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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

CRADLE FOR ATHEISM: Life Without Father

The stories of the lives of the atheists in this piece come from “Faith of the Fatherless: Psychology of Atheism” by former atheist Paul C Vitz.
by Susan Fox

End of a Normal School Day, 1964 – The first hurdle on the way home was the derision of the public school kids. They got out of school at the same time as I did.
The absent father of Susan Fox
James Burkhardt died April 28, 1957
There they were! Skipping free as a bird in colorful clothes, they fairly danced home, while I carried my heavy briefcase wearing a navy and green school uniform. They looked at me curiously. I always thought they wondered, “What funny birds those Catholic kids are, dressed in white shirts and navy beanies.” In my head, I thought with deep envy, “What! You don’t have any homework?”

The next danger was I had to walk through a large Park. Teenage boys lurked there this time of day, and I was afraid of being accosted. Luckily, someone had taught me to pray the Hail Mary. That was my big kung fu move. PRAY!

I had dreams about the Park I walked through every day. There was a small utility building half buried in the grass like some troll’s cave. Monsters emerged. I was always running.

The journey home then passed through several more “safe” blocks because I went past people’s homes.  Finally I got to my door, pulled out my house key and went in. I locked the door, checked that all the windows and doors were locked, the curtains closed. I picked up the phone, dialed and said,  “Mom, I’m home.”
Gigantor, the space-aged Robot
welcomed me home from school  
Then my welcome home began – I stepped into the waiting arms of my favorite cartoon characters. Strangely enough, both were robots. I had permission to watch Astro Boy and Gigantor before I started my homework. A turn of the knob and the old black and white TV would offer me consolation.  Gigantor Video

I was 11 years old. My father was dead, my mother worked and I had no brothers or sisters.

Unknown to me I was sharing the same kind of childhood as several famous atheists. Friedrich Nietzsche’s father died when he was five years old. Little Davie Hume lost his father at age two. Mine died when I was four.  Bertie Russell suffered the loss of his beloved nanny at age 11, as well as the early deaths of his parents and grandfather.

Russell especially shows how a defective relationship with one’s father (including but not limited to death) can lead to atheism in adulthood. “My most profound feelings have remained always solitary and have found in human things no companionship... The sea, the stars, the night wind in waste places, mean more to me than even the human beings I love best, and I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God,” Russell said.

It’s ironic that atheists themselves began the game of using psychology as a means of debunking religion.  They argue  that God is a projection of our own intense, unconscious desires. “The terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection through love that was provided by the father... Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life,” according to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who himself suffered from an abusive father, one that he called a “sexual pervert.” It is no accident that Freud placed hatred of the father at the center of his psychology.

But former atheist Paul Vitz in his book, “Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism” turns the theory on its head, arguing there is no clinical evidence to demonstrate that believers created God through their own desires. Besides, we don’t find belief in a benevolent Father God in the religions that preceded Christianity. In fact, Judaism and Christianity are completely unique in their emphasis on God as a loving Father.

But Freud’s theory of projection allows us to understand the psychological basis for rejecting God.  Disappointment in an absent or abusive father has twisted the thinking of most of our great modern atheist philosophers.

What amazed me about Vitz’ theory is how closely my own childhood paralleled those of the atheists. We even share the same dreams! Nietzsche’s father died after a lingering illness. Female relatives dominated his life after that. He saw his father’s Christianity as his weakness. Looking for a lost sense of masculinity that his father couldn’t give him, he developed an ideal “Superman” full of “life force” so he could become hard. He devolved into denigrating women, urging his friends to bring a whip to their encounters with the female sex.

Six months after his father died, Nietzsche had a dream. The Church organ was playing funeral music, a grave opened and his father climbed out, hurried into the Church and returned with a small child. The grave reopened and his father climbed back into the grave with the child. Soon after that his little brother went into convulsions and died.

I had an old recurring dream about my father’s funeral, which I was not allowed to attend. I would see my father at the cemetery where he was buried. He was dressed like Christ on the morning of the Resurrection, not wearing much at all, just a white toga.

The morning of my miscarriage of my first-born child, I dreamt I saw my father – still wearing his Resurrection garb -- crawl back into the grave. The message was clear: “Loved one near death.” I woke weeping, and begging God not to take my husband or mother. I forgot to mention the child. 

One of the most famous atheists of the 20th century Jean-Paul Sartre lost his father at age 15 months, was spoiled by his mother, and then abandoned by her at age 12 when she married his stepfather.

My mother dated a good Catholic man when I was seven. He was divorced, but they thought after the Catholic Church investigated, it  might find his first marriage null --  his wife was not baptized. But that was not the case. When it was clear that a declaration of nullity was not forthcoming, Gilbert moved to another city and died a few years later. Mom was grateful they had separated, as there were no obstacles placed in Gilbert’s path to heaven.

But then she did unintentionally abandon me when I was 18. As a preventative measure against loneliness, she married my stepfather. He was very immature, so for the last 29 years of her life, mother and I were not allowed the freedom of our former relationship. Neither Sartre, nor I, liked our stepfathers. A year after his mother remarried, Jean-Paul Sartre concluded, “You know what? God doesn’t exist.”  

Known as the great pessimist, Atheist Artie Schopenhauer did not receive any love from his mother. She never “intended” to have Arthur, a painful cause of her loss of personal freedom, “a symbol of her own renunciation.”

His mother reminds me of a next-door neighbor we had in Kent, Wash. She had a son the same age as my son. She told me she and her husband got him using extra sperm from her husband that came from a test tube. But she always worried the doctor got their test tube mixed up with someone else’s.  (File this under things women tell each other).

Then I didn’t see her for a few years, and I ran into her on the sidewalk. She had a sweet, blond, blue-eyed three-year-old daughter with her. My heart melted. I was overwhelmed with joy. How lucky she was! But she was embarrassed. Apparently, she felt her time for having children had passed, and so she introduced her daughter as “the accident.” This child had been conceived by natural means! That is a catastrophe for a modern woman.

So poor Artie Schopenhauer suffered this coldness from his mother. His father finally started a relationship with him when he was eight years old, and he knew some years of happiness. But then at age 17, his father committed suicide – probably driven to it by Artie’s selfish mother.

Young Arthur’s memories of his earliest years “speak almost exclusively of loneliness and fear.” Nursemaids and servants looked him after. One evening when Artie was six years old, his parents returned from a walk, and found him in deep despair because he thought they had abandoned him forever.

So Vitz concludes that Schopenhauer’s fear of abandonment in childhood gave him an affinity for a Buddhist type of atheism where the emphasis is on emptiness and a rejection of all attachments, especially love.
The Happy Family of Tarzan, Jane & Boy
I wrote a poem in 1977 called “Seven Meditations on Exile.” One verse specifically mentions my childhood in similar terms to Artie’s memories: “Why don’t I remember my backyard, the childhood with fruit trees? Why must the mind conjure only the house of hollow splendor and great loneliness?” That was the empty house I shared with two cartoon robots, all the Oz fantasy novels of L. Frank Baum, and the happy family of Tarzan, Jane and Boy. The little black and white TV offered me an education in family life, but perhaps I was confused about what was a normal family?

Then there is the sad case of John Toland, the bastard son of a Roman Catholic priest. The lack of father, and the realization of exactly who his father was, led Toland to desire to be famous, to be somebody. So he publicly burned The Book of Common Prayer. In 1695, he published his heretical work, “Christianity, Not Mysterious.”  He was a friend with Enlightenment Philosopher John Locke, but even that friendship could not protect him and in his later years, he always was in difficult financial straits.  

In his interview, “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict says that when priests father children, it has to be determined if the priest has formed a permanent bond, or simply made one mistake. If there is a permanent bond, the pope recommends that the priest be released from his vows and laicized so he can marry and raise his child. I think that is a very enlightened approach, and might spare the world from more famous atheists.

Nevertheless there is new crop of atheists from dysfunctional families – Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens among others. Dawkins’ Anglican Latin teacher sexually abused him in boarding school when he was 9 years old, raising the specter that the priest sexual abuse scandal will produce many more hurting individuals, who may embrace atheism.

“There has been a large positive response to the New Atheists, perhaps in part, because of the increase in dysfunctional families, especially fatherless families,” Vitz said, adding, “Atheism is closely related to a bleak, empty vision without meaning and to moral relativism, both viewpoints being common today.”

Contemporary atheist Alex Rosenberg makes it clear that along with “No God” comes a world with no purpose, no free will and no moral responsibility.  In effect, we will soon be living in chaos.

The lives of these atheists so closely paralleled mine that I wondered, “Why am I not an atheist?” Well, I was a woman, so Vitz said because of the female emphasis on relationship, I should be a feminist, substituting some poor male atheist for my god like Simone de Beauvoir did with the promiscuous Jean-Paul Sartre. But that didn’t happen.

“Why am I not an atheist?” I asked the only expert I know on Susan Fox. My husband, Lawrence Fox,  responded in his usual terse manner, “God worked a miracle in your life.”
Susan's Mother, Tora, Susan herself
and her father, James Burkhardt,
before the accident

My father died in a car accident when I was four years old. My mother and grandmother walked me down to the tabernacle in the Roman Catholic hospital chapel, pointed to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, and told me to pray for my father. I was angry and I refused, but I met His Presence, Who remained with me my entire life. Christ, Whom atheists mock as the invisible sky god, met me right after I learned of my father’s death.  (See full story here, Dialogue with An Unbeliever) He has never left my side.

When I walked home from school that day in 1964, I was secretly holding the hand of the Child Jesus, trying to comfort Him as we passed the bullies in the park and the mockery of the public school kids. There must have been a huge host of angels all around us. I walked home safely and securely despite my fears because those crafty Franciscan nuns had taught me the Practice of the Presence of God! Deo Gratias.  

But why didn’t little Artie Schopenhauer get a miracle like that? Children suffer from the decisions made by their parents. Sadly, God gave even bad parents free will.  Artie’s Dad committed suicide. His mother was a selfish feminist that he hated his entire life.

My father went to confession the weekend before he died. He wore a medal of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  In the ambulance when my mother recovered consciousness for the first time, he gave her the address of the house he had left me at. As long as one of them survived, I was not abandoned. I never doubted that.

But more than that, my father left me a great treasure in the form of the Catholic faith. He converted my mother to Catholicism. She was baptized the same time I was, preparing her to raise me as a Catholic.  He was the married version of “the fisher of men.” He caught two big fish, Mom and me.

Six months after my father died, my mother was taking a Spanish course in Los Angeles, and as she approached the car to return home, my dead father suddenly appeared. He didn’t say anything. And then he disappeared. My mother was not a fanciful person. She was very practical – she had even asked God not to honor her with any visions or special consolations.

Seeing my father again was very upsetting, so she opened the car door and sat there for a while. Then she drove home. On her normal route, a terrible accident had occurred. People had died. Mother had missed the accident by minutes. Her life was a great gift to me. I would not be the person I am today without her. She did come home every day from work and fill the empty house with laughter.

Providentially, I am a Catholic Christian, and my God is One, but He is also a Community of Persons. So I could love and attach myself quite firmly to Jesus Christ, but ignore God the Father, and I would be attaching myself to the whole Family of God, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But I became aware of a deficiency in my awareness of who I am in the early 1990s. I was having dinner with a priest friend, and other lay volunteers. He was telling the story of how some bullies had picked on his sister in India, but he got some friends and they leaned on the bullies, who in turn left her alone.

Without thinking, I said, “Oh I wish I had a father and a brother!”  The priest looked at me, and said, sadly, “This poor girl, she doesn’t know who she is!” Jesus is my Brother. God is my Father.

That was the beginning of my growing relationship with God the Father. In the ‘80s, I had already established a relationship with God the Holy Spirit in the Legion of Mary. Doing door-to-door evangelization, we stand on stranger’s doorsteps -- scared like I used to be at the Park -- but worried about what we will say. I always stood with the Blessed Virgin Mary and her Spouse the Holy Spirit. He became my Friend.

And through that priest, I came to know God my Father. Here was the test to see if I had really understood who I was:  One day I returned to my mother’s home, and my stepfather was treating me like the dirt under the carpet. I felt very low. Suddenly, God Our Father said, “When you come to My House, I will kill the fatted calf, I will put a ring on your finger, a cloak around your shoulders, and we will have a party for your friends.” Suddenly, my stepfather became simply my “brother in Christ.” My dead father became my “friend in heaven.” My real Father was God the Father.  I belonged in  my Father's house.  He offered great protection from bullies. Even today online, people will attack me for my Catholic beliefs, and someone will step in suddenly and very effectively silence my critics. That's my Papa.

That’s why I told my unbelieving friend, in Dialogue with an Unbeliever that I had received so much in exchange that I really didn’t regret my father’s death any longer.

Jesus filled that emptiness, teaching me to dress modestly, and when I was single and attracted to a divorced man, it was Jesus I ran to in the Holy Eucharist. I said, “Lord you have got to do something here.” He did. He made the man lose interest in me. He always picks the solution that allows us to grow in humility, doesn’t He?
Lawrence Fox when he first met Susan

So reading the blogs of Joseph Sciambra: How Our Lord Jesus Christ Saved me from Homosexuality, Pornography and the Occult and Robert Lopez' English Manif, I found tragically that many young men experiencing the loss of a father were lured into relationships with older gay men. They suffered the same as I did, but were never healed. One would think I would have married an older man, a father figure, given my background. But my relationship with Christ left me with no
The new happy family of Tarzan, Jane & Boy
gapping hole in my heart to be filled with a substitute father. I married a man three and one half years my junior. 
That old black and white TV actually did educate me correctly about family life. I married Tarzan. We had Boy.

"Seven Meditations on Exile"  
by Susan Fox

Written in the Blue Grass state,  Lexington, Kentucky, in 1977. My father's family came from Ohio. I lived on the West Coast near an ocean most of my life. The ocean always represented Jesus Christ to me -- sort of vast, infinite and shockingly close.

"Put your house in order,"
the Good Voice warns,
"before you give advice;"
but the mouth is an arrogant fool:
stone deaf words have fallen among angels.

My house fears the Lord's ways:
Wild-eyed, it rushes past me;
I follow, clutching the refrigerator.
There are many windows in the Lord's house.

A green monkey
nibbles at my soul;
"Go away," I shout,
but fear is like bread.

A thousand curses racked my head;
"Who curses?
Who is the green Judas?"
an empty house doubles the answer.

Why don't I remember my backyard,
the childhood with fruit trees?
Why must the mind conjure only the house
of hollow splendor and great loneliness?

On the road to Emmaus
a traveler stumbled,
"Do not grasp my robes!" His companion said,
"I am not the mustard seed.
He is gone, beyond the nimbus."
But the tomb is empty and remains.

On a grey day in spring
they held a funeral for the ocean.
I am visited by flat land and grasses, 
a house of old ancestors
come to comfort me for the loss of dearest kin.


  1. Thank you For Sharing your Perspective Susan...Though if You are as I once was (which by admission I can see that you were) I can more Clearly understand you. The Catholic Church has this already within The Teachings of Paul (Pauline Priveledge) and of St. Augustine, Which are Centuries Before Frieud used Greek Mythology Chronos (to solidify His Reasoning) which Began as his hopes to Psychoanalize the Problem which his own Mind could not accept, he was a Victim and saw to provide a Means to help out of The Lie which He perceived was hindering the Full Potential of the Human being outside of the Means God had Provided. The Catholic Church already has two Giants which Show this, St. Paul and St. Augustine. But for those Outside of the Fullness of the Truth (The Catholic Church) They too are outside Because they follow the Teachings of another Revert whose Teachings have led many Astray (William of Oackham) who to simplify it when confronted with Thomas Summa Theologica and Summa Con Gentiles stated "Aren't we Just using our Imagination?" and Metaphorically Broke Philosophy and contributed unwillingly to the Birth of Protestantism. When you use a Allegory, you have to in doing so, state first, this is the Means I was brought into the Fold of the Fullness of the Truth which is in the Catholic Church.

  2. Just thought I would check to see what you have written lately. I just scanned it to see how long it is. It's long alright and looks interesting. Will read it when I have the time.

  3. Very informative. Susan, I like to think of myself as one of your atheist friends. The only true believers whom I have shared my unbelief with in person is my wife and a few friends from a Catholic men's group that I used to meet with.

    I should not really call myself atheist so much as agnostic or deist. What I find is that there really are very many. "Small Miracles" that seem to contradict my belief that there is no supernatural anything. However, I don't think that people need to connect these miracles to their religion. For example, your mother somehow "saw" your father and believes that this "vision" caused her to miss an accident. What does that have to do with anything religious? How does that make the Bible true or indicate that she must obey the teachings of the Catholic Church?

    Doesn't it seem like the Church takes certain fortuitous events and credits them to God, Jesus, Mary and the saints in order to promote itself?

    Just thinking out loud. I can't discuss any of this with my wife because it only serves to upset her and make her worry about my damnation.

  4. Bill, You are my friend. I didn't tell the story of the miracle of my mother seeing my father after he died to prove God exists, but to show that my father cared for me, and God was willing to let him demonstrate this caring. I was writing about people who were seriously deprived of parental love. But I had fatherly love even though I didn't trust men or fathers for a long time because they go and die on you. I had my father's love, and this was even demonstrated by his coming back from the grave to save my mother's life. Sadly, I spent much of my life not realizing the significance of this event. God bless you. Thank you for commenting. Your comments are always welcome here. Susan Fox

  5. Susan, thank you for this beautiful post. I love reading about your childhood, so different from mine. I am deeply envious of your Catholic upbringing, but sad that you missed out on a Father and siblings. But I know God has made all of this up to you, and that you are truly living as His daughter in the here and now. The family photos are wonderful.
    Thanks again.

  6. Dear SFBayPJ, Yes, God totally wiped away my tears in this life! Do you know the story of the martyrs St. Perpetua and St. Felicity. St. Perpetua was a nursing mother, and St. Felicity, her slave, was 8 months pregnant when they both refused to deny their Catholic faith for the emperor. The Romans fed them to the lions. But Romans don't kill pregnant women, so St. Felicity was worried she have to suffer martyrdom by herself with criminals and without her Christian companions after she gave birth. So the whole group in prison prayed Felicity would have her baby before the date of their group execution so she wouldn't have to die alone. Felicity went into labor right away. The woman helping her deliver her baby scolded her because she cried out in pain from child birth, asking her how she would stand to be eaten by a beast when she was crying now. She answered, that she Felicity was suffering child birth pain, but when she went into the circus to die, it would be Christ suffering in her. According to the account of her martyrdom another Christian sister came and took her baby away before the execution. I prayed about this. And wondered why God allowed this poor baby to lose her mother. The answer I got was that the baby "lacked for nothing" her entire life. She had all the affection and love she needed, plus the Catholic faith. Literally I lacked for nothing myself. And you will see God will make up for what you lacked as well. Your cup will be full and overflowing. Your desire is for HIm. And that is the highest form of prayer. God bless you. Susan Fox