Over the years it’s occasionally been suggested that my adamant position about religion is due to my strict upbringing in a conservative Christian sect. In the experience of other atheists I’ve known, that convenient analysis appears to be common. Sometimes it’s embellished by citing the fact that religiously reared persons often go through a rebellious young adulthood, but “return to the fold” as they mature. Having thereby linked maturity to religious faith, it’s but a short step to link lack of faith to immaturity. But more importantly, the presumption is surreptitiously established that it is not belief, but lack of belief, that calls for a psychological origin.
That reasoning aside, is it still possible that I am anti-religious because of childhood influences? Perhaps. My views on philosophy may have been rooted in youthful emotional experiences. Being reared in a dogmatic superstition is enough to affect one’s outlook, even enough to fuel lifelong intolerance of religion. (By the way, whether religion is “dogmatic superstition” or is truly what it claims to be can be settled by investigation and reasoning, but not by heartfelt feelings or majority vote.) Nevertheless, my views as well as arguments against my views must stand on their own feet and face whatever counter arguments come at them regardless of any assumed psychological predisposition.
So I feel no need to deny the influence of early years. Whatever those effects, they must also have affected my adult views on poverty, ecology, diet, courtesy, and a host of other attitudes and actions. I had a long, successful career as a near-evangelical proponent of improvements in corporate governance. Should my views on that be similarly attributed? Even if a direct line from childhood to governance were proven, would that bear on the utility of the ideas I developed? We can’t be sure of the mixture of effects, so citing such possible roots amounts to impugning the adult positions without having to debate them. An adult opinion on anything might as easily be due to a careful and unemotional study of an issue, regardless of childhood forces. Just because a supposed causal link can be drawn in order to bolster a competing point of view doesn’t mean it is true and, if true, has no bearing on the argument anyway.
Interestingly, in the pursuit of finding childhood causes to explain atheism, those who raise the matter don’t normally show an equivalent desire to find childhood causes to explain their theism. The obvious implication is that believing dogmatically in unseen and unverifiable spirits is considered normal, while not believing is abnormal and subject to inquiry. Of course, that mindset—that a minority view or behavior owes an explanation—applies not only to matters of atheism and theism. Doing anything (from wardrobe to hairstyle) unlike others is thought to bear the burden of justification, while conformance to accepted style or doctrine need not account. Nevertheless, since childhood effects can bend one toward a theism as well as atheism, psychogenesis is a moot point.
There is no way to know, of course, but I think each person who would psychologize atheists’ intellectual arguments would have done the same when witches were being burned. So-called witches were outside the faith, so obviously the devil’s influence must explain their behavior. It would never have occurred to the burners that the behavior to be justified was their own, not that of the witches. Similarly, during the hegemony of Catholicism the arguments of heretics (some of whose beliefs were akin to today’s Christians more than to yesterday’s) were not met with reasoned counterarguments but blamed on evil or other influences. What goes around, comes around.
So let me go back to those who think atheism can be dismissed not by sober consideration of its reasoning, but by appeal either to atheists’ childhoods or to theists’ faith. Who are these persons?
Often they are people of good intent, acting out of sincere and loving concern. For them, I have a great deal of not only tolerance, but admiration for their candor and well-meaning.
But some are arrogant and sanctimonious fools who think by suggesting (as if proving) the source of their opponent’s motivation they’ve scored a debate-winning point. For them, I’m inclined toward a take-no-prisoners verbal altercation, incensed as I am by many believers’ attempts—since outright physical measures are no longer tolerable, at least in most of the Christian world—to demean sources of opposition with a passion bent on explaining away dissent in any way that works.
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