Is Everyone Born an Atheist?

I’ve been browsing a number of different message boards recently (with my six week Christmas break) and came across what I think is an interesting idea. A person insisted that every human being is born an atheist. I responded that this appeals to an incredibly broad definition for the word “atheist,” and that the most common understanding of “atheist” is “one who denies or disbelieves the existence of a deity” (see OED). “Non-theist” would be a more precise word for someone who, out of ignorance of the concept, has no belief one way or the other concerning deity.

That rhetoric then intentionally equivocates. The purpose is clearly to infer that atheism is the natural order, and that theism represents a departure from human nature. In order to make this inference, however, the individual has to manipulate ambiguities and appropriate for atheism a demographic that can never self-identify as atheistic—a demographic that is without exception separate from the one making the inference. I don’t believe they have that right, and I don’t believe there is a pragmatic justification for casting the net so wide.

Thoughts?

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19 responses to “Is Everyone Born an Atheist?

  • morsec0de

    “and that the most common understanding of “atheist” is “one who denies or disbelieves the existence of a deity””

    I would say that is a common understanding of atheists from those who are not atheists.

    The most common understanding that I have come across amongst fellow atheists of what an ‘atheist’ is, is one who does not believe in the existence of a god or gods. A baby would qualify.

    Of course, I view the whole thing as completely arbitrary.

    I’ve only ever seen the argument used in response to claims from theists that all people are born naturally with a belief in a god (most often, the theist in question’s specific deity).

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I recognize that many atheists like the broader definition, but I think it’s special pleading to assert that an emic definition must take priority when the difference, as I pointed out, is merely the inclusion of a group that cannot self-identify with the group. I don’t think those that consciously avoid confirming or denying the existence of deity would prefer “atheist” over “non-theist” or “agnostic.” I’ve certainly never encountered someone like that who chose to self-identify as an atheist. I’ve also run across a number of atheistic scholars who advocate a definition of strong atheism.

      • morsec0de

        “is merely the inclusion of a group that cannot self-identify with the group.”

        But I don’t look at atheism as a group.

        “Atheist” is a descriptor. It describes a person who, for whatever reason, does not believe in a god or gods. Whether you want the label or not, if you don’t believe in a god then the label fits you.

        Now, you can choose whether or not to refer to yourself as an atheist, and take on whatever additional attributes you or others will put on that term, but the word is still just a description.

        I am an atheist, just like the Buddhist who believes in reincarnation and nirvana but not a deity is an atheist. Because the word describes a single attribute of what we are.

  • Jake

    I find this kind of reasoning, that humans are born atheist, to be fairly hypocritical considering the recent “Please don’t label me” campaign that nearly every single atheist blog has been drooling over recently.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Agreed. That’s part of this self-identity problem. Can those who advocate a “weak” definition for atheism point to a representative portion of those who neither confirm nor deny the existence of deity who self-identify explicitly as atheists? If not, they’re just labeling others for their own rhetorical benefit.

      • morsec0de

        There’s a difference between labeling someone something for which they have a choice, and labeling them something for which they have no choice.

        Until a child reaches a certain level of development where it can start understanding the concept of deities, it can’t (whether it wanted to or not) believe in them. It’s physically impossible. So the definition fits.

        But once they reach that stage of development and start to look at and understand the world, choice becomes involved. Once choice is involved, any label in reference to belief should be suspended until they decide for themselves what that label will be.

  • Ryan Combs

    Everyone is also born:
    illiterate
    impotent
    inarticulate
    incontinent
    toothless
    selfish

    Along with a host of other problems, but we grow out of most of those things.

    As for the question of counting though, I wonder how often churches count children in their membership numbers? If you define membership with baptism, as some do, there are an inflated number of Catholics. A Muslim is someone who can speak the shahadah, so if they are too young to speak are they not counted in the number of Muslims? You are a Jew if your mother was Jewish, regardless of whether you believe in God or not. But even then, belief in God does not require membership in a religion.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I recently attended a seminar with Seth Schwartz in which he spoke about (1) the problem of identifying the beginning of Judaism as an actual religion rather than an ethnicity or a cultural designation, and (2) the question of what makes a Jewish person Jewish. It was a fascinating seminar.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    morseCode-

    First, thanks for the comments. Second, I disagree. When you outline a segment of the population by a belief or the lack of a belief you delineate a group, whether cohesive or otherwise. I’m not saying they have jackets and pay dues, I’m just saying they’re a portion of a whole.

    I also believe your explanation begs the question. Before I accept any premises that are predicated on your definition of the word, I think we need to flesh out that definition. Part of that definition is the question of self-identity. Do Buddhists self-identify as atheists, and if they do, do they make an active declaration or do they state they have no belief one way or another?

    In addition, we’re still not addressing the problem of a demographic that cannot possibly self-identify as atheistic. Ideological self-identity is a question with a very long and rich history in scholarship. Ignoring its significance is not the way to indicate a well though out position.

    A baby cannot believe in deity, but it also cannot deny the existence of deity. There is clearly a difference between one who denies the existence of deity and one who does not. Can one who does not deny the existence of deity be called an atheist?

    • morsec0de

      “Part of that definition is the question of self-identity.”

      As I’ve said, I disagree.

      All one needs to be an atheist is that one doesn’t believe in a god or gods. It doesn’t matter if that person self-identifies or not. They fit the definition. So yes, both Buddhists and agnostics are technically atheists. Whether they want the label or not.

      “In addition, we’re still not addressing the problem of a demographic that cannot possibly self-identify as atheistic.”

      Since when are we talking about demographics? Perhaps you were, but I’m just talking about the nature of the cognitive abilities of a very young child.

      “Ignoring its significance is not the way to indicate a well though out position.”

      I’m not talking about the position. I’m certainly not saying that the reason babies are atheists is the right reason to be atheists. But you can come to the correct conclusion through incorrect means.

      • Daniel O. McClellan

        You’re arguing in two different directions. If self-identity doesn’t matter then you can hardly claim that the only definition that matters is the one advocated by self-identifying atheists. While it’s true you only said “atheists,” only self-identifying atheists, as far as I am aware, advocate that definition, and you’ve not bothered to disagree. You appeal to self-identity and then assert it’s meaningless. Which one is it?

        Your argument only works if your definition is accepted. The assertion that your definition is to be preferred is special pleading, and other than that you’ve only offered an etymological fallacy.

  • David

    “A baby cannot believe in deity, but it also cannot deny the existence of deity.”

    can also read…

    “A baby cannot believe in the tooth fairy, but it also cannot deny the existence of the tooth fairy”.

    A baby, just like any other ignorant animal, does not believe in God. This is not a conscious decision on the baby’s part. The statement in question deals specifically with the definition of the term atheist, nothing more.

    As a human learns, primarily from the passing of knowledge by other humans, it does not believe in God until the concept of God is introduced by other human beings with various motivations. A human raised by wolves may arrive at a concept of a God, just as our ancestors did, due to the absence of the current body of knowledge humans have amassed through scientific method. I doubt the same wolf-boy would arrive at the Big Bang theory, given his or her lack of resources.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for commenting Dave. I agree that it’s merely a question of defining the word “atheist.” This question is simply a good catalyst for the topic. Who gets to define the word and why? What do you think?

      • David

        Webster, right? :)

        I’m no linguicist, but I’d assume a word’s pure meaning is defined by its usage and what it really means in a conversation. The common context and usage defines the word (Webster collects and publishes the common definitions)…and as far as I can tell, the validity of the statement lies in the interpretation of the word “Atheist”, which apparently could go either direction. So, rather than dissect a word, we should analyze what is inferred.

        If one believes that to be an Atheist, one must consciously denounce the existence of a god, then, no, children incapable of understanding such concepts are not considered Atheists.

        If one believes that Atheism is an attribute given to those who lack a belief in godly oversight, then yes, babies, dogs, chimpanzees, mollusks and diseases are all Atheists.

  • Steve Wiggins

    Psychologists have long debated what goes on in a baby’s mind. We just don’t know. For those of us who have (putatively) survived childhood, it becomes clear that our perceptions of reality involve mostly belief. Where that begins in the human psyche is anybody’s guess.

    This conversation also reminds me of the debate concerning self-identification. Having found out that he was baptized by proxy by a Latter Day Saint, a friend of mine once wailed, “but I don’t want to be a Mormon!” Who is to decide what religion, if any, a person belongs to? Is it not all a matter of perspective?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Steve-

      Thanks for the comments. The development of the human mind is a complicated discussion that I don’t think I’m at all qualified to delve into, given my one year old daughter seems to know how to play me like a fiddle.

      I think self-identity is almost as complicated a discussion, and listening to Seth Schwartz talk about it a couple months ago here at Oxford has put that into perspective. Every time I was satisfied I had figured out what a sentence meant I would realize he was already five more sentences down the road. I’m hoping to spend more time with it. This question of atheism is one that I’d like to see dealt with on an academic level (I haven’t looked hard, but I don’t see much discussion outside of sensationalistic literature).

      As a Latter-day Saint I am confronted with accusations of not being Christian all the time, and it strikes me as bizarre how many people, in the context of being a Christian, utterly reject the validity of self-identification.

      Regarding your friend, Latter-day Saints only do proxy baptisms for the deceased, and then only after a year has passed since their death. The doctrine holds that the ordinance is only valid if the individual on the other side accepts it, so your friend doesn’t have to worry, although there would be no reason for a proxy baptism unless someone had the idea he had passed away.

  • Joseph

    God is a framework of love, purpose, and passion. Economics is a framework, and Physics and Psychology are frameworks. Children are not born with knowledge of any of those frameworks, so do they not exist? Because of Physics we can land men on the moon. Because of economics we can lift ourselves out of poverty. Because of child psychology we can teach children more effectively. Because God exists we can see the world with optimism, we can be more, and we can live and love more fully.

  • Patrick Oden

    Interesting topic.

    I think the default position for a logical, reasonable mind. However, a newborn is not a logical, reasonable thinker, yet. People are both capable of rational thought and irrational thought. Children, in particular, are susceptible to ideas of magic and supernaturalism, because they have little experience and little education.

    Scientific method and formal logic require training. Being awed by something that is not understandable (at whatever stage of intellectual development) requires no training.

    Belief in gods generally falls to the latter rather than the former. Atheism, right or wrong, most often does not come until some pretty significant education.

    Perhaps theistic beliefs also do not come without some significant formal training, but surely deistic-type beliefs can arise from nothing more than a misunderstanding of observation of the world + an openness or propensity to supernatural explanation.

    So, I wouldn’t suppose that we are born either as atheists or theists, but we probably are born as some sort of deists or pantheists. Both the latter of which are far cries from either of the former.

  • BHodges

    morse said “All one needs to be an atheist is that one doesn’t believe in a god or gods.”

    Thus babies count.

    I don’t see any reason to apply atheism to babies any more than to apply theism to babies other than an attempt at rhetorical advantage. Would “accidental atheists” be more precise? At least with that label we see more clearly how silly of an argument it is.

    Plus, what’s with these soft atheist arguments? I prefer my atheists straight-forward. They assert something, a disbelief in deity. If they are unsure, or ambivalent, I think agnostic fits fine. What’s with the new weak atheist position?

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