Are Children Born Atheists? Science Suggests Otherwise.


A few years ago, I read the following claim pastor-turned-atheist Bruce Gerencser:

“Every child born into this world is born an atheist. They don’t know one thing about god or religion. They don’t know about sin, salvation, or morality. As far as god and religion are concerned, every newborn is a blank slate.

Belief in god must be taught and learned. This teaching is done by parents, extended family, and the culture/society the child grows up in. If a child is taken to a church, temple, or synagogue, they are taught to KNOW god, to know their parents’ religion.

Most children embrace the religion of their parents.”

Gerencser’s claim isn’t unique. In 1900, Baron d’Holbach wrote a book called Good Sense without God, or Freethoughts Opposed to Supernatural Ideas in which he made the claim:

“All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.”

More recently, the late Andy Rooney stated:

“Everyone starts out being an atheist. No one is born with belief in anything. Infants are atheists until they are indoctrinated.”
(Marian Christy, “Conversations: We make our own destiny”, Boston Globe, 30 May 1982)

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those bumper sticker T-shirt slogans that read:

“We are all born atheists until someone starts telling us lies.”

I realize that this is the dearest hope of atheism, but science suggests otherwise.

Agrowing body of research has shown that children have this natural tendency to interpret features of the natural world things as if they have a purpose and this naturally leads to a belief in a Creator God, what has been termed “intuitive theism” by Deborah Kelemen, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University.

The Bible says much the same thing in several passages. For example:

“Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” Hebrews 11:3

Romans 1:19-20 is much more bold in its declaration of intuitive theism:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. 20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:”

Did you catch that? There’s no excuse for ungodliness or unbelief because the Creation itself leads to intuitive theism – and as I’ve always said, if you suspect there’s a god of any sort, it’s in your best interests to see what sort of god that is and what they might expect of you!

Richard Dawkins admitted to this human tendency toward intuitive theism when he wrote that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He of course believes that this “apparent design” is merely an illusion, but he remains a hostile witness to our tendency to think of the world as having a Designer.

So atheists might be able to contend that children are indoctrinated into a particular religion [Proverbs 22:6] or even irreligion, but we are not born atheists. We are born with “eternity in our hearts” [Ecclesiastes 3:11]. He has stacked the deck in favor of theistic belief and He also promises that if we search for Him with all our heart, we will find Him [Deuteronomy 4:29; Jeremiah 29:13; Acts 17:27], regardless of where we are in the world or what false religion we were brought up in.

This post appeared in a slightly different version on my other website, How To Fall Down, back in 2016.

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10 Comments Add yours

    1. Tony Breeden says:

      So apparently Bruce still keeps tabs on me…

  1. David K says:

    Have you read the full paper? The children in the study did not develop “Intuitive Theism” until about age five. Deb has done other research on the subject, the environmental factors are really interesting. The research does not apply to new born/infants so the atheists appear to have it correct.

    1. Tony Breeden says:

      You’re grasping at straws. Two separate bodies of research suggest that young children have an orientation toward creationist accounts whether or not th hey came from fundamentalist religious backgrounds. If they are intuitive theists by age 5 and the environment doesn’t seem to be as big a factor as you allege, it’s not because they started out with an atheistic predisposition. Furthermore, a 2006 study by GE Newman, et al, noted that even infants are implicitly predisposed to see order as created by intentional agents. It’s hardwired into us.

      “Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don’t need to be indoctrinated to believe in him… Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language.…”

      – Justin Barrett (Psychology professor., Senior Researcher at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind & The Inst. for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. From  “Born Believers”, NewScientist (17 March 2012).

      1. David K says:

        Grasping at straws? I just responded about the research paper you posted. I’m sorry you have an issue with the details of a paper you have not read.

        Beliefs are seemingly hardwired in us, true. Children believe in the tooth fairy, Santa, The Easter Bunny, Ghosts, Invisible friends, the imagination is a wonderful thing. It’s one thing to advocate what you believe, it’s another thing to be biased in you reporting.

      2. Tony Breeden says:

        I love it when the other guy presumes he’s bias-free

      3. Tony Breeden says:

        You see, David, I read not only this paper (in which Kelemen identifies the term “intuitive theism”) but also the subsequent body of work that confirms such predilections are present in infants (see previous comment). To insist that we concentrate only on this paper rather than subsequent work that confirms it is special pleading.

      4. David K says:

        I am always open to interpretation and I do not use presuppositions in my arguments. Presupposing a god is indeed special pleading.

        Are you familiar with Joachim Krueger?
        https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/201112/belief-is-not-evidence

      5. Tony Breeden says:

        We’re not discussing evidence for God. We’re discussing whether babies and children are hardwired as “intuitive theists.”

        And everyone brings their presuppositions into an argument. There is no such thing as an unbiased opinion.

        At the risk of turning quoque, presupposing pure naturalism is no less special pleading; if God exists and did something, he does so despite all naturalistic explanations that make him unnecessary as a cause. Providing an alternate all-natural answer does not rule out supernatural agency, because facts are not self-explanatory. You do not sit down before the little fact because facts must be interpreted. And we interpret facts according to our presuppositions. All that science chained to pure naturalism can do is provide all-natural answers which may or may not be true, and are are most certainly false if supernatural agency was involved. The hubris of this methodology is the assumption that an all-natural answer rules out the supernatural when it cannot even consider the supernatural as a possible answer. Ever.

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