Are We Born Atheists?

A recurring rebuttal from some atheist thinkers, to convey ideas about atheism, is to assert “We are all born atheists”. This is used to show believers that we have all been at some point atheists. Perhaps, too, we are almost all of us atheists of most gods that have been proposed – and indeed of those that have not even been considered yet.  According to the definition of ‘atheism’ Paul Cliteur finds most important, however, we cannot be atheists of that which we haven’t considered, which means we cannot say we are born atheists.

In his wonderful book, The Secular Outlook, Cliteur defends in the first chapter a particular definition of atheism. He defends it according to the definition I think most of us follow, which is an unnecessary variant on not believing in toothfairies, the Loch Ness Monster and the myriad, supernatural assertions proposed by our species.

The atheist position may be summarised as follows: atheism is a negative doctrine. The atheist is not convinced by the proofs of theism. This being the case, he does what every sensible person would do. He says “I am not a theist”.

Cliteur thinks what’s central to so much of the confusion in atheist-theist debate is around the word and concept ‘negative’, when unpacking the term atheism. Cliteur thinks there are three types of negatives associated with the term.

(1) Firstly, the term is defined in terms of what it is not (theism), or the atheist defines himself in terms of what he is not (a theist).

(2) The second is in terms of psychology, but this one is a bit hazy to me. Cliteur defines this negatively “from a psychological point of view: belonging to a minority [the atheist] couldn’t avoid understanding his identity in terms of what he is not.” I’ve quoted it as is. There are no missing commas. And I remain confused.

(3) Thirdly, the negative is the active type: attacking and criticising religious belief and arguments for it.

However, in defining atheism, Cliteur wants to stress that from an understanding that is meaningful, we ought simply to say that atheism is not theism. The “a” in atheism is, after all, an alpha privative. That is a sexy/pretentious way of saying it negates or denies the term that follows it. But developing this further, Cliteur finds it inconsistent then to say that we are “born” atheists, since nothing is being negated; reflections on the theistic god exist in a state of ignorance or are themselves nonexistent. For Cliteur, our lack of belief in god is not the same as everyone’s lack of belief in the blue penguin on Pluto. Until one had come across that sentence, there is little doubt that even the concept of a ‘blue penguin on Pluto’ had entered one’s mind at all. One was not a disbeliever or an apenguinist before discovering this concept; it was simply a state of ignorance or lack of knowledge. And, therefore, according to Cliteur, one cannot negate or oppose a phenomenon of which one is unaware.

This seems to me right. Cliteur reiterates this by saying:

Suppose someone tells us: ‘God? I don’t know what that means. I’ve never thought about it.’ How should we characterise this view? Is the person expressing this view an ‘atheist’?

This person, for Cliteur, lacks “a conscious intellectual commitment.”

This therefore means children cannot be atheists, according to this definition. Cliteur acknowledges that the disadvantages of such a narrow version of the term might invite pantheists and polytheists, but that seems to me perhaps unlikely if we really engaged in their arguments, too. Cliteur wants to restrict the term to the theistic god – atheism is primed as a negation of an active, personal, all-loving, creator god who is all-knowing and powerful.

I’m uncertain about whether this restriction is necessarily the case. It seems to me that the arguments leading to atheism do entail that most children and all babies can’t be atheists, since I do think it requires active intellectual commitment; but I don’t think, as Cliteur does, that the definition encompasses also those of alternative Divine persuasion. I don’t think it only covers theism, since most of the arguments against theism apply to other gods, too. (By the way: intellectual does not mean smarter or cleverer: the term is neutral and used in the sense that one has considered the ideas critically. Theists are not less smart by definition.)

It is true that atheists can be persuaded by homeopathy, astrology and so on, and being atheist does not make one automatically better at being a critical thinker. But that is not what considering this definition is about. I think we should recognise that our reflection on theism is an outcome of intellectual engagement and cannot therefore be equated with a baby’s view of god [which is, also, insulting to the ideas of atheism. Do you really want to have the same view of something as a baby?].

But as usual, I am uncertain.


11 thoughts on “Are We Born Atheists?

  1. I’ve never come across the proposition that ‘we are all born atheists’, although I have come across to suggestion that ‘we are all born with religious faith’.
    Personally I think both statements are equally silly, I note your comments and I agree with your reasonaing, but being lazy I tend to settle for the fact that it’s impssible a/ to obtain any statement from a baby as to what he/she believes and b/ no one old enough to offer an opinion is in any danger or remembering what they believed as a baby. Hence there is no knowing what we are ‘all born believing’.
    And even if we could find out what newborn babies believe, assuming they can be said to believe anything, you’re quite right, why should we be influenced by this.
    What is interesting to me is the fact that decisions about whether or not one belives in God (Gods?) seem to be made in some way at a very early age. Personally I can’t recal ever having had any religious faith and most of the people I know who are religious appear to have been so from an equally early age.
    This leads me to the conclusion that the decision about whether or not to believe in God is not essentially a rational one(although most of us can defend our position with rational argument if required). This is essentially why I tend to think that the dabate between atheists and believers is essentially sterile and liable to get bogged down in ill tempered abuse.
    (You buck the trend. Please feel free to indulge in a degree of smugness if you’re so inclined).

  2. Great piece – thanks.

    So, babies could be said to be a-gnostic then? That might fit the disdain I, er some, have for agnostics – as someone not actually having contemplated the matter.

    I like the definition – was this book translated? The second part does make a hazy kind of sense from what I understand of some multicultural thinking. Being part of an “out” or “target” grouping in society almost necessarily requires thinking about what makes us different from the “in” group.

    • Right. I’m not sure. Agnostic it seems to me, out of either theism or atheism, must definitely be at least considered, since one can’t be in the middle of a dispute without at least encountering both sides. They could be people unwilling to assign themselves the labels of either – but at least they can tell us from an intellectual standpoint why. This also would be acceptable and indeed does not make them atheist … but it also doesn’t make them like babies, either.

    • Are you equating atheism with amorality?
      (I’m willing to give you the benefits of the doubt and assume not).
      You can argue that morality is learned. And I think that the finer points probably are. Having said that I think there’s some evidence to suggest that much of the basis for morality ie empathy and some sense of reciprocity seems to be present from a very early age. (I’m wary of ‘genetic’ explanations for human behaviour).

  3. Thank you for pointing out one of the troubles with atheism: defined by what it is not. This is why I don’t say “I am an atheist.” I’d rather say what I am (guitarist, for example.) That has more meaning, don’t you agree? You use a blue penguin and “apenguinist” example. Nice. I have been using werewolves. No one who doesn’t believe in them walks around telling people they are awerewolfists. They talk about positive things that do define them.

  4. In fact, we are all atheists in some sense. Of the 2000 odd gods that have been identified over the past couple of thousand years, I’m sure that very few people believe in more than one or at most maybe a few. Of course, every modern religion will insist that theirs is the true god, but do a bit of research and investigate the origins of the claims for the current abrahamic god. The claim for this god originates from the era of Horus the sun god of the Egyptians and quite a few other gods, who all were conceived of virgins, born on the 25th of December, died and were resurrected after 3 days etc etc etc. I understand that it may be difficult for religious folk to assess the evidence without huge emotional issues, but it really needs to be done with honesty and an open mind.

    • except that, using the original argument of the definition of atheism, we can only be atheist towards the small portion of the 2000+ gods that we know enough about to make an informed decision to disbelieve.

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