Born Atheists? Science and Natural belief in God

Is atheism or theism more natural for human beings?

According to online author Tim Covell, “Everyone is born atheist. Religion is learned.” Similarly, over at the “rational response squad” you’re treated to the same  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. But is this claim true?

In fairness, 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 whom, 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 disclosed, but once we read a little farther 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.1

If nothing else, it simply falsifies the rhetoric that people are naturally atheists by default until they get indoctrination by religion. That is not true. We know this now.

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. That is not true. We know this now. 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.2

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.

As part of normal human functioning, we form a belief in God.

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, we 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.

Glenn Peoples

  1. Justin L. Barrett, “Born Believers,” New Scientist March 17-23 2012, 39. []
  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, chapter 3, paragraph 1. []

20 thoughts on “Born Atheists? Science and Natural belief in God

  1. In reference to the opinions you cited from such people as Tim Covell, David McAfee, and the (ironically named) Rational Response Squad, that atheism is the default position because we are all born atheists and must be indoctrinated into theistic attitudes, I am reminded of an article written last year by the outspoken atheist Dr. Paul “PZ” Myers (2011) in which he publicly ranted against those sort of opinions. After exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of “dictionary atheists,” those who insist that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in deity, he had a few words for those who think all babies are born atheists. These people have the same problem as the dictionary atheists, he said: “It implies [that] atheism is simply an intellectual vacuum. Babies aren’t Christians or Muslims or Hindus, and they aren’t atheists, either, because we expect [that] at least a token amount of thought is given to the subject. If babies are atheists, then so are trees and rocks—which is true by the dictionary definition, but also illustrates how ridiculously useless that definition is” (par. 12). A friend of mine, Daniel Klopovic, said something very similar and poignant: “There are things for which we would not expect the presence of theism”—such as trees, rocks, and babies—”and so cannot legitimately call attention to its absence.”

    Incidentally, I wonder if Myers was anticipating such findings as those found in that issue of New Scientist magazine when he said, “Babies might also have an in-built predisposition to accept the existence of caring intelligences greater than themselves, so they might all lean towards generic theism, anyway” (par. 13).


    Paul Z. Myers, “Why are you an atheist?” Pharyngula (2011, February 1).

    P.S. I really appreciated the point Myers was driving home when he said (par. 7) that the question about “why you are a person who does not believe in god is not answered when you reply, ‘Because I am a person who does not believe in god’.” That is so painfully obvious it is almost embarrassing that he had to say it at all.

  2. Excellent post!

    However I wonder if it can count as evidence for God, in the sense that evidence is anything that inclines you to think a certain way, such as:

    “I’m inclined to think” that “the grass is wet” because “it is raining”

    Then this is a tautology:
    “I’m inclined to think” that “there is a god” because “I’m inclined to think that there is a god”

  3. Colin, I don’t recall Glenn using this as an evidence for God. He used it as countering evidence to the claim “people are born atheists”.

    The sense of the divine he references John Calvin on says that this is what we would expect if Christianity was true. Note that it doesn’t prove that Christianity is true, but it is consistent with it being true.

  4. “Colin, I don’t recall Glenn using this as an evidence for God.”

    Right. To which I replied:

    “However I wonder if it can count as evidence for God”.

  5. Colin, there is a position known as phenomological conservatism, which affirms that if something S seems to X to be true then in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary X is rationally justified in believing S. This is not a tautology, and if you conjoin that position or something like it with a scientific observation that for most people it seems to them that God exists, you have a straightforward argument for the rationality of theism.

    You get a similar result if you adopt a more proper functionalist line and argue that in the absence of defeaters, one is justified in believing whatever one is naturally inclined to believe.

  6. Colin, I share your scepticism that we can use these facts to show that God exists. It’s also not a tautology, it’s just the observation that we should expect if something like Christianity is true. As I tried to stress, it doesn’t tell us what is true about God’s existence, but it does tell us what’s true about what’s natural to believe.

    I also share the view that there’s at least some straightforward sense in which this natural inclination justifies a belief, unless there’s a good reason to deny it.

  7. Cool. Yes technically I guess it’s not a tautology, and you both (Matt & Glenn) did a much better job of precisely articulating – being the seasoned philosophers that you are.

    It’s funny to me that an atheist can so quickly dismiss as faulty their sense of God, without calling into question all their other truth-finding faculties.

  8. Ineteresting post Glenn.

    I happen to agree that atheism is not the natural human worldview, however I think that there are serious differences between the acceptance of possible supernatural explanations for events and phenomena and organised religion.

    I still find it surprising to meet well educated otherwise mature individuals who hold onto what appear to be superstitions. Both my late mother, her sisters, my wife and indeed a fair number of women of a certain age that I know, will turn apoplecptic if a pair of new shoes are put on a table, they will also forward chain emails, and greet lone magpies to ward off bad luck. Most if not all also go the Christmas Carol concerts in church every December too.

    That may seem childish, but I would argue that it neither atheistic or religious. It just shows what human nature is.

  9. Was it just a coincidence that all your examples were women? 😀

    Not wanting new shoes on the table just makes practical sense. It’s a lot easier to ensure that no shoes are on the table, than to create exceptions for specifically approved shoes.

    So would you join my church if I promised that we were very disorganized?

  10. Colin wrote “So would you join my church if I promised that we were very disorganized?”

    there would be a greater likelihood. I’d find it far more attractive as a psycholoical proposition.

    I used the examples from women although I suspect that men are much the same, just more discreet.

  11. “It’s funny to me that an atheist can so quickly dismiss as faulty their sense of God, without calling into question all their other truth-finding faculties.”
    Interesting you say this, one influential theory on the naturalness of theistic belief, is that its produced by the same dispositions that cause belief in other minds. I inutively and naturally believe that other people are conscious, have feelings, feel pain, think and so on without ever observing these mental phenomena in others. According to one theory, the same dispositions that trigger belief in other minds, also trigger belief that there is a mind or consciousness behind nature. If this is true then the atheist has to contend that this disposition is reliable when it gives us information about human minds, but unreliable in other areas.

  12. I sometimes feel that the children “born atheist” thing is false by definition.

    It’s like this: if I am anti-republican, or anti-scientist, or anti-reality TV, I need to have some concept of what republicanism, science, or reality TV is. Even if it is caricature in my own mind. Likewise if someone is an atheist (not a theist) they must necessarily have some idea of what “theism” is. To put it another way, if any of us claimed to be “anti-glazertarians” we’d have have to know what glazertarianism is first.

    So even if babies are born with Tabula Rasa, that doesn’t make atheists. It doesn’t make them theists either. They would not have an idea of “God” to affirm or deny in the first place.

  13. Hi Glenn you may be interested in listening to the reasonable doubts podcast you are mentioned in the ‘born believers’ episode around the 68th minute point. Cheers

  14. Babies, when they’re first born, have a natural proclivity to s**t their pants, and have to be educated out of this proclivity..

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