June 14th, 2014

Some Muslims will never speak of “converts” but only “reverts” because they believe that everyone is born a Muslim, even if some babies have this truth hidden from them by their parents who tell them they’re Christians or atheists. And there’s a style of atheist rhetoric that makes exactly the same point. To take two random examples from my recent Twitter stream: Joan Smith wrote: “I’m not convinced there are Muslim or Christian children. They have religious parents, but should be able to decide when they grow up.” And Richard Dawkins wrote: “When you say X is the fastest growing religion, all you mean is that X people have babies at the fastest rate. But babies have no religion.”

But there are no atheist babies, and certainly no agnostic ones. This is for two reasons. The first is that if we’re going to be consistent, and to demand that babies only be ascribed identities that they themselves embrace, there are no German, British or Chinese children either. There are simply the children of German and English and Chinese parents, who will in due course learn the habits and the rules of the cultures around them and grow into their parents’ language, nationality, food habits – and religious opinions. The way in which they express these will become more subtle and more interesting as they grow up – or at least we can hope it will – but the fact remains that babies are entirely anchored in the world by their parents.

But you don’t get Dawkins and Smith complaining because people talk about “Chinese babies”. They think religion is different. Well, it is. For one thing, and despite the existence of loathsome and barbaric laws against apostasy, in most of the world it’s much easier to change your religion than your language or nationality. It is generally accepted that changing your religion is a human right, but changing your nationality is not. The big difference is that religions usually make it hard to leave and nationalities usually make it hard to enter. But in neither case does an individual get to choose as if no one else were involved. To imply that babies have a default theological position of atheism is as silly as assuming that they have a default language or nationality.

Andrew Brown writing in There’s no such thing as an atheist baby for The Guardian.

Brown is, of course, full of shit. Babies are humans. Full stop. Yes, we talk about Chinese babies, but what we should really say is that a child was raised by Chinese parents. Twenty-five years ago a number of wanted-to-be parents in the Jewish congregation I was part of began to adopt children from other countries. One of the questions I often asked was “What will these parents do when their baby from Asia/South America/Africa enter puberty and begin dating other Jewish adolescents?”

As an educator I got to see many of these adopted children go through that process. I saw them become B’nai Mitzvah, date and get married. Despite whatever was their nation of birth these kids were as Jewish (and recognized as such by the congregation) as any of the other students. They were Jewish kids because they were raised by Jewish parents. That’s the way raising children works.

Children, because of their natural ignorance, are subject to magical thinking (remember playing peek-a-boo? The baby really believes you have gone away because they have not yet developed object permanence.) but, unless they are indoctrinated into a particular cult of magical thinking, they will maintain the default position of atheism as adults. Reality rules.


  1. Jeff Hess says:

    When I left my comment this morning, there were 2,895 before me, heavily, from the quick scan I gave the list, disagreeing with Brown.

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