This series on Firefly and the Psychology of Religion is written by Dr. Charles Hackney. Chuck is associate professor of psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary, and author of the book Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors.
In this series of posts, we are employing the theoretical and empirical literature in the psychology of religion as we examine the character Malcolm Reynolds (“Mal”), and the loss of faith that accompanied his defeat at the Battle of Serenity Valley. A crisis of faith like Mal’s is often a turning point, after which a person’s religious life is never the same. This could result in a turning away from religion, or a deepening and maturing of one’s faith (Exline & Rose, 2005). Today, we examine one of the “risk factors” that may have predisposed Mal to respond to Serenity Valley with a loss of faith.
The psychology of atheism (lack of belief in a god or gods) and apostasy (renunciation of one’s religion) are understudied topics when compared to the research that falls within the category of “psychology of religion,” whether one chalks this discrepancy up to ideological biases within the social sciences (Stark, 1999), or to less sinister methodological difficulties (Bainbridge, 2005).
Psychologists who examine the irreligious, in the same way that psychologists of religion investigate variables that influence conversion into a faith (e.g., Granqvist & Hagekull, 2001), investigate variables that influence deconversion out of a faith. One such investigation involves the effect of family background, and one’s childhood relationship with one’s parents, on the way in which one views God.
In the Firefly episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Mal mentions having grown up without a father. Instead, he was raised by his mother and “about forty hands” on his mother’s ranch. Paul Vitz (1999), Professor of Psychology at NYU, argues that some atheists adopt their position as the result of unresolved difficulties involving their fathers. Vitz employs the same logic that Sigmund Freud used in The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927) to explain belief in God. Freud connects belief in God to a desire for a caring and protective father. One’s feelings toward one’s father are connected in Freudian psychoanalysis to the Oedipus complex (Freud, 1913), which occurs as a part of natural personality development between the ages of three and six.
Children at that age begin to comprehend the concept of gender, and they feel attraction toward their opposite-sex parent (yeah… Freud was a twisted little freak-monkey who had sex on the brain). This makes the same-sex parent a rival, and the child experiences hatred and resentment toward the same-sex parent. Even if this conflict is resolved in a relatively healthy manner, Oedipal urges are never entirely dispelled. But if the Oedipus complex is not properly resolved, it may result in a fixation at that stage of development, influencing the way in which the child comes to understand authority and sexuality. As Freud describes God as a projection of our father image onto the universe, a desire to be loved and sheltered by one’s father can result in a desire that there be a loving and sheltering “heavenly father.”
Vitz extends Freud’s theory, connecting rejection of God to unresolved Oedipal issues that result in animosity toward one’s own “defective” father. Such animosity may come about for a number of reasons, including the father being “absent through death or by abandoning or leaving the family” (Vitz, 1997, p.9), as is clearly the case with Mal’s father.
As Gordon Allport put it nearly five decades before Vitz, “It seems curious that Freud insists that belief in God is a projection of dependence and love associated with the earthly father, he overlooks the fact that by the same token atheism may be construed as the projection of ambivalence or hatred associated with the male parent” (Allport, 1950, p.118). As partial support for his “defective father hypothesis,” Vitz offers profiles of such prominent atheists as Karl Marx, Madelyn Murray O’Hair, Baron d’Holbach, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Sigmund Freud himself, all of whom had fathers who were absent or weak or abusive. Mal’s fatherless childhood may have predisposed him to respond with resentment when God appeared to fail him at Serenity Valley.
In the next post, we will use the very few clues that are available to us to consider the maturity of Mal’s faith before the Battle of Serenity Valley.
Allport, G. W. (1950). The individual and his religion. New York: Macmillan.
Bainbridge, W. S. (2005). Atheism. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 1, 1-24.
Exline, J. J., & Rose, E. (2005). Religious and spiritual struggles. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 315-330). New York: Guilford Press.
Freud, S. (1913). The interpretation of dreams (A. Brill, trans.). New York: Macmillan.
Freud, S. (1927). The future of an illusion. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
Granqvist, P., & Hagekull, B. (2001). Seeking security in the new age: On attachment and emotional compensation. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40, 527-545.
Stark R. (1999). Atheism, faith, and the social scientific study of religion. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 14, 41-62.
Vitz, P. C. (1997). The psychology of atheism. Paper presented at New York University. New York, NY.
Vitz, P. C. (1999). Faith of the fatherless: The psychology of atheism. Dallas, TX: Spence.