Are Babies Atheists?
I've heard Sapient and others in the chat room describe babies as being "atheist"...as in, "without belief".
While I understand and agree that the strict (and often broadly used) definition of "atheist" CAN apply to babies, I am going to argue that it shouldn't be and that we need to find a better term to describe babies, and others, who are completely innocent of the concept of gods.
Let me set up the scenario...
A baby has no (apparent) knowledge of gods, I think we can all agree on that. So, if you were to (or could) ask a baby if it is atheist or not (or something else), it will probably not know what you mean.
So when you tell the baby that "atheist" means "without belief" in god, it will likely ask you, "well, what is a god?" So then you (attempt) to tell the baby what a god is. This may take some time... you may want to bring in a "god expert" like a Christian, or not.
Then, if all things go well, you might get the baby to tell you whether it is an atheist regarding gods or not.
Anyway, you get the idea... the innocent baby does not inherently know what gods are and therefore has no position on whether they exist or not, or whether they, as babies, are atheist or not. You have to impart additional knowledge to the baby about what gods and beliefs in gods are before a baby can even hope to make a decision about being "atheist", or anything else.
Normally you do not encounter someone who claims to be an "atheist" who then turns to you and asks "Oh, by the way, what is a god?" The atheist ostensibly already knows what a god is and, by definition, has consciously decided not to believe in them.
If you are gonna claim that a baby is atheist, you would have to claim that a rock, or a bicycle, or any other inanimate object you can think of is also atheist.
The jury is still out on whether mammals, fish, plants, or insects know, think, or believe there is a god, so I won't include them
But doesn't it sound a bit "off" to claim a rock is atheist? Surely you would agree that despite the morphological, biochemical, and neurophysical differences, both a baby and a rock essentially have zero knowledge of any gods.
If you feel uncomfortable or think it is "irrational" to claim a rock is atheist, why claim that a baby is atheist?
To help understand my dilemma about calling babies atheist from a slightly different point of view, please consider this...
Eskimo: "If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?"
Priest: "No, not if you did not know."
Eskimo: "Then why did you tell me?"
- Annie Dillard
So from this example, you can imagine the Eskimo was a person without knowledge or belief in gods. But once the Priest explains what gods (and sin) are and what the implications are for not believing in them, the Eskimo is placed in a "difficult" position of having to decide whether to believe in gods or not (decide to be atheist or not).
Before the Priest came along, the Eskimo had no idea about gods. So would you consider him an atheist? For now, let's assume you do.
After the Priest describes what gods are (and the implications for belief and non-belief), the Eskimo makes a decision and decides that he is an "atheist" (ala, doesn't believe in gods and is willing to risk the "punishment").
Would you STILL consider the Eskimo's "atheism" BEFORE the encounter with the priest to be the SAME as the Eskimo's atheism AFTER the encounter with the priest??
I would argue that they are NOT the same atheist or atheism.... so much so that I realize a NEW term needs to be established for those babies, rocks, or Eskimos who are completely INNOCENT of the knowledge of gods.
Now, let's examine Sapient's (I'm assuming it's him since the author is annonymous) definition of atheist from this web page on the RRS site:
"Therefore, if you find yourself identifying yourself primarily as a doubter of the existence of a 'god', then you are an a-theist... someone who does not hold to a belief in a 'god', someone who does not accept the claims of theists. That's all the term means - a position of non acceptance, a position of non belief. It is the fallback position, the position one holds to when a claim is unsupported or unproven."
I don't know about you, but the way I read the above paragraph, an atheist is someone who purposely MAKES a DECISION about whether they believe in a god or gods or not. Since I think we would agree that babies have no knowledge of what gods are, or whether there is even a choice to believe they exist or not, the term "atheist", as Sapient has written above, also does not seem to apply to babies.
Sapient also claims that atheism is the "fallback position" for unsupported or unproven claims [of gods]. While I agree this CAN be the case for those of us who consciously decide to be atheists, I don't think it can equally apply to those who have no conscious knowledge of gods. I would argue that babies are not atheist because of an implied "fallback position" due to their non-exposure to gods.
If my own descriptions and rationale are not persuasive enough, I will now pull out "the big guns" and offer this recommendation from our friend, Dr. Richard Dawkins, regarding labeling children in religious (or even non-religious) terms...
"What I think may be abuse is labeling children with religious labels like Catholic child and Muslim child. I find it very odd that in our civilization we're quite happy to speak of a Catholic child that is 4 years old or a Muslim of child that is 4, when these children are much too young to know what they think about the cosmos, life and morality. We wouldn't dream of speaking of a Keynesian child or a Marxist child. And yet, for some reason we make a privileged exception of religion. And, by the way, I think it would also be abuse to talk about an atheist child." - Richard Dawkins
I think this quote speaks for itself and lends credence to my position.
Please understand that I do want to open up the topic for discussion to explore alternative viewpoints that could be used to ultimately improve our definitions of atheism and their proper application.
I would love to be shown why my observations and opinions are incorrect or incomplete. However, just saying it is wrong won't cut it.
I think we will be MUCH more respected by people outside the RRS when we take the lead in understanding and even helping to define all aspects of belief, dis-belief, non-belief, and now innocence of belief.
I welcome your thoughtful comments and suggestions.
P.S. If you're interested, another message board has extensively discussed this topic of atheist babies: