Are Humans Naturally Atheists?

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:

  1. The natural state of human beings is however they are at birth.
  2. Babies, at birth, factually lack a belief in God and so are NA atheists.
  3. ∴ 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:

  1. Speak language
  2. Walk
  3. 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.




“Be a MAN. Get Married.”

Prager University released a video on YouTube called “Be a man. Get married” narrated by sociologist Brad Wilcox.

I’d like to share some thoughts on this video.

First I want to note something very important about Prager University’s YouTube videos. They are all, as a matter of policy, only around 5 minutes long.  My assumption is that this is so they can convey their message in a timespan that a majority of people will be able to handle.  But this has a couple of consequences.  First, the Prager faculty cannot make a detailed and lengthy argument.  To get their message across, they have to rely on rhetorical shorthand devices such as examples and illustrations.  This seems to work, as Prager has garnered over 70,000,000 views.  On the other hand, 5 minutes is simply not enough time to lay out anything more than a bare skeleton of an argument.  For example, the philosopher Peter Kreeft has made two Prager videoes “Where do Good and Evil Come From?” and “God vs Atheism: Which is More Rational?“, both of which I recommend, but neither of which gives Professor Kreeft anywhere near the time he needs to really make the argument: he isn’t so much making an argument, as presenting the outline of an argument.  If you want to see the argument actually spelled out at length, I suggest you read one or more of Professor Kreeft’s 50+ books.   He’s an extremely competent, well-respected philosopher who also has a gift for writing books accessible to people with little or no formal philosophical training.

So with that in mind, let’s have a look at Brad Wilcox’s “Be a man. Get married.” The video appears to be a summary presentation of Wilcox’s book For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America.  Wilcox’s main argument is that married men take a different attitude towards life and particularly towards their work, such that married men are markedly more economically successful than single men, on average. Most of the “argument” such as it is, is an anecdote about a young man who was lazy and living in his parents’ basement until he got married, whereupon he had to “man up” and went on to become much more responsible, disciplined, self-motived, and above all (for Wilcox) economically successful.

Taken by itself, this is terrible argument to get married.  While I have no doubt that Wilcox is correct that married men earn more on average than single men, it simply doesn’t follow that (1) married men have more money than single men—the extra money they make is, after all, going to support their wife and children as well as themselves—nor that (2) married men are better off in any way other than economically, something which, given (1) is very like not true anyway.  So, if married men are no better off in being married except economically, and—by the way—they also aren’t even better off economically, except on paper, Wilcox’s case is pretty much a complete failure.

Add to that the fact that he comes across as morally hectoring men to “man up” and get married.  Few people like to be preached at in a condescending manner, especially when the preaching comes it the form of an argument that is almost laughably bad. No wonder Wilcox’s video provoked so much hostility around the net:

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Wilcox also completely ignores the potentially devastating consequences of a failed marriage for men, both economic and emotional.  He bangs on and on about the alleged rewards, but fails even to suggest that there might be risks, much less prohibitive risks for men to get married.

Now, as it happens, I think that marriage is one of the greatest goods possible for both men and women.  Wilcox’s case for it, however, is so bad that it does more harm than good. While I was watching it, I kept thinking of man advising young inner city black males “You should get into dealing drugs; there’s good money in it”, which is also superficially true, but leaves out that whole thing about the overwhelming likelihood of prison time and early, violent death.

Wilcox does actually manage to at least mention two decent points, or at least they appear in the video, one which speaks to the individual good of marriage and one which speaks to the social good:

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I went ahead and struck out the “financial well-being” part of that one.

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Wilcox does go on about the transformative effect of marriage, but he couches his case exclusively in terms of attitude towards work, which in turn leads men to work harder and make more money.  But with the distinct possibility of being less happy, having less leisure to enjoy one’s extra income, and having one’s extra income or more being taken away from one, it sounds very much like Wilcox is arguing that “Marriage makes men work harder, which is beneficial to someone other than them, so they should do that.” In Wilcox’s terms, marriage doesn’t seem like something that the pursuit of happiness would lead to; it sounds, in fact, much like something the pursuit of happiness would mitigate against.

What someone wishing to make the case for marriage to men in the modern West needs to  do is to show how they benefit from it.  And this benefit could with partial accuracy be expressed in the phrase “be a man“—except this way of putting it is apt to sound like moral shaming language.  The truth of the matter, however, is that it should be expressed in terms of virtue and self-actualization: if you would be a man in the fullest sense, you must be a husband and a father.  And why should you wish to be a man “in the fullest sense”? Because that is a component of your εὐδαιμονία—your happiness or flourishing; it is because you are a human being, and to be a human being means, among other things, to be a member of a sexually dimorphic species.  No one, I think, would seriously argue against the propositions that sex and sexuality are major components of the human body and psychē—many of the major moral arguments of the current age revolve directly around sex and sexuality—nor would anyone contend that, collectively, for any gives biological species, reproduction is one of the most important factors to consider about that species.  And of course, no matter how much our prevailing sexual ethos has attempted to conceptually separate sex and sexuality from reproduction, every honest human being knows (so I would assert) that sex and sexuality are naturally directed at reproduction.  That is what they are for.  In older language, having children is the τέλος—the “end”, “purpose,” or “goal”—of sex.

One particularly virulent modern myth is that nature does not have any “ends”, “goals”, or “purposes”, that there are no natural τέλη or that if there are, they are not normative for human beings. I cannot lay out the full case here, but I will note in passing (1) natural τέλη were never “refuted” by any sound philosophical arguments—they were simply deemed unuseful by thinkers such as Descartes and Bacon, who saw in the idea of natural ends (rightly) an obstacle to their project of the human conquest and subdual of nature.  The scientific method does not find natural τέλη because it is part of that method not to acknowledge them from the the outset.  Consider Descartes’ argument, that τέλη have no place in science because the purposes of God are inscrutable:


And for this reason alone I consider the customary search for final causes to be totally useless in physics; there is considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating the < impenetrable > purposes of God.

Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 2 (p. 39). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Notice that (1) this argument could just as well apply to the parts of physics of which Descartes approves, efficient and material causes, for is there not “considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating” how God has designed the world to operate in any respect? And (2) from the point of view of modern physics, in hindsight, which is the more “inscrutable” proposition: “The spin of a Higgs boson is zero” or “the purpose of eyes in organisms is sight“?

Only someone deeply in the grip of anti-teleological metaphysics could deny that eyes are for seeing, lungs for oxygenating the blood, the legs for locomotion, and sex for the production of children.  The fact that seeing, breathing, walking or running, and especially sex also give us pleasure—sometimes great pleasure—in no way cancels this basic natural directedness-towards of our powers.

One needs only the additional premise that “what our natural powers aim at is constitutive of our good” in the way e.g. knowledge is good, because our natural cognitive powers are aimed at knowledge and truth in a way they are not aimed at deception and falsehood.  Or as Aristotle begins the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.”

Why get married? Why become a husband and a father? (Or a wife and a mother? for that matter).  Because this belongs to the fulfillment of your nature, which just is the condition of your happiness or εὐδαιμονία.  Certainly one can elect to follow another path in life, and  seek a kind of secondary or sub-optimal εὐδαιμονία, or one can be prevented from seeking  optimal realization of one’s nature by external circumstances.  Life is not fair that way.  None of that changes the fact that being married, with children, is optimal condition for the happiness or flourishing of human beings, women as well as men.

But isn’t it true that our modern society has deprecated marriage, has created conditions in which men have an entire range of disincentives to marry and to become fathers (fathers in the true sense—rearers of children—not in the merely biological sense)?

It sure has. This is one of the reasons that Western civilization is dying.  We are not reproducing, neither biologically nor in our cultural ideas and values—the transmission of which, from parents to children, is one of the primary purposes of the family.

Any civilization that makes war on marriage and the family will destroy itself.  And it will also, along the way, deprive vast numbers of men and women of their opportunity to maximize their own happiness, forcing them to settle for something less.  Both of these are a great shame.