There is a schizophrenic attitude (at least) towards what we call babies. Richard Dawkins has said all babies are atheists. On the other hand he tweeted that this is droll yet too contentious to be a speaking point. Joyce Carol Oates has said there are no misogynist babies. We will take that as meaning all babies are feminists. Others have said babies are born sexists by virtue of gender and anatomy issues.
Andrew Brown calls a halt to all of this, in a polemic against Dawkins, by saying his babies are cultural since atheism is really just another religion. Chinese babies are Chinese by virtue of their birth location. Brown implies we can only accurately nomer a baby by an inherent trait or physiology. There are Down’s Syndrome babies, colicky babies, and even the occasional, good natured baby (will that endure as they age?).
Some Muslims will never speak of “converts” but only “reverts” because they believe that everyone is born a Muslim, even if some babies have this truth hidden from them by their parents who tell them they’re Christians or atheists. And there’s a style of atheist rhetoric that makes exactly the same point. To take two random examples from my recent Twitter stream: Joan Smith wrote: “I’m not convinced there are Muslim or Christian children. They have religious parents, but should be able to decide when they grow up.” And Richard Dawkins wrote: “When you say X is the fastest growing religion, all you mean is that X people have babies at the fastest rate. But babies have no religion.”
But there are no atheist babies, and certainly no agnostic ones. This is for two reasons. The first is that if we’re going to be consistent, and to demand that babies only be ascribed identities that they themselves embrace, there are no German, British or Chinese children either. There are simply the children of German and English and Chinese parents, who will in due course learn the habits and the rules of the cultures around them and grow into their parents’ language, nationality, food habits – and religious opinions. The way in which they express these will become more subtle and more interesting as they grow up – or at least we can hope it will – but the fact remains that babies are entirely anchored in the world by their parents.
Babies bear the brunt of being called whatever others choose. Babies cannot self avow (if they could they’d probably say STFU). They cannot verbally say “I am a gay baby” for example.
But you don’t get Dawkins and Smith complaining because people talk about “Chinese babies”. They think religion is different. Well, it is. For one thing, and despite the existence of loathsome and barbaric laws against apostasy, in most of the world it’s much easier to change your religion than your language or nationality. It is generally accepted that changing your religion is a human right, but changing your nationality is not. The big difference is that religions usually make it hard to leave and nationalities usually make it hard to enter. But in neither case does an individual get to choose as if no one else were involved. To imply that babies have a default theological position of atheism is as silly as assuming that they have a default language or nationality.
Brown claims that atheism is more of a political position than an inherent trait. He claims that all babies are born with a supernatural ability. The problem here is he assumes babies and humans can discern the one from the other. Human development is a long road of untangling the real from the unreal. Since babies and adults can be inculcated and self fabricate reality it would be better to say babies are born imagineers which includes the realism involved.
There is another reason why babies can’t be atheists or agnostics. Everything we know from science shows that supernaturalism comes naturally to children. It is not just that they believe much of what their parents and the surrounding societies tell them: they show a preference for remembering and transmitting stories that defy scientific rationality. So do we all, unless we train ourselves out of it.
Multiple meanings can be assigned to babies in the sense of Amish which means both a religion and a culture, and usually a heredity and past geography. I wonder what being a born patriot would imply? A baby that has a circumcision os is genitally altered bears this physical cultural attribute for life.
While all of this is greatly entertaining if one has had enough to drink, the point is really that babies don’t have a religious belief system at birth–some ability to construct internal realities doesn’t count as a religion. The point of feminist babies is that they really haven’t learned inequality or misogyny yet. Indeed most babies seem to love women or at least the nourishment they give them. So babies are born lovers. A love baby is something quite different.
While I find this most entertaining, I must consider the implications of being a born atheist or feminist. Atheism is trusting evidence. All evidence points towards equality and justice towards others as being the best and typical way of human well being and survival. At least if we consider our tenure here as sufficiently long. By that count babies are born humanists and feminists purely by being born atheist. Our genetic inclination towards justice and equality are tainted by inherent biases. Nevertheless even culturally we have sought equality and justice in spite of a rather large amount of aggression. We haven’t killed each other off, yet, and cooperation has allowed us to become dominant.
In a factual sense at least it is true that a Chinese baby was born in China though recent immigrants may call their baby a Chinese baby virtually by the culture they wish to impose on their baby irregardless of geography. Are we having fun yet?
The disjunct is too many say atheism is just an absence of gods.That is all fine and good but how do they arrive at that conclusion? They say there isn’t enough evidence, or if they are rationalists, there is no rational proof of god(s). Yet they wish to divorce their conclusion from the process.
It’s as if to say there are no Tea Pots in the sky because no one has seen them but then say it doesn’t matter whether they’ve been seen or not because it’s not about the observation. Of course it is. What atheists are really saying is they are scientists with a smattering of rationality thrown in. Babies are born scientists. Or babies are born observationalists. Or babies are born thinking machines.
What people do when describing babies is to communicate something about that baby they wish to be true or that may exist to some degree. This gets sloppy when people don’t know or disagree what is cultural versus genetic. They will call their babies whatever they goddamned please. Clearly the babies need legal representation and probably therapy by this point.
To reach the state where you can really reflect critically on your own beliefs – rather than simply understanding that your parents are deluded old fools – takes a long time if it ever happens at all. As Bertrand Russell observed, many people would rather die than think and most of them do. And that is why no one can really be called an atheist or an agnostic until they have grown up.
Hmm, they may not think about being a born depressive until they’ve grown up either, or gay, or many other aspects. A Jewish baby may not deal with his circumcision for some time.
That babies are x, y, or z becomes a talking point with the poor little bastard of unmarried logic and science not even having a say.
Like all good deconstruction arguments there are no conclusions other than to make the discussion troublesome. What is important is to consider what one is saying when they assert born atheist, born feminist, or born theistic. Putting it this away it seems unlikely that babies are born theistic. They other two seem quite reasonable. I would hope no one would wish to claim their baby was born sexist or misogynist but then … No, no, stop, please.
Jim Newman, bright and well. www.frontiersofreason.com