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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
12 Oct 2005

The Psychology of Unbelief

by Matthew M. Anger

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

"The great psychologists of the ages have universally agreed that the root of all unhappiness is selfishness or egotism. Egotism is the rejection of the double command to love God and neighbor, and the affirmation of the self as the standard of all truth and morality" (Fulton Sheen, Way to Happiness).

To discuss religious commitment from a psychological viewpoint is not to imply that faith or moral choices are shaped entirely by external things like environment, body chemistry or sensory stimuli. If we remain true to psychology's origins, beginning with Aristotle, we approach it as a branch of metaphysics which studies the life of the soul. At the same time, classical psychology (as opposed to idealism), does not dismiss the importance of physical reality. A whole range of factors can influence one's mental behavior — including social relations, physical health, economic status, etc. — while leaving man's free will fundamentally intact. Unfortunately, with the changes in epistemology and ethics growing out of the so-called Enlightenment, psychological commentators veered away from the Western tradition.

The American William James, for example, applied Darwin's evolutionary hypothesis to the development of the human consciousness in The Principles of Psychology (1890). A short while later, Sigmund Freud articulated the belief that human behavior was shaped by early life influences and the tendency to repress unconscious desires. Sexual drives were also seen as a key determinant in individual choices. While Freud was understandably reacting to the hyper-rationalism of earlier secularists (who denied the irrational side of fallen humanity), his theories further displaced belief in objective and transcendent morality.

Christian psychology, by contrast, should help one to understand the behavioral characteristics of the individual within an ethical framework. Recalling psychology's Aristotelian roots, one can make the connection between repeated choices ("ethics" is from the Greek word ethos, meaning "custom" or "habit") and the patterns of mental activity which emerge from consistent preferences in one direction or another. While the operations of the mind do not determine morality, the two react upon and shape one another. For example, distinct patterns have been observed in homosexuals or people suffering from extremely violent tendencies. As Sheen puts it, a man's "secret hates, his hidden sins, his flippant treading upon the laws of morality — all of these leave their traces in his mind, his heart and his unconsciousness."

Helpful to a Catholic understanding of the subject is Dr. Paul C. Vitz's Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. Dr. Vitz, a scholar and convert, states that historically important atheists "are the product of their historical period, family psychology (that is, the defective father), intellectual intelligence and level of ambition, and — last but far from least — their own free choice." Such findings, based on decades of research as a psychologist, flout materialistic views that the idea of God is simply a "projection theory" based on man's need for security.

For Freud, and others, religion could be criticized on the basis of believers' supposedly subjective motives. Vitz boldly reverses this paradigm. Atheism is not so aloof as it pretends to be, and is as susceptible as any other attitude to external factors. Vitz makes his point by considering the lives of dozens of major atheists and seeing what they might have in common. It transpires that, almost without exception, militant skeptics of the last two centuries, from Voltaire to Stalin, have suffered from a "defective father" — one who was either absent through death or through moral failure. As a result, the stance taken by leading atheists may be seen (at least in part) as an emotional reaction against paternal figures, including the divine Father.

Much has been written about the absence of fathers in modern families. "Presumably," remarks Vitz, "this widespread defective fathering will cause an increase in contemporary skeptical attitudes towards God. But it may also result in an equally widespread 'father hunger' which could manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as a growth in cults and support for political demagogues." It is also worth noting, with regard to the unprecedented explosion of sexual deviancy since the 1960s, that homosexuals tend to suffer from hostile or absent fathers, leading to "defensive detachment" from the father and other males. If anything, it shows that Vitz's thesis applies to a wide range of contemporary dysfunctional behavior and apostasy. Speaking of the decline of Christianity, he makes a point concerning the sudden vogue of black American males converting to Islam:

Recently I heard a report that black Baptist women were urging their husbands to become Muslims because they thought their men should have a religion and thought Christianity to be inadequate for men. The African-American community has suffered greatly from fatherless families, and many blacks who have become Muslims openly claim that Islam restored their manhood to them ("The Father Almighty, Maker of Male & Female," Touchstone).

In this case, the attraction of Islam is due to a lack of emphasis on "fatherhood" in the black urban community and in Christianity at large. Men eager to assert their traditional role are left without spiritual support. This has been most evident in liberal, mainstream Protestant denominations where feminist and androgynous "unisex" theology has been heavily promoted.

As for widespread theoretical atheism, it is a relatively new phenomenon. Vitz believes that atheism, rather than traditional theism, is a social construct, and one prone to changing habits and tastes. While environmental influences do not determine unbelief, the social milieu can predispose people to a particular way of expressing their moral and theological rebellion. It happens that since the late 17th century, explicit skepticism has been the most convenient and acceptable outlet. As Samuel Johnson said of the libertine poet, the Earl of Rochester: "He lost all sense of religious restraint, and finding it not convenient to admit the authority of laws which he resolved not to obey, sheltered his wickedness behind infidelity."

An atheist's upbringing is revealing. Even more so is his high level of egotism. "Nietzche's pride and his arrogance," observes Vitz, "often to the point of pathos, are widely acknowledged." The same was true of Ludwig Feuerbach, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Adolf Hitler. In his other recent book, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, Dr. Vitz discusses the problem of selfism or "self theory," which is liberal psychology's rationalization of egocentrism. It is "an example of a horizontal heresy, with its emphasis on the present and on self-centered ethics." As such it manifests itself in as many guises as egotism is capable of: materialist sociology, group therapy, New Age movements, or the "power of positive thinking" Protestant sects. At the root of this is metaphysical denial.

"A final profound conflict between Christianity and selfism," Vitz explains, "centers around the meaning of suffering. The Christian acknowledges evil... as a fact of life." Christianity accepts the existence of sin and death. It also provides a way to transcend and transform them. "In contrast, selfist philosophy trivializes life by claiming that suffering (and, by implication, even death) is without intrinsic meaning. Suffering is seen as some sort of absurdity, usually a man-made mistake that could have been avoided by use of knowledge to gain control of the environment." Evil is thus externalized, or removed from the realm of personal moral culpability. It is the predictable operation of pride. We tend to credit success to ourselves while blaming our failures on others.

Heterodox philosophies not only appeal to man's baser instincts, they "validate" them. False theology is an expedient rationalization for antinomian behavior, which eschews moral responsibility. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that along with obdurate heretics are misguided individuals, who may be attracted to some residual good in a false system (since no belief is absolutely evil; its error lies in subordinating higher goods to lesser ones). Catholic theologians tell us that where there is unconscious ignorance of Church teaching, erroneous judgment, and imperfect apprehension, a necessary condition of sinfulness — free choice — is lacking. With this in mind, apologetics need to be conducted with prudence as well as conviction. Like the wheat and tares in the parable, it is difficult for us to hastily root up the outwardly bad without causing undue mischief.

Msgr. Ronald Knox, who addressed psychological problems in his sermons and essays, provides further insights. He rephrased the skeptic's taunt that man "creates God in his own image," observing that when "turning your thoughts toward the Supreme, the Ultimate, you can choose, evidently, this or that aspect, this or that avenue or approach." St. Augustine argued much the same point in his Catechetical Instruction. Awareness on the part of the religious instructor of the catechumen's fears, dislikes, and even his physical comfort is not inconsequential. Augustine's psychological view of conversion has been reiterated by later apologists. We are taught not to mistake our own temperament, preferences or fashions for an objective standard. Related to this is another point raised by Vitz; namely, that religion is the solution but, superficially, it can sometimes be the problem. In this sense, the theist sees sanctimonious behavior as the failure of the individual to live up to God's calling, while the non-believer feels it shows up religion for the "falsehood" that it is. In any event, there is no denying the scandal of religious hypocrisy. This point is important in dealing with the sincere individual who has experienced such failings. It can be a mitigating, if not justifying, factor in his momentary rejection of faith.

Religious hypocrisy goes beyond everyday human frailties. As an example of this, Vitz discusses Søren Kierkegaard's father who was an austere and sometimes troubled man who nevertheless displayed genuine piety, compunction and love. He earned his son's lifelong affection. The younger Kierkegaard was also a devoted Christian who overcame tremendous temptations to doubt, and even displayed a marked sympathy to Catholic thinking towards the end of his life. In stark contrast is the pitiable conduct of Jacob Freud, father of the psychoanalyst, who was not only cowardly and incompetent, but a pervert and pedophile. Says Vitz: "in proposing the Oedipus complex, Freud placed hatred of the father at the center of his psychology." There was a very real basis for supposing that this expressed "his strong unconscious hostility to and rejection of his father." What surely enhanced Sigmund's distaste for religion was that Jacob carried on as an outwardly proper and observant Jew who spent long hours on readings and devotions. Needless to say, double standards are not unique to Judaism. Dr. Vitz gives examples of individuals raised in lax or rigorist Christian circumstances who, sadly, turned on their faith.

Vitz leaves us with an interesting paradox. Psychology will never be a proper yardstick for measuring the truth or falsity of religion. Faith of the Fatherless favors "the pre-modern idea that controversies should be settled on the basis of the evidence, not on the psychology of the interlocutors. In this framework, ad hominem arguments must be rejected as irrelevant — and all psychological arguments are ad hominem; that is, they address the person presenting the evidence and not the evidence itself." At the same time, psychological understanding is important as a prelude to apologetics. It helps us to appreciate the motives for a person's unbelief, which may include some intense, personal trauma. "If one wishes to genuinely reach such people," concludes Vitz, "one must address their underlying psychology. Aside from the common, superficial reasons, most serious unbelievers are likely to have painful memories underlying their rationalization of atheism. Such interior wounds... need to be fully appreciated and addressed by believers."


Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and eight children in the Richmond, Virginia area, where he is employed as a web/multimedia designer. In addition to Seattle Catholic, he contributes to The Latin Mass and Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He also maintains Imlac's Journal, a philosophical blog.

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