Atheism could do without the naturalistic fallacy
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.
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.