I was thinking earlier today about some of the language going around the atheist community in recent years. People often cite the ever-growing atheist population in the United States resulting from census polls as a sign that more and more people are losing their faith or coming out of the closet as not having it in the first place. Another thing that I’ve come across is the term “New Atheists,” referring to the issues of atheism today and its prominent speakers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. We get the impression that atheism itself is somehow a new idea in the course of human history, at least as far as public discourse is concerned.
I have to imagine that non-believe preceded religion. Even if humans had a concept of something else out there they had to take the time to organize their beliefs into systems we know as religion and mythology. Ever since religions have formed I also have to imagine that there have been a number of people who didn’t believe in what they were taught, even if they had to keep it to themselves. Don’t worry, I’m not going to offer a history of atheism here. That would take to long and isn’t really the point that I want to get to anyway. What this train of thought let me to was the question of if we want to count these early non-believers that predated religion as “atheists.” Would it count if there was nothing for them to reject in the first place?
Then I got to thinking about how this affects every one of us today. Nobody is born believing a religion. It has to be taught to them. People’s insist that if, for example, a child is born into a Jewish family that child is Jewish, or when a priest holds a baptism for a child that child is baptised. Despite their insistence the Jewishness and baptism are only recognized by the adults, not the child. Are we all atheists before any of us are believers?
I should pause to clarify by what I mean when I say “atheist.” There are two prominent definitions of the term: somebody who doesn’t believe in a god, or somebody who believes there’s no god. The latter includes the former, but not vice versa. If we were to take the latter definition then this whole discussion would be a moot point as the child hasn’t decided if it believes in no god yet. Then this blog post would be cut short. I’m focusing on the first definition. So, with that in mind, are we all atheists when we’re born?
Strictly speaking, using the above definition at its superficial level then the answer would be yes. However, the underlying issue of atheism is that it’s an intellectual decision to reject religious beliefs. (By the way, before anybody brings up the concept of spirituality without any gods whatsoever, I’m broadening my definition of atheism to include this. I am aware that technically this not the case but it makes for easier discussion so for now I’m going to go with it.) However, one could argue that with the continuation of the lack of an inherent belief is also an intellectual decision in that the child does not recognize the need for a religion until he or she is told that there is. The very fact that adults teach children at an early age almost recognizes this. Why not let the child come to a decision of religion on its own?
But I’m not even going to delve into that discussion today. Let me clarify that I’m only arguing semantics here. This is only a mental exercise and not related to any real important issue. I’m not attacking anybody’s religious beliefs as adults (this time). I’m merely pointing out that we all have a common ground that we don’t have religious beliefs until we are exposed to them. So, back to my question: are we born atheists?
In my personal life I use “atheist” and “agnostic” when taking a stance on a related issue. I lean towards the answer that somebody isn’t either one until he or she reaches the conscious decision to be one. Therefore, I say that no, we’re not born atheists, even though we’re born non-believers.
With that, I’m caught up on blog posts. Next week I’m going back to my six-day schedule unless something else comes up that prevents me from publishing one on time.