Are Babies Born Atheists?
An Interview with Robert M. Bowman
Atheists have at times been heard to say that babies are born atheists, implying that children are untainted with religious beliefs at birth and that indoctrination is required for them to later believe in God.
In the hallway following a session at last year’s Defend the Faith conference at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I asked Robert M. Bowman, the director of research at the Institute for Religious Research, about that premise.
Q: Are babies born ‘atheist?’
A: When atheists say this, their statement is based on a particular definition of the word atheist. The definition they’re assuming or presupposing is someone who simply lacks belief in God whereas, of course, the traditional definition of atheism is someone who actually disbelieves in God. Those are two different things.
So the “babies are atheists” argument simply is pointing out the fact that babies have not yet acquired a conscious belief in the existence of God. I don’t see any problem acknowledging that. Babies, as they mature, become aware that there’s more to the world than their own physical person. It takes a while for these things to become something that babies can consciously know.
Now if the question is a theological one, “Are they born with the image of God imprinted on them?” the answer is yes, because every human being is made in the image of God. There is a “God stamp” on each of us. It takes a while for us to become aware of God’s imprint on us and sin, because we are fallen creatures, hampers our coming to a full consciousness of that fact.
Q: One atheist told of his four-year-old daughter saying the moon was “in charge” of the night sky and equated that to belief in God, implying that both are silly. But does this tell us something about a human’s desire to know God?
A: People as they try to find answers to the meaning of the universe will take stabs in the wrong direction. But, there is a recognition that somebody has to be responsible and I think this is an awareness we all have. It’s why many people get angry at God because they feel like he’s supposed to be responsible and they feel like he’s fallen down on the job. For many people, I think, atheism is a philosophical cloak or garb worn to express outrage at the way things have gone in a person’s life.
When you talk to atheists, you often realize that they find God offensive. It’s not just that they don’t understand God, or that they think there’s not enough evidence for God, or that they don’t understand what it means to believe in God, they find the whole concept of God offensive. Often, they say things like, “If I really believed there were such a God, I would hate him.” That is something that has to be taken into consideration when we talk to atheists. It is also why, in that sense, that babies are not born atheists. Babies are not angry at the Creator. Babies haven’t quite learned that he’s there. They’re not yet conscious of him though they have a built-in capacity to know God. That built-in capacity is part of what we call the image, or imprint, of God.