Today’s guest post comes from Vlad Chituc, a researcher in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. The views expressed in this piece belong to Chituc, and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer or colleagues.

Jerry Coyne speaking at The Amazing Meeting in 2013.

Jerry Coyne speaking at The Amazing Meeting in 2013. Photo by user zooterkin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sigmund Freud famously described religion as a collective neurosis, stemming from the longing for a father, a fear of death, and a hope for a life after this one.

This presents a decent first go at answering a puzzle familiar to many atheists—how can so many people believe that? But to appeal to such psychological motivations in a debate is pointless at best, condescending and derailing at worst, and shouldn’t be part of our discourse.

As interesting a puzzle as religious belief is to an atheist, it’s worth noting that the psychology of religious belief says nothing about whether or not God actually exists. By itself, it’s no more evidence against God than the phylogenetic development of number cognition is evidence against math, or the neuroscience of moral emotions is evidence against morality.

Purely scientific interests aside, “Why do they believe that?” is only interesting if we’ve already assumed that they’re wrong. Otherwise, there’s nothing to explain.

This way of handling dissenting positions—my view has reasons and your view is something I just need to explain away with psychology—seems like the hallmark of dogmatism and closed-mindedness. They’re just angry at God, or they’re just jealous of our success, or they’re just expressing a longing for their fathers in a form of wish fulfillment, and so on. Tangents like this do nothing but show everyone involved that you’re not arguing in good faith.

Treating others as unwilling subjects of psychoanalysis is toxic to discourse, and it’s something I see many atheists take part in too frequently. The most recent example comes from Jerry Coyne, though it’s hardly limited to him. In a new piece, Coyne asks, “Why are faitheists so nasty?” and writes:

They’re not angry at New Atheists; they’re angry at themselves—for being unable to believe in a God that they know doesn’t exist. And they’re angry at that God for not existing. They just take it out on us.

To start, you can’t chalk anything in psychology up to something so simple as “they’re just angry at themselves and taking it out on us.” Furthermore, Coyne’s thesis is not only completely at odds with my own personal experience—“faitheists” on the whole seem to prioritize a cooperative approach and rarely seem to respond in kind to the personal attacks some “New Atheists” heap on them—but it also goes against the only scientific evidence on the topic that I’ve seen.

A report from scientists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga put forward research into a preliminary taxonomy of nonbelief. The category that most closely matched “faitheists”—ritual atheists—scored lowest on scales of dogmatism and highest on scales of positive relations with others. Contrast this with antitheists—the category that seems closest to “New Atheists”—who scored highest on measures of narcissism, dogmatism, and anger.

But even if Coyne were right, it’s unclear what this adds to the conversation—other than to get a jab in at another group’s expense. It says nothing about whether Richard Dawkins’ accounts of religious belief are simplistic, or how we ought to engage with religious believers, or whether policing our own is more appropriate than heaping scorn on others.

Similarly, it’d be inappropriate for me to respond to “New Atheist” positions by saying “oh you’re just angry,” or “‘New Atheists’ are just being narcissistic.” Comments like that have nothing to say about whether or not religion is harmful, or what approach atheists should take to working with the religious.

If these discussions are worth having, it’s worth leaving amateur psychoanalysis out of them. And here, we can take a cue from the host of this column, my friend and “faitheist” Chris Stedman:

Bill O’Reilly: “Are [atheists who engage in the so-called ‘War on Christmas’] that bitter against religion? Is that what it is? Did they have a bad experience with organized religion? Is it bitterness?”

Chris Stedman: “I don’t want to psychoanalyze atheist activists who prioritize that.”

Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc. Photo via Chituc.

The author of this piece is Vlad Chituc. Chituc graduated with distinction from Yale University with a B.S. in Psychology. He now works as a researcher in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he lives with his dog. He is someone you can follow on Twitter.


  1. Eh…. I have to disagree. If a schizophrenic person wants to debate me about the non-existent cheshire cat that s/he sees sitting on the chair, I think I’m more than permitted to point out his/her mental disorder in order to justify my not willing to debate the issue further. I don’t see why this doesn’t apply in less serious psychological cases, such as religiously-shaped delusions.

    • It’s extremely good that you have a contingency plan for winning arguments with the mentally disabled, and it’s extremely rad and cool that you see holding an incorrect belief as the same thing as being mentally ill.

    • Lies Nats: How can there be any morality, any ethics that does not originate in humans? How can there be any religion that does not originate in humans?

      If any morality or ethics might scare us into being religious, we must be careful that we very seriously consider the origins of religion and all of history. Much of those origins and that history is enough to scare one away from religion.

      Broader history than that of only religion, a solid grounding in the much later sciences, replicable, provable facts, is necessary to not resort to religion out of fear. Fear and ignorance played vital roles in religion’s origins. Religion based on fear remains nothing but fear.

      The human race has lived, learned, and grown greatly from its experience. Everything evolves. “There are these four, faith, hope, charity, and honesty, and the greatest of these is honesty.” Honesty in all knowledge, and ethics based on honesty, can free us from all fear.

      • I agree, absent a god ethics can only originate from man.

        The scary part is which specific man gets to tell me what is ethical/moral, and why?

        As an example, we are told reverse racism as a matter of codified law is fine…to correct previous and ongoing injustices apparently. It gives rise to a cottage industry of ethnocentric socialogists/leaders who exist because they find new ways to keep the ethnic narrative alive and relevant. I don’t believe it. Racist policy to right a previous wrong does not make gov sanctioned racism a right. We’ve opened gov lead discrimination up in thr name of ending real, or sometimes only perceived, organic discrimination.

        You’re telling me thr collective human mind can get topics like this right…by giving your trust to it? I cannot.

        And don’t even get me started on our systems of modern money. Credit creation as we do it today, commonly accepted as fair by almost everyone except occupy wall street types, is absolutely immoral and the first cause of great societal balance.

        I just don’t trust human wisdom to get this right. Most people I know long for the “the good old days”. Whether we were simply ignorant back then, or whether our systems were truely better, I cannot say…but something has changed and about half the people know it and aren’t happy about it.

        • There are no ethics from God. Religious based morality is no morality at all. It is simply outsourcing moral thinking to arbitrary authority. Deference to authority or acting out of self interest of divine punishment or reward.

          Everyone who claims their moral conduct is guided by God is a liar. Yourself included.

          Everyone who claims so, interprets their scriptures and religious ideas to what suits them best. Since you do not get your marching order directly from the word of God himself, you are left figuring out how the scriptures work. Using your own very human conscience or judgment skills to work out what they want to justify. The very human conscience you want to deny.

  2. Mayor McCheese

    I have had ENOUGH! The Hamburglar has been on the loose and evading authorities since 1985 and no one, NOT A SINGLE PERSON, has done anything to stop him.

    Do you think it doesn’t matter because they aren’t YOUR hamburgers that are being stolen? Do you think it doesn’t affect you? How naive.

    Change must be made. I haven’t been in office for 43 years for no darn reason.

    Death to The Hamburglar

    • Label him a terrorist, and automatically you will have at your disposal the gov killing machine. Designed to keep you “free”, of course. As long as they don’t call you a terrorist too, that is.

  3. I am so glad that you want to promote more reason within the atheist-theist discussion but coming from you I am not at all surprised. I am a Christian but I completely agree with you.

    However…I think there is a more fundamental issue involved with those who prefer diatribes to dialogue (this includes atheists, Christians, and everyone in between)…most of them don’t want to discuss…they want to promote. They don’t want to be heard…they want to speak. They don’t want to listen…they want to win.

    Until this basic fundamentalist posture is changed, I’m afraid to say that no amount of reason will suffice.

  4. Casually dismissing a psychological explanation for behavior… why? How is that the same as “hating Christmas”? Ok, let me get this straight (because clearly a “graduate with distinction and a B.S. in Psychology” is missing the point. An understanding of unconscious motivation is not the same as conscious motivation. There is a significant mixing of levels of analysis. Freud has a brilliant explanatory insight which is cognitive-historical. While Fox news imputes conscious ill-will. Is this really the kind of analysis we get out of Psychology graduates? Sad, really. And longing for the father figure, for some kind of recognition, no doubt.

  5. There is nothing more obnoxious than a fundamentalist Christian remarking to an atheist or secularist that they must have some deep rooted psychological reason for hating Christians. As if they represent the most reasonable, rational views out there.

    It is passive aggressive nonsense used to dismiss someone else. Usually done when said Christian is flustered. Funnily it always seems to be concluded with the nasty-minded hostile “I will pray for you”. Which is Christianspeak for “go f— yourself”

  6. I’m wondering when, exactly, Christian apologists stopped accusing non-believers of “being angry at God,” or “hating God,” or refusing to believe in God because “they dislike the constraints of morality,” or because “they’re rebellious” … or any number of other putative telepathic determinations they’ve spewed about what they presume (but don’t necessarily know) motivates non-believers?

    Please, I want to know when they stopped doing this, because if they did, I’m unaware of it.

    To be clear: If you’re going to demand one group of people stop engaging in a particular behavior, then you must demand that ALL other groups — of whatever sort — ALSO stop engaging in that very same behavior. If those other groups refuse to, they effectively encourage the first group to continue engaging in the behavior, regardless of whether or not they should do so. Yes, I get that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” however, in practice, people simply don’t live up to this principle.

    What’s more, I question whether this is universally wrong. “Mind reading” isn’t always erroneous. Sometimes non-believers have valid insights about what makes believers “tick,” usually because they’ve been believers themselves, and as former “insiders,” have direct knowledge of what they’re speaking of. As it turns out, it’s actually not uncommon for a non-believer to have been an erstwhile believer. Really. Honest.

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