The two words that denominate this post, acceptance and analysis, strike me as good words to describe the means to understanding the two factions of atheists and theists, although in reverse order of attribution. I was thinking about why it is that these two groups seem to have a particular difficulty in understanding each other, and it occurred to me that one of the answers may lie in how we acquire religious knowledge.
How do theists become theists? Probably, in 99.9% of the cases, across all religions, they become theists by accident of birth. Take Christianity for instance. Most Christians, once safely down the birth canal, are taken to the church of their parents, and christened in that particular church. The word itself is derived from the Latin christianas, meaning “to name”. They are dedicated to the religion of their parents. Thereafter, for diligent Christians, their children are inculcated with the teachings of their parents religion. What is taught to them is taught as absolute truth, much like reading, writing and arithmetic. There is one particular perception of their religion, and they are taught just that. Eventually, by rote, they come to accept what they are taught as true.
They are not taught that there are competing religions, or that there are even different thoughts about religion, at least not at an early age. Perhaps in secondary school they will learn how religion affected history, or in college they may have access to elective courses on comparative religions, but generally by that time their religious thinking and opinions have been fully formed, and the exposure to other religions has no effect on the underpinnings of their belief, other than as a curiosity, because it is not taught for the purpose of testing that belief.
Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion“, has posited the theory that religious belief is easy to instill in children, because our brains are hard-wired to accept the teaching of our elders, for to not do so could result in harm or death. “Don’t play with saber-tooth tigers” is obvious to someone with experience with the life threatening propensity that saber-tooth tigers have, but to a child, it is meaningless, so it’s necessary for a child to automatically accept what his or her parent admonishes about this cute little animal, or risk death.
In effect, theists learn their religion by simply taking what they are told about the religion their parents have chosen for them, and accepting it as true. Any analysis applied to the belief is done after it is set in the brain, and the analysis usually comprises only information to confirm the existing belief, unless deconversion is starting.
In contrast, how do atheists “learn” atheism? It’s certainly true that many atheists, raised by atheist parents, are brought up the same way as the Christian children illustrated above. There are atheists who have always been atheists. But there is a distinction that is a difference between the two. Atheists are not inculcated in atheism, because atheism is the default upon birth. As David Eller insists, we are all born natural atheists. So these atheists accept atheism because nothing is said about religion. The same cannot be said for theist children.
With this exception, I would suggest that most atheists become atheists by what we call “deconversion”. I don’t have statistical figures to back this up, just a common-sense extrapolation from the fact that theists comprise a majority of any given population, while atheists are in the clear minority. Where do they come from other than the theist majority? I also base this on anecdotal evidence, admittedly less trust-worthy, of people I know, and how they became atheists. I’m sure anyone reading this could do a small personal survey of their acquaintances, and confirm or deny my extrapolation.
The process of deconversion requires the future atheist to be, first, well versed in the doctrines of the religion he is deconverting from, and second, willing to keep an open mind to competing opinions and thoughts on the subject. At that point, it’s a simple matter of analyzing the evidence, pro and con, for the religious and atheistic viewpoints, with the hope of coming to a definitive conclusion.
I say simple, but I’m being a bit facetious, because the process is never simple for the deconvert. The psychological effect of changing one’s world view from the theistic to the atheistic can sometimes be extremely traumatic, and for many people it is downright impossible. Many theists have doubts about their religion, but sometimes the childhood indoctrination is too hard to overcome, or there is inadequate support structures in place to help the process along. Often theists have to go against significant family and peer pressure. There are, however, countless testimonials of successful deconversions, so we know that it can be done, and has been done, usually to the delight of the deconvert.
The point here is that with analysis, anyone can be an atheist. It requires the use of the brain, a good sense of skepticism, and a reasonable ability to use critical thinking. A good book list is a necessity.You don’t need the high IQ of Einstein, or the profundity of Plato.
But you do need the ability to shed the tendency to automatically accept that which is told to you by people you trust, and think for yourself.