Freud, Faith, Family and Feelings: Are you a Christian because of your parents?

Herring Snr Ducks and Ducklings Wikimedia Commons

Freud’s tainted thoughts: God is dad

Should I take your belief seriously if you inherited it from your parents?

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

2. Saying someone’s faith is discredited because it is from their parents commits the genetic fallacy

3. If being a Christian is a result of your desires, projections and environment then why are other views exempt from the impact of these factors? Are non-Christian brains exempt?

The letter ‘e’, one vowel, separates Nieztsche and Freud. Nietzsche claimed God is dead while Freud claimed God is dad. For Freud, God is a fantasy invented for scared people. A crutch for the weak. Many modern sceptics make similar claims, viewing Christianity as a virus passed down as a coping mechanism from parents to children. Inextricably linked with upbringing and parenthood.

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Source: La Chronique Facile

Sceptics may have a point

Jonathan Edwards in his classic work, Religious Affections, warns of how Christians can easily fall into the trap of being Christian due to peer or parental influences, without any “reasonable persuasion or conviction.”

Edwards remarked on p.129, “Many Muslims are strongly persuaded of the truth of the Muslim religion because their fathers, neighbors, and nation believe it. That belief of the truth of the Christian religion which is built on the same grounds as a Muslim’s belief of the Muslim religion, is the same sort of belief…the affections ( of the Christian who has no reasonable conviction or persuasion) that flow from it are no better in themselves than the religious affections of Muslims.” In other words, holding to the Christian faith requires personal conviction, not national norms, family-based feelings or social conformity.

Freud and fatherhood

In Sigmund Freud’s book, The Future of an Illusion, he described (p.30) 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, A History of God, summarises (p.409) 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… 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.”

Virus of the mind

Richard Dawkins echoes similar views. For Dawkins, religion is a virus accepted with no rational thought (what is rational thought for a bag of chemical reactions with no free will anyway?). Dawkins describes religious beliefs as “mind-parasites” in his essay Viruses of the Mind. This virus can be passed down from parents to children.

A child of Christian parents, not Christian child?

In the God Delusion, Dawkins stresses the dangers of adopting a religious view due to upbringing. He emphasises, “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.”

However, there are a number of dangers with the claims above. 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 which we covered here. This was hardly a time you would become a Christian to make yourself feel better, more 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.

The White Oppressive Origins of Christianity

Roman historian, Tacitus, spoke of the persecution of Christians in The Annals 15.44. Tacitus recorded how Christians died covered with the skins of beasts, were torn by dogs, nailed to crosses, set on fire to provide lighting for Nero’s garden parties. Sociologist Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History, outlines how Christianity grew at roughly 40% per decade for the first three centuries, despite being a marginalised, obscure, minority view. From a small handful of people in the early 30s AD to over 30 million people three centuries later.

Felicity and Perpetua

Modern day growth in persecution

We see a similar trend of Christianity growing in places of persecution in modern times as well. Christianity is estimated to have grown 100 fold in China over the past four decades according to Boston University scholars. Nigeria, a nation with a dominant Islamic influence, has also seen Christianity grow rapidly over the last few decades from accounting for just over 20% of the population in 1953 to nearly 50% in 2022. Key missionary work commenced in Nigeria in 1842.

A view to facilitate wishful fantasies?

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 on your desires that promises persecution, hatred from the world, self renunciation, following God’s desire above your own and teaches your own nature is sinful?

Crucified First Century Heel Times of Israel

2. Saying someone’s faith is discredited because it is from their parents commits the genetic fallacy

Disclaimer: I am not saying you should believe something simply because your parents do. I am only warning against committing the genetic fallacy.

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. There are also many instances where people become Christians and it is not due to their upbringing, such as many of the persecuted believers in the Roman Empire. Was the Apostle Paul’s dad a Christian before Paul was? 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. The ad hominem fallacy is committed by dismissing an argument because of the person who said it rather than the reasonableness of the argument itself.

Do we dismiss someone’s pluralistic or relativistic views on religion because they grew up in Canada instead of Congo?

Chinese Christian the Telegraph

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? Are non-Christian brains exempt?

In the words of CS Lewis in Bulverism, “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… The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on.

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 unguided physical laws and forces which came from nothing?

How is what goes on in your head which differs from or “invalidates” someone else’s thoughts any different to why your door slams when blown by the wind and not your neighbour’s door?

Like the sound of the wind in the trees

As Lewis, eloquently highlighted in Is Theology Poetry?, “If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”

Unconscious reasons to be an atheist?

Moreover, if we want to use Freud’s line of thought we could speculate people are atheists because they hate the idea of God. Maybe they detest the idea of something bigger than themselves? Maybe God reminds them of their dad or a senior religious figure who made their childhood painful, meaning their own upbringing leads them to atheism?


It starts to get real

Former atheist and brother of famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens, in his bookThe 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.

Christian psychologist, Paul Vitz, in Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, discussed the idea that “an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God (p.16)”. Vitz concluded, after studying the childhood experiences of key atheists in history, such as Stalin, Mao Zedong, Sartre, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Hume, that he found “a weak, dead or abusive father in every case.”



Christ called his followers to be prepared to forsake all for him, including parental approval (Luke 14:26). 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 (Phil 3:8–12). For Paul this 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 and calls us to live his way, not our own. Not a father we conjure up in our imagination to suit ourselves.


Christianity stands and falls on some fundamental points: the existence of God, Jesus claiming to be divine, dying on the cross and rising from the dead to provide forgiveness of sins. What are your convictions for or against these points? This is what we need to focus on, not assigning blame to upbringing.

If your thoughts are tainted to the point where truth is indiscernible, why bother criticising other views?

Is Christianity the sort of thing you would make up in your dream world to fulfil all your desires and fantasies?

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