Phillip Adams recently wrote a poignant piece in The Weekend Australian which provides a window into some of the intensely personal reasons as to why he is an atheist. And while his intention is to present himself as being morally magnanimous, his autobiographical admission is enlightening. In short, the three most influential men in Adam’s life failed him miserably.
For those who might not know Phillip Adams AO FAHA FRSA, he is an Australian writer, social commentator, broadcaster, film producer, public intellectual and farmer. Phillip Adams hosts Late Night Live, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) program on Radio National four nights a week.
The first man to fail Philip Adams was his father—the Rev. Charles Adams—who, he claims, was sacked as a minister of the Congregational Church for “drunkenness in the pulpit”. This further led to his parents’ divorce which led him being left “in harm’s way with a murderous stepfather” and hence, Adams “sacking” him as well as his father.
The second disastrous masculine influence, Adam alleges, was that of his high school headmaster, Mr. Norman. Adams says that the man was so ‘sadistic’ and hateful of children in general—and of him in particular—that “many a school day begins with vomiting”. What’s more, Mr Norman also ‘forced’ Adams to attend classes in Religious Instruction (RI).
And then third, is an elderly and infirm Anglican clergyman whom Adams says reminded him of the personal travails of his own father. As Adams recalls:
Come the last class of the year, any missionary zeal was long gone. He was clearly very, very ill. Apologising that he wouldn’t be returning next year, he then beseeched a now hushed class “for those who loved Jesus” – or better still had found Jesus in the RI classes – to stand at their desks. Silence. Stillness. “It would mean so much to me…” his voice trailed off. Nobody moved. Not even the most goodie-two-shoed, the form captains and ink monitors. Not one kid was willing to affirm their notional Christianity. Each hushed second seemed to stretch like the promised – or threatened – eternity.
Then, finally, the tension broke as someone stood. A lone and very lonely figure, face flushed with embarrassment. To this day I do not know what possessed that child, but it wasn’t the Holy Spirit. For to everyone’s astonishment, particularly mine, it was the class atheist. Me.
As a Presbyterian minister, and father of six children, the story that Adam’s tells is one which makes my heart break. Not only for the missed opportunity of understanding the truth of the Christian Gospel, but of knowing the love and protection which all children should ideally experience. But sadly, Philip Adams is not alone.
According to Paul C. Vitz, in his book The Faith of the Fatherless (Ignatius Press, 2013) the majority of atheists often have one thing in common. And that is an estranged relationship with their biological fathers. Vitz summarises his thesis as follows:
In short, the defective father and insecure attachment hypotheses taken together postulate that whatever might weaken or harm the relationship of a child with his father or parents will in general predispose the child in adulthood to atheism or unbelief or to spiritualist beliefs without a personal God.
The evidence that Vitz complies is compelling. On the one hand Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Arthur Schopenhauer all had fathers who died when they were very young. Whereas, on the other hand, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Meslier, Voltaire, Jean d’Alembert, Baron d’Holbach, Ludwig Feuerbach, Samuel Butler, Sigmund Freud and H.G. Wells had fathers who were “abusive and weak”.
Sadly, Philip Adam’s is no exception. He appears to have been consistently let down and sometimes betrayed by some of the men in his life that should have reflected the reality of the true Father in heaven.
That is not to say that abusive fathers will always lead to someone rejecting religious faith. As is well known, correlation doesn’t equal causation. But in this particular instance, the association may well explain what has happened.
All of which is to say, maybe there was something deeper drawing Adams to make a stand in response to his RI teacher’s plea. Could it have even been motivated by a charity to love another human being because that is reflective of an even higher ideal? If so, then Adam’s “standing for Jesus” wasn’t as “faithless” or “hopeless” as he might want us all to believe.