Thursday, May 17, 2018

Is belief in God natural?

Earlier today, somebody said this to me:

Belief in gods is not a natural state. You are not born believing in gods. Everyone is born atheist, everyone is born lacking belief in the supernatural. This is everyone’s baseline, this is everyone’s natural state.

This person appears to be arguing that belief in gods is not a natural state because we are born without a belief in gods (or the supernatural). But that doesn't seem to follow at all. In fact, it seems to be an argument that proves too much.

What does it mean for a belief to be natural? Well, it seems to me that it's natural as long as it arises automatically in the minds of all or most mentally healthy people--people whose brains function just fine, aren't suffering from mental illnesses, etc. The brain develops over time, though. In the beginning of brain development, the unborn has no beliefs at all. But it could be that as the brain develops, it produces beliefs naturally. It could be that some of these beliefs arise early and some arise late. In that case, the fact that a person doesn't hold a certain belief at the moment of birth doesn't tell you anything about whether the belief is natural or not. It could arise naturally at some point after birth.

I don't know when exactly people acquire their first beliefs--whether before or after birth. It could be that when we're born, we don't have any beliefs at all because our brain lacks the capacity for beliefs that early on. If that's the case, then by the above reasoning, complete ignorance about everything is our natural state. Our natural state is to not believe anything at all. If we do believe something, then we are in an unnatural state. That's why I say the argument proves too much. Clearly having beliefs is a natural state for human beings.

There are, in fact, natural beliefs in the sense I mentioned. Our belief in morality, the validity of deductive inference, induction, and the reliability of our memories and sensory perceptions are all natural in the sense that they occur automatically in all people with normal healthy brains. But they may not occur at birth or any time prior to birth. Some of them may not develop until much later. They are still natural, though. Believing them is our natural state.

I didn't ask any follow up questions because it would've derailed the thread, but I would like to have known why this person made this point. Supposing he's right that belief in gods is not our natural state (or that having any beliefs is not our natural state), so what? What follows from that? Does it have some bearing on whether or not gods exist or whether it's reasonable to believe in gods? If so, then the argument proves too much again because then absolutely everything we believe would be undermined. Logic itself would be undermined.

Belief in God may be just as natural as belief in other minds or any other naturally occurring belief. In fact there's a lot of people out there these days who say that our brains are hardwired for belief in gods (or the supernatural in general). If belief in gods or the supernatural is hardwired, then surely it's natural. Strangely, some atheists think the fact that belief in god is hardwired in our brains somehow undermines belief in gods. I say "strangely," because those people would appear to be making the opposite argument of the person I was talking to earlier today. Whereas the person earlier seemed to think that lack of belief in gods should be preferred to belief in god because lack of belief in gods is our natural state, other atheists think lack of belief in gods should be preferred to belief in gods because belief in gods is our natural state. So which is it? Whatever is expedient, it seems.

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