Atheism could do without the naturalistic fallacy

Baby

An atheist yesterday?

I hear a lot of atheists laying into religion (well, duh), making the claim that atheism is the natural default we’re born with, and religion only exists because people are indoctrinated to believe it. I like that idea, and it rings true on several levels. We find it so easy to bring children up believing religious doctrines that are wild guesses at best. And we teach them these things as fact, not only introducing fables but loading them with emotional significance to ensure that they aren’t easily challenged and dismissed.

Unfortunately, this belief in “default atheism” is simplistic at best. Babies and small children don’t have any kind of comprehensive answer to major life questions, but I think the early tendency to see one’s parents as perfect, infallible paragons can fit into the most basic definition of theism without too much squeezing and breathing in. And even adults with no interest in religion can still be led down a theistic line of thought by a certain stirring at the wonders of nature, for example.

Even more tellingly, the claim fails at the most basic level. If people only hold religious ideas because they’re taught them, where did those ideas come from in the first place? Who dragged Ug the caveman to Sunday School to learn about the Thunder God who occasionally got royally pissed off and threw a hissy fit all over the skies because he wanted more sacrifices? Beliefs have changed, and must have started somewhere, both of which show that while indoctrination may play a part, it isn’t the only explanation.

But even if it could be shown that religion is unnatural, only persisting thanks to indoctrination by believers, so what? You can’t determine whether something’s right or wrong by consideration of how natural it is, and the naturalistic fallacy has a long and shameful history of being used to prop up struggling arguments, with the Catholic Church particularly fond of appeals to nature in the context of sexuality and contraception.

It could be argued that this is a different situation, about propaganda and burden of proof rather than moral rights and wrongs, and that argument would have some force. So for a more direct analogy, what if a Young Earth Creationist made the same point about evolution? It would be just as valid – no one emerges from the womb with a comprehensive understanding of cladistics, which requires teaching (or indoctrination, as you might say) before people believe in it. And it would also be just as wrong.

We don’t have any trouble with children being “indoctrinated” into believing evolution, even though on these criteria it’s just the same as religion. But the differences are instructive, pointing to where the battle should really be fought. Evolution is taught because it’s supported by evidence, tested by evidence, and our understanding can be challenged and amended by evidence. Religion… not so much.

Alphabet Blackboard

A is for Adam, B is for Bible…

Anyone receiving religious instruction (as opposed to being taught about religion) is being encouraged to follow one of hundreds and thousands of competing claims, and to reject all the others. But any reasons for choosing one belief over another rarely rise above the level of naked special pleading, even leaving aside the question of arguments for religion in general. The evidence is lacking, and there’s no reliable mechanism for testing and correcting faulty theories and assumptions. That’s why it’s wrong. Everything else is just detail.

I don’t want to be “That Guy” who’s always poking holes in things, even if I suppose that’s pretty much my MO. The “born atheist” stuff can be a valid and useful reminder when people get their burdens of proof tangled because of a particular idea of what’s normal. But it can also be overdone, and adopted as a more general argument about wider issues where it simply doesn’t belong. Please don’t do that.

Images courtesy of melbia and hisks, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

9 responses to “Atheism could do without the naturalistic fallacy”

  1. civilanonymity says :

    I think you have written a fair and informed post.

    How does the fact that Christianity exists and is validated based on historical “evidence” change its place at the table of religions. I am all for evidence and I have yet to see any other make a claim such as I am God come to forgive the sins of the world, then die and rise again to validate the claim.

    This is, especially was a falsifiable claim. All anyone had to do within the first 200 years was nullify the resurrection and Christianity would have folded.

    Thanks for your thoughts

    -Anon

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      You mean all anyone had to do was prove a negative to the satisfaction of a diverse and dispersed group of believers, many of whom held beliefs that would have been entirely unthreatened by such a proof? It’s not anything like as straightforward as you imply.

      • civilanonymity says :

        No they did not have to prove a negative. He was killed publicly. Buried publicly and rose publicly. This happened and was the basis for believing in the first century. Luke wrote what he wrote as an investigation to see of the events were true. They were.

        I still think you are discounting the historicity of the even.

        That said, Christianity is on a different level than the other religions. Why, it was an evidenced public event that was testified to by eye witnesses. Evidence is the basis for believing in the Christ for the first century Jew. Evidence.

        It is obviously historical in nature now, but it wasn’t then. That was my contention, no other world religion pitches its tent on an historical event for the validation of its truth claims.

        Grace and Peace
        -Anon

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Proving that something didn’t happen is proving a negative. You have missed my point that we know many early Christian sects had views which would now be considered distinctly heterodox, but that’s only the result of much later church politics. Those sects wouldn’t have cared about the truth of the matter, because their beliefs weren’t affected by it.

        I don’t know about the historicity of the event, but I certainly doubt the objectivity of accounts which were spread orally within the church for a couple of generations before being written down, show clear evidence of growing in the telling, and are not substantiated by any objective neutral source.

        This is in danger of turning into a full post, so before I sign off, a counter example to your claim about historical events. Mormonism was founded on the back of Joseph Smith’s claimed visitation from the angel Moroni, and his discovery of the gold plates he was directed to. Even though Smith was known as a fraudster, it still took off and persists to this day despite much better communication and many proven untruths in Smith’s claims.

      • civilanonymity says :

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. Because of your candor concerning the historicity of the event I will focus on this as I believe this to be the crux of the matter.

        Instead of my writing a full post as well. I will say this. The 1st century eye witnesses wrote down what they saw in their life time. We have copies of these manuscripts that date back “historically/scientifically” to the second century. These would have been 2nd and 3rd believers.

        Christ claimed he was God. He was killed and rose from the dead. He showed himself to 500+_ people and many of them wrote down what they witnessed.

        As I said earlier. Paul was convincing 1st century Jews to give up their “OT waiting” based on the evidence that had been witnessed that Jesus was Indeed the Messiah promised.

        Smith didn’t have any evidence to back up his claim.

        I look at it this way, there were 1st century doubters, heck everyone knew the dead couldn’t rise, they knew that the lame couldn’t walk they knew that the blind couldn’t see.

        Hostile witnesses called it magic, because it couldn’t be explained. Doubt is not new. The same questions plagued them then that plague us now. However, some did believe, some were converted and we have reliable manuscripts evidencing all of this!

        I really appreciate you taking the time to interact with these ideas. I don’t get to have these conversations in my current job. So they are beneficial to me and allow me to keep being pushed and thinking critically.

        -Anon

  2. Ignostic Atheist says :

    I feel like it is useful to point out that the atheist claim that we are born atheist seems to exist primarily as a response to presuppositional argument that knowledge of (the Christian) god is innate.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Indeed, and I think I addressed that in the final paragraph. Also, many expressions of this sentiment aren’t explicitly in disagreement with anything I’ve said, but could easily be taken that way.

  3. Mordanicus says :

    This is an excellent analysis, and I agree that atheists should use substantive arguments.

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