Is Religious Belief Inborn?

Dear Dr. Hurd:

I agree with today’s Daily Dose of Reason (see 1/1/13), but–because we have no choice in being born with an inborn fear, there always has been and always will be religion/supernaturalism.

Dr. Hurd’s reply:

Actually, there is a mistaken premise in your point. Your erroneous premise is that we have inborn knowledge.

Human beings are actually born ‘tabula rasa‘ i.e. with a mind that’s a blank slate. The capacity for knowledge, grounded initially in sensations and perceptions, is there. But capacity is not the same as what’s actually there. And it takes time to develop. Infants can’t conceive of anything, and toddlers nothing compared to what an adult might conceive.

Philosopher John Locke argued against both the Augustinian (Catholic) view of man as originally sinful and the Cartesian position, which holds that man innately knows basic logical propositions. Locke posits an “empty” mind, a tabula rasa, which is shaped by experience, sensations and reflections (better term: concept formation) being the cognitive sources of all our ideas.

In other words: Until you live awhile and learn how to actually think, there’s no way of holding any particular ideas. Since emotions are consequences of ideas, you’re not born with any particular emotions, either.

Suggesting that the mind has knowledge independent of awareness, including the individual’s willingness to think, is to deny the existence of free will. As a fan of my writings, you probably agree with me that there is such a thing as free will, and that people are therefore responsible for their actions.

Unfortunately, most who agree with me that there’s such a thing as free will don’t know what they mean by it. It’s left to religion to define free will, which is kind of like leaving the study of physics or chemistry to a psychic healer or a Las Vegas casino. Religionists and supernaturalists have no idea how to define free will, other than to utter the phrase, ‘God’s will.’

Rationally and objectively speaking, free will refers to your willingness to initiate thought. (Thank you twentieth century philosopher Ayn Rand for that definition.) If you claim that certain thoughts or ideas are ‘inborn’ — whether one thought, or a million thoughts — then you’ve obliterated the notion of free will right at the starting gate.

You are stating that people are born with fear. I agree that people are born with a capacity to feel emotions, including the emotion of fear. But this doesn’t mean people are born afraid. And even if it did, it doesn’t follow that people are born with the inevitable belief in a God or other supernatural force.

I don’t believe in God. Do you? Possibly not, if you’re a fan of my writings. How do you explain the existence of people—even if a minority, as of the twenty-first century anyway—who are atheists if belief in religion or supernaturalism is inborn? Some people are atheists, many are agnostics. Even among the present religious majority, there are a huge variety of forms religious belief can take—so many that they’re prepared to fight and kill over those variations, and we witness that every single day.

Even if profound fear of existence were inborn, it would not necessarily lead to religion or supernaturalism. A lot of people who are agnostic or even atheistic—certainly not religious conservatives—are profoundly statist and authoritarian/socialist in their ideology. Their fear and loathing of reality and man’s metaphysical nature leads them to become communistic or leftist collectivists, but not religionists.

Karl Marx himself, the godfather of today’s Obamatons wrecking what’s left of American liberty, was an atheist. Sigmund Freud painted a picture of human nature as despicable and depraved as Marx’s, and Freud was also an atheist. Clearly, something other than an inborn predisposition to religion is leading many people to develop, adopt or succumb to the many nutty ideas out there.


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