Discourse and civil disagreement can be quite stimulating. It can help you sharpen your critical thinking skills and help reveal areas where you have weaknesses in your thinking. Recently I had an on-line discussion with my new friend “Johnthebabtist” (@icouldbegod ) over the old topic of babies as atheists. I’m not going to recount the discussion here as the interested reader (both of you) can see it in my Twitter time line. What I am going to do here is present my argument against classifying infants as atheists with the acknowledgement of John’s assistance through disagreement. Thanks, John!
While I will be using dictionaries in this post, be warned: I do not consider the dictionary to be the final arbiter of words and their definitions, Dictionaries report usage and change over time (somewhat slowly, perhaps). While this usage can be astroturfed, as some words are being intentionally changed now, we can still use the dictionary as a starting point in our discussions.
Merriam Webster still has the older definition of atheist and atheism which uses the “believes God does not exist” version as does dictionary.com. Most atheists actually reject this definition as too restrictive because it does not include those who do not hold that no gods exist, just that there is no reason to accept theistic claims. Put simply, many atheists prefer the “lack of belief in deities” definition (thanks to John for the link).
I agree with this definition for an atheist…well, mostly. First of all an atheist is a person. It says so even in the older, “strong atheist” definition in many current dictionaries. So this alone rules out rocks, trees, and other non-human flora and fauna. To be an atheist, one must be human (at least until we discover ET or AI but those are different discussions to be had).
I argue that the reason “atheist” is exclusive to humans is because (so far as we know) only humans are capable of forming beliefs or not forming them based upon an understanding of the concepts involved. This will become important later. Atheism, as defined by Webster et al is a “disbelief in the existence of deity(s)”. Even those of us who prefer the “lack of a belief” version can see this as a simple substitution of the phrase “a disbelief” for the phrase “a lack of belief”.
The old “disbelief” version carries with it an implied restriction on what categories of things can be subsumed under that definition. It has to be things capable of holding or rejecting beliefs. In our universe, the only things currently capable of holding or rejecting beliefs are humans. I argue that that implied restriction carries forward when the “lack of belief” phrase is substituted into the definition.
Further, I argue, that that capacity to hold or reject beliefs is critical for the term atheism or atheist to be free from absurd configurations and uses.
For example, a lifelong Christian or Muslim who is injured and falls into a coma or vegetative state now can be argued to “lack a belief” in a deity. Does injury or disease create atheists of lifelong theists? No, this is absurd. The person now clearly lacks the capacity to hold beliefs. They lack the necessary capacity to be included in the category under the implied restriction stated in the paragraph above.
That capacity to hold or reject beliefs is critical in the distinction made to exclude flora and fauna from the category of “things that can be atheists”. It (the capacity to form or reject beliefs) does not simply disappear as a prerequisite simply because the subject under discussion is a human being. Rather it is still the bright line which divides things which can be atheists (or things that can be referred to under the term “atheism”) from things which cannot.
In summary: to be an atheist or to fall under the umbrella of atheism) one must be a human who has the capacity to hold and reject beliefs through an understanding of the subject matter. Thus, infants are not atheists any more than trees and rocks are.
Thanks again to Johnthebabtist for the lively discussion. I look forward to more stimulating conversation with you, my new friend.