightening components of the complex. This resolution is normally completed around age five.

It is important to keep in mind that, according to Freud, the Oedipus complex is never truly resolved, and is capable of activation at later periods — almost always, for example, at puberty. Thus, the powerful ingredients of murderous hate and of incestuous sexual desire within the family are never in fact removed; they are merely covered over and re-pressed. The adult continues to fear his now-internalized father, who has been incorporated into his super-ego. This fear and self-directed moral hostility are always ready to erupt from the unconscious. Freud explains the neurotic potential of the situation: "the Oedipus complex is the actual nucleus of neuroses.... What remains of the complex in the unconscious represents the disposition to the later development of neuroses in the adult."12 In short, human neuroses derive from this complex. In many cases, this potential is not expressed in any seriously neurotic manner but shows up in critical attitudes towards God and authority, and also in slips of the tongue, transient irrationalities, and the like.

Aside from the personal dimensions of the Oedipus complex, Freud elaborated a cultural-historical model of this complex in Totem and Taboo.13 In this work, Freud proposed an Oedipal and totemic origin of religion. He begins by postulating that the earliest stage of society consisted of "a violent and jealous father who keeps all the females for himself and drives away his sons as they grow up."14 Freud proposed that such a primal horde, without real culture, was the initial human state. But "one day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end to the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeeded in doing what would have been impossible for them individually."15 Freud explains the eating of the murdered father by assuming that

cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared, envied model of each one of the company of brothers; in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind's earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things — of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion.16

He concludes his argument with a reference to the Oedipus complex:

In order that these latter consequences may seem plausible, leaving their premises on one side, we need only suppose that the tumultuous mob of brothers were filled with the same contradictory feelings which we can see at work in the ambivalent father-complexes of our children and of our neurotic patients. They hated their father, who presented such a formidable obstacle to their craving for power and their sexual desires; but they loved and admired him too. After they had got rid of him, had satisfied their hatred and had put into effect their wish to identify themselves with him, the affection which had all this time been pushed under was bound to make itself felt. It did so in the form of remorse. A sense of guilt made its appearance, which in this instance coincided with the remorse felt by the whole group. The dead father became stronger than the living one had been.17

The development of this idea in Totem and Taboo closely parallels Freud's presentation of the Oedipus complex, for example, in The Ego and the Id,18 but with one interesting difference. In his discussion of the origin of religion in Totem, Freud is more concerned with violence — with the son's hatred of and rebellion against the father — while in his other Oedipal writings he places heavier emphasis on the sexual relationship with the mother.

As a statement about the origins of religion, Freud's interpretation is thoroughly rejected by anthropologists, in part because there is simply no evidence that culture began with anything like Freud's "primal horde " — basic family units appear from the very start.19 Wilhelm Schmidt presents a simple but devastating critique of Freud's Oedipal totemic theory about the origin of religion: First, there are many cultures which have not yet reached a totemic stage; nevertheless, these pre-totemic cultures have religion. Second, some rather advanced cultures do not appear to ever have had a totemic stage — yet, like all cultures, they have a religion.20 No totemic theory — much less an Oedipal one — can account for the origin of religion. Freud's theory of how religion arose is a kind of "just-so story."

Yet in postulating a universal Oedipus complex as the origin of all our neuroses, Freud inadvertently developed a straightforward rationale for understanding the wish-fulfilling origin of the rejection of God. After all, the Oedipus complex is unconscious, it is established in childhood, and above all its dominant motive is hatred of the father (God) and the desire for him not to exist, something represented by the boy's desire to overthrow or kill the father. Freud regularly described God as a psychological equivalent to the father, and so a natural expression of Oedipal motivation would be powerful, unconscious desires for the nonexistence of God. Therefore, in the Freudian framework, atheism is an illusion caused by the Oedipal desire to kill the father (God) and replace him with oneself. To act as though God does not exist reveals a wish to kill Him, much in the same way as in a dream the image of a parent going away or disappearing can represent such a wish. The belief that "God is dead," therefore, is simply an Oedipal wish fulfillment — the sign of seriously unresolved unconscious motivation.21

It is certainly not hard to grasp the Oedipal character of so much contemporary atheism and skepticism. Those whose lives are characterized by promiscuity and atheism are, on Freud's analysis, living out the Oedipal, primal rebellion. And of course the Oedipal dream is not only to kill the father and possess the mother or other women in the group, but also to displace the father. Modern atheism has attempted to accomplish this. Man, not God, is now the consciously specified ultimate source of goodness and power in the universe. Humanistic philosophies glorify him and his "potential" in much the same way religion glorifies the Creator. We have devolved from one god to many gods to everyone-a-god. Man, through his narcissism and Oedipal wishes, has seated himself on the throne of God. Thanks to Freud, we may more easily understand the deeply illusory and thoroughly neurotic Oedipal psychology of unbelief.

One interesting example of the Oedipal motivation proposed here is that of Voltaire, a leading skeptic about all things religious who denied the Christian concept of a personal God, of God as a Father. Voltaire was a deist who believed in a cosmic, depersonalized God of unknown character.22 The psychologically important thing about Voltaire is that he strongly rejected his father — so much so that he repudiated his father's name (Arouet) and took the name "Voltaire." It is not certain where the new name came from.23 When Voltaire was in his twenties (in 1718), he published a play entitled Oedipe (Oedipus), the first of his plays to be publicly performed. The play, which was a major success, recounts the classical legend, with heavy undertones of religious and political rebellion.24

Voltaire's rejection of his own father, his rejection of God as Father, and also (in his play) his political rejection of the king — an acknowledged father figure — are all reflections of the same basic need. Psychologically speaking, Voltaire's rebellion against his father and God are directly interpretable as unresolved Oedipal wish-fulfillments derived from childhood. Voltaire's rejection of God is therefore a comforting illusion, and — following Freud's logic — is a belief unworthy of a mature mind.

Diderot, the great encyclopedist and avowed atheist — indeed he is one of the founding brothers of modern atheism — had both Oedipal preoccupation and insight. Freud approvingly cites Diderot' s anticipatory observation: "If the little savage were left to himself, preserving all his foolishness and adding to the small sense of a child in the cradle the violent passions of a man of thirty, he would strangle his father and lie with his mother."25

A New Theory of Atheism: The Defective Father Hypothesis

I am well aware that there is good reason to give only limited acceptance to Freud's Oedipal theory. In any case, it is my own view that, although the Oedipus complex is valid for some, the theory is far from a universal explanation of unconscious motivation. There is a need, therefore, for a wider understanding of atheism, especially of the intense kind. Since I know of no theoretical framework other than the Oedipal one, I am forced to sketch something of a new model. But in fact I will develop an undeveloped thesis of Freud himself. In his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, Freud remarks that "psychoanalysis, which has taught us the intimate connection between the father complex and belief in God, has shown us that the personal god is logically nothing but an exalted father, and daily demonstrates to us how youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down."26

This interesting observation requires no assumptions about unconscious sexual desires for the mother, or even about presumed universal competitive hatred focused on the father. Instead, 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. That a child's psychological representation of his father is intimately connected to his understanding of God was assumed by Freud and has been rather well developed by a number of psychologists, especially psychoanalysts.27 In other words, an atheist's disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.

There are, of course, many ways a father can lose his authority or seriously disappoint his child: he can be absent through death or abandonment; he can be present but obviously weak, cowardly, and unworthy of respect, even if he is otherwise pleasant or "nice"; or he can be present but physically, sexually, or psychologically abusive. I will call these proposed determinants of atheism, taken together, the "defective father" hypothesis and will seek evidence for it in the lives of prominent atheists, for it was in reading their biographies that this interpretation first occurred to me.


  1. For those who reject free will (for example, materialists, some hyper-Calvinists), this book can be read as a thesis on the way that atheism is psychologically determined.
  2. Besides the projection theory, there is another related interpretation of belief in God which Freud also developed, but although this has a very modest psychoanalytic character, it is also really an adaptation of the Feuerbachian position. This interpretation is Freud's neglected use of the ego ideal. The super-ego, including the ego ideal is the "heir of the Oedipus complex," representing a projection of an idealized father — and presumably of God the Father. See Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1962), 26-28, 38.
    The difficulty here is that the ego ideal did not receive much attention or development within Freud's writings. Furthermore, it is easily interpreted as an adoption of Feuerbach's projection theory. Thus, we can conclude that psychoanalysis does not in actuality provide significant theoretical concepts for characterizing belief in God as neurotic. Freud either used Feuerbach's much older projection or illusion theory or incorporated Feuerbach in his notion of the ego ideal. Presumably this is the reason why Freud acknowledged to Pfister that his Illusion with its case for projection was not a true part of psychoanalysis.
  3. Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961).
  4. Ibid., 3o.
  5. Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, ed. E.G. Waring and F. W. Strothemann (New York: Ungar, 1957).
  6. H. Trosman, "Freud's Cultural Background" in J. Gedo and G. Pollock, eds., Freud.- The Fusion of Science and Humanism (New York: International Universities Press, 1976), 47.
  7. Feuerbach, 33, 11, and 49. Emphasis added.
  8. Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister, Psychoanalysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister, ed. H. Meng and E. French, trans. E. Mosbacher (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 117.
  9. P. Swales reports that one patient of Freud, a "Herr E," was a believing Catholic. If so, this is the only known example of such a patient. According to Swales, "Herr E" was important to Freud's development of the Oedipus complex. Of course, one patient hardly makes Freud an expert on religion-and this patient's history was never published. Swales discussed "Herr E" in an unpublished lecture, "Freud, his Ur-Patient, and Their Descent into Pre-History: The Role of 'Herr E' in the Conception of Psychoanalysis," National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, New York, New York, May 16, 1997.
  10. For relevant research, see A.E. Bergin, "Religiosity and Mental Health: A Critical Reevaluation and Meta-analysis," Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 14:2 (1983): 170-84; D.B. Larson and S.S. Larson, "Religious Commitment and Health: Valuing the Relationship," Second Opinion: Health, Faith & EthiCS 17:I (1991): 26-40.
  11. For a detailed development of this position, see P. C. Vitz and J. Gartner, "Christianity and Psychoanalysis, Part 1: Jesus as the Anti-Oedipus," Journal of Psychology and Theology 12 (1984): 4-14; Vitz and Gartner, "Christianity and Psychoanalysis, Part 2: Jesus as Transformer of the Super-ego," Journal of Psychology and Theology, 12 (1984): 82-90. See also P. C. Vitz, Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmanns, 1993), chapters 4, 5.
  12. Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition, vol. 17, (1919), 193.
  13. Freud, Totem and Taboo, trans. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1950).
  14. Ibid., 141.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 142.
  17. Ibid., 143.
  18. Freud, The Ego and the Id, trans. J. Riviere, ed. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1960).
  19. See B. Malinowski, The Father in Primitive Psychology (New York: Norton, 1927) and Sex and Repression in Savage Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1927); W. Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, 2d ed., trans. H.J. Rose (London: Methuen, 1935); A. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn, Culture (New York: Vintage, 1952); A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (London: Cohen & West, 1952).
  20. Schmidt, 109-15.
  21. Quite some time after developing this hypothesis, I came across the work of the philosopher John MacMurray who had similar thoughts along "Freudian" lines, when he wrote: "The wish to destroy the father and take his place is one of the common phantasies of childhood. Would it not be as good an argument as Freud' s, then, if we were to conclude that adult atheism was a projection upon the universe of this phantasy." J. MacMurray, Persons in Relation (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1961), 155.
  22. N. Torrey, "Voltaire," in P. Edwards, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol. 8 (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 264-5.
  23. O. Aldridge, Voltaire and the Century of Light (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 4.
  24. Ibid., 28-33.
  25. From Rameau' s Nephew, quoted by Freud in Lecture XXI of his Introductory Lectures. 1916-17, S.E. L, vol. 16, 338.
  26. Freud, Leonardo da Vinci (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1947), 98.
  27. For example, A.M. Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); J.W. Jones, Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991); M. H. Spero, Religious Objects as Psycho-logical Structures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); W.W. Meissner, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984).


Paul Vitz. "Intense Atheism." Chapter 1 in Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Dallas, Texas: Spence Publishing, 1999), 3-16.

Reprinted by permission of Spence Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism - ISBN 1-890626-12-0.


Prof. Paul Vitz received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University (1962) and for many years was a professor of psychology at New York University, where he is now professor emeritus. Currently he is Professor/Senior Scholar at the Institute for Psychological Sciences (IPS) in Arlington, VA. This is a free-standing, fully accredited graduate program, awarding the Doctor of Psychology degree in clinical psychology. The program trains psychologists within an orthodox Catholic perspective.

Dr. Vitz's work is focused on the integration of Christian theology and psychology, breaking from the secular humanism and post-modern relativism prevalent today. His books include: Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship; Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious; Modern Art and Modern Science: The Parallel Analysis of Vision; and Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. He and his wife live in Manhattan; they have six children, and they are now expecting their tenth grandchild. Paul Vitz is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 Spence

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