Born Atheists? Science and Natural belief in God

by Dr. Glenn Peoples

newscientistIs atheism or theism more natural for human beings?

According to online author Tim Covell, “Everyone is born atheist. Religion is learned.” Over at the “rational response squad” you’re treated to the claim that “Many people don’t know it but everyone is born an Atheist, it’s not until a child has religious beliefs Pushed on them with out any evidence to support them that they “think” their [sic] a Theist.” David McAfee makes the same claim: “Now, the way I see it, everybody is born an atheist and, without submersion into religion as a child, we would most likely maintain that position…”  These are just examples. There are plenty more out there in the non-peer-reviewed pool of “intellectual diversity” that is the internet.

Now, there’s at least some truth here. Newborns don’t have a lot by way of beliefs. They’re an ignorant sort, you could say, so the fact that they don’t overtly believe in God, or stars, or carrots, or causation, or planets, etc., really isn’t very interesting. However, when people call themselves atheists, they don’t usually mean to convey their ignorance. It’s hardly fair game to point out what babies don’t know as grounds for any claims about what’s natural for intellectually developed adults to believe.

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To simply talk about what babies actually know is one thing – and something pretty uninteresting at that. What is more interesting is to talk about the kind of beliefs that babies – unaided by religious education – naturally form as their minds develop. It is here that comments like those above are quickly culled from the pool of those that can now make it to the level of scientific respectability. They are wrong – children are not natural atheists after all.

This was driven home for me again when I picked up a recent issue of New Scientist (March 17-23 2012), titled “The God Issue: The Surprising New Science of Religion” (surprising for who, I wonder). It was intriguing to see the editorial called “Know your Enemy” (whose enemy?), which read along the lines of “we need a new battle plan!” It nonetheless quite candidly accepted that “Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don’t need to be indoctrinated to believe in him…

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