Are we Born Theists?

Bill the Bad Atheist has suggested here that we are all born theists and need to be taught to be atheists. I commented my feeling on his blog, I would love to see what you more experienced non believers have to say about his hypothesis. I think this is worthy of a discussion.

Author: jim-

One minute info blogs breaking the faith trap.

53 thoughts on “Are we Born Theists?”

  1. In response to “Bad Atheist”:

    To his first point I would say that all beliefs have to be taught, we only come ready with brain processes that allow for beliefs to be acquired. We do arrive on the scene ready to feel emotions and to display them, but we still need to learn to understand their role in are lives and to verbally express them. I mention feelings because I believe they are intricately connected with thoughts, including beliefs and their formation. So, we are born neither atheist or theist.*

    As to his second point, I was left to “my own devices” as a child and never develop any theistic beliefs. This is so despite being dragged to synagogue until I was about ten and having a bar mitzvah (for the money and not to hurt my grandfather’s feelings). I never asked any questions concerning god at all. You could say I was god ignorant. I suppose I had to learn what atheism meant before I could become one. And, when I heard about god at all, I did not believe any of it was true, although it took longer to learn the term “theism.” So, while I was not born an atheist, that became my default belief system in regards to god.

    His reasons are not necessarily connected with god. Curiosity, pattern seeking, lack of control, being taken care of, evolutionary causation can all be directed to non-god issues. The evolutionary cause of religious types of beliefs has not been proven, just assumed in most cases.

    Religion started from a set of ideas (memes) by at least one person, but probably multiple people, and has since spread far and wide. In other words, it was cultural evolution that is the explanation for religion, not biological evolution by natural selection. Memes are parenthesized because I am not completely convinced they exist.

    * You could possibly called us agnostics at birth, but we actually have no beliefs at all at birth, so the word “belief” does not refer to anything. Neither atheists, theists, nor agnostics labels apply at birth, and it also does not develop before conscious beliefs arise, expressed in language.

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    1. Excellent! I think you really sum it up. Thanks for stopping by. I have a post today about my beginnings. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. I came to be an atheist in my own way, alone in the Panama jungle. It was not a science based reason but a sensible one. Now I’ve been learning so much I had to throw this out there. Thanks

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  2. I agree with him in an offhand sort of way. Homo sapiens are prone to agency detection, superstition, and meta-magical thinking. These are all behaviors selected by evolution as survival mechanisms in both individual and social situations. As a social species, we needed to maintain groups to survive. We are ill-equipped to survive as individuals. Consider how long the gestation period is for a female, and the amount of long-term care needed to raise an infant. This process puts both the mother and the infant in mortal danger. Mothers had to have the support of a group. Humans are also mot well armed with teeth nor claws, and our armor is severely lacking. We are, on our own, mobile, an easily accessible meal for predators. All of these things mean that we need to band together. Religiosity is one of the ways we accomplished this goal. I have written several blogs on this topic here —> https://wordpress.com/view/fightingthemyth.com
    I would love to continue the conversation if anyone is interested.
    thanks
    Mike

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  3. Arguing “Are we born Atheist/Theist” is subjective to definition and I’m sure that is the avenue Bill was taking.

    The easier question would have been “Are we born with (or without) a belief in God?”. The answer is we are not born with a belief in any god but Bill wanted more traffic to his blog 🙂

    Bill’s Example 1 points to the meme “we are all born atheists until someone starts telling us lies”. I read that as we are born without a concept of a god “until someone starts telling us lies” (or introduces us to their worldview). and in Example 1 bill confirms that by saying “As someone who has raised two atheist children, I can state that it is learned.”. So he had two children that were born without belief in a god… until he taught them his worldview.

    Example 2: “Because we are naturally made to look for personal agents in explaining mysteries.”. So even still, they are born without a belief in god but children start developing their own worldview to explain mysteries.

    Example 3: sounds like as children witness scary events, they try to come up with answers… not really God vs. No God event here.

    Example 4: Infants learn by mimicking their parents and other adults? This sounds like it should be grouped with Example 1 but again we are developing a worldview based on our parents or other adults.

    Example 5: Playing the end of “Strawberry Fields” use to scare the dickens out of me! (I Buried Paul), Thunder and Lightning scared me. Maybe i thought I was in danger but it had nothing to do with a Theistic/Atheistic belief. But again, I wasn’t born fearing these things (maybe the loud noise?) but I developed these fears as a youngster. I fear them no more, lol

    Getting to his conclusion “However, the truth is that believing in supernatural entities is much more natural to us than not believing in such beings.”… the “Fight or Flight” response or anxiety or panic is certainly something within us all, but there can certainly be parental influence on our response (ie. abusive parents). Believing in a God vs not believing in a god is certainly initially influenced by our parents religion. We are not born believing in supernatural entities.

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    1. Well said sir. Children are way too trusting of parents superstitions. But in the end it’s monkey see monkey do. I thought it was a tough comparison since atheism is not a belief system. The influence or non influence could be tested in closed systems but that has its own ramifications. At some point you have to choose to believe because the choice is given. It’s not a naturally occurring choice, but one that is forced upon us

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      1. Someone must have done some research into it and if not, it would be interesting if someone did research it. Let’s see the influence of bringing up children without any religious education and see if they come up with their own “religion”, then bring up children being educated in all world religions (without focusing on any one religion) and see how they fare without someone attempting to guide their worldview… not sure if that is possible, lol

        I was brought up to believe exactly what my parents believed but I didn’t buy into it. Since I was the youngest child in the family, I learned early on how my parents disapproved of one of my siblings alternative beliefs and the subsequent uproar about it. I questioned everything and it drove my strict catholic mother crazy. I just kept quiet until I was old enough to make decisions on my own.

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        1. Well the second point you made up top has been tried and is disastrous. Closed religious communities out in the Utah desert come to mind but with just one religion. Kids that no nothing non Mormon, and some don’t even know an outside world exists. While it makes them easy prey for the pedophiles that raise them, they can’t function in the world. On the other hand I think an upbringing without mention of deities and religion would creat some serious free-minded cool people. You?

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  4. So many comments on my blog – I am Bill, the Bad Atheist – that I thought it more convenient to just post my response here. Hopefully that won’t cause problems.

    It seems that I need to clarify a few of my points. First though realize that I intentionally for now try to keep my blogs to around 1000 words. I have a well earned reputation for, at times, being rather wordy, and so look at this as a sort of exercise in conciseness and discipline. Therefore, I do not go into a great deal of explanations about what I have stated. Let me do so now though.

    First, the title. It is a bit misleading, and I realized it when I chose it. Part of the function of a title is to catch the eye and cause people to read whatever is attached to that title. In that regards, my title worked well.

    And, note I said it is just a bit misleading, not a lot or totally. I was writing this blog in reaction to the meme what said that babies are born atheists. They are not. In fact, when born babies are neither atheist nor theist. However, I would say that my title is more correct than the meme due to the fact that we are more inclined to become theists than atheists. And not just because of culture and such, but, because of some traits that lend themselves to theistic thinking.

    Which brings me to my Second: Theism. When I talk about theism I am not talking about the Abrahamic gods, although it can include them. Rather though I am talking about a belief in supernatural beings – whether nature spirits (water and wood spirites, etc), ancestor spirits, a pantheon of gods, or just one god – who control at least part of nature and/or effect human lives and fate.

    Third, I fully realize the important role that culture and society play in promoting and passing on particular religious beliefs. However, even though society and culture play a large role in passing on religious beliefs, they do so on the foundation of certain innate traits in us, such as being curious and not liking not having an explanation and the tendency to attest causality to beings among others. Just as morality developed from certain innate traits in us (a sense of fairness and empathy to name two), but are largely then developed more fully and passed on by society and cultures.

    Here are a couple of links that provide a bit more on that.

    https://www.livescience.com/52364-origins-supernatural-relgious-beliefs.html

    http://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/12/believe.aspx

    When you take these traits, and combine them with other events in our lives – dreams, what babies learn about how things work that I mentioned in my blog, wanting control of some sort over the uncontrollable, superstitious behaviors generated by chance happenings, a desire for justice even if it has to be done after death, a desire for meaning, a desire for something after death both for loved ones and for self – then us becoming theistic is almost a certainty if left unaffected by anything else.

    It is why there are no early atheistic societies, they all are theistic. It is why, even today, most people are some sort of theist and not atheist.

    Logic and reason and science are not natural ways of thinking for us. It is why they only developed recently in our history. The same holds true for atheism.

    Finally, this is not saying that theism is right. Just that we are pre-disposed by our evolutionary history to go that way.

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    1. Hey Bill you are welcome here any time. It’s very late for me. Guys are still checking in on this now and then. I’ll do a better reply tomorrow. Great topic BTW. Merry Christmas. 🎁🎄

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      1. Way past my bed time too. And thanks. Doing a follow up to be posted Wednesday as to whether those who are ignorant of the whole concept of God can be considered an atheist. There was an atheist site where I posted this blog and this topic generated a lot of discussion. So, I thought I would blog about it.

        And a Merry Christmas to you too!

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  5. Several commenters here impart pretty much what I would point out Jim, particularly John Z and Ubi. I’d just add that there is a LOT MORE compelling evidence, even understood accepted Laws of Nature and Quantum Mechanics, that point NOT to any sort of functioning monism, but instead to mysterious (unlimited?) yet to be fluid pluralism in seemingly limitless systems. I hope that makes sense; it’s early. LOL 🙂

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      1. Bwahahahaha!!! Maybe, just maybe… but only if the American futebol elite/staff humble themselves and FINALLY start mimicking the juggernauts of academy-juniors futebol development programs around the world AND their infrastructure in Europe and S. America.

        After some 40-years OBVIOUSLY what the USSF and NASL/MLS have been doing is NOT working. :/

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        1. We are so far behind it is daunting. I remember in the 80’s they had just formed a club at a little d3 in Idaho. Me and my roommate were the only Americans on the team. We had columbians, Kenyans, Mexicans, Brits, and a guy from Brazil. I realized pretty early we were outclassed in every way. Token Americans on the team. Lol. Must have been a mandatory criteria, but we were outclassed in every way. We’d each play a half at defender then get pulled so we could win. Funny now, but back then we thought we were pretty good. Ya never know how good you are till you see the competition. But it was a good time.

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  6. Oh my dear Jim.
    Everyone knows that children are born theists because they have fresh memories from having crossed the veil. It’s only as we get older and sinful that we forget our connection and either seek to reconnect or just forget the heavenly place from where we originate. If you seek answers you should pray on it. I know this church is true and so is this openly known fact. At least that is what I told by the missionaries. What a load.
    As a child I had religion beaten into me by my mother once or twice a year. If I questioned why all of a sudden we were going to “stupid church” I was on the receiving end of a whipping from a mother who must have been a reincarnated soldier from the Crusades.
    Are we born theists? I have no idea. It’s a good question. I enjoy reading everyone’s thoughts.

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    1. “I was on the receiving end of a whipping from a mother who must have been a reincarnated soldier from the Crusade” You, Valleygem, just won the internet!

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    1. Excellent point. And when people move and are exposed to a new faith culture they often adapt to that religion due to the pressures. Why do the abrahamics feel it is so important you believe what they believe? That might be an interesting study.

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    1. I believe you are correct. I think Bill is so conditioned in religion he can’t see past it, even though he claims atheism, he still gives religion credibility where there is none in this article.

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      1. Yeah, I read it and was left a little confused. If he’d actually done his research concerning cognitive learning in children then he’d see the evidence contradicts his central claim.

        (Banerjee, K., and P. Bloom. 2013) “Drawing on evidence from developmental psychology, we argue here that the answer is no: children lack spontaneous theistic views and the emergence of religion is crucially dependent on culture…. However, there is no evidence that children spontaneously come to believe in one or more divine creators. It is one thing, after all, to think about natural entities as intentionally designed artifacts of a sort; it is quite another to generate an enduring belief in invisible agents who have created these artifacts. Indeed, other studies find that young children are not committed creationists; they are equally likely to provide explanations of species origins that involve spontaneous generation.”

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        1. Mostly from my observations children adapt there parent behaviors in most everything. Even when they don’t want to. They can walk away from it for a while but the tendency is to eventually become just like your father was. It’s all learned.

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  7. OK, this is very difficult for me to reply about. I say that as I want to ruin the idea(??) of being born a theist. I’ll TRY really hard to stay polite however as this is your blog. On my own, well, let’s just leave that for now……
    I disagree with the suggestion that we are all born theists. Bat poop! We are born atheists. We have to be taught about which doG we are to believe in. We have to be taught which religion we are to be part of. Just as we have to be taught basic arithmetic, language skills, and social skills among a variety of other things we need to learn/be taught about as young children.
    The only time you hear a 4 year old pray is because they have been taught that is what they must do at certain times.
    I like the idea used by Ubi, teach your kids about different religions/beliefs and let them decide which, if any they want to follow. I also think myths can play a part in the education of children, even adults.
    I remember Joseph Campbell doing a series Lost Angeles PBS TV back in the late 1980’s I think it was. He was a scholar of myths and wrote many books on the subject of myths. I have a few of them myself. He is best remembered for “The Heroes’ Journey” and the “Hero of a Thousand Faces”. Old Lucas based the original “Star Wars” movie on the “Heroes’ Journey” if I recall correctly. Campbell said we should not take the history, science, or biography of myth as fact. Myth is a metaphor. The holly buy-bull is a myth. No matter what any religionist may try to tell you, you do not need religion to have morals/human decency. Of course I am just an old, broken down former machinist, heathen/pagan/atheist SOB so ……….
    Oh, one question. IF Christianity is such a good thing, why are there so many different versions of it? In nearly 70 years on this planet, I have yet to figure that one out. Of course I quit trying decades ago and don’t care much about that question now days, still it is interesting……or maybe I really am perverse.

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    1. It is hard to respond well to this claim. That’s why i put it up to people i trust to give me a straight up version. Love buy-bull Walt. Funny stuff. I thought Ubi was really on to it too and Serious as well. My gut tells me kids learn this crap not born with it. But the short answer won’t do. Bill assumes a little too much about superstition being tied to religion. People of Panama are way more superstitious than religious and they have religion all around. But they prefer psychics and with doctors to priests.

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  8. Hey Jim. My comment is awaiting moderation over on the site you linked to. Hopefully it’ll get through.

    In the meantime, I think that the author you linked to would have had a better time of things if he had been a little more careful in his article. Specifically, he intertwined superstition with theism. People don’t automatically reach to deities to blame for their woes. I can’t think of any example of a deity-based superstition that spontaneously arose out of nowhere.

    This kind of honesty needs to be at the forefront of a criticism on religion. Deities are just more complex versions of simple superstition. They belong in a natural progression of human social psychology, and not as some mythical special case which needs deference.

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    1. Thanks. He’s a little slow to reply today. But I agree. I really like Ubi’s comment too. Being a little new here it’s good for you guys to jump in.

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    2. I know in Panama where it’s very superstitious, everyone is catholic but few are religious. But man they have a superstition for everything.

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  9. I read Bill’s article, and he touched on a lot of the same points I would make. (I would list Patternicity, Agenticity, Theory of Mind, Credulous Childhood, and Confirmation Bias in my discussion.) But I would not conclude that we are born theists, I would just say that have ingrained natural tendencies to be superstitious. And because of our trust in things our parents teach us, those superstitions are passed down and added to with each generation.

    From there, superstitious ideas propagate from mind to mind, mutating as they go, undergoing a Darwinian selection over time. Superstitious ideas that are particularly good at hanging around and getting themselves propagated wind up with a lot more believers, and eventually those ideas coalesce into formal religions.

    So I’d say we are born naturally vulnerable to being infected with theism. And the critical thinking skills needed to avoid that infection don’t come naturally, they need to be taught.

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    1. There is so much superstition and religion embedded and multiplied in us I don’t know how you can not be infected by it. I was fifty before I saw, purchased, and administered the vaccine so to speak. The cure was a complete denial of gods and religion. I didn’t want to stay even mildly ill with it. Although, I know it is thick in the culture and hard to escape it completely. Thank you for an excellent analogy.

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      1. I raised my kids with the “vaccine” of carefully limited exposure to different religions, lots of study of ancient mythology, and large doses of critical thinking. When they were young they had a little bit of belief in a god, along with Santa and the Tooth Fairy. They grew out of all of them at the same time, and are both atheists now, without my having to teach them that they should be. So it’s possible to avoid infection, but it requires total avoidance of childhood indoctrination.

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        1. I read somewhere the other day that there a children’s book out called Christian mythology. They put it with the Greek and roman stuff so the kids learned it that way. I thought that was pretty cool

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