Not All People Are Born Atheist or: Why Babies Aren’t People

All people are born atheist.

It’s a cute quip to piss theists off, but is it a valid argument that won’t make most competent apologists laugh in your face?

All people are born atheist.

This cute little line is all over the Internet Atheist Community, I hardly know anyone that didn’t at some point or another use it in their discussions and debates.

I’ve seen many permutations of it, replacing the word “people” with “humans”, “children” and “babies”, lets analyze the syntax in detail to determine if this simple proposition is valid.

First some definitions of words (the relevant entries from the Oxford English Dictionary):

Definition of atheist
noun
a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods:
he is a committed atheist

Definition of person
noun (plural people or persons)
human being regarded as an individual:
the porter was the last person to see her prior to her disappearance
she is a person of astonishing energy

Definition of human being
noun
a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance.

Definition of people
plural noun
human beings in general or considered collectively:
the earthquake killed 30,000 people
 people think I’m mad

There are a multitude of logical problems with the proposition that all people are born atheist.

The Category Mistake

First we have to acknowledge that per definition “atheist” describes a person: A human being, a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance,  regarded as an individual that lacks belief in god or gods.

Thats surprisingly specific if you think about it.

Let us parse this with the proposition. Are all people really born “distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance”?

The answer is no.

At birth we are not distinct from other animals by superior mental development, articulate speech or upright stance. The only difference between us and animals is that we are born with the capacity/potential to become a person, but at birth we are not.

Newborns, babies, they are in a different (philosophical) category than persons. I will leave the question about the definition of “person” and “individual” for another time, as it is also severely problematic in the current form (it would for example not consider hypothetical sapient and intelligent aliens to be persons) as it has eluded philosophers for quite a while and it’s not really relevant to the argument here.

However babies are not people, just as seeds are not flowers. We would not talk about seeds the same way we talk about flowers.

An atheist is an individual that needs to form a lack of belief about a proposition (including to form a “lack of belief” necessitating to form a belief over the Dutch Book Theorem). It is illogical to state that something that doesn’t fulfill the criteria owns the criteria necessary.

This confusion stems from the fact that “atheist” is often confused as a property rather than a reaction to a proposition. We would hardly describe rocks or bananas to be atheists even if they “lack the belief in the existence of god”. Thats because we do not use the negative lack of a property to describe something. We use the negative lack of a property to describe something only as a reaction to an expected existence or proposition.

For example: An Apple is red, not “not green, not yellow, not blue, etc”.

Similarly we do not describe newborns as analphabetic or amnesiac, because we do not expect them to be able to read and write or have formed long-term memories (yet).

Wouldn’t it be preposterous for example to say that the severely mentally retarded or the comatose are atheist? The “All people are born atheist” argument skids the line of the famous Mormon post-death baptisms, it’s a dangerously irrational way of thinking.

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3 Responses to Not All People Are Born Atheist or: Why Babies Aren’t People

  1. royminor says:

    Atheism = Disbelief in things that aren’t real.
    Babies will believe anything.
    You were right!

  2. Chris says:

    “Babies are not people, just as seeds are not flowers.”

    My god, you are brilliant. You must win every argument.

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