Dr. Paul Vitz has devoted his life’s work to exploring the psychology of religion—especially atheism. With the release last May of the Pew Research Center’s report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” his work is more relevant than ever.
According to the Pew survey, 3 of every 100 Americans now call themselves atheists. More disturbing, for what it portends for the future, the number of 18-29 year-olds—Millennials—who are atheists has doubled to 6% since 2007.
Americans with no religious affiliation are increasing too. 23% are “Nones”—atheists, agnostics and believers in “nothing in particular.” And among Millennials, the Nones, at 36%, now outnumber all other groups.
How did this happen? It’s complicated, of course. But psychology has been a key factor in atheism’s rise. Dr. Vitz’s work traces atheism’s appeal back to 19th century atheist intellectuals who used psychology as a weapon to attack religious belief.
Karl Marx famously called religion “the opium of the people.” Friedrich Nietzsche described religion as “disgust with life … dressed up as faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.” Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, said religion was an “illusion … comparable to childhood neurosis.”
These “masters of suspicion,” as they’ve been called, reduced religion to mere wish fulfillment—an infantile desire for a Father-in-the-Sky who provides comfort in a harsh world. In its place, these thinkers gave the world God-less counter-narratives based on primal, selfish human drives: Money (Marx), Power (Nietszche) and Sex (Freud).
These theories were eventually debunked, but not before damage was done. Practical atheism—secularism—now defines western culture. And that secularism has since spawned a new group of militant, media-savvy “New Atheists,” led by scientists like Richard Dawkins, journalists like the late Christopher Hitchens, and entertainers like Bill Maher. Their ideas have made their mark, as the Pew survey results indicate.
An atheist himself for twenty years before entering the Catholic Church, Dr. Vitz has reframed the question of God and psychology by putting atheists themselves on the couch. His research suggests that it’s atheism—not belief in God—that is better explained by neurosis and other psychological factors.
I spoke to him recently about his research, the recent shifts in religious affiliation, and why he is hopeful about a new “transmodern” era.
Mind&Spirit: What do you make of the shifts in religious affiliation reported in the Pew Research Center’s recent study?
Paul Vitz: First, keep in mind that within the Nones, the “nothing in particulars” can be very different than atheists. Young people are very independent-minded, and being unaffiliated is a way of being independent. Many of them still believe in God. They are searching, and when they get older they may affiliate.
The number of atheists is small, but they’re growing fast. And they dominate the cultural conversation. How would you characterize them?
I would characterize them as including many who have very bad fathers. The growth of atheism is not surprising given the increase in the number of broken families over the past 50 years, whether due to single parenthood, divorce, or other situations.
A significant number of children in these families may have experienced what I call “defective” fathers. These are fathers who lose their authority and seriously disappoint a child through weakness, abuse, or absence due to death, abandonment or other reasons. There will be an increase in all of these types of defective fathers when family dysfunction increases.
Sigmund Freud, although he was atheist, understood very clearly what defective fathering can do to belief in God. In a 1910 essay on Leonardo Da Vinci, he wrote: “…youthful persons lose their religious belief as soon as the authority of the father breaks down.”
Freud used his ideas about the father-God complex to argue that God was an illusion, and he was right to worry that a belief can arise from powerful wishes—from unconscious, childish needs. But the irony is that his theory cut both ways, by providing a very powerful, new way to understand the neurotic basis of atheism. Once a child or youth is disappointed in and loses his or her respect for their earthly father, they will have a harder time believing in their heavenly Father.
I explain this theory in my book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, where I present case histories from the lives of prominent atheists and religious believers. In just about every case, the atheists had defective relationships with their fathers, and the believers had close, positive relationships with their fathers, or a mentor who was a father substitute.
Of course, regardless of circumstances, we have free will, and we always retain the free choice to accept God or reject Him. But given the negative psychological effects of family breakdown, and their impact on the ability of a child to believe in God, the increase in atheism and religious non-affiliation is not surprising.
Are there other factors contributing to the increase?
Yes, Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) now is a predictor of atheism.
Can you explain that?
Research shows that the levels of ASD have increased. Not necessarily full-blown autism, but moderate ASD, more like Asperger’s. You see a lot of that concentrated among the tech types of Silicon Valley.
They have a difficult time relating to people. And when you have a problem with relationships, you have a problem with Christianity, because Christianity is about relationships. These people may find it impossible to believe in a God that’s based on relationship.
Studies have shown that digital forms of communication tend to isolate people from each other. Is digital culture making it harder for young people to develop a religious sense?
I have no real comment about that except to say that to the extent that people live in the world without relationships, it’s hard for them to accept a God of relationships. On other hand, such people might finally become so relationship-hungry, that could serve as a spur to seeking God.
Dr. Lisa Miller, Director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia’s Teachers College, recently published a new book called The Spiritual Child. She cites research showing better life outcomes for children who are actively spiritual.
With the decline of religious affiliation in the 18-29 age group, what are the implications for mental health? Is there a link between secularism and the increase in mental illness we’ve seen in recent decades?
In general, I would say probably so. But I would say this—that as families fall apart, we are certainly seeing that. That predicts an increase in atheism and skepticism and doubt, as I’ve explained already, and also less commitment to the structures of society.
Some of the modern Atheists are opposed to Christianity because they still see it as part of the structure of society. But I don’t think that’s going to last much longer.
Because Christianity as a structure of society is fading.
I’ve been looking at evidence of what religious life was like in ancient Israel just before the time of Jesus. And it looks like there was widespread indifference or hostility to religion amongst the lower classes. Then there was the religious establishment—the priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees—who were distinguishing themselves from that class. But there was this moderately small group of very holy Jews, consisting both of the Essenes, and what appears to have been a third order of the Essenes, people who married and had children. And they produced the families of many of the early disciples of Jesus. Because a lot of ordinary people had been abandoned by the establishment, the Pharisees. And I think we’re sort of heading towards something like that now.
So there were already “creative minorities” forming before Jesus arrived…
Yes. What may happen now is there could be a new way in which Christianity revitalizes the culture, but not until more of the culture has hit bottom. And it’s moving there fairly quickly. I would be very interested in the near future to see what’s happening to Christianity in Greece. Because, if you’re a young person today, and you have intelligence and idealism, where do you look? There’s nothing meaningful in our secular, nihilistic culture for the truly intelligent, idealistic, searching person.
That brings me to Laudato Si, the recent encyclical from Pope Francis. The media has focused on climate change, but the document is really a deep Christian critique of Western secular materialism…
Yes, I’m convinced that the Pope is quite aware of the emptiness of dominant Western culture. But the people who actually read papal encyclicals are a very small subset of the world.
The irony is that although secularism and atheism are growing, they don’t offer an alternative to the soulless capitalism that Pope Francis criticizes in his encyclical.
Absolutely. Atheism, essentially, is a negation. It doesn’t have a positive program. It’s a dead-end.
Some intellectually honest atheist intellectuals are starting to see this. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his recent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, confronts the fact that throughout history, despite low standards of living, human beings were able to derive happiness by living according to narratives of meaning.
Happiness, he explains, “consists of seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.” He quotes Nietzsche: “If you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how.”
Right, you need a framework—a worldview—that has transcendent meaning. But of course atheism can’t provide that.
Look, the only thing that matters in Darwinism is whether we reproduce our genes. Not only doesn’t natural selection give us any dignity as individuals—it says that the only reason we’re here is due to chance and survival—it doesn’t give us any notion of flourishing and happiness in our lives beyond our sexual success.
Yes, Harari admits that people living in the Middle Ages were subjectively better off because they found happiness by living according to “collective delusions about the afterlife.”
But today, he says, “as far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human activity would not be missed. Hence, any meaning that people subscribe to their lives is just a delusion.”
He’s right about the implications of atheism, but he’s also being dishonest. He’s wrong to say that the atheist worldview has been proven. He assumes that the scientific understanding of reality is the only understanding of reality that’s possible.
Because a scientific understanding is limited to empirical investigation and mathematical logic…
Yes, there are two dishonesties here… One, he attributes the illusion of faith to the Middle Ages. But there are more Christians today then there were in the entire Middle Ages. So, Christianity is not limited to the medieval mentality.
Two, what Christians believe is not based on any success that could happen in this world. And so, if the earth got hit by an asteroid and destroyed—which doesn’t seem impossible according to certain in-world eschatologies—that doesn’t matter! Because we live forever in Heaven. And the evidence for living in Heaven is not that we’ve been able to go there and measure it; that could never happen. But the writings and the spiritual life of the mystics certainly supports it.
Harrari’s worldview, strictly speaking, is reductionist. He’s a typical modern. The modern period reduced everything to matter. There was no sense of transcendence. It was the opposite of a transcendent worldview; it was a reductionist worldview. But he’s begun to sense the issues that the transcendent questions bring up.
You co-edited a book of essays, written by a wide range of social scientists, called The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis. It includes survey research that looked at the attitudes of college students on a range of questions. Their responses were categorized based on four types: Traditional, Modern, Postmodern, and Transmodern. The last one is new. Could you define the “transmodern” person?
The transmodern person of the future is someone who, in my judgment, will increasingly live in the transcendent realm. They will transcend materialism. They will also transform the modern by moving from negative freedom to positive freedom—freedom for rather than merely freedom from. They will also transfigure the modern because this transcendent idea of freedom will make it possible to move from large centralized systems like the modern state, big hospitals, large state universities, etc., to smaller more decentralized ways of living.
The transmodern person may not necessarily be Christian or Catholic, but they’ll at least live with the notion of a higher order meaning in life that’s not material. And in that way they will transcend simple, materialist atheism. They’ll have a higher transcendent understanding of life that will view materialist atheism as a simple-minded, somewhat adolescent, mentality.
We’re starting to see the early stages of this shift with thinkers like Thomas Nagel at NYU. In his recent book, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, he says that “the modern materialist approach to life has conspicuously failed to explain such central mind-related features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, and value.” He goes on to say that it’s possible that evolution has been shaped by a telos—in other words, ends or purposes. Atheists have attacked him as a heretic.
Yes, it was really offensive to some of the materialist Atheists. But he’s right! And he’s not a believer at all.
Then there are people like Dr. Lisa Miller, who I mentioned earlier, whose research has revealed that from a mental health perspective we need a transcendent narrative to live…
We do indeed. Actually, we need two narratives. We need a grand narrative. And then we need our own particular narrative within it. Now, within Christianity, we have the grand narrative. The grand narrative is that we were created by God, in the image of God, we have fallen into sin, and we have been redeemed by Christ. And that’s the grand narrative. We also have a particular narrative. Each person has a calling, a vocation from God. We have some unique thing to accomplish in this life.
The particular narrative sounds like Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy.
Yes. For Viktor Frankl, each person had to find their personal narrative, and that would answer their–if you will—existential crisis, the meaning of their life…
But, you know the idea that we can find our own personal narrative as a legitimate understanding of truth—well, that’s not enough. You know Hitler found one. Stalin found another. Relativism was part of their systems.
That’s a good transition into postmodernism.
The postmodern, which is dominant today, is just the end of modernism. It isn’t really postmodern, in the strict sense. Postmodern is what I call morbid modernism—which is modernism eating itself alive. It’s modernism in its most extreme, reducto-ad-absurdum expressions.
In your book, a number of writers admitted that postmodernism did the world a service by showing the limitations of modernism–
Yes, that’s one of the functions of the so-called postmodern movement. It showed the errors of modernism, how it tried to reduce all of reality to matter or logical formulas, as I’ve explained. But nevertheless, at the same time, it allowed modernism to go to further extremes, that are almost parodies of modernism.
Most of what’s going on in the sexual world today is a parody of modernism. We create our own world; we create who we are. Today, I’m male, tomorrow I’m female, and you know, the day after that I’m something else. That notion of creativity is the deification of each individual. Every person now is a deity.
What are the implications for mental health for that type of person?
That kind of self has been described by various secular psychologists. Some call it the saturated self. Others have called it the non-self, or the empty self. Some people have argued that there is no self. And others, like Jeffrey Arnett, call it the emerging adult. The person who’s sort of still confused, like an adolescent. You know, they’re 32 years old and they’re still living at home in their parents’ house or a bad hotel. And they haven’t committed to anything. They’re just kind of wandering around. The immature self. The mushy self—that’s my term. Their personal identity is incoherent, fragmented.
And as personal identities become confused, social-political life becomes increasingly unpredictable. Which is what we’re seeing now.
What about the avatars of success in the digital and entertainment world? You know, the Silicon Valley billionaires, the rock stars, the celebrities, the sports heroes…
Yes, they represent the kind of all-powerful, wonderful self that supposedly we all have and are supposed to actualize, according to people like Carl Rogers.
I will say some of them are very successful selves. But they’re narrowly focused. And most people today increasingly feel that notion of the self is a kind of impossibility, and almost a trap for their sense of self-worth.
What happens when you have young people, with their fragmented identifies, aspire to emulate celebrities, who are on top of the world. Doesn’t that create problems?
I think it does. It makes people more and more depressed—not when they’re very young because they still live in their illusion—but as they get older they become increasingly aware of the impossibility of becoming rich or famous.
And of course they see that many of the social media selves crash and burn. They really weren’t the selves that the image conveyed. And then there are these autistic types who are very narrowly focused, but they’re emotionally and interpersonally empty.
And here we come back to the deep critiques of modernity that have come from the recent popes –St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Modern man wants to control and create reality, instead of accepting and working with creation as a gift.
Right. And these celebrities create followers who each want to create their own reality. It’s time to remember that real happiness and intelligence in life comes from being open to reality. Not trying to deny it or to change it in terms of gender. and what have you.
I believe that the post-modern—or morbid modern—period is going to end. And when all modernism ends, or mostly ends, then a new reality, a transmodern world, is capable of being built. I’m not sure, but I believe that it’s likely that this transmodern world will also be much more decentralized.
I would guess that the perfect sign that we’re in a morbid late modern period is the amount of debt in the world. We’re all in the same position Greece is. And when that money isn’t paid, the things we counted on will collapse, and will be seen as part of a problem to be avoided in the future. Unfortunately, that collapse, that transition, will be painful. But that’s the only way we learn as a people.
And there’s no going back to the traditional self that preceded modernism?
I don’t believe so. The modern era gave us freedom—from the seeds that were planted by Christianity. Freedom is something that’s embedded in Christianity. God has no grandchildren. We can’t control what our children will be. They have to choose God in freedom. Believers today are converts, or reverts. And that’s because freedom is of the essence. And that’s the legacy that modernity will leave to the transmodern world.
You have to have freedom before you can come to the truth. I believe that’s why God allowed modernity, because it brought freedom to the fore. And he wants us to choose him. He doesn’t want us to be Christian just because we’re Polish or Irish. We’re to be believers because we have sought and found God.
Which is why it’s Transmodern…
Yes. It’s modernism, but where freedom from is converted into freedom for. Freedom for loving others. Freedom for developing the good life. Freedom for flourishing.
This is the answer to the problem of the fragmented postmodern self. The transmodern person can build a coherent self or identity through their relationship to God or the higher spiritual levels of transcendence. This new self is determined by what they freely choose to move toward than by their personal past or their social present. This allows the person to escape both the restrictions and the lack of freedom in the traditional self and the arbitrariness and incoherence of the postmodern self.