Sunday, April 26, 2015

Natural Born Atheists

Over on Triablogue in a post titled ”We are all born atheists”, Steve Hays cites Peter Pike (remember him? He’s the guy who argued that imaginary things are “immaterial” – see here), who had on some blog posting of his (Hays does not give a link; feel free to look for yourselves) the “slogan” which affirms: “we are all born atheists.”

Apparently Hays is uncomfortable with this observation and raised a few objections against it. But it is what Hays does not do that should give us pause before going forward. While Hays is eager to undermine the observation that we are born atheist in some way, he demonstrates no concern for whether or not it is true that we are born atheist. For example, he nowhere challenges the claim that it is true, nor does he show that it is not true.

Importantly, he nowhere introduces any evidence that anyone has theistic beliefs at birth. Rather, Hays' mission seems to be nothing more than to lampoon the idea and those who propose it. Hays attacks for what it is not, not for what it is. It is simply an observation that happens to be true, not an argument that should cause Hays to become defensive. Defensiveness in response to true observations only suggests that one feels threatened by truth. That's not a very promising testimony for someone who's been publicly championing a position for more than a decade.

Hays writes:
i) That's quite ironic. Atheists like to compare Christian faith to childish belief in Santa Claus. Something we're supposed to outgrow.
Yes, there are a number of fundamental similarities between belief in Santa Claus and the Christian faith. For example, both treat the imaginary as though it were actually real; both involve departure from factual evidence; both involve pretending that something untrue is true, etc. And yes, people should outgrow such childish beliefs. And I’m confident that the vast majority of adults who did believe in Santa Claus as children no longer do. Many adults, however, still cling to a fantasy. It’s called god-belief.

But how does this make the observation that we are all born atheists ironic? On the view in question, atheism is not a belief, but the absence of a belief.

The point of the observation in question is that we are not born with any beliefs already throbbing in our minds. Beliefs are learned: some are acquired as a result of exposure to ideas from others (beginning usually with parents and other family members) which we accept either because we find them convincing or because of some social compulsion; others are formed from our own firsthand interaction with the world around us.

As absence of god-belief, atheism does not belong to the category of belief. Since we are not born with any beliefs, and atheism is technically merely the absence of god-belief, we are essentially born atheist, just as we are born without any other kind of belief. Even Hays, we will find below, acknowledges this.

Hays writes:
If, however, everyone is born an atheist, but many people outgrow atheism when they achieve intellectual maturity, then atheism is the mirror image of believing in Santa Claus.
Given the points above, it should not be hard to see why this argument hinges on a fundamental category mistake. A belief in something (whether it is Santa Claus or anything else) is fundamentally distinct from the absence of any beliefs, including the absence of a belief in a god or gods. Atheism is essentially a condition of our being at birth, like being alive or biological in nature. It’s how we are when we come out of the womb. Human maturation does not involve “outgrowing” atheism any more than it involves “outgrowing” our need for respiration and digestion.

If a person adopts some theistic species of mysticism, such as the Christian faith, then clearly such faith is analogous to believing in Santa Claus since both are positively held beliefs based on imagination rather than facts which we can discover by looking outward at the world around us. But one does not “outgrow” atheism to begin with; one either remains an atheist, or he accepts some sort of theism. Accepting a form of theism is not progress towards maturity of any sort, so it cannot count as “growth” if “growth” means progress towards improved life-centered development.

In fact, to equate acceptance of theism with “intellectual maturity” is utterly Orwellian: it’s like saying war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, etc.

By contrast, the distinguishing essential of intellectual maturity is uncompromising adherence to reason as one’s only source of knowledge, his only standard of judgment, his only guide to action. This is called rationality. But reason and theism are diametric opposites; it is only by abandoning reason that one can adopt some form of theism (including the Christian faith). This is because reason is squarely seated on the primacy of existence metaphysics (cf. wishing doesn’t make it so) while theism assumes the metaphysical primacy of consciousness (cf. some form of wishing brought the universe into existence).

On this note, it’s ironic that in reacting to Hays’ blog post, a commenter posting under the moniker “rockingwithhawking” wrote: “the good thing about God is he exists whether or not you believe in him!” So here we have a theist unwittingly making use of the primacy of existence principle in defense of a worldview which, at its most fundamental level, rejects the primacy of existence in toto. As a matter of habit theists unwittingly borrow from a non-theistic worldview even in defending their theistic fantasies. Whenever someone says something to the effect that “it’s true whether or not you believe it” or “wishing doesn’t make it so,” he’s assuming the primacy of existence, a principle that is wholly incompatible with theism.

It is when an individual adopts reason as his epistemological standard that he is finally in a position to consistently discard all forms of irrationality, whether it is belief in Santa Claus or Jesus Christ, Allah, Krishna, Ahura Mazda, Geusha, et al. Only when one has in fact abandoned all forms of mysticism as a consequence to his adherence to reason is he on the road to intellectual maturity.

Keep in mind that it is Christianity (and not Objectivism, for example) that requires its adherents to “become as little children” (cf. Matt. 18:3). Children often exhibit sharp skepticism in response to fantastical claims. But when it comes to established authorities, they often tend to accept whatever they’re told on the authority’s mere say-so, even if they don’t understand it, even if there is no tie to reality connecting what is claimed to objective fact. This is especially the case if the claims are backed up by some kind of threat, such as Christianity’s very own “believe or burn” appeal.

Hays continues:
ii) By parity of argument, we could say babies aren't scientists. They don't believe in evolution. They don't believe in global warming. They don't believe in a woman's right to abortion. They don't believe in gay rights and trans rights.
All of this is true. Babies are not born with any beliefs, either the beliefs which Hays specifies here, or belief in any gods. So he seems essentially to get the broader point. Only, he’s uncomfortable with its implications. That does nothing to disprove the original point though.

Hays writes:
So the atheist argument undercuts many beliefs dear to politically correct atheists.
Actually, the recognition that we are born atheist is not an argument, but rather a fairly obvious observation. As a conclusion, it follows necessarily from the fact that we are born without any beliefs whatsoever.

Also, saying that someone was not born with a particular belief as such is a very poor way to contend that any particular belief is not true. Beliefs have to be weighed for their merits, assuming they have any. Indeed, the fact that we do not come with a set of beliefs already in place straight out of the shrink wrap in no way suggests that we do not later develop or accept beliefs. It is when we are able to use our faculties as rational adults (having put away childish things, like belief in invisible magic beings) that we are in a position to scrutinize particular belief claims for soundness.

But I do sympathize with Hays’ frustration with many atheists in the west today who seem to have adopted politically correct positions in wholesale fashion simply because they are politically fashionable. But I count such trends as simply more influence of religion. Both religion and today’s leftist secularists have something fundamental in common, namely unquestioned authoritarianism and the uncritical acceptance of whatever is adopted by the crowd. Rationality requires an independent mind, and neither religion nor the secular left can tolerate an independent mind.

Hays raised one final objection:
iii) Also, since when do atheists make babies the standard of comparison? Most atheists support abortion. Even "after-birth" abortion.
I don’t know of any atheists who “make babies the standard of comparison.” More to the point, I think it is a mistake to take the observation that we are born without beliefs (and therefore born as atheists) as tantamount to making babies as some kind of standard of comparison. Rather, it’s simply an observation, one that even Hays seems to agree with in the final analysis, like it or not.

As for support for abortion, this is irrelevant to the question of whether or not we are born atheist. It’s simply another red herring intended to tilt emotions in favor of his prejudice.

by Dawson Bethrick


samonedo said...

Hi Dawson,

I suspect atheists started to highlight we are born atheists not as an argument for atheism, but merely to rebutt Christians who justified belief in god by saying we were born believers.

As for politically correct atheists, religion has a problem with individualists the same way atheists from the left have. God believers or not, both show a despise for the Human mind.

I am glad you decided to enjoy yourself writing this post. By introducing me to Ayn Rand and discussing the points, IP is responsible for many changes in my thinking and actions, for the better, in these 10 years. Only people persuing their selfish interest can do real good in this world.

95BSharpshooter said...

Hope you enjoyed your month long sabbatical! :-)

Ydemoc said...


As possible fodder for a followup, here's that missing link to Pike's (CalvinDude's) original post:

Pike doesn't seem to fair much better than Hayes in challenging the claim.


Ydemoc said...

Above, the proper spellings should be "fare" and "Hays."


praestans said...

Dawson please:

Ever dealt with the "argument from desire"?

1. Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.

2. But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.

3. Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.

4. This something is what people call "God" and "life with God forever."

Jack Lewis:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A dolphin wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. "

I'm not sure if 'desire' is the correct wurd in the context of objectivism. P'rhaps 'need' is better?


Justin Hall said...


the second premise is unsupported and simply asserted as if it is self evident. I can speaking only for myself state honestly that I can not identify any desire that I currently have that can not be satisfied with something found within reality. I don’t think I am alone in this thus the argument fails. I response to it would be something along the lines of "that sounds like your problem, not mine"

Justin Hall said...

correction. my apology, I said your argument and the way you present it does not indicate that you actually believe this.

Anonymous said...

Justin Hall,

The second? That thing can't go beyond the first premise.


"1. Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.

There's no reason to think that this is true. Actually, there's lots of evidence that this is patently false. A person who dies of cancer but desires not to die of cancer would be a good example.

Not only that, the only way we can make sense of reality is if we accept that reality is what it is regardless of whatever we prefer. What is true is true whether we want it to be true or not. Shit. I really don't know how anybody would use that as a premise at all.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Photo wrote: "That thing can't go beyond the first premise."

I agree entirely. What is the evidence for the supposition that "every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire"?

Indeed, how does one determine whether any particular desire is "natural" and "innate"? Clearly whoever came up with such an argument supposes that the theists desire for his god to exist is "natural" and "innate," but how is this determined? Is the Muslim's desire that his Allah exist not also "natural" and "innate"? If not, why not? What makes one "natural" and "innate" but not the other? If I desire that the earth have a second moon larger than the one that it actually has, is there really a larger moon orbiting the earth?

Very simply, reality does not conform to desires, and this recognition is sufficient to dispatch such "arguments" to the cornfield forever. Moreover, such arguments tacitly acknowledge that what's really involved in the theist's faith is a desire, a wanting, a wishing, not adherence to facts and a determination to conform one's understanding to facts.

If anyone sees otherwise, feel free to chime in.


Justin Hall said...

Agreed, the first premise is a failure as well. I read through it fast and zeroed in on the second, thinking to my self, damn what a case of projection. I forgot to go back and take a second look at the first premise. I think we are all in agreement, this argument is a none starter.

Justin Hall said...

Ydemoc, robert, Dawson and others I posted a funny little video about a church reader board. Might bring you some laughs.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Thanks, Justin. I enjoyed that. I especially liked the part where you quietly say (a little after a minute in) "and... I just don't know... what to think about this." The hesitation in your voice nailed it for me!

Where is this church? Have you seen any other quizzical statements there before?


Justin Hall said...


Glad you enjoyed it. The church is on SE Woodstock just west of 82nd blvd in Portland OR. I pass it on my way to work. I don't know if they have a history of putting up nonsense like this but I am sure going to keep an eye out for it now. Who knows maybe they can provide me with a endless supply of material to make fun of.

Ydemoc said...


Thanks for that! I actually thought about calling that number to ask them what exactly they're trying to say.


Bahnsen Burner said...

Notice that the sign says "evolutionist" - singular. So this message must be meant for only one person out there who they hope will happen to pass by the church and see the sign.

Perhaps I could call the church and tell them that I am that sole "evolutionist" and inform them that I've already apologized to all the apes (including Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Zaius and their next of kin - can't forget them!). Perhaps with this information they will be satisfied and take down the sign. Mission accomplished.

Whaddya'all think?

Oh, and Justin, MORE VIDS PLEASE! Crank 'em out!


Justin Hall said...


I dare you:) No, on a more serious note I am curious just what they are stating so go for it and should you learn anything please enlighten us.


You forgot Bonzo from the old Ronald Reagen film bedtime for Bonzo. I would love to make more videos as I want to sharpen my skills in this area. However I am at a loss currently as to what to cover. Many of the topics pertaining to atheism I have already written about to exhaustion.Any ideas or inspirations.

Justin Hall said...

I got it, ill make a video about this fool. I cant believe it. It has been like 10 years and he is still spouting the same self refuting sophistry he was back when you were trouncing him. Check it out

Ydemoc said...


I took a look at what CalvinDude wrote: "Our senses are not the reliable guides we think that they are. And if our our thoughts are based solely upon our senses, then we can have little confidence that our conclusions are sound."

Wow! So many stolen concepts., false and smuggled premises, and performative contradictions packed into just two sentences.

"We can have little confidence that our conclusions are sound."

Does he not notice that this itself is a conclusion?



Justin Hall said...

Oh yeah hilarious is the right word for it. I already have some ideas of how I will make my video. This is just to good to pass up.

Bahnsen Burner said...

What Pike repeats here is the same tired skepticism that's been plaguing philosophy circles since Kant, Hume and before. We are blind because we have eyes, we are deaf because we have ears.

Pike is simply trying to rationalize his worldview's preference for preferring the looking inward model of epistemology over the looking outward model. He ignores the fact that, if the senses give us awareness of objects which exist independent of our own awareness, then they are working. He also ignores the fact that the operation of the senses is pre-conceptual. Additionally, he ignores the need for an objective source of content to inform our knowledge. And on and on. Yes, a long string of stolen concepts and performative inconsistencies.

Pike *should* know better since I myself have explained much of this to him directly in exchanges I had with him years ago. But he is so beholden to his faith that he is unteachable on these matters. He's immersed himself in a community of other reality-deniers and has gained a position of prominence therein, as laughable as that may seem. So he needs to maintain his absurdities in order to bask in their fawning adulation.

Pretty sad, but that's a mind under the influence of mysticism.

So yes, Justin, lots of potential for entertaining videos right there!


Bahnsen Burner said...

Also, as I've pointed out in the past (and as Rand et al. also did), I suspect that the fundamental error underlying Pike's constellation of confusions is, at root, the failure to distinguish between perception and identification. What "evidence" can be brought forward to support the view that the senses are not reliable if not evidence which we can only access by means of the senses? There's a stolen concept right there.

Also, if it's true that the senses are not reliable, how can anyone be reasonably sure that they're not misreading what Pike has written? Perhaps he was actually trying to give directions to his grandma's house. How does he know that he's accurately communicated in written form what he wants to say here? Maybe the sentences actually speak about economic conditions in rural Peru, but given that my senses are not reliable, I misread what he wrote to the effect that I happen to believe that he was writing about the unreliability of the senses. If the senses are unreliable, they're unreliable for the writer as well as the reader.

Seriously, what a dumbfuck! There, said it.


Justin Hall said...

Well I don't have a new vid. going to work on that this weekend. after a long work week I did manage to whip this comic however for your enjoyment.