2016-06-30
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She's a high-powered attorney who just gave birth. She wanted hubby to take paternity leave and help care for the older kids. A busy executive, he was reluctant to do so.

What's a prime minister to do?

As it turned out, as soon as Baby Leo was born, Britain's Tony Blair changed his mind. Although he'd insisted for weeks that he planned no paternity leave, Blair abruptly canceled everything except his meetings with the queen to spend some time with his family. He even changed Leo's nappies and got up with him at night.

A wise move, Tony--not just because helping wife Cherie out will help you hang on to the women's vote, and not as a way to avoid having to sleep on the sofa. Spending quality time with your kids is good for their spiritual health.

The author of a new book about faith says the relationship kids have with their dads profoundly affects how they view God. Fathers who go AWOL on their kids tend to end up with children who reject God. But involved, affectionate dads provide earthly role models for a loving heavenly Father. The result: Their kids' faith catches fire.

Psychologist Paul Vitz of New York University recently explored the childhoods of more than a dozen of the world's most influential atheists. He discovered they all have one thing in common: defective father relationships. By defective, Vitz means the fathers were weak, abusive, abandoned their children, or died when the children were young.

Vitz points to Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher whose writings influenced everyone from Adolf Hitler to the Columbine killers. Nietzsche was extremely close to his dad, a Lutheran pastor who died of a brain disease when his son was 5. "Nietzsche often spoke positively of his father and of his death as a great loss which he never forgot," Vitz says in his new book, "Faith of the Fatherless." "But "he also saw him as weak and sickly." It is not hard, Vitz observes, "to view Nietzsche's rejection of God and Christianity as a rejection of the weakness of his father."

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre also fits the defective father theory: His father died when Jean-Paul was a baby. "Jean-Paul was obsessed with fatherhood all his life," Vitz says. "His father's absence was such a painful reality that Jean-Paul spent a lifetime trying to deny the loss and build a philosophy in which the absence of a father and of God is the very starting place for the 'good' or 'authentic' life."

Sigmund Freud despised his father, a weak man who was unable to support his family. Freud connected his father to God--and also to cowardice and sexual perversion. It's not unreasonable to assume, Vitz writes, that Freud's Oedipus Complex, which places hatred of the father at the center of his psychology, expresses "his strong unconscious hostility to and rejection of his own father."

Of course, not all atheists become philosophers or psychiatrists; some of them go into politics. Among the most infamous are Hitler and Stalin, who share not only a reputation for efficient butchery but also demonic fathers. Hitler's father was a violent man who unmercifully beat Adolf and his mother; he died when Adolf was 14. Stalin's father also administered brutal beatings to his son. "It is not difficult to understand, Vitz writes, "why communism, with its explicit rejection of God and all other higher authorities...had great appeal for him." Once in power, Stalin had thousands of priests murdered. Interestingly, both Stalin and Hitler had deeply religious mothers; their influence on their sons' spiritual development appears to have been negligible.

Vitz didn't leave out America's favorite atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair. It turns out she loathed her father. Her son William relates that O'Hair once attacked her father with a butcher knife.

Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Albert Camus, Kate Millett--these intellectuals, too, were children of dead, weak, abusive, or absent fathers. It's convincing evidence that bad dads create kids who reject God. But is it possible that what modern Americans view as bad fathering simply reflected the social conditions of the day?

In order to test his defective father hypothesis, Vitz studied the childhoods of many prominent Christian and Jewish theists from the same historical periods. Remarkably, every single one enjoyed a strong, loving relationship with his father, or with a father substitute.

For example, Christian apologist and mystery writer G.K. Chesterton was extremely close to his father, a kind man who spent a great deal of time with his young son. Chesterton writes, "My father is the very best man I ever knew of that generation."

Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian and author of the book I and Thou was raised by a strong and loving grandfather who ignited Buber's interest in the intellectual life.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who was executed by Hitler, was the much-loved son of a psychiatrist. Bonhoffer's father was an agnostic, which suggests that strong, loving fathers inadvertently provide what Vitz calls "a model for a benevolent Father-God." (Ironically, this means a good atheist dad may find his kids embracing theism.)

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and author of "Democracy in America," adored his father. Tocqueville argued that religion is a vital component in the life of a nation. This view was, Vitz notes, "quite unusual" in the 1830s, when atheistic views of culture and society "were becoming standard in Europe."

The father of Blaise Pascal, the brilliant French mathematician and philosopher, homeschooled his son; the relationship between the two was close and affectionate. Pascal is remembered in part for writing "a powerful and imaginative defense of Christianity," Vitz notes.

One wonders who will write those defenses for future generations. Consider: Today, more than a third of American children live apart from their biological fathers. If current trends hold, only about half of America's kids will spend their entire childhood within an intact family.

Even nuclear families are at risk, spiritually speaking: Studies show that busy boomer parents spend far less time with their kids than parents did a generation ago.

Vitz warns that all this faulty fathering will lead not only to skepticism toward God but also to increased social pathologies--especially among boys. "Boys very much look to their fathers as a model, not only for God, but for what they would like to be," Vitz told Beliefnet. "Nietschze was really saying, 'Dad is dead, therefore God is dead. Dad isn't here, so therefore God doesn't exist.'"

But the hunger for a father never goes away, Vitz cautions. A boy without a father "will move into gangs, or hero worship of some sports star," or worse--a charismatic political or cult leader. Badly fathered girls will reject God, as well--and spend their lives seeking a relationship to replace him.

"Faith of the Fatherless" serves as a wake-up call to people of faith: Unless they want to see America slide further into atheism, they must reach out to all those fatherless kids with strong, tender father figures.

Vitz's book is a warning to dads as well: If you want your kids to share your faith, you must share your time and love with them. If you don't, Vitz says, "they will reject everything you stand for--your politics, your worldview, and your faith, if you have one. And you will deserve it."

Tony Blair, take note.

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