It is sometimes claimed that human beings are born as atheists, and therefore, atheism is our natural state, and hence, our default state. For example, I recently got this:
This is supposed to give some weight to what Antony Flew tried to push as the “presumption of atheism.” Does it work?
It does not.
First, one must distinguish between the two definitions of “atheist”, that used by the old or classical atheists (basically, everyone pre-Flew) and that used by the new or Flewian atheists (the post-Flewian crowd). These are, respectively
OA: An atheist is one who believes that there is no God.
NA: An atheist is one who lacks a belief that there is a God.
Let’s start with the old atheist definition. Are babies old atheists? No, they are not, because they lack the cognitive capacity as yet to form beliefs in the necessary sense of taking a cognitive attitude towards a proposition. If babies have “beliefs” at all, they will not be beliefs concerning the truth value of propositions, but the kind of rudimentary cognitive associations of which many animals are capable.
Are babies atheists by the new atheist definition of atheism? Yes, since as above, they lack the capacity even to form the relevant belief in either the existence of God, or non-existence of God, or even a belief that “the state of the evidence is inconclusive so I suspend judgment for the present.” But of course the problem with this understanding of “atheist” is that it also makes animals and plants atheists, not to mention all inanimate objects, such as bricks, atheists:
As my friend Chris likes to point out, it is odd that people consider themselves particularly smart for holding a position shared by infants and inanimate objects. Chris also likes to point out that an excellent way to ‘persuade’ someone of atheism is to smash him in the skull with a tire iron until he is so brain damaged as to be incapable of holding beliefs—Bam! Instant atheist!
So, we must concede that if “atheist” is defined in the new Flewian way as the factual lack of a certain psychological property, a belief in the existence of God, then human babies, incapable as yet of forming beliefs, do indeed lack beliefs, and so lack a belief in God, and so would be atheists. (This doesn’t mean the Flewian definition isn’t a stupid one: see here and here.)
But what about the argument that it follows from this fact that atheism is the natural state of human beings? Does it follow?
Let’s consider the argument, which would be something like this:
- The natural state of human beings is however they are at birth.
- Babies, at birth, factually lack a belief in God and so are NA atheists.
- ∴ NA atheism is the natural state of human beings.
Is this argument sound? It is not. Premise 1 is false. Consider what it would entail of premise 1 were true—for one thing, it would be unnatural for human beings to have any beliefs whatever. The whole point is that newborns lack the capacity to form beliefs, which is why they lack not only a belief in God but all beliefs. If premise 1 were true, then believing anything whatever would be “unnatural”—thus, if the new atheist thinks he has given a reason to be an atheist, he has also given a reason to have no beliefs at all, and to never progress beyond the level of a newborn baby—since this is what he considers as “natural.”
That premise 1 is false is very easy to see, if one thinks about it for only a moment. It is natural for human beings to do the following:
- Speak language
- Go through puberty
None of these natural capacities is present at birth. 1 and 2 are natural but must still be learned or acquired by human beings, and 3 is a natural development of the human organism that takes place years after birth.
It is therefore blatantly false that the “natural state” of human beings is defined by birth. The would result in the obviously false and silly view that it is “unnatural” for human beings ever to progress or develop beyond infancy.
So what of the development of belief in general and of theistic belief in particular? It turns out that theism or religious belief appears to be a belief that occurs spontaneously in human beings in the course of normal development. This is why almost every human being ever to live has believed is some kind of divinity. Now, it is certainly true that the specific content of one’s religious beliefs (at least at a young age) will be a function of what religious things one is taught—but this no more indicates that it is not natural to acquire religious beliefs and attitudes in general than the fact that the language one learns will be the language one is taught shows that it is unnatural for humans to acquire language. In fact, the opposite is true: we have such a nature that we are designed to acquire language; and the same is true, it would seem, for religious beliefs and attitudes.
There’s a book that goes into the psychology of the development of religious beliefs at some length, if you are interested. It’s called Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs. I recommend it to anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of the psychology.
But for our purposes, the upshot is: theistic belief is the natural state of human beings, since human beings will naturally tend to acquire such beliefs in the course of normal cognitive development.
This fact does not, of course, entail that theism true, but it does show that it is false that atheism is the “natural” or “default” state of human beings. The reverse is true. It is the atheist who is the one who seems unnatural, like a human being incapable of speaking language, or a human being who is blind, or even color-blind. One might go so far as to wonder whether atheism is in many cases a kind of stunted development in otherwise normal cognitive capacities. We do know that children who miss the age-appropriate window for the acquisition of language—e.g. so-called “wolf children” who are raised by animals—are unable to fully acquire language at a latter time, sometimes catastrophically so. And then there is the connection between psychopathy and infant neglect; there seems to be a significantly high correlation between psychopaths and children who are abused or neglect and generally deprived of love and affection and empathy at the earliest ages. As a result, their own capacity to feel and show love, affection, and empathy become stunted, sometimes to the point of nonexistence.
I have suggested before that atheism is, at least in part, the result of a kind of cognitive malfunction. It is entirely possible that the cognitive malfunction in question is due to developmental neglect, whereby the natural human tendency to relate to and reverence the divine remains unrealized because it is somehow neglected, deflected, or thwarted at a critical developmental stage.
Contrary to the views of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, it is not child abuse to give a child a religious upbringing. But it might well be child abuse—in the sense of depriving a child of something that it is natural for him or her to acquire—to give a child an irreligious or atheistical upbringing.