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Are Babies Atheists?

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Filed under Atheism

atheist-babies

For a long time, the word "atheism" has been defined as the view that there is no God--i.e., the claim "God does not exist."

More recently, some atheists have begun to define atheism as simply a lack of belief in the existence of God. On this view, a person would be an atheist if he thought there is no God, thought it unlikely that there is a God, or didn't know if there is a God.

Simply not agreeing with the claim "There is a God" would make you an atheist.

Some atheists have claimed that this is the natural state of humanity. On this view, we all start out as atheists and we have to learn belief in God.

In other words: Babies are atheists.

Is this correct?

 

What's the Attraction?

I understand why the atheists who make this claim would be attracted to it. At least, I understand why I would find it attractive if I were an atheist:

  1. It can be plausibly claimed that babies do not have a belief in God, which makes one of the premises of the argument seem true.
  2. If every position other than outright assertion of God's existence falls under my banner, my position would seem larger and more popular.
  3. I could claim atheism as mankind's natural state, thus creating an implicit argument for it. Being in accord with human nature is good, right?
  4. I could claim atheism as the default human belief, and thus avoid of the burden of proof in arguing with others. I could then claim that the burden of proof is on those who want to believe in God. Until I'm satisfied by their arguments, I'm entitled to act on the assumption that God does not exist.

But consider this . . .

 

Babies Also Do Not Believe That There Is No God

One problem with the argument is that it is reversible. One can just as easily switch to the conventional definition of atheism and say:

  1. Babies also do not believe the proposition "There is no God." Therefore, they are non-atheists.
  2. If everybody except those who outright assert that "There is no God" falls under my banner (non-atheism), that shows that my position is larger and more popular.
  3. I could claim that non-atheism is the natural state of humanity, and being in harmony with human nature is good, right?
  4. I could claim non-atheism as the default human belief, and thus avoid of the burden of proof in arguing with atheists. I could then claim that the burden of proof is on those who assert the non-existence of God. Until I'm satisfied by their arguments, I'm entitled to act on the assumption that God does exist.

The Fundamental Problem

The fundamental problem is that babies do not make a good test case for determining the popularity, natural-ness, or default-ness of any claim that is beyond their years.

You might be able to appeal to the beliefs of babies to support things like:

  • Milk tastes good.
  • Faces are interesting
  • Unexpected, loud noises are scary.

But advanced concepts like God, atoms, and the stock market are beyond their ken.

Babies neither believe nor disbelieve in these things.

They have no opinion on them, because they are not yet capable of understanding the concepts involved, because they have not heard of the concepts, and because they have never considered or agreed to the concepts.

It is therefore a mistake to appeal to babies one way or another regarding what the popular, natural, or default belief concerning God is.

 

What Now?

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In the meantime, what do you think?

Jimmy Akin

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Jimmy Akin is a Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a member on the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau, a weekly guest on the global radio program, Catholic Answers LIVE, and a contributing editor for Catholic Answers Magazine. He's the author of numerous publications, including the books The Fathers Know Best (Catholic Answers, 2010); The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers, 2001); and Mass Confusion: The Do's & Don'ts of Catholic Worship (Catholic Answers, 1999). Many of Jimmy's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Jimmy's writing at JimmyAkin.com.

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  • Peter Piper

    The standard definitions I am familiar with say something like `disbelief in the existence of a God'. This is helpful because, although disbelieving can mean simply `failing to believe', it does include the implication that the disbeliever could, had things been different somehow, have believed instead. So it is not possible for stones or babies to disbelieve anything complicated. Thus babies are not atheists, on this definition.

    I was intrigued by the claim that the word `atheism' used at one time to mean `belief that there are no Gods', so I looked in the oldest dictionary I could find (from 1828). But it just gave the same definition I am used to, in terms of disbelief. Can someone give me a reference to an older definition which fits better with what the OP claims?

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Peter, thanks for the question. As former atheist Antony Flew points out, the classical definition of atheism--the view that "God does not exist"--is latent within the word's own etymology:

      "[T]he word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way. Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence...of God...But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist." (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

      A far better way to determine whether someone is a theist, atheist, or agnostic is to ask the question, "Does God exist?". Traditionally, a yes would reveal a theist, a no would reveal an atheist, and an "I don't know" would reveal an agnostic.

      If you asked a baby that question, though, they wouldn't respond at all since they wouldn't even understand language. Therefore it's disingenuous to identify babies with any of those three labels.

      • David Nickol

        If you asked a baby that question, they wouldn't respond at all since they wouldn't even understand language. Therefore it's disingenuous to identify babies with any of those three labels.

        The question is really trivial, but I think an argument can be made that babies are agnostic, since if they could speak, they would have to answer, "I don't know." If you ask a baby whether or not it is a human being, it can't answer, but that doesn't mean it isn't a human being.

        Is the baby of Christian parents not a Christian before it is baptized and a Christian after it is baptized? Why can Christian parents make the decision to include their babies in the Christian community when, apparently, atheist parents cannot include their children in the atheist community?

        What level of maturity does one have to reach to be an atheist? Can 5-year-olds who claim not to believe in God be considered atheists, or are they simply parroting their parents mindlessly? What about 5-year-olds who claim to believe in God. Do they really?

        • Jon L.

          Because becoming Christian is simply more than declaring that one is so, David. Baptism an initiation rite that is not considered a mere splashing of water, but a sign that an indelible mark has been made on someone's soul that marks them as belonging to Christ, to God. For the Christian, something supernatural has just occurred.

          But what if atheists made an initiation rite? That only brings up two problems: first, most atheists are materialistic, and would not believe that there is a soul to mark anything on in the first place; second, even if they did believe in souls, what would they be marking them for? Would they belong to humanity? To atheism? The only answer to that would be "to a cult", which pretty much defeats a lot of the ancillary beliefs atheists hold.

          "The question is really trivial, but I think an argument can be made that babies are agnostic, since if they could speak, they would have to answer, "I don't know." If you ask a baby whether or not it is a human being, it can't answer, but that doesn't mean it isn't a human being."

          You do realize you're starting with an unprovable assumption here? The onus is on you to show that "being atheist" is just as fundamental to being a human being to "being human" is. As the OP has pointed out, you are merely assuming that atheism is the default state of humanity without actually showing that that is the case.

          • josh

            "The onus is on you to show that "being atheist" is just as fundamental to being a human being to "being human" is."

            Read what he wrote. David said it might be argued that agnostic is the default or initial state of humanity. On the other hand, the onus is on you to show that baptism is anything more than a cult initiation.

        • Peter Piper

          Do you also consider stones to be agnostic? If not, why not?

          • David Nickol

            Do you also consider stones to be agnostic? If not, why not?

            If there is a God, stones are theists, because they attest to God's existence. If there is not a God, they are atheists, since they attest to God's nonexistence. Stones know these things in their admittedly very minimal consciousness, but unfortunately, they cannot communicate.

            We have this passage in Luke 19 (38-40):

            Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He said in reply, “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”

          • Peter Piper

            If there is a God, stones are theists, because they attest to God's existence.

            But then by the same logic if there is a God then atheists are theists, because they attest in just the same way to God's existence. So I don't think it is helpful to use the word `theist' in this sense.

          • kuroisekai

            which is part of the reason why I think God allows atheists to exist. :)

          • josh

            "Stones know these things in their admittedly very minimal consciousness..."

            Can I assume you are kidding here?

          • David Nickol

            Can I assume you are kidding here?

            Yes, mostly, although there is a theory that consciousness is a property of all matter, in which case it might make some sense to argue that stones are dimly aware. Apologies for the facetiousness, but the question raised in the OP is just not interesting enough to take entirely seriously. Who would really disagree with Akin's conclusion: "It is therefore a mistake to appeal to babies one way or another regarding what the popular, natural, or default belief concerning God
            is." One might quibble that babies are agnostics, but so what?

            As for those old enough to seriously believe or disbelieve in God, I think theists would maintain that belief is "natural" (based on St. Paul's contention that unbelief is really willfully ignoring the obvious), but atheists would maintain that unbelief is "natural" because there is no compelling evidence. Actually, I am not sure many theists wouldn't argue that babies are naturally theists, since certain things like conscience are claimed to be "written in our hearts" by God? But Jimmy Akin didn't try to make that case, so I certainly won't.

        • http://stacytrasancos.com/ Stacy Trasancos

          I think babies naturally believe and trust that which is greater than them. It's adults who convince themselves that they are their own gods in need of no one. My first memories were of awe at the created world, of God who made the big round sun. :-D

        • Animonous

          “If you ask a baby whether or not it is a human being, it can't answer, but that doesn't mean it isn't a human being.”

          But you're confusing physical and preferential attributes. If you ask a baby boy “are you a boy?” and it does not answer; then by your reasoning we are erroneously labelling it as a baby girl. Not true.

          What Brandon said is closer to: if you ask a baby boy “are you gay or straight or bisexual?” it won't be able to answer because it is still in no position to decide on its sexual preference.

      • Peter Piper

        Etymology isn't meaning. I was asking for a reference to an explicit old definition of `atheist' as something like `person who believes there is no God'. I agree with you that it is disingenuous to label a baby as a theist, atheist, agnostic, Christian or anything else of that sort, for reasons like the one I gave in my earlier comment.

        What implications would you draw from a response of `probably not', or even `almost certainly not' to your test-question?

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "What implications would you draw from a response of `probably not', or even `almost certainly not' to your test-question?"

          Well first I'd ask, relative to what? Probabilities can only be applied in reference to some background set of knowledge. So when you say God "probably doesn't exist", I'd be interested to know 1) how you arrived at that specific probability and 2) how you'e sure it's above 50% certain than God doesn't exist.

          Also, in reference to this discussion, a "probably not" or an "almost certainly not" would be akin to, "I don't know." That would be the proper reply.

          And if this is what you believe, Peter, you would traditionally identify as an agnostic, not an atheist.

          • Peter Piper

            Probabilities can only be applied in reference to some background set of knowledge. So when you say God "probably doesn't exist", I'd be interested to know 1) how you arrived at that specific probability and 2) how you'e sure it's above 50% certain than God doesn't exist.

            All judgements must be made in reference to some background set of knowledge. So your questions of `how did you arrive at that judgement?' and `how are you sure of it?' would apply equally to answers of `yes' and `no': I'm not sure why you are treating the answers I suggested as somehow special. Perhaps it is because you think they are the answers I would give (they aren't: I would instead ask for lots of tedious clarification, thus allowing you to classify me as a pedantic bore).

            Instead, I chose these answers because they reflect the position of a particularly prominent atheist, namely Richard Dawkins. If you are using the word `atheism' in such a way that it does not apply to him, then you are not following general usage. Dawkins is also often referred to as an atheist in the articles here at Strange Notions.

            Incidentally, as I understand it, the word `agnosticism' was introduced within the last couple of centuries, and the people who introduced it used it for an explicit belief that it is not possible to know whether or not there is a God (what would now be called `strong agnosticism'). So I'm not sure what you're trying to get at when you talk about the `traditional' sense of this word.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            But ultimately does it really matter to God if you are an atheist or an agnostic (as you are using it)? Isn't the central question for him whether you genuinely hold the positive belief in him, if you lack this you cannot be saved?

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "Isn't the central question for [God] whether you genuinely hold the positive belief in him, if you lack this you cannot be saved?"

            This is not what the Catholic Church teaches.

          • David Nickol

            It seems to me the Catechism at least implies some knowledge of, or belief in, God for salvation. The latter part of Paragraph 847 says:

            Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation.

            It seems to me that both those who formally belong to the Church, and those who have never heard of it, are considered to be given some supernatural gift—note the words moved by grace in the paragraph above—that is necessary in order for salvation. There are, I believe, more "liberal" interpretations that would say salvation is possible for those who recognize at least some power beyond themselves, or something transcendent, or whatever.

            How this works for babies or the profoundly disabled I cannot imagine.

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "It seems to me the Catechism at least implies some knowledge of, or belief in, God for salvation."

            I disagree with that interpretation, as do many Catholic theologians. The Church's teaching (both in the CCC and in Vatican II) clearly outlines the possibility of salvation for those who "seek God with a sincere heart", as you noted. But theologians have long taught that people can seek God without knowing him as the object of their desire.

            See C.S. Lewis' fictional story, "The Last Battle", part of his Chronicles of Narnia, for this in action.

          • Chad Eberhart

            I'd agree that probably most theologians interpret extra ecclesiam nulla salus pretty liberally these days but this wasn't always so. For most of the Church's history it was a strict interpretation. Brandon, can you think of factors external to the Church that might account for this softer interpretation as we moved into the modern age? Does it not seem a bit suspicious that the Holy Spirit guided the Church toward this more palatable interpretation so recently? It seems obvious to me that as literacy rates went up, information travelled quicker and technology advanced that the older teaching became untenable. Thoughts?

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            So atheists can be saved without believing Jesus is god?

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "So atheists can be saved without believing Jesus is god?"

            It's theoretically possible, yes. But whether the necessary criteria is or ever has been met is up for debate. If you're sincerely interested in the Catholic position on this issue, one of our own contributors, Dr. Stephen Bullivant, co-editor the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, published his doctoral dissertation in an excellent book titled, The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            I might, but I am working my way through the New Testament for starters!

            I'd be interested in your thoughts on what distinction is important as it pertains to Catholicism. I.e. how important is it to salvation to hold a belief in a god, that that god is Jesus, and how necessary to salvation do you think the belief is? How important to engage in Catholic rituals?

          • josh

            Agnostic was a term coined in 1869; traditionally, no one identified themselves in that way. Huxley himself, who coined it, said that he couldn't see why his opponents wouldn't call him an atheist, he just didn't like the term.

  • Randy Gritter

    The other straw man in that poster is the idea that if an atheist is not obviously evil then that is somehow hard for theists to explain. OK, maybe some really lame theists have made comments that all atheists live immorally. Still I am not aware of one respected theist thinker who holds that position yet atheists think that if they rebut it they have accomplished something.

    • Mikegalanx

      OTOH, most Christians are not 'respected theist thinkers'. It wasn't that long ago that an American President said "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.". (George H.W. Bush)

      And it was only in 2011 that a majority of Americans said that even a "well-qualified" atheist could be considered as a presidential candidate- majorities of Republicans still disagree- and I bet the main reason would be that someone who doesn't believe in God can't have a base for their morality

      • JoFro

        This may be because most atheists, at least when Bush Sr. was growing up, happened to be hardcore Communists or Marxists and so in his world view, they could not be citizens or patriots of a nation whose founding fathers believed the rights of all men were bestowed to them by a Creator!

        • Ignorant Amos

          This may be because most atheists, at least when Bush Sr. was growing up, happened to be hardcore Communists or Marxists ...

          Really? You know this how? Good luck proving that generalization.

          ...and so in his world view, they could not be citizens or patriots of a nation whose founding fathers believed the rights of all men were bestowed to them by a Creator!

          Love it! Which creator? Bush was "alleged" to have said...

          "No, I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God."

          That'll be the capital "G" god. But it is highly doubtful he even said such a thing.

          "The only person who has ever claimed Bush said this is Robert Sherman. No other reporter present has ever confirmed that Bush said this."

          Nothing exists to corroborate Shermans account, making it hearsay at best.

          If it was a stance taken by Senior, Junior seemed not to be of that position, and he was the more fundamentalist of the two.

          George W. Bush, acknowledged those who do not worship during a November 3, 2004 press conference when he said
          "I will be your president regardless of your faith... And if they choose not to worship, they're just as patriotic as your neighbor."

          • JoFro

            Since Bush Sr. actually fought in WW2 and lived during the days of the Communist expansion into Eastern Europe and the Communist scare in America, its not a mere generalization. I never claimed that all atheists were communists but the culture of the time, even more than today, associated atheists with not being patriots because many atheists happened to be Communists who were actively trying to subvert the US govt!

            And of course Junior didn't have such a position - because by the time he became President, the association of atheists to Communists was just no longer common - it's mostly still prevalent among evangelical Christians.

            Bush Jr was and still is a Methodist, one the many mainstream protestant churches in America. He may have courted the evangelical vote but he never was one despite what most Americans were made to believe over and over again in the MSM.

  • Octavo

    I agree that "babies are atheists" is a useless argument and atheists do need to stop using it.

  • Linda

    This may seem strange, but I think it depends a bit on the baby. I have two children and the elder is definitely more of this world. He believes in God but I'm not sure how innate it is to his personality or self. My younger on the other hand has always "got" God and I think would believe whether we did or not. When he was little it felt like he still had one foot in Heaven, and it was easy to see God in Him. Fortunately both like to think things through and I look forward to discussing theism, atheism and other religions with them as they encounter all these different thoughts.

  • Annie Rannd

    I don't know an atheist who would use this as an argument. I think atheists just think memes like this are funny, and they like to get on your guys' nerves. Atheists know that babies are not atheists, for all the reasons you just mentioned. I think whoever wrote this meme was just trying to get a rise out of a Catholic or two, and based on this article's existence, I think it worked. lol.

    • ziad

      Annie, I have encountered an atheist who used this. He was saying that "if we were not taught from childhood to believe in God, we would all be atheists. When we are born we are atheists."

      But yes, only one :)

      • josh

        Your atheist friend was correct, insofar as we are taught from childhood to believe in God and in the absence of that teaching you would mostly end up with non-believers. The only quibble is whether or not to call non-believers of that sort atheists.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "Your atheist friend was correct, insofar as we are taught from childhood to believe in God and in the absence of that teaching you would mostly end up with non-believers. The only quibble is whether or not to call non-believers of that sort atheists."

          The point is that this fact says nothing about the question of whether God exists. It's pointless.

          Babies also grow up not believing in multiplication tables or the second law of thermodynamics. And in the absence of that teaching you would mostly end up with non-believers in regards to math and science.

          But so what? Does that cast doubt on multiplication or thermodynamics?

          • josh

            But the point isn't to prove that God doesn't exist via babies' beliefs. The point is to consider how people move from an unbelieving state as babies to holding particular beliefs. And there is a wide difference between how people come to hold religious beliefs and how they come to understand thermodynamics. People from vastly different cultural backgrounds have been able to converge on modern science, but religion remains a very local and dependent phenomena. People don't generally convince new people of religious ideas by providing obviously useful advances, or by explaining the history of ideas and how they changed, or how specific assumptions were tested. Religion looks much more like cultural baggage. People believe because 'this is how things are done in our society', 'this is something you cannot question/ you need to have faith', 'if you don't go to church you'll break your mother's heart', 'this was revealed to us by authority X'.

            For creator religions like Christianity and Islam this is even more of a problem. Why wouldn't God just make himself obvious to created beings. Why give creatures rationality (as Catholics for instance believe), but somehow end up with the result that the vast majority of rational creatures don't find supposedly rational Catholic arguments compelling? (And this is even more true among those one would otherwise esteem as the most rational among us.)

          • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

            "But the point isn't to prove that God doesn't exist via babies' beliefs. The point is to consider how people move from an unbelieving state as babies to holding particular beliefs."

            If that's truly the point of the meme--which I doubt--it would surely be an interesting one. Theists would agree with atheists that epistemology is a fascinating field.

            Still, *how* someone moves from no-belief--distinct from "unbelief", which you use--to belief says nothing about whether that belief is *true.*

            While I might be interested to learn how a high-school senior learned about the second law of thermodynamics, that knowledge would tell me nothing about whether the second law is true.

            "People from vastly different cultural backgrounds have been able to converge on modern science, but religion remains a very local and dependent phenomena. "

            I'm not sure what you mean by this, so I'll ask for elaboration. But on the surface it's very confusing. Religion is perhaps the *least* local phenomenon in the world. Certainly more people in more places share beliefs about God than about modern science, the latter of which *most* of the world is terribly inept. Modern science is extremely local and dependent.

            Your final questions are important but let's table those for other discussions. We already have full-length posts focused on some of them. Regardless of the answers that Catholics offer, like everything else in your comment, those questions are independent of whether theism is true.

            Perhaps I can close with a question, josh, one that will help clarify, in my mind, what you believe. Please answer as succinctly as possible:

            Does God exist?

          • josh

            "Still, *how* someone moves from no-belief--distinct from "unbelief",
            which you use--to belief says nothing about whether that belief is
            *true.*"

            I'm not trying to draw a distinction between no- and un- belief, for my purposes I'm just concerned with lack of a belief. Putting that aside, the relevant question is about whether a belief is reasonable. We want reasonable beliefs because they are most reliable, or most likely to be true, or most likely to avoid dangerous falsehoods. Of course, we can imagine situations where something is true but one reasonably believes it isn't, or vice versa. But we can't evaluate 'truth' in itself so to speak, we can only evaluate the reasonableness of holding the belief that something is true.

            When it comes to evaluating reasonableness, how someone arrived at their beliefs is crucial. We might imagine that something could be true but people believe it for specious reasons. But it isn't reasonable to assume that something is true in the absence of solid justification. If we eliminate all the proposed reasons for believing something as specious, then it is unreasonable to believe it. It might, in the abstract, still be true, but by our best estimate it can't be supported. So understanding the unreliable processes by which people come to have religious beliefs is absolutely part of the process of deciding whether to believe something is true or not.

            Does God exist? No. Which is a slightly condensed form of 'It is not reasonable to believe that God exists.'

            Since you asked for elaboration: Religion isn't even close to the least local phenomenon in the world. Try breathing, or child-rearing or not-teleporting if you want the least. What I mean by local and dependent is that your religious beliefs are, in a statistical sense, very correlated with those of your parents and your local culture. Not that there aren't conversions, but they are rare, and most likely to a closely related group, like changing denominations. Until the modern development of widespread travel and communication, what you believed about religion was almost entirely a function of where you were born and lived.

            On the other hand, people everywhere believed that, e.g., rocks were hard and swords were dangerous. Somewhere in between we have local theories about that observable world everyone holds in common. So an ancient European might believe health is in the balance of four humours and an East Asian might think it is in the correct flow of Yin and Yang energies. But everyone agrees with results. 15-16th century developments in math and astronomy weren't of course known to everyone outside Europe (or most in-), but they could be demonstrated and so they became universally persuasive once people had been exposed to them. Thus, in the present, the findings (and method) of science are largely agreed upon everywhere they have been carried. An isolated tribe might not know them but we have every reason to think that tribe would come to accept them given exposure. In fact, the main obstacle we find to accepting scientific findings is often religious.

            Religion remains local, unlike science. Of course, we wouldn't expect ancient Japanese to become Christians before contact between the civilizations made the spread of the idea possible (although, as noted this is a major problem for creator god religions). But even after centuries of exposure most Japanese aren't Christians and most Europeans aren't Shinto. However, the children of a Japanese Christian are more likely to be Christian themselves. Now obviously, religions can spread given time and to really understand that one needs to understand the effects of colonization, war, trade, evangelism and missionary work, etc. But the locality I'm talking about is roughly how much your beliefs stem from your particular background and whether they are generally persuasive to someone from a different background.

          • Green_Sapphire

            "Religion is perhaps the *least* local phenomenon in the world. Certainly
            more people in more places share beliefs about God than about modern
            science, the latter of which *most* of the world is terribly inept
            about. Modern science is extremely local and dependent."

            I completely disagree with you.

            Science is the same everywhere. Experiments done in a lab in Singapore have the same results as in a lab in Nairobi or a lab in Dublin. Electricity acts the same. Scales weigh the same (with a tiny difference at altitude). Planes fly the same way. Math computes the same. Acids and bases react the same. The same computer programs generate the same results. Chemotherapy has the same effect. Just because the West has more science education and science facilities has nothing to do with science itself.

            In contrast, religion is extremely local. By far the most reliable predictor of one's religious beliefs is where (and when) one was born and raised. The nature and qualities and quantities of deities are highly culturally bound and vary widely.

            josh: "The point is to consider how people move from an unbelieving state as babies to holding particular beliefs."

            Brandon: "If that's truly the point of the meme--which I doubt--it would surely be an interesting one."

            Of course that's the point of the meme. People don't start out believing in a deity, and if they are not taught about a deity, they don't develop a belief in one in the same way that they develop cognitive brain function.

            People can learn a new language after they grow up, or can learn to read or learn math or learn history. And they can learn about religion after they grow up. But if they're not taught to believe in a deity by puberty, the chance of them ever believing in one are extremely low.

             

            "While I might be interested to learn how a high-school senior learned about the second law of thermodynamics, that knowledge would tell me nothing about whether the second law is true."

            But the student (or you) can easily test the second law of thermodynamics in a chemistry or physics lab, with gas and fluid experiments generally, in cooking at home, in playing pool, in many aspects of daily life. The student (or you) can calculate the math that proves it. The student (or you) can easily, by experience and measurement, as well as by reading about the millions of experiments that have verified it, come to know for a fact and to great certainty that the law is true.

            The same cannot be said of a posited supernatural deity that chooses to hide itself. It cannot be seen, touched or heard or scientifically detected or measured. It cannot be calculated and proven. Physics has found no evidence of any effects of a deity in the world and no way by which such effects could operate. Medicine and neuroscience has found no evidence of any non-material 'soul' or 'spirit' that is present in or is acting on the brain or the body, but rather increasingly finding that the mind is what the brain does. Archaeology, anthropology, biology and other sciences have disproved at least a literal interpretation of Genesis creation or any two individual progenitors, the flood, the tower of babel, the Egyptian captivity and exodus, the sun stopping in the sky, geocentrism, the earth being still, the sky being a firmament, the Canaanite slaughter, the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus' life, etc, etc, etc. The Bible contains thousands of contradictions and a verse to fit or support pretty much any position on any issue, and much of the early 'history' of the church has been proven to be a later myth. The greater longevity of Hinduism and Buddhism and the great success and greater passion of Islam act as logical evidence against Christianity's claims. Studies of intercessory prayer show no effect (or some negative effects). Psychology and neuroscience are developing an increasing knowledge about the functions of the brain related to 'belief' and to 'religious experiences' and the effects of regular 'meditation or spiritual practices.' The study of our animal relatives has taught us about the natural evolution of morality in social creatures, and the neurological effects of oxytocin, seratonin, dopamine and other hormones and neurotransmitters in emotions and bonding.

            I could go on, but I think you get the picture. There is no similar proof and irrefutable evidence for the existence of a deity as claimed by any Christian denomination as there is for the second law of thermodynamics.

            "those questions are independent of whether theism is true."

            It is clear that theism is true -- in that theism is the belief in a deity, and many billions of people believe or profess belief in one or more of many types of deity. But belief doesn't mean that any of these deities in fact exist.

            And his questions regarding divine hiddenness and the lack of strong rational explanations for the god of Christianity are relevant as part of the evidence to consider regarding the probability of its existence, so they are not independent.

        • ziad

          Josh, this is an assumption that has not been verified. As Catholics, we believe that even in the absence of catechism, a person can reach to the conclusion that God exists (through the observation of nature and causation etc). I will concede that our view is also not verified, but wanted to share it as another possibility that could occur when lacking teaching.

          • josh

            I don't think one can reasonably argue that babies might come to the conclusion that God exists. But see my comment in reply to Brandon below.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            Fine, but you agree that we are not born having reached "the conclusion that God exists (through the observation of nature and causation etc)" right? Can you also accept that children don't reach these conclusions on their own about gods any more than they do about Santa Claus or ghosts?

            My experience with infants who can talk is that they go by what grown ups say exists and is real, probably until they reach the age of puberty. I had a conversation with my niece recently about this. She is six and was a little worried that the "Rodents of Unusual Size" in the Princess Bride might be real. The point being that she doesn't feel she knows enough to tell if they are real or not on her own. She can barely read, she can't use the internet. She trusts her parents absolutely.

            She has been raised as far as I can tell with no exposure or interest in any gods. She has never mentioned one, but she is certain Santa exists.

        • Peter Piper

          Josh, you might find the following video an interesting response to the idea that kids only end up believing in God because of external pressure:
          http://media.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/WebMedia/FAR245%20Barrett.mov

        • Linda

          If this were true, then how did we end up with a concept of God at all? If we are all born unbelievers, then how would the notion even start?

          • josh

            'God' is a concept that develops over the course of many generations, just as karma, or the balance of yin and yang, or the tao of nature develops. Humans do have certain inbuilt biases (actually in-evolutioned but that's not a word). Notably, we are prone to search for and attribute patterns to things, which works well for, say, trying to figure out the seasons, but also leads to a lot of false positives, like the thinking behind sympathetic magic, or homeopathy for that matter.

            We also tend to think in human terms. That is, we view things in terms of wants and desires and plans and natures. These heuristics reflect how we think about ourselves and our interactions with other people. They aren't a complete picture but they are what we instinctively work with because navigating our social context is very important in human evolution. So we also have a tendency to impose this way of thinking on animals and inanimate objects and abstract concepts.

            'God' is one particular amalgam of these biases that can become rooted in culture over many generations. God is an idealized and exaggerated abstraction of authority, creativity, power, intelligence, etc. These are very human features which people have mistakenly tried to universalize, often with a view to enforcing their own biases about how culture and human interaction should go. God is also part of the human attempt to control the world, hence the traditional need to appease various gods in the hopes of good crops, healthy children, victory in war, life after death and so on.

            So I'm not saying that a population of 'neutral' children could never develop religion over time. Just that this comes about due to known biases and flaws in our thinking, and that your particular notions, the Catholic concept of God, is an accident of history not likely to be repeated by a neutral population.

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        That is a different argument. This atheist seems to be saying that without being born in a religious culture and being taught that a god exists etc, we would not form beliefs in a god years later when we started forming beliefs.

        • http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~pr33/ Paul Rimmer

          That's a very good point, Brian. Maybe, if a group of people had never heard about gods, then they would end up inventing some of their own.

        • Green_Sapphire

          The fact that humans have tended to develop beliefs in various gods is actually evidence against the existence of any of the deities.

          If a god existed and had a certain nature and desire to be known by us and we were made with an ability to know this god, then it is more likely that humans would develop similar beliefs rather than such disparate ones. Further, certain types of cultures tend to have certain types of deities, indicating a more human origin for the concept.

  • La Deforma Protestante

    excelente :)

    • http://www.DeaconHarbey.com/ Dcn Harbey Santiago

      L.

      Funny name. It gave me a chuckle.

      "Viva Cristo Rey!!"
      DHS

      • ziad

        lol I had to look up google translate and I laughed when I saw the translation :)

  • josh

    Why do columns like these never bother to ask an atheist instead of speculating 'what I would find attractive if I were an atheist?'

    Why would some people call babies atheists? Because most self-identified atheists use the term to indicate that they don't believe in God or don't have a religion. That's what they mean with respect to themselves and one can casually include babies in that definition. It's not a plot to trick believers or gain the baby demographic on surveys.

    So there are two points that can be noted here. One is that babies aren't consciously aware of the issue and maybe one wants to include that as a condition for the label 'atheist'. The other is the old agnostic/atheist distinction between not believing God exists and believing God does not exist. There are major problems with that distinction, but using it one could make the case that babies are closer to agnostics

    than atheists, keeping in mind that they aren't consciously aware of being agnostics as well.

    But this is all pretty superficial. The atheists are right that babies are instructed to believe in God and in the absence of that indoctrination they won't be anything like the believers who do the instructing.

    • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

      The word atheist can and has meant a great deal of things over the centuries. Christians were initially called atheists by pagans because they rejected what people of that time considered "gods" to be.

      Apparently, you can still find dictionaries that include an archaic definition of atheist as "immoral". I think you can also find many theists today who believe all atheists are evil.

      This image is saying that, IF you accept that an "atheist" is someone who lacks a belief in a god, AND that all atheists are evil, babies show that this is not the case they lack a belief in a god and it is hard to think of them as evil.

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    I think babies have no beliefs. I think their brains are not developed enough to hold any beliefs. They have no belief in a god, and I call anyone who has no belief in a god, an atheist. I am interested in the distinction between those who hold a belief in a god and those who do not, whether they are positive or negative atheists.

    If you will not accept, that and will only use the term atheist with respect to beings that hold some kind of belief, then you are absolutely correct. When the terms are defined this way, babies are neither theist or atheist and it is pointless to think of them in those terms.

    What you cannot do is assume they are theists. Theism requires the ability to hold a belief.

    • JoFro

      I think the article specifically addressed this broadening of the meaning of atheism!

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        I understand, the meaning of the words is not the point. The point is what is in babies heads and whether a lack of a belief in a God always means evil. I think we can all agree it does not.

        • JoFro

          I don't believe the Church ever claimed otherwise, despite what some Christians will have you believe! Unless of course we're discussing the concept of Original Sin, which is a whole other topic!

  • ksed11

    It’s unlikely we’re born atheists. The March 2012 issue of the New Scientist covered this topic. The editorial (written by an atheist it seems) states:

    “Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don’t need to be indoctrinated to believe in him….. Religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that they are fighting a losing battle.”

    The claim that babies are naturally atheist in predisposition doesn’t appear to be correct. To quote from the article again:

    “Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don’t need to be indoctrinated to believe in him….The vast majority of humans… naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them.”

    Perhaps it works something like Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition device or universal grammar, where language acquisition is hard-wired in the brain.

    This current redefinition of atheism to mean “lack of belief” is clearly a means to avoid the burden of demonstration. By saying I lack a belief in god, I merely provide a biographical report of my own mental state. And if that’s one wants to do then fair enough. But in that case, one cannot answer the question “does god exist?” for he has not taken any meaningful position on the matter. He also cannot offer any reasons for believing atheism to be true, since according to that definition, he merely lacks a belief and hold no position.

    It makes me wonder as well, why atheists would be on discussion forums trying to dissuade people from being theists. If theists merely have a belief in god, then
    who cares? According to atheists (under this definition), atheism is no more an attractive position to hold; it’s merely another psychological state.

    On the other hand, if God either exists or not exists, and if one wants to debate the subject, one must actually take a position and carry a certain burden of demonstration. The perennial debate hasn’t been “Do you believe or not believe in god?” but rather “Does god exist or not?”

    • kuroisekai

      The main reason atheists try to dissuade people from being theists is that a lot of atheists (like Dawkins, Hitchens, et al) think that theism is bad because it creates wars and pushes people away from science and objectivity.

      Well, The more I think about it, the more it seems that "atheism" is more of an umbrella term for a slew of unbelief... there's anti-theism (which is a thing. A friend of mine is a proud, outspoken, anti-theist), the total rejection and opposition toward belief in gods; spiritual atheism, which rejects the mainstream (ie Judeo-Christian Islamic) traditions of God but not spirituality; and a bunch of other stuff I can't label. What's interesting is these "atheisms" are not mutually exclusive - in my mind they form quite a complicated venn diagram.

      • Ignorant Amos

        The main reason atheists try to dissuade people from being theists is that a lot of atheists (like Dawkins, Hitchens, et al) think that theism is bad because it creates wars and pushes people away from science and objectivity.

        Is that what you think? Are atheists on a mission to proselytize? Most atheists are happy enough for theists to indulge their beliefs so long as those beliefs don't impinge on the welfare and freedoms of others. Unfortunately religions can't operate under such restraints.

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        You are on to something. I use "atheist" to mean anyone who lacks a belief in a god. This includes not knowing or not turning your mind to it, babies... Positive, strong or hard atheism is a sub-set going a step further and holding a belief that no gods exist. "Non-theist" or "post-theist" is a different sub-set of people who think the concept of a god is so settled it is not even worth having a position on. "Anti-theist" would be someone who is actively against belief in deities, thinks it is harmful in some way interestingly one might actually be a theist and still be anti-theist, theoretically e.g. someone who is angry towards a god they believe in, like the devil.

    • Atman

      Very well said.

  • David A. Carlson

    Babies also don't know of the existence of China. So, there is no China?

    • Ignorant Amos

      Babies also don't know of the existence of China. So, there is no China?

      Whether China exists or not has no bearing on those that don't know whether China exists, purely because they can have no knowledge of a place called China. Babies have no knowledge of gods or China. That is what agnosticism means. Agnostic (from Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-), meaning "without", and γνῶσις (gnōsis), meaning "knowledge")

      Go to the Amazon Baisin and ask some illiterate tribesman does he believe there is a place called China? Does saying "no" make him an A-Chinaist?

      • mally el

        Why would this tribesman say that there is no China if he did not know anything about it? He would say that he did not know.
        If he was absolutely sure that China did not exist then, and only then, could he honestly say "no" to the question.
        An atheist is one who does not believe that God exists; he cannot say there is no God because he does not know.

        • Ignorant Amos

          You would think so wouldn't you? Except tribesmen are not that well educated. Well educated people don't even say "I don't know", they make all sorts of fantastical claims about stuff they can't possibly know.

          Religious belief aside, flat earthers are an example.

          "Many ancient cultures have had conceptions of a flat Earth, including Greece until the classical period, the Bronze Age and Iron Age civilizations of the Near East until the Hellenistic period,India until the Gupta period (early centuries AD) and China until the 17th century. It was also typically held in the aboriginal cultures of the Americas, and a flat Earth domed by the firmament in the shape of an inverted bowl is common in pre-scientific societies."

          Even today there are flat earthers, who cannot be compared to the ignorant of history or the ignorant of a parochial tribesman from the Amazon.

          Anyway, "I don't know" works just as well for the tribesmans concept of what China means, if you like.

          • David A. Carlson

            I'm thinking the Amazonian tribesman would just ask, "What the hell's a China?"

      • David A. Carlson

        Good point. Which is exactly the point I am making. By saying that babies don't know God exists and therefore they are atheists, they are saying anyone who admits to not knowing if God exists is an atheist. This kinda backs the agnostics into a corner. At the same time, the tribesman in the Amazon may not know about China, but it still exists. The same applies to God.Lack of knowledge does not equal disbelief. Many Amazonian tribal people knew nothing of God before missionaries, but there are many that came to believe once God was introduced to them.

  • SJH

    This article in National Geographic is somewhat related. It discussed archeological evidence that religion came before society as opposed to the other way around. We may not be able to use individual infants as a test case but perhaps we can use infant societies.
    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2011/06/gobekli-tepe/mann-text

  • Mikegalanx

    I think this is a useful point for atheists to make, not because it is necessarily true, depending on how you define atheist, but

    1) A lot of religious believers all over the world do believe that atheists are immoral/amoral, simply due to their being atheists.

    2) It makes people think abut how they came by their particular religious beliefs; the answer to which is almost always "because they were raised that way."

  • tad

    It's astonishing to see how many people simply don't understand atheism. A (without) theism (belief in god). Agnosticism is not an alternative as it has a different meaning, a (without) gnostic (knowing). If you are a gnostic atheist you claim that god definitely does not exist, just as a gnostic theist claims God certainly does. Neither of these positions have any proof so both are as bad as each other.
    Babies are born agnostic for sure, how can they know anything, but also atheistic as they cannot believe in a god, as they don't know about gods. Circular argument.
    Know your terms please people.

  • Atman

    Babies are atheists in the same way rocks, trees, tables, chimps, dogs are atheists.

    I acknowledge that atheism has 2 distinctive definitions:

    1) a-theism (without theism/ non-theism): an umbrella term covering various
    attitudes and beliefs (like agnosticism, ignosticism, apatheism, and Atheism)
    regarding the existence of god.

    2) Atheism: the belief that god doesn't exist. (traditional definition)

    Babies fit neither of the definitions because cognition (which babies lack) is
    needed to hold any attitude regarding the existence of god. There’s no point
    in calling babies atheists. By their own logic, babies are apolitical and
    amoral as well, but I don’t see “atheists” celebrating that.

    When a self-proclaimed "atheist" describes his position as "lack
    of belief in god", he's using the umbrella term, a-theism, thereby not
    being specific as to which a-theistic/non-theistic position he holds to. So, he
    should be offered a list of a-theistic options to choose his position:

    1. Agnosticism: position that holds god's existence is ultimately unknowable or
    admits personal ignorance but makes no knowledge claim regarding the existence
    of god. (some agnostics see some truth in both Theistic and Atheistic positions
    but admit they are not sure either way.)

    2. Ignosticism (aka theological noncognitivism): position that holds that religious language, and specifically words like God, are not cognitively meaningful.

    3. Apatheism: acting with apathy, disregard, or lack of interest towards belief, or lack of belief in a deity. (obviously he cannot be an apatheist if he's arguing with you).

    4. Atheism: the belief that god doesn't exist.

    *Doesn't believe in god? Check.

    *But doesn't make any positive knowledge claim regarding the existence of god? Check.

    *Is his position an active lack of belief as opposed to apatheism? Check.
    (obviously, otherwise he wouldn't be arguing with you in the first place.)

    *Understands the definition of god in a meaningful way? Check.

    Conclusion: He’s an agnostic.

    • Doug Shaver

      I am an atheist. I don't believe in any god. If you want to argue that I should believe in some god, we can do that. If you want to argue about whether I fit your preferred definition of atheist, I will probably decline to waste my time.

  • Ben Keller

    Like many, you confuse theism with gnosticism. One refers to belief, the other refers to knowledge. I can fail to believe in gods without claiming to be able to prove their nonexistence. I can't prove to you that Santa Claus doesn't exist.

    And gods aren't that "advanced" of a concept. I'm pretty sure cavemen had gods.

  • http://reason42.com/ reason42 (Adam Romain)
  • Kit Fry

    I think the article is generally right that babies are not card carrying atheists. But, the beauty of the atheist argument is that babies will be turn into atheists unless they are manipulated by religious dogma, the religion of their parents, and emotional threats to believe in one culture's god or another.
    The thing that really confirmed my atheism was the argument that I shouldn't marry my fiance because he grew up Church of Christ and the majority of people return to the religion of their childhood. Meaning, they return to the religion which had the most effective brainwashing opportunity. great!

  • http://www.robinlionheart.com/ Robin Lionheart

    Jimmy Akin writes, “More recently, some atheists have begun to define atheism as simply a lack of belief in the existence of God.”

    Not very “recently”. People have used the word “atheist” inclusively of babies for centuries:

    “All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God. Are they then criminal on account of their ignorance?” — Baron d'Holbach, Good Sense without God (1772)

    “Every child is born into the world an Atheist; and if he grows into a Theist, his Deity differs with the country in which the believer may happen to be born, or the people amongst whom he may happen to be educated.” — Charles Bradlaugh, A few words about the devil (1874)

    “The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist.” — George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (1979)

    • Doug Shaver

      “All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.” — Baron d'Holbach, Good Sense without God (1772)

      This has been one of the meanings of “atheist” since before T. H. Huxley coined the term “agnostic”.

      Whenever that usage started, it was silly then, and it's still silly.

  • https://twitter.com/jablomih Haywood

    The meme of "atheist babies" is clearly tongue in cheek. Yes, babies meet the dictionary definition of atheism, no it is not meaningful.

    The word "atheism" is meaningless as you want to use it, since almost no one, including Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, etc. falls into the category. It seems to me disingenuous to try to divide the world into categories of "people who believe in my god" vs. "people who are not sure". Is it not more valid to divide into "people who believe in my god" vs. "people who don't believe in my god"?

    • M. Solange O’Brien

      Why? "people who are not sure" also includes "people who aren't sure about the other gods, either", which "people who don't believe in my god" doesn't.
      They are very different categories with very different beliefs (or lack thereof).

      • https://twitter.com/jablomih Haywood

        Why? How is it not disingenuous to divide people into groups of "those who agree with me" and "those who aren't sure"? It is a transparent ploy to make the position look more popular.

        Woud it seem honest to you if I divided the world into "people who don't believe in gods" vs. "people who aren't sure", which would count a majority of honest theists in the "not sure" bin and make it sound like no one believes?

        • Papapau

          Woud it seem honest to you if I divided the world into "people who don't believe in gods" vs. "people who aren't sure",

          People who aren't sure they don't believe in god? It doesn't happen. belief is a yes or no. what your saying might be that some are not sure (knowledge) so withholds concluding, but definitely in their mind they have a bias (belief)

          Belief and knowledge are not mutually exclusive.

          You can believe without actually knowing (like religious people) or you can withhold belief until proven (like normal people with healthy minds.)

          which would count a majority of honest theists in the "not sure" bin and make it sound like no one believes?

          No, it's about knowing and not believing, and yes, no one knows. But believers claims to know even without actual evidences rather than emotions.

    • Papapau

      That's strawman.

      A~Theism - Can't prove if there is or no gods, therefore doesn't belive in one.
      Theism - Not sure if there is or no gods, but claims that his god is true, usually by referring to an old book.

      No one has ever proved or even disproved the existence of gods, unicorns, leprechauns, big foot, alien abductions, ghosts, vampires, etc.. So what is the right thing to do?

      Healthy Mind - Doesn't know if ______ exist, therefore, withholds belief.
      Delusional Mind - Doesn't know if ______ exist, still goes ahead and believed.

      Atheists - Doesn't know if gods exist, therefore, withholds belief.

      Theists - Doesn't know if gods exist, still goes ahead and believed.

      Do the math.

  • Doug Shaver

    I think lack of belief is sufficient to make one an atheist, but I think it's a silly bunch of wordplay to say that therefore, babies are atheists.