Why Are People Atheists?

January 2000By Paul C. Vitz

Paul C. Vitz is a professor of psychology at New York University. A convert to Catholicism and the father of six children, he is the author of Psychology as Religion and other books. This article is excerpted and adapted from Vitz's book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, published in October 1999 by Spence Publishing Co.

Only as it starts to fade can we see how strange the modern world has been. It is natural that some distance is needed for the characteristics of the "Modern" to become obvious, and nothing has been more typical, especially of public life, than the presumption of atheism. God has been banished from public discourse so thoroughly that in today's high schools we teach about condoms and masturbation but are legally prohibited from making reference to the Deity.

In the academic world, serious reference to God in scholarly writing -- not to mention the use of concepts like "providence" -- is altogether taboo. To refer to God in any serious way would bring the legitimacy of one's scholarship into question. But even in intellectual and academic circles, atheism did not become respectable until about 1870, and it continued to be restricted to small numbers of intellectuals into the 20th century. Not until the past half-century has it become a predominant assumption in public life.

In general, historians agree that atheism is a recent and distinctively Western phenomenon and that no other culture has manifested such a widespread public rejection of the divine. In view of the suddenness of the public shift from accepted belief to accepted unbelief, in view of its rarity in the historical record of other cultures, and in view of the continued high prevalence of private belief in God, atheism needs to be examined -- indeed, explained.

The importance of atheism is, I trust, obvious, since it constitutes a major determinant of a person's worldview. For example, if one believes in a personal God, life has obvious meaning, and one generally takes seriously the issues of moral and social responsibility. As Voltaire is reported to have said, "Don't tell the servants there is no God, or they will steal the silver." This view was later shared by Sigmund Freud, who believed that religion was necessary to keep the masses from acting on their sexual and aggressive impulses.

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Excellent essay. I myself had just such a wishy-washy Christian upbringing in various Protestant circles raised between an embittered anti-Catholic mother and a weak and cowardly atheistic father. I rejected Christianity when I was 16 partly because no one had ever taken the time to seriously educate me about the rationality and demonstrability of Christian belief (I knew almost nothing about the Catholic Church until I was 23) and partly, like the author, all the intellectuals I had been introduced to in my voracious reading and whom I desired to imitate in my youth were themselves committed atheists. None of my friends were overtly religious and the ones who were no one took seriously, because as Protestants they didn't take themselves seriously. I knew no strong orthodox Catholics until I started to read Chesterton and Bishop Sheen when I was 23, and then almost entirely by accident. Now I'm 25 and Catholic, and proudly and staunchly orthodox. Religion does take an enormous amount of time, I agree that this committment, in addition to the general and often very painful house-cleaning one must perfom on ones life upon genuine conversion, are the turnoffs faced by most of the youth. But the time I invest always pays back ten-fold. Prayer, the rosary, fasting, the liturgy of the hours, morning and evening prayer, all of them a bulwark against decadence and decay of the spirit. A wonderful essay for those of us still struggling through the public university system. If we don't preach the gospel in the midst of pagans no one will. Posted by: JarrodAugustine
August 11, 2006 01:42 AM EDT
Jarrod, thank you for your honesty. Many men face these same issues as I have with my father, now deceased. In my opinion, we have been facing a crisis of manhood and fatherhhod in Western civilization. God gives us the grace to see our shortcomings because of these deficits and turn to Him, the true source of Fatherhoood, in order to become whole. Posted by: gwolak
August 11, 2006 12:23 PM EDT
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