During an interview last night for an upcoming documentary on atheism in America, I was asked to tell the story of my deconversion. I get that question a lot, so I’m pretty accustomed to explaining how I got here. Only this time there was a bit of a polemical twist to the wording of the question. The interviewer asked me:
“Could you tell me story of your journey from being an atheist to becoming a Christian and then going back to being an atheist again? Because of course, as you know, we are all born atheists.”
Let me just stop you right there. I know this is a popular way to frame the issue of indoctrination, and I think I understand what folks are getting at when they talk like this. But allow me to unpack that suitcase full of assumptions for a minute and then I’ll explain how this puts us in the position of doing the very same thing I am always getting onto my religious counterparts for doing. When I’m done, you’ll see how this discussion could possibly fit into my Godless Walk Through the Bible series.
[PDF version | mp3 version someday]
We always push back when people say that atheism is a religion, but I’m beginning to understand why they keep saying this. When we ourselves say and do some of the very things we keep reprimanding the religious for doing, we’re only inviting this kind of response.
Are We Born Atheists?
First of all, we have to define what an atheist is in the first place. Heh. Good luck with that one. No single question divides atheists into competing camps more quickly than deciding what to call themselves (except for maybe asking them what they think of social issues). In case you didn’t already know it, there is an entire episode of South Park devoted to that very hang-up among atheists today.
It’s become customary to define atheism as merely “a lack of belief in gods” or perhaps in the supernatural. I would caution against adding that last bit because, as you will soon find out, there are quite a few non-theists who still believe in supernatural forces. Just because you don’t think gods are real things doesn’t mean you don’t believe in magic, or perhaps fate, or luck.
It has been said that superstition is the most popular religion in the world. I’ve met quite a few atheists who are still superstitious, and I’ve met quite a lot who believe in “something out there” which defies logical or scientific quantification.
And frankly I’d be disappointed if there isn’t anything beyond what we’ve already figured out. Not that I’m looking for supernatural beings or forces, mind you. But there’s a mighty big universe out there, and I fully expect there are innumerable things we’ve yet to encounter which would seem completely outside the realm of possibility to us upon first encounter.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. —Arthur C. Clarke
But back to our question: Is atheism merely a lack of belief in gods? If it is, then I suppose it would be correct to say that everyone is born an atheist because newborn infants don’t know much of anything.
But I don’t think that is a fair or honest way to frame the discussion. We’re not really much of anything when we’re born, ideologically speaking. We lack belief in pretty much everything at that point, so it’s kind of an irrelevant question.
Do Atheists Have Beliefs?
For most atheists who are being honest with ourselves, we not only lack belief in gods, but our actions and words are also driven by a positive belief that gods are things which humans made up. We have no shortage of explanations for why they would do such a thing, but the important thing is that we atheists do in fact positively believe these beings are imaginary.
It’s okay to have a belief. Some would argue that knowledge is in fact a subset of belief.
And I know what some of you are thinking: You know good and well that theists love to accuse us of having our own kinds of “faith,” and it grates our nerves every time they do this. It does mine, too. The reason this irks us so much is that it seems they are projecting onto us their own reliance upon belief without evidence (or rather belief that reaches ahead of the evidence). We see the false equivalence in portraying science as another kind of “belief system” since the falsification of prior belief lies at the very core of what the scientific method is about. Too many of them don’t get that.
But not all beliefs are “faith,” at least in the biblical sense of the word. I believe the sun will rise in the east tomorrow and set in the west. That’s not faith—it’s a belief that is predicated upon millions of years of consistent outcomes. It’s not the same thing at all.
So it’s okay to have beliefs. The fact is that we do have them, whether we realize it or not, and some of those beliefs pertain to metaphysical questions like “Are there invisible beings who govern the things we do?” I would say there aren’t, although I cannot absolutely prove that they cannot exist. I can only say that none of the evidence I have observed over the course of my lifetime persuades me to believe that such things exist.
I’m what you call an agnostic atheist, meaning that I don’t believe gods are real things, but I’m not going to tell you I can disprove every kind you can imagine. I did a short video (2:14) about this not too long ago, in fact:
I suspect the main reason so many atheists don’t want to “own” any of their own beliefs about supernatural things is that they don’t appreciate having their own evidence-based views equated with the faith-based views of their religious counterparts.
We want people to understand that things like physics and biology simply are what they are regardless of what we want them to be. That’s a valuable lesson to learn, and our efforts to get that message across are both noble and needed. But beliefs about supernatural things are still beliefs, and they are learned just like all other beliefs.
Don’t Be Like Them
The reason I’m pushing back on this matter is that Christians around me are hellbent on telling people like me that deep down we really are just like them, believing in one single deity out of the hundreds of choices available to us today. Why it has to be theirs is never really fleshed out, but then that’s precisely how our most deeply held assumptions work isn’t it?
In his letter to the Christians meeting in Rome, the apostle Paul rather presumptuously declared that even polytheists are closet Abrahamic monotheists who just aren’t being fully honest with themselves:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. [emphasis mine]
Evidently in Paul’s mind, somehow we are supposed to look at the world around us and just know that 1) gods exist, 2) that only one of them is legitimate, and 3) it is his god, out of all the other options, which is the right one. How we are supposed to come to that conclusion is never really explained. We’re supposed to just know.
It takes a lot of nerve to issue this kind of statement, and it strikes me as terribly lacking in self-awareness. Does Paul suppose that everyone in the world must deep down be exactly like him, even to the point of believing all the same things? I would say he could have benefitted from being born in a time after Sigmund Freud elucidated the nature of projection to the rest of us, but then again I know too many people with full access to such modern sensibilities who nevertheless remain blissfully unaware of the many ways they do this very thing themselves.
Also Related: “Ten Things Christians Accidentally Tell Me About Themselves“
But isn’t that exactly what we are doing to everyone else whenever we declare that all babies are naturally born as atheists? Are we so desperate for confirmation that we feel compelled to count all humans as a part of our tribe by default, whether they have the ability or self-awareness to choose such a label for themselves?
Do we value their personal autonomy enough to allow them to choose for themselves what they call themselves? If not, are we any better than our religious counterparts, who do the same thing to us when they tell us that deep down we are all closet Christians?
I hope we can break this habit. Not everyone who declares himself or herself “unaffiliated” is a non-theist. Many of them hold to beliefs which differ from the established traditions but which still put them into the category of theism. And no, not all babies are “atheists” in the sense that most of us are. We not only lack belief in gods, we also positively believe that they are fictitious creatures of human imagination.
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