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Monday, June 18, 2012

Bringing Up Baby

Richard Dawkins introduced the meme as a cultural explanation for the ubiquity of religion, to complement evolutionary explanations. Memes, like genes, compete for supremacy. The meme for sacredness, for example, has insulated revered truth claims from critical scrutiny at the expense of free expression in maters of faith. Memes offer a cultural explanation for the successful replication of even irrational ideas through repetition

There is a meme in circulation that babies are born atheists. This meme can perhaps be understood more fittingly as a counter-meme. Children born to Christian families are referred to as "Christian babies" without the objection one might expect in response to a comparable affront to reason. The idea that children can be identified by their inherited religious traditions before they are indoctrinated has gained acceptance through repetition.  

Indoctrination of children is a serious matter that has garnered serious critical attention, but satire is one of many weapons in the critic's arsenal. While it is technically true that infants are without theistic belief prior to any indoctrination, they can hardly be expected to reject a proposition to which they have yet to be exposed or which they do not fully grasp. Because humans begin life without knowledge of theism, one might just as well assert that babies are natural agnostics. The meme of "Christian  babies" provides a backdrop for differentiating between atheism as a lack of belief and agnosticism as a lack of knowledge.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins presents a seven-point Spectrum of Theistic Possibility. As a scale of theism, the spectrum examines only the dimension of belief, not knowledge. 

Atheism stands in contrast with theism, a belief in God. The strong atheist soundly rejects theism while the de facto atheist merely acts on the improbability of theism. Agnosticism stands in contrast to Gnosticism, or a claim to knowledge. The agnostic concedes that theism cannot be corroborated, but does not dismiss it as improbable. Although agnosticism represents a lack of knowledge, it would seem to correspond to the "completely impartial" middle ground in Dawkins' scale. 

Prior to any indoctrination, babies might aptly be described as de facto atheists for their lack of belief or as agnostics for their lack of  knowledge. Although babies lack theistic belief, they also lack the conviction of a strong theist or strong atheist. While children do attribute agency to inanimate objects at a young age, they are neither inclined toward nor naturally skeptical of the particulars of theism. The de facto atheist lives life as if under the assumption that there is no God. The "completely impartial" agnostic weighs the probabilities of God's existence. A baby lacks both knowledge and belief and would not have occasion to consider the question prior to indoctrination

Theism, like any belief, cannot be embraced or rejected without prior knowledge. Babies are nonbelievers by default, at once agnostics, de facto atheists and completely impartialAny number of scholars have observed that atheism is an anomaly. No such terms exist to describe nonbelievers in astrology or alchemy. Understanding atheism as an anomaly creates a sense of non-belief as a default position. The following model places belief on one axis and knowledge, or claim of knowledge, on the other. It accommodates babies as well as those atheists who, like agnostics, are mindful that atheism is an anomaly.

Dawkins' seven-point spectrum can be collapsed into four quadrants, allowing for indifference, uncertainty and non-belief within a single profile. Collapsing this spectrum has the disadvantage, however, of losing some obvious nuance. It requires The following synthesis incorporates the knowledge dimension into simplified version of Dawkins' Spectrum.

Interaction between Theistic Belief and Knowledge

Gnostic Theism 
The Gnostic Theist corresponds to Dawkins' strong theist. This person insists that God exists. For Gnostic Theists, belief is knowledge because their delusion is their truth. Gnostic Theism might also be understood as mystic fundamentalism, a direct experience of God. Babies, lacking experience and knowledge, obviously lack the conviction of a Gnostic Theist. 

Agnostic Theism
The Agnostic Theist trusts that God exists without claiming to know with certainty. This is the common understanding of faith. Dawkins' de facto theist is the best analogue for this position, but this would also include the "leaning towards theism" profile. Treating knowledge and belief separately illustrates the problem of the "faith in faith" argument. The meme for blind faith treats faith as heroic, especially when maintained contrary to knowledge. The qualifier "blind" is superfluous in light of the essential nature of faith. In epistemological terms, the case for "faith in faith" amounts to a "valor of credulity" argument. Babies are naturally credulous, but lack any concrete theist beliefs prior to indoctrination.

Agnostic Atheism 
The Agnostic Atheist doubts that God exists. This is a position of nonbelief, or skepticism toward theistic truth claims. It is analogous to the de facto atheist in Dawkins' spectrum, but also subsumes the "leaning towards atheism" profile. The de facto atheist and the Agnostic Atheist act as if under the assumption that there is no God, whether or not they embrace that assumption. Either might concede that theism is ill-equipped to present evidence, but still see no good reason to believe in God. An infant without indoctrination would neither believe nor disbelieve in God independently. In this regard, it might be argued that babies have the most in common with Dawkins' de facto atheist or the Agnostic Atheist presented here, but they also share the indifference of the "completely impartial" middle.  

Gnostic Atheism 
The Gnostic Atheist denies that God exists. It is a position of disbelief, or rejection of theism, analogous to Dawkins' strong atheist position. The Gnostic Atheist or strong atheist might also be described as an antitheist. Sacred text are attributed to an omniscient entity, but they betray human motives and ignorance. There are any number of outrageous, unfalsifiable claims that any reasonable person would reject out of hand. It should be no surprise that anyone firmly rejects the existence of God without proofThe marvel is that revealed faith has survived in principle in spite of the repeated rejection of untenable particulars by believers themselves. Infants lack the conviction of the Gnostic Theist, Gnostic Atheist or strong atheist, but they have no reason to consider the question of God's existence independently

The synthesis presented adapts Dawkins' Spectrum of Theistic Possibility to treat belief and knowledge as separate dimensions. It contains four profiles, compared to Dawkins' seven, but represents a full range of belief. The "completely impartial" middle ground and the "leaning towards..." profiles from Dawkins' Spectrum are subsumed within the de facto or agnostic profiles. It is worth mentioning that "knowledge" implies apprehension of truth, not delusion. In this regard, Gnosticism can be understood as strong belief. Non-belief without knowledge is perfectly rational, belief without knowledge is notDawkins' Spectrum of Theistic Possibility makes the reasonable presumption that the adult respondent has context for the question of God's existence. The act of responding to the form implies interest in the question. 

On the question of whether babies are natural atheists, it could be said that they resemble agnostics in their lack of knowledge and atheists in their lack of belief. Perhaps the most striking similarity between babies and atheists is that they are content to live life as if under the assumption that there is no God. Atheism is an anomaly. No terms exist to describe nonbelievers in astrology or alchemy. The meme of atheist babies speaks to the sense that non-belief is a default position. It reminds us that prior to indoctrination the very question of God's existence would have seemed peculiar. 


  1. I made that Dawkin's Scale graphic. I'm a 6. Here's the original post:

  2. Thanks. I'm a 7. I figure, why split hairs when it has the same probability as Russell's teapot or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

  3. "It contains four profiles, compared to Dawkins' seven, but represents a full range of belief."

    No, it doesn't.

    "The Gnostic Atheist denies that God exists."

    ^The faulty 2 axis, 4 position, models introduce the gnostic atheist's kowledge claim that "no gods exist is true", or "gods exist is false" but fail to ask a belief question, about that claim. You need, at least, 5 positions.

    Do you believe the claim "gods exist"?
    Do you believe the claim "no gods exist"?
    Do you claim to know "gods exist"?
    Do you claim to know "no gods exist"?



    b = belief, ~b = no belief, k = knowledge claim, ~k = no knowledge claim, g = god, ~g = no god


    Like Dawkins' scale, except he splits the belief positions in two based on strength of belief.