Monday, June 16, 2014

Atheist babies

Andrew Brown wrote a piece for the Guardian claiming that there are no atheist babies. Really now...?
Richard Dawkins' implication that babies have a default theological position of atheism is as silly as assuming a default language or nationality
But is it really? Please do explain why Mr. Brown.
Some Muslims will never speak of "converts" but only "reverts" because they believe that everyone is born a Muslim, even if some babies have this truth hidden from them by their parents who tell them they're Christians or atheists. And there's a style of atheist rhetoric that makes exactly the same point. To take two random examples from my recent Twitter stream: Joan Smith wrote: "I'm not convinced there are Muslim or Christian children. They have religious parents, but should be able to decide when they grow up." And Richard Dawkins wrote: "When you say X is the fastest growing religion, all you mean is that X people have babies at the fastest rate. But babies have no religion."
I would happen to agree that their are no such things as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist babies. After all, these are beliefs that children are not born with. They are taught by their parents that X religion is true. And often end up adopting the religion of their upbringing. Ironically though, all babies are born as atheists, no matter what their parents believe or don't believe.
But there are no atheist babies, and certainly no agnostic ones. This is for two reasons. The first is that if we're going to be consistent, and to demand that babies only be ascribed identities that they themselves embrace, there are no German, British or Chinese children either. There are simply the children of German and English and Chinese parents, who will in due course learn the habits and the rules of the cultures around them and grow into their parents' language, nationality, food habits – and religious opinions. The way in which they express these will become more subtle and more interesting as they grow up – or at least we can hope it will – but the fact remains that babies are entirely anchored in the world by their parents.
What absolute nonsense!  All babies are without a doubt born as atheists. 'Atheist' comes from the Greek 'a' (without) 'theos' (gods). This means that at it's simplest, atheism is simply lacking belief in gods. It need not be active denial. Babies are born not having a concept of, or belief in God. Heck, they don't know what pretty much anything is when they are born! Since newborns haven't been taught religion yet, they lack belief. They do so out of ignorance, but the fact is that by definition, that still classes them as atheists.

The nationality comparison is a ridiculous one. Nationality is synonymous with citizenship. While there are many paths to citizenship, birth is the easiest. If you are born in the United States, you are a US citizen. You are an American baby. Same if you are born in Germany, Japan, or the UK. By birth in that country, you are a citizen of that country. Since religion needs to be learned, it isn't a similar comparison at all!
But you don't get Dawkins and Smith complaining because people talk about "Chinese babies". They think religion is different... To imply that babies have a default theological position of atheism is as silly as assuming that they have a default language or nationality.
Fair enough on the mention on language. Language, like religion is learned. But as I said, your nationality of birth is not something that is learned, or that you need to adopt before you become German, American, or Australian.
Of course, in an environment where religion is regarded as weird and old-fashioned, children grow up atheist because that's what their parents are. They don't think about it. They may have profoundly superstitious and unscientific beliefs, but they will think of these as rational and atheist because that's what – they know – all decent people are.

This is a perfectly sensible piece of conformist time-saving – life's too short to live without prejudice – but it isn't a reasoned rejection of belief after serious consideration of its possible truth.
Does Andrew fail to realize that most adult atheists reject all unscientific beliefs, and that they much more often than not come from religious families, rather than atheistic ones? Atheist have come from very religious families, mildly religious, some never believed, some did believe, others believed to the point of becoming or studying to become clergy. In my case, my parents are Catholic. I believed for a while, but as I studied religion and science, I eventually lost belief. So my atheism certainly isn't conformist or uninformed.
There is another reason why babies can't be atheists or agnostics. Everything we know from science shows that supernaturalism comes naturally to children. It is not just that they believe much of what their parents and the surrounding societies tell them: they show a preference for remembering and transmitting stories that defy scientific rationality. So do we all, unless we train ourselves out of it.
Yet more missing of the point... Yes, kids will more easily believe amazing stories about cows jumping over the Moon, women living in a giant shoe, mermaids, unicorns, etc... But the thing is that before they are told about Humpty Dumpty, they have no concept on anthropomorphic eggs in need of medical attention. They believe, in part, because kids are programed to learn from their parents. They take these stories as instruction, as well as entertainment in their formative years. But just as babies are born without knowledge of  Santa Claus, they are born without belief in God. Thus, atheist.
To reach the state where you can really reflect critically on your own beliefs – rather than simply understanding that your parents are deluded old fools – takes a long time if it ever happens at all. As Bertrand Russell observed, many people would rather die than think and most of them do. And that is why no one can really be called an atheist or an agnostic until they have grown up.
 And all of this only proves that Andrew doesn't understand that atheism need not be the product of active disbelief, or years of study and reflection. There is also passive atheism. Atheism due to simply not knowing about God or religion to begin with. And these passive atheists are exactly what new babies are.

-Brain Hulk

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