MOD: Belief in THE LORD is the default condition

Mondays seem to be a big day for ScienceBloggers who track their site stats closely, so I’m going to try to generate interest in an ongoing “open discussion” sort of thread to start the week, with topics to include the sequential vetting of idea x1, idea x2…idea xn, with n being an integer hopefully greater than 1.
A discussion at Pharyngula by way of Brian Flemming got me thinking about one of the many counterintuitive stances offered by religious adherents, that being the idea that the natural state of a new human being is to believe in God.
I’m not talking about the generalized wonder that ultimately catalyzed the onset of sky-fairy religions at some indistinct point in our ancestral past; that’s something neuroscience is busily working on, or not. I’m talking about the notion that in the absence of distinct programming, each of us is fully poised to accept THE LORD — or, if you happen to be born in a different culture, some other god — as our creator.


This, to me, is one of many ideas which — while not strictly testable in the classical sense (try to imagine designing and implementing a controlled experiment using the hypothesis in the subject line) — fails miserably in the face of real-world experience and observation, so much so that I feel like more of an obsessive, redundant nogodbot than usual in even typing this post. Yet its sheer persistence, like that of a great many unsupported, ad hoc beliefs, begs for its close examination.
I once saw someone on the Internets write, “We’re all born naked and atheists, and to get into Heaven we have to believe and be dressed properly,” or something similar. This encapsulates the entirety of sectarian religious adherence — it’s all about indoctrination, obesiance, and negotiating a psychological obstacle course fraught with formidable logical challenges, which were a lot easier to swerve around en masse until we pesky skeptics started taking to heart the fact that religion is not — and, given its destructive potential to those who have no use for it, should never be — off-limits as an outmoded institution ripe for debauchment and dissolution. (You may have some idea on where I stand on this issue already.)
Forget about the ludicrous extreme (one which, despite its preposterousness, is fomented nonetheless by more than a handful of believers): that left untended, a maturing human being will ultimately recognize not only that a conscious, watchful and judgmental god got everything rolling, but that the very god the claimant happens to believe in created everything more or less as is a few dozen million years after the very last dinosaur drew its final raspy breath. As crazy as this is, it forms the basis for the god-of-the-gaps argument adored by Biblical creationists, i.e., that which remains unexplained by human scientific inquiry can be readily explained by simply opening a Bible to the proper page.
Here’s just one way of looking at the matter: If believing in a given god is so natural, why must so many religions make evangelism their primary mission? (Let’s leave aside clear financial motives here.) Why is so much energy spent hammering into young minds not only the idea that belief is right, but disbelief is, to simplify only slightly, eternally fatal? Why is there no such urgency in “primitive” godless societies that nonchalantly remain that way for thousands of years in the absence of missionary intrusions?
It takes little imagination to envision how many churches would remain filled or even standing in contemporary society after a few generations if the majority of parents repeatedly emphasized to their young ones that believing in invisible, inaudible, hypervigilant entities would be grounds for terrible lifelong persecution by inescapably powerful agents. (Actually it is, should you find yourself, say, a Hasidic Jew or a Mormon in Kandahar, but this is something of an ironic aside.)
I grew up in an areligious household, the son of a lapsed Catholic and an agnostic-at-best Protestant. Religion was simply not an issue. As a young child I was a fan of The Superfriends, Hong Kong Phooey, and other Saturday-morning cartoons, and was always disappointed that Sundays were grimly anticimactic, offering loud talkers in suits but no ribald animated alternatives. I remember watching Davey and Goliath, that old claymation-style Sunday show featuring a boy and his dog, and couldn’t understand what it was all about because I had not been given the proper and arrantly bizarre backstory. Nevertheless, I was a curious kid and aware of “going to church,” and had I expressed an interest in doing this myself, I don’t doubt that my parents — who catered neatly to my every intellectual and recreational whim, from anatomy and math books to atlases to Erector Sets and Legos — would have accommodated me. But this “innate tendency” was as much a non-issue as a putative God-given urge to travel to the Ronald McDonald house of Delaware at age six and receive a lap-dance from a ultramarathoning nerd (see sidebar).
Strict theists, in order to protect their notion about default states, would classify this upbringing as spiritually stifling, whereas I would instead rightly term it the expected outcome of a environment free of bias (not to mention an unqualified blessing and a stroke of very good luck). I also suspect that the theist would offer some variation of the argument that if belief were too easy to come by, there would really be no reward for those pious enough to believe in God in the face of so much distracting information prefectly countering the whole ball of wax (although the theist might not say it just like that). We all need to be saved, but only the special among us can be. That’s awesome!
It is what it is. I know very few people who grew up in god-free households who went on to develop meaningful beliefs in the supernatural — supernatural anything, senility and excessive pharmacopeia being disqualifying conditions. The concept of “faith” only makes sense from within, where it makes perfect, immutable sense; this, as Sam Harris emphasizes so eloquently, represents a plain and generally conversation-ending impedance to a useful discussion between a believer and a nonbeliever about their respective ideas.
If anyone can help me understand why a default human concept evidently requires repeated (though indirect, of course) exposure to the idea, ritual indoctrination to the idea set against the backdrop of implicit and explicit threats of harm, and ongoing battles with those members of society with the temerity to demand that claimants support the idea with something akin to evidence, I’d enjoy hearing it.
I’m not sure if I’m bleak or hopeful in noting simply that the only reason this stuff is still with us is because it has survived well beyond its expiration date owing to sheer lingering fear by those who resist it coupled with unholy amounts of force exerted by those taught before they could think to blindly toe the line and spread their uniquely mutated strain of the virus.

14 thoughts on “MOD: Belief in THE LORD is the default condition”

  1. While belief in the supernatural is common in nearly every known human culture, unbelief is also present in every culture. Anyone claiming that religious belief is natural or normal must deal with that fact. Then there is the question of “is vs. ought” that accompanies every question over what is “natural.”

  2. It’s hard to imagine how you could get things so wrong without really trying. Belief in God is not natural, at least according to Christianity. Rom. 3:11 teaches that nobody (in their natural state) seeks God. Seeking/believing in God, according to Christianity, requires divine intervention. You, as an atheist, are as blessedly natural as you can possibly be. I, as a Christian, am in a decidedly different state from the natural condition into which I was born.
    Try to understand your topic before putting pen to paper.

  3. David —
    I know what the Bible says about all of us being sinners, and Romans seems concerned not just with the “natural” question but with the greater problem of every unsaved human being being basically worthless and evil across the board.
    I’m not sure whether Romans really addresses (or could be expected to address) what behavioral scientists would term “natural” — i.e., is Paul claiming that belief, along with and not killing and not lying and so on, are in fact natural states that have merely been corrupted by whatever force (it’s natural for the upper palate to fuse, yet this and many ofther things frequently fail to occur) or that it indeed requires active work on everyone’s part to see the truth?
    Anyway, as I’m sure you know, what Christians often claim the Bible “teaches” tends to vary significantly from what scholarly theists (or those who merely read the Bible) believe it does. So while I may be guilty of creating an argumentative position that in reality is held only by more parochial-minded believers, the fact remains that the only part of Romans many self-described Christians seem familiar with is the part about what fools with their darkened hearts say.

  4. It’s not only theists who think that belief in God is the default state. That very silly notion seems to be common among atheists as well. For example, Richard Dawkins thinks religion is a Darwinian Imperative. According to him, our genes make us believe in God.
    Sorry, Richard, there are a billion people on this planet who refute your hypothesis.

  5. Larry —
    See my third paragraph. I’m talking here about people who claim that believing in a specific in textual god (theirs, not coincidentally) is natural. True, this focuses on an especially rank subset of religious believers, but you are caricaturing Dawkins’ ideas — at least those I’ve seen him evince — to a great extent.

  6. Larry Moran,
    You too are missing the boat, at least in terms of Christianity. There is no doctrine in either Roman Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism that teaches that man’s natural state (defined as how he is born, post-fall) is to believe in God. Precisely the opposite. It’s the doctrine of original sin–which does not teach that Adam’s sin is in our debit column, or that we are as evil as we could possibly be, but rather that in our natural state we are morally incapable of knowing God. We must first be regenerated. You might be right about Dawkins, but you are displaying your total ignorance about theism, at least the Christian variety.

  7. I think it’s only fair to quote Mr. Heddle’s words from his own blog in order to get some perspective on where he’s coming from:

    In terms of internet evangelizing, especially in the scientific community, one often encounters the view (from the atheist):

    I have studied the bible, and it is utter nonsense. Only the weak-minded could accept such a load of crap.

    Now of course the real explanation is:
    God has not revealed Himself to you, therefore you will continue and perhaps even prosper in your arrogance and ignorance.
    In truth, we must agree that both explanations (the atheist’s and the Calvinist’s) fit the data. A third (Arminian Christian) explanation is the one that is somewhat muddled:

    You (not God) have not yet done ‘something’ to yourself. Exactly what is not entirely clear, but it involves the impossibilities of accepting something you don’t believe, and repenting from things for which you have no desire to repent. You must do these impossible things, on your own, at least to a certain imprecisely defined degree, and then God will act upon you.

    Anyway, that’s how I see it.

    Riiight. That’s how you see it. Me, I hear the ‘logic’ of the pitch from a Ponzi scheme scam artist.
    Oh, but that’s only because I haven’t been “acted on”. Sheesh.

  8. Jim,
    What’s your point–that I should post an inconsistent view on my blog?
    Do you have any evidence from any form–say from the historic creeds of the church, the writings of the early church, the ecumenical councils, or the classic protestant confessions–any of those sources, that suggests that Christian doctrine proclaims that man’s natural state is to believe in God? If so, then you will have something of substance to offer to the thread, and something to support Kevin and Larry’s claim.
    I can certainly use those sources to back up my claim that Christian doctrine actually teaches that man in his natural state will not choose God.
    It seems to be a bit too subtle for you, but the question is not whether you accept the doctrine, or whether you find it nonsensical, but whether it accurately reflects orthodox Christianity.

  9. “Do you have any evidence from any form … that suggests that Christian doctrine proclaims that man’s natural state is to believe in God? If so, then you will have something … to support Kevin and Larry’s claim.”
    David, you and I actually agree on this issue — that belief in a given god is not an inherent quality. I haven’t been inconsistent because I haven’t gone after doctrine per se. Whether I think Christianity is bullshit is, as you noted in your reply to Jim, irrelevant for present purposes.
    But “Christian doctrine” and what Christians themselves believe and say are often vastly different. An example is the virgin birth account, understood by theologians to be the result of a probably intentional mistranslation of Hebrew. How many of today’s incurious breed of American Christo-bumpkin — and I bet you’re as scornful of them as you are any atheist — are even aware of this, much less accepting of it? Ministers have a vested interest in keeping the history of the Church from the masses.

  10. Kevin,
    I understood your point, which is why I didn’t pursue it further. I cannot argue against the claim that some Christians believe this or that. You are quite right that there is a spectrum of belief on virtually any doctrinal question.
    Your claim of the virgin birth is debatable. It is true that the term can be translated as “young woman” and that some scholars believe that is the correct interpretation. However, there are many other theologians who believe that, considering the context of Isaiah’s Marian prophesy and especially given the writings of the New Testament–that those writers clearly intended to convey a virgin birth. So it becomes a question of dueling scholars. Broadly speaking there is a school that tends to discount the supernatural and focus on the ethical teachings, and one that celebrates the supernatural.
    In short, while you can support the claim that there are theologians who believe virgin is the wrong interpretation, you cannot support the claim that Joe-Christian holds to the view of the Virgin birth in spite of the understanding of the church–be it RC or Protestant. The vast majority of theologians within the church would argue for virgin being the correct translation–so the laity, in this case, is aligned with the church.
    I also don’t think you can make a general statement such as “Ministers have a vested interest in keeping the history of the Church from the masses.” Two years ago I spent an entire year teaching church history for Sunday school–and was under no pressure from the pastor or elders to omit any topic.

  11. David,
    Why would you imply that I’m suggesting you should be other than consistent? I’m simply offering up some context for your earlier remarks. It appears that you, Kevin, and I all agree that belief in god is not a “natural state”. That is, it appears that we all agree that such a state is a place that is “arrived at” somehow. That “somehow” is one place where we part.
    And please, cut the condescending crap about the point being “too subtle” or of having something of substance to add to the thread. I understand the difference between agreement/disagreement with a statement and whether or not it is the official position of a church or a group of theologians. Kindly consider that you are not the spokesperson for “orthodox christianity” and as you freely admit, there is a spectrum of interpretation among scholars. Further, let’s not kid ourselves about the content and supposed “substance” of these sorts of discussions. In the end, whether or not this belief is a natural state is a secondary concern. What matters is the state itself and what it leads to in everyday life; e.g., its real-world consequences. That issue has been a consistent thread in this blog from day one. So yes, it DOES matter what the bumpkins and thumpers say, and in many respects, it matters far more than your interpretation of official doctrine.

  12. Jim,
    Your first post deserved a condescending tone. It offered nothing of substance to the topic at hand. In fact, you revealed nothing in that first post that supports you current claim that you agree that belief in God is not natural. Of course, I believe that you believe that–but it is not to the point–the question was not whether you believed it, but whether Christians (or theists in general) believe it.
    Try to come up with a more original criticism than “you are not a spokesman for orthodox Christianity.” Here is the difference: The original issue I brought up was that Christianity does not teach that a belief in God is natural. I don’t have to be a spokesman to be familiar with the documentation (creeds, councils, confessions, catechisms, etc.) which are the sources for defining what orthodox Christianity was/is. I could be a flaming atheist, but if I can support my claim from those sources then I am on solid ground in referencing “orthodox Christianity” without proclaiming myself a “spokesman.” It’s called scholarship. On the other, if you claim something about Christianity without being able to support it from the official teachings of the church, that’s called talking out of your ass.
    Now, if like Kevin, you are only claiming that some Christians believe (fill in the blank) then we have no argument.

  13. Well, seeing that Kevin (nor anyone else) did not state that ALL Christians believe X, that is not, and never was, a problem. The gist of your argument seems to be that Kevin has set up a straw man, and your defense invokes definitions by orthodox Christian doctrine. My point, in spite of your “scholarship”, is that there are plenty of folks who, while professing themselves to be Christians, would not necessarily fall in line with your statements (apparently, we agree on that), and thus, Kevin’s point stands. He did not “get things so wrong” as you stated in your initial post.

  14. I have heard some atheists claim that disbelief in God is the default position. I have heard some agnostics claim that no belief either way is the default position. I have heard some christians say that belief in God is the default position. Why does anybody listen to any of these people? We all have our own experiences and memories! We know what our own personal default was, and maybe we are all different. Some may very well be born believing in a god or in no god, but I wasn’t. I was born an agnostic and later found evidence that lead me to god. Nobody can tell me different, because I remember how it went down.

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