"Big Four" Highlights


Faith and Fatherhood

The way you relate to your children may have eternal consequences, says Catholic psychologist

Paul C. Vitz, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at New York University, published a study in 1999 showing the relationship between a father and his child’s faith. Since then, new research has led him to publish a second edition of the book, Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism (Ignatius).

Fathers for Good spoke with Dr. Vitz, now professor/senior scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va. Vitz and his wife, Evelyn Birge Vitz, have six children and many grandchildren.

Fathers for Good: What is the message of Faith of the Fatherless?

Dr. Paul Vitz: The big message is that fathers are very important in the religious life of their children; in particular, good fathers are a major contributor to the probability that their children will be believers and that bad fathers, or dysfunctional fathers, have the opposite effect. Being a dysfunctional father, that is, not being present, not being supportive, being abusive or unworthy of respect, all of these things tend to make children back away from the notion of God as father on a psychological level and thus never get through to the religious belief in God.

FFG: A father’s relationship with his child affects the child’s faith?

Vitz: It’s kind of an awe-inspiring and somewhat troubling idea, but it’s true that in a certain way fathers represent their children’s first understanding of God. It’s as though you are a representation of God the Father. Obviously, we’re all very flawed as humans, but this means that you have a very serious significance and meaning and must do your best to live up to the fact that you are a living representative or image, a psychological communication, about the nature of God.

FFG: You provide case studies of several well-known atheists in history and how their fathers’ absenteeism affected them. What commonalities impressed you among the “good” fathers in history that you study, such as those of Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Blaise Pascal?

Vitz: The first thing is it looks like they were always there. The thing about fathers is that you have to be there, and not for just a short, so-called “quality time” or not to be there physically but not psychologically. These were men who were there in the lives of their children. They were present. In general, of course, they were loving and supportive and not at all abusive. Besides not being abusive physically or abusive sexually, which people know, or should know, they shouldn’t do, you don’t want to be abusive emotionally. You don’t want to be always shouting at them or critical of them or blowing off steam so that your anger is about the only thing they really know about you. Those are the negatives that you have to avoid. And then, show affection to your kids. That’s what these fathers did; they showed affection to their children, and that included their boys. They showed affection and support for them.

FFG: So have you seen your theory borne out in patients you’ve treated?

Vitz: Yes, but most of my patients, because of their knowledge of who I was, were believers to start with. So that wasn’t so much of an issue. But in other people around me I’ve seen it borne out, that is, bad fathers causing real trouble in terms of the ability of their children to believe. And the other way around. I’ve seen a lot of good fathers lately, which is good news. Even an atheist father who is a good father communicates the nature of the Christian God through his goodness as a father. He may say there is no God, but if he behaves like a loving father, he’s giving the message that such a loving father in the sense of a deity could exist. So the atheist has a problem if he’s going to be a good father. If he’s a bad father and an atheist, then he’s very likely to send his children off into rejection of his position anyway. And of course if you have a believing father who is very hostile and abusive and so on but keeps talking about God all the time, that’s a good way to create children who reject God.

FFG: How do we respond to the crisis in fatherhood?

Vitz: I think our culture has a crazy idea about what manhood is about. Men have to understand that all men are called to be fathers — that doesn’t necessarily mean natural fathers. Obviously, the pope can be a father without any natural children. You’re called to be a mentor, you’re called to help others, you’re called, normally, to marriage and to be a father to your children. But that’s the highest form of manhood. Manhood is not James Bond going around killing bad guys and having sex with Russian spy girls. That’s very immature; that’s really sort of pathetic, once you’re a grown man. You have to recognize, being a father involves sacrifice. It’s not easy, and yet men who sacrifice for others are usually our greatest heroes. In the military, they have long understood this — the medals for bravery and honor go to men, very often, who died; they sacrificed their lives for the lives of their fellow soldiers. So the idea that sacrifice is at the core of the highest form of manhood is not without a lot of historical precedent, but it’s faded as our culture has sort of trivialized what it is to be a man into sort of, I guess, power or money or sex or something of that kind.

If you’re going to be a good father, be prepared that you will have to sacrifice. And of course, recognize that being a mother has always involved sacrifice. One of the honorable things about motherhood is the sacrifice that it requires, probably starting with things like even morning sickness, sacrificing time, waking from sleep, all kinds of things. And people see that, and that’s why mothers are so honored in almost all cultures and at all times. And fathers have to have that same function. And at times that’s been very obvious to a society. But fathers are men who in a masculine way sacrifice their time, their leadership, their energy, their intelligence, their zeal, their knowledge, and things like that for their children. And in that, in a strange way come some of the greatest rewards a man can ever have, because selfish rewards, in a sense, though they are a short-term pleasure, don’t really strengthen you and last. So be prepared to accept the joys of self-giving or self-sacrifice.

Learn more about the book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism