Monday, May 22, 2023

Anonymous Asks (250)

“Is everyone born an atheist?”

This question sounds loony until you realize somebody famous actually provoked it, and presumably believed it. After that, it still sounds loony, but at least we are required to think about coming up with some kind of intelligent response to it.

After all, if one person thought it and said it, it probably represents a confusion encountered by others.

Was Rooney Loony?

The person most frequently credited with a quotation to which the above question appears to be responding is the late and much-beloved 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney. Rooney claimed, “Everyone starts out being an atheist. No one is born with belief in anything. Infants are atheists until they are indoctrinated.”

It’s obvious right on its face that Rooney’s formulation self-defeats. It may be fair to say that no one is born with belief in anything (although that seems a difficult assertion to demonstrate scientifically), but the absence of belief is called agnosticism, not atheism. Atheism is a deliberate negation, a conscious rejection of the idea of God or gods. It is itself a belief, where agnosticism is simply the absence of the knowledge base required to form beliefs. Newborn children are incapable of the sophisticated process by which a person consciously rejects the notion of the existence of deity.

So then, Rooney’s idea was clumsily stated and factually false. Referring to teaching a child about God as “indoctrination” was also both deliberately inflammatory and irrelevant: technically, teaching a child anything at all would also be “indoctrination”, but nobody objects to parents doing precisely that the moment they are able.

Admitting the Obvious

Even other “functional atheists” can’t get on board with Rooney’s line of argument. Spencer McDaniel responds to the idea with the obvious: “What newborn babies believe [or do not believe, for that matter] is totally irrelevant to what is actually true.” Er, yes. There is no evidence whatsoever that the earliest ideas of children about the nature of being or anything else have even the slightest conformity with observable reality. My daughter’s behavior before the age of two suggested a deeply held conviction that putting her tongue in electrical sockets would contribute something positive to her life experience. I concluded she was in error and was happy to find her problem was a common one: you can even buy little plastic caps for easily accessible sockets to keep your children from inserting various foreign objects into them.

But the point is that responsible parenting requires we disabuse our children of numerous false notions that seem to crop up in their minds quite organically, most frequently that they are the center of the universe. The defaults with which we come into the world, and our earliest notions thereafter, are not reliable sources of insight.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

That said, while children probably do not entertain formulated thoughts about deity the moment they are born, scripture does teach us that evidence for the existence of God is available to them very early on. When David wrote that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” and that “Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world”, he did not add that you need an Age of Majority card to draw inferences from nature. Evidence for the existence of a Creator is available to all men everywhere at every stage of life, even when there is nobody around to “indoctrinate” you.

The moment we possess basic pattern recognition, we begin to draw conclusions about reality from the evidence around us. Some of these tentative conclusions are subject to later revision or correction. Others, scripture teaches, are truthful at their core. Otherwise, what did the Lord Jesus mean when he taught that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who come to it like “little children”? Likewise, what did the psalmist mean by “Out of the mouths of babies and infants you have established strength”? (By the way, that statement is made in direct connection with the apprehension of God’s majesty and glory. Look it up.)

Children are indeed born into this world lacking information. They are also born lacking the sophistry, denial, delusional thinking and hardness of heart that informs the pronouncements of the Andy Rooneys of the world. That develops later on, hopefully to be shaken off by the grace of God before senility sets in and all opportunity for an accurate assessment of reality is forever shut off.

Eternity in Their Hearts

Solomon wrote that “he [God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end”. The glory of God that the heavens declare to us is not the full story. We cannot get to the cross from the stars; we cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. That said, there are conclusions about God’s person and work that we can reasonably draw from the natural world. Paul writes concerning the knowledge of God, “His 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. So they are without excuse.” What can be known about God is plain to man, because God shows it to him. It’s not a complete revelation, but it certainly doesn’t leave you in a place of hard negation of deity. Not unless you want to be.

And what does it mean that God has “put eternity into man’s heart”? We cannot say with certainty, but given the other claims of scripture about the revelation of God in nature, it would not be surprising to find a natural, if not-completely-informed, longing for the transcendent as part of the human experience. You may have encountered something like this yourself. I certainly have.

Born This Way?

So is everyone born an atheist? Not at all. In fact, one of the greatest kindnesses you can do for a young child is introduce them to the truth of a loving Father in heaven before they have accumulated so much intellectual baggage from this fallen world that they are unable to think about God clearly anymore.

Everybody gets “indoctrinated” with something. Better to be a step upward than a stumbling block.

After all, we know which one gets the millstone.

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