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. 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.” It concludes:
Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally – which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with. 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.
Just which claims and what scrutiny the writer has in mind is never really disclosed, but once we read further through this issue it becomes clear why this “call” is one that can’t be ignored.
Drawing on the findings of developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and the cognitive science of religion, Justin Barrett writes in this issue about the way that children naturally come to believe in teleology and agency in the universe. On the whole, the evidence shows that
The vast majority of humans are “born believers”, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.
Justin L. Barrett, “Born Believers,” New Scientist March 17-23 2012, 39.
Now what, if anything, does all of this show? That theism is true? No. If nothing else, it simply falsifies the rhetoric that people are naturally atheists by default until they get indoctrination by religion. We can now close the door on that claim and relegate it to the long list of claims that have been shown to be untrue. That’s something at least.
But these findings are interesting for another reason. Christians have always held that people are natural believers in God per se. I say “God per se” because the Christian view has been that knowledge of God is natural, even if the knowledge of just what God is like (i.e. the question of “which God is the true god”) is not natural and needs to be taught. But that there is a God, so Christianity teaches, is something that does not need to be taught. Writing to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul claimed that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Swiss theologian John Calvin describes this natural belief in God as a sensus divinitatus, a sense of the divine. In one of Calvin’s most often cited comments, he said:
That there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of deity [sensus divinitatus], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man, being aware that there is a God, and that he is their maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, chapter 3, paragraph 1
In more recent times this notion has been cashed out by philosopher Alvin Plantinga in terms of properly basic belief in God, something I explained in more detail in a Podcast episode called “Plantinga and Properly Basic Beliefs.” The claim, in brief, is that when human beings function naturally in the world, without coercion or indoctrination, they do in fact naturally form the belief that God is there.
While the recent scientific findings do not show that the belief so formed (namely that God is there) is true, it does nonetheless serve as confirming, rather than disconfirming evidence, for this Christian belief about what it is natural for people to believe. Calvin was right – people do indeed, and quite naturally, have a sense of the divine. Plantinga was also right: As part of normal human functioning, they form a belief in God, however unspecified that belief may be. Whether the Apostle Paul was right to call this natural belief “knowledge” is obviously the subject of dispute. But that this belief exists, is natural, and must be unlearned – in spite of the sorts of denials I quoted at the outset of this blog post – is now the subject of much less dispute.