Friday, September 8, 2006

Natural born atheists

I once read an atheist, in his apologia for atheism, mention "all humans are born atheists." No one, after all, is born believing in God. The most primal anthropological default position, then, seems to be atheism. Q.E.D. It's an interesting argument; let's call it the argument from nativity. I was intrigued by his clever first point.

Then again, I realized, all people are born illiterate, incontinent, incapable of walking or speaking, and possessing a body in need of major growth, to mention only a few of our other "native" features. (Oh and we are all born virgins too.) Strangely enough, we call the surpassing of these "native" features the maturing process. Interesting company native atheism keeps. If native atheism is any sort of support for mature atheism, then I wager the author agrees native virginity is a support for lifelong celibacy. In fact, if the one (theism) is a post-nativity accretion, then presumably so is the other (sex). Never mind that sex is both a major rite of adulthood, but also the very means by which the human race survives! Strange company indeed this argument attracts.

Certainly the author, or any nimble defender of hia atheism, would retort I'm making a mountain out a molehill, missing the forest for the trees. The argument from nativity isn't even an argument per se and was just used to get the book rolling. Sounds reasonable, but alas, no. For the author's whole argument, and atheism itself, rests on little if anything more than the argument from nativity. By defending what humans happen to be ("What Is") as if that established or exhausted what we can or should be ("What Ought Be"), atheism and all related "nativist" anthropologies boil down to what I'll call an argument from "pristine immaturity," an argument however that is itself an exercise in mental immaturity.

As one prime example, arguing "brain science proves" the neurological basis of God and religion is as inane as arguing "physiology proves" the biological basis of hunger. (Let's be clear: "science" doesn't study, argue or prove anything -- people do.) In both cases, the forces being "explained" (theism and hunger) seek legitimate higher ends that are not only ontologically and conceptually distinct from the forces, but also not dependent on them as they are on the ends. But on a nativist reading of humanity, the "fact" of the neurological mediation of spiritual reality "proves" we are more properly seen as native atheists. Presumably by this logic we are also best regarded as native non-eaters?

Say what you will about God-talk, but at least it's something more than baby talk.

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