“You’re a Christian because of your dad” : Discussing Freud and the connection between belief and upbringing

Street Theologian
9 min readFeb 27, 2021

Source: La Chronique Facile

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We’ve all heard it before. You are a Christian because your parents were. This means we should not take your faith seriously. It is simply something handed down to you. Or you’re a Christian because you live in a “white” country or you’re a Christian because you are weak and need a crutch.

In Sigmund Freud’s book The Future of an Illusion, he described religious beliefs as “illusions, fulfilments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind… Thus the benevolent rule of the divine Providence allays our fears of the dangers of life.”

Karen Armstrong in her book the History of God summarises Sigmund Freud’s view on how religion links to fatherhood,

“The idea of a God was not a lie but a device of the unconscious which needed to be decoded by psychology. A personal god was nothing more than an exalted father-figure: desire for such a deity sprang from infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father, for justice and fairness and for life to go on forever. God is simply a projection of these desires, feared and worshiped by human beings out of an abiding sense of helplessness. Religion belonged to the infancy of the human race; it had been a necessary stage in the transition from childhood to maturity. It had promoted ethical values which were essential to society. Now that humanity had come of age, however, it should be left behind.”

Richard Dawkins echoes similar views. For him religion is a virus accepted with no rational thought (what is rational thought for a bag of chemical reactions with no free will anyway?), much like a coronavirus or Ebola. Dawkins describes religious beliefs as “mind-parasites” in his essay Viruses of the Mind. Moreover, he implies that your religious beliefs are closely associated with your parents’ views and argues this should not be the case.

In the God Delusion he wrote the following, “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”

However, there are a number of dangers with these claims. Here are a few:

  1. Christianity far from being a crutch for the weak or a pure projection of desire, grew and continues to spread during times of intense persecution

Christianity was born into the era of the Roman empire. A time where many Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith- Peter, Paul, Polycarp, Justin Martyr and James to name a few. This was hardly a time you would become a Christian to make yourself feel better, positive or naively optimistic about the state of the world. Despite all this, it was during this time Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the known world.

Roman historian Tacitus spoke of the persecution of Christians in The Annals book 15 chapter 44, “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”

We see a similar trend of Christianity growing in places of persecution in modern times as well. Antonia Blumberg in 2014 provided estimates that Christianity would rise in China from 68 million people in 2010 to 160 million in 2025 following a time when no one thought Christianity could even survive in China 40 years ago. The Washington post estimated in 2015, that the number of Christians in Africa increased from less than 10% of the population in 1900 to 500 million people, despite extreme persecution in many countries.

This hardly sounds like a white man’s religion to me or a crutch for the weak. Throughout history people have been willing to give up their lives for the faith and this in turn had led to a remarkable capacity for Christianity to grow and spread. You would hardly make up because of your “infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father”, a belief which causes you to have your skin ripped off by a Roman guard, cost you your life at the hands of an atheistic government or ruin your political or professional reputation.

Such a view is simply naive of the history of Christianity and the fact even the Bible is clear being a Christian involves taking up your cross or being willing to die for your faith (Luke 9:23) and being persecuted (2 Tim 3:12). Why conjure up a view based off your desires that promises persecution, hatred from the world and teaches your own nature is sinful?

Don’t get me wrong this does not “prove” Christianity is true it just illustrates how illogical the claim Christianity exists merely as a crutch is.

This was partly adapted from my article:

2. Saying someone’s faith is discredited because it is from their parents is to commit a fallacy

Disclaimer: I am not saying you should believe something simply because your parents do. My contention is using this as an argument to solely credit or discredit an idea is logically fallacious.

Discrediting an argument or idea because of the origin or source of the idea rather than dealing with the argument or idea proposed itself is an example of committing the genetic fallacy. This is something atheists commonly commit when it comes to Christians. To make matters worse there are many instances where people become Christians and it is not due to their upbringing or need for a crutch. Thus, even this logical fallacy is based off an oversimplification in this case. Was the Apostle Paul’s dad a Christian? Are the parents and grandparents of the rapidly growing Chinese or Nigerian converts to Christianity all Christians?

The genetic fallacy is closely linked to the ad hominem fallacy. This is another fallacy we commonly see used where it comes to “discrediting” Christians. The Crusaders were “Christians”, Christians are intolerant so what they say cannot be true etc. Again, none of this actually deals with assessing whether or not the propositions of Christianity are true. It does nothing to answer the question whether or not God exists, if humans are designed with purpose, whether Jesus rose from the dead or if man is sinful and nothing to disprove the Christian position on this. Then again, we have to ask if truth is always the objective behind these attacks.

To progress as a society we have to go beyond bullying or name calling and actually get down to the bottom of what people say and assess whether or not it is true. To claim to be champions of logic and human dignity and yet still do otherwise is inconsistent.

3. If being a Christian is a result of your desires, projections and environment then why is atheism exempt from the impact of these factors? Aren’t the brains of atheists also mere chemical processes dictated by genetics and the environment around them?

In the words of CS Lewis, “There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought — in the sense of making it untrue — or not? If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology.”

If our thoughts are purely shaped by our environment, by time and physical forces acting on matter on what basis can we argue some thoughts are tainted while others are not? Where does the idea of a universal transcendent unchanging objective notion of a logically valid argument even come from in a purposeless universe where all we have is time, space and matter shaped by physical laws and forces which came from nothing?

How is what goes on in your head which differs or “invalidates” someone else’s thoughts any different to why your door slams when blown by the wind and not your neighbour’s identical door? After all we only have matter and physical forces in the form of chemical reactions working on the human brain much like how gravity works on an apple falling from a tree.

Are we really to account for variations between human ideologies in such a world on the basis of logic and truth?

Moreover, if we want to use this line of thought we could argue people are atheists because they hate the idea of God. They detest the idea of something bigger than themselves. They hate the idea of judgement for their sin. They find abhorrent the idea of good and evil reliant on transcendent moral standards. God reminds them of their dad who made their childhood painful, meaning their own upbringing leads them to atheism.

Former atheist and brother of famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens, in his book The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith speaks of this inconsistency among atheists he was unable to recognise until he converted, “It did not then cross my mind that they (religious sceptics), like religious apologists, might have any personal reasons for holding to this disbelief. It certainly did not cross my mind that I had any low motives for it. Unlike Christians, atheists have a high opinion of their own virtue.”

In his book Faith of the Fatherless, the Christian psychologist Paul Vitz discussed the idea that “an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God”. His conclusion after studying the childhood experiences of key atheists in history such as Stalin, Mao Zedong, Sartre, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Hume was that he found “a weak, dead or abusive father in every case.”

There you have it, atheism is explained by your childhood if we want to use the standards atheists who claim you are a Christian because of your childhood experiences utilise themselves. Does this disprove atheism? No. However, it raises serious concerns about the argument that you should discredit a Christian’s views because they got them from their parents or that their faith is shaped by childhood experiences alone.

The Apostle Paul knew where he had come from, brought up in a strict Jewish household and growing up to be a fine Jewish scholar, his childhood in many ways shaped his views. However, he counted all this for nothing after his encounter with Jesus and was prepared to die for the truth of Christ. It was not some nicely conjured up idea to suit his feelings, nor something he was taught by his parents nor something which spread to him like a virus, for he was in fierce opposition to the movement and made it his life’s cause to end Christianity before his conversion.

It is fitting to close with his words from Philippians 3:8–12, “ a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”

This encounter also shaped his view of fatherhood and family. For Paul, becoming a Christian meant being adopted into God’s family (Eph 1:5). Something the imperfect and failed fathers in our world or even the fathers who represent justice that Freud spoke of could by no means match. For Paul God was a Father who adopts us not a father we conjure up in our imagination to suit ourselves.

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Street Theologian

Theology and apologetics for those who want to get their hands dirty