Friday, February 09, 2007

Psychologizing Atheism

When I first came to Princeton I worked at a coffee shop, where the village atheist (of which there are a few), explained to me over the whir of the milk frother, that my faith was something that could be fixed. With the proper counseling, he repeated week after week, I could be made to see that it was all a psychologically motivated illusion. But couldn't, I wondered, the same be said of him? With the proper counseling, couldn't he be made to see that his atheism was a mere illusion that could be psychologically explained?

It was just a thought though. Never would I have expected that an NYU-tenured experimental psychologist would venture to verify the theory, as Paul Vitz does in this talk, expanded upon in the above book. Socialization-theory may claim to explain away religion, Vitz admits, but it can also ably explain its abandonment by upwardly mobile individuals seeking to get ahead in a secularized society. Freud's Oedipus complex, Vitz relates, does a much better job of explaining why someone would be an atheist (projected patricide) than a believer. Then come the atheist case-studies:
1. David Hume's father died when he was two.
2. Arthur Schopenhauer's father committed suicide when Arthur was sixteen.
3. Ludwig Feuerbach's father left the family to live with another woman when Ludwig was just thirteen.
4. Sigmund Freud's father was a coward and sexual pervert who was a painful embarassment to the family.
5. Friedrich Nietzsche's father died when he was four.
6. Jean Paul Sartre's dad died before Jean Paul was two.
7. Albert Camus' dad died just before Albert was born.
8. Russell Baker's father died when Russell was five.
9. Madalyn Murray O'Hair tried to kill her father with a kitchen knife.
10. Albert Ellis' father abandoned the family early on.
And those are just the famous cases. Vitz complements such accounts with other powerful examples culled from his experience as a prominent psychologist. He understands that ad hominem arguments are not arguments, but also that the above pattern is difficult to ignore. He refuses to generalize, his tone is professional, and most importantly in such sensitive cases, compassionate.

I thought I'd check the theory out, and wouldn't you know, Daniel Dennet (the Snark hunter) fits the bill. Not that one needs to go there to dismantle his ideas, but his father died in an unexplained plane crash when Daniel was five years old.