This article is a continuation from others in a series. Please refer to this article if any of what follows needs further explanation.
Some time ago I wrote an article (click here) complaining that the BBC had produced a series of three programmes called Genius of the Modern World, their choices being Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Not being a fan of any of them, and finding their thinking deeply flawed, I speculated that the reason for including them was not that they were geniuses, rather that they were unrelenting atheists. This seemed to be their primary qualification.
Interestingly, Paul Vitz mentions all three in the same breath as he develops his theory of the psychology of atheism: “Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud are famous as formulators of powerful theories, but these atheist masters do not bother to argue whether religious beliefs are true or false. Instead, they ask what motives would lead people to hold such beliefs. As we have seen, this mode of inquiry is equally applicable to them and their ideas” (1).
Vitz names Nietzsche and Freud as two of his ‘intense atheists’. I have dealt with Freud in a separate article (click here). I intend to discuss Nietzsche at greater length in the future, so for the time being I’ll just mention that he fits perfectly Vitz’s Defective Father Hypothesis, in that his father died when he was four. It is probably also significant that his father was a Lutheran pastor, which would help to explain his extreme hostility to religion, especially Christianity, having been traumatised by the loss of his Christian father at an early age.
Vitz says that Marx is a partial exception to his theory. He was a noted atheist, but this did not preoccupy him, as it did Nietzsche and Freud. We have to look for the reasons why he might have been disappointed by his father. “Although Karl’s father came from a long line of Jewish rabbis, he converted to Protestant Christianity, primarily for social reasons. … Young Karl knew that his father’s involvement with Christianity was superficial and it is possible that this awareness diminished Karl’s respect for his father. … When he was away at the university, Karl suddenly and radically rejected his bourgeois background… Hence, there is reason to believe that Marx’s lack of respect for his father is involved in his great hostility to the bourgeois class, of which his own father was his first and primary representative. In any case, his communist theory can be said to be a violent attack on everything his father represented; his ideas, therefore constitute a good prima facie case for his rejection of his father” (p124–5).
Even if Marx is not an outstanding example of the Defective Father Hypothesis, there seems good enough reason to make a psychological connection between his later ideas and his background. It is interesting to note, however, that Marxism and atheism often go hand in hand (2), which suggests that there may be unconscious psychological connections between Marxist ideas and personal biography.
In two earlier articles I have criticised the authors of Critique of Intelligent Design (3), firstly for misrepresenting the Italian Renaissance as a revival of materialism (4), and secondly for praising as accurate one of Freud’s weirder theories (5). There is reason to criticise them again. They have a chapter entitled Freud and the Illusions of Religion. It would be interesting to know what they would make of Vitz’s exposure of Freud’s atheism as an expression of his traumatic childhood. They have another chapter praising Marx, and treating his ideas on religion, if you’ll forgive the expression, as gospel truth. These authors should learn that, in order to make a point, it is not enough to give a history of people who agree with you and repeat their ideas; you actually have to demonstrate that their ideas are correct, or alternatively that opposing ideas are false.
It is also interesting, as the authors note, that both Marx and Freud were heavily influenced by the atheistic philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, Freud going so far as to say that “I worship and admire this man the most”. Perhaps by now it won’t surprise you to discover that Feuerbach is another of Vitz’s intense atheists with a defective father, a fiery and impulsive man known in the family as “Vesuvius”, who had an affair with the wife of one of his father’s friends. They lived “openly together in another town, and she bore a child (by him)”. He only returned to live with his legal family when his mistress died (p43–44). It is not hard to imagine that Feuerbach was furious with his father (and therefore God the Father).
In the light of Vitz’s theory, it seems reasonably clear that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud would all have benefited from Psychoanalysis, ironically in the case of the latter since he founded it. If they had done so, they might have discovered that their atheism was built on shaky foundations. They were called geniuses of the modern world by the BBC, when their only real qualification was that they were all vociferous atheists and, as Vitz shows, psychologically disturbed atheists at that. Since the other three authors are equally vocal in their atheism, and uncritically accepting of these figures, it is reasonable to suggest that they too might benefit from an investigation into their unconscious motives.
(1) Faith of the Fatherless, Spence Publishing, 1999, p143
(2) Two outstanding examples would be Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, both of whom feature in Vitz’s book. Sartre is one of his intense atheists, his father dying when he was only fifteen months old. He devotes three pages to de Beauvoir, concluding that, having adopted atheism, Sartre became her God, which explains “her remarkable and unshakable allegiance” to him (p115).
(3) John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, Monthly Review Press, 2008
(4) see The Decline of Humanism