Question: Is atheism humanity's default position? Are we all born atheists?
Answer: Greetings friend. Your question certainly has some philosophical teeth! It speaks to the human essence: Are we essentially God’s, or are we not? Are we born as theists, or are we merely biological material? No small questions, these—and no gray areas in which to hide. Accordingly, the Bible is pretty black-and-white on the subject. It is only when we degrade into philosophy that the waters muddy up.
According to the Bible, we were purposed from God (Eph. 1:8-10), and this kills any notion that we are atheists by default. God knew our names before the foundations of the earth (Eph. 1:4), he grew us in our mother’s wombs (Isa. 49:1) and he cares for us continually (Mat. 6:26). With all that in place, God would be eternally non-congruent if he were to have us born a spiritual tabula rasa—and then let us figure everything out for ourselves. A materialist asserts that very thing—that all of who we are, all of what we feel, and all of what we know are mere products of our biology. In my opinion, it is the materialists who stand farthest away from the Bible.
The Bible’s overarching story, the redemption of humankind by Jesus Christ, speaks to our essential God-consciousness. Not only is this God’s declared purpose, but it has been in the works since before the ages began. Such an ageless purpose must have a godly target—or else why would God bother with it?
“…because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,”
(2 Timothy 1:9, ESV)
Another overarching theme is that of our fallen natures. The fact that we are fallen, however, speaks to a pre-fallen state—and a pre-fallen state supports the notion of an essentially godly humanity. Therefore, just as in Eden where we humans had an initially pure relationship to God, so do our newborns. I realize that newborns are far from perfect, and that the sin nature is alive in each one of them, but fresh from the womb, they will never be more so God’s than the world’s.
We find a very direct teaching about the spiritual nature of children in the life of Hannah and Samuel (1 Sam. 1). The barren Hannah had been praying for a child when the priest, Eli, asked the Lord to grant her petition. The result? God intervened—and blessed her with Samuel, whom she vowed would serve the Lord. Is there any possibility that Samuel would have been born an atheist in spite of God’s call on his life? No, and just because Samuel’s journey from pre-conception to service was detailed in the Bible, this does not mean that our less notable births were any less purposed by God.
We learn more about children from the story of David and Bathsheba. Their first son died shortly after his birth, yet we learn that he was in heaven. Should we expect that a born-atheist would ascend to God? No.
“[David] said, 'While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, "Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?" But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22–23, ESV)
Moving to the New Testament, we find that Jesus not only honored children, but also he used them as examples of faith, teaching that it was necessary to become like one of them to enter the Kingdom of God. What did he mean by this? One possibility is that we adults, who are corrupted by time and experience, need to seek that relative purity of belief that was once ours. If this were so, then it would be useful to extend that gradient backwards from adulthood to birth, and then see that the data is pointing toward a purity of God-consciousness. We adults are where we are today because we have learned ungodliness, and we have grown jaded in faith. Why else would Jesus admonish us to back it up a bit?
“…Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:14–15, ESV)
Another reason that speaks against our being atheists by default is that atheism is a philosophical position—and, therefore, it is a learned doctrine—and one that takes more faith to sustain than does theism. The data is in on this. Look at all of human history and what do you see? Atheism? No, you see theism. Left to their own devices, people are theists. Now, they are not naturally Christian theists—that’s another step. But we are talking about atheism as opposed to theism. Humans are born to worship something, and it is incumbent upon the Christian Church to show them Jesus Christ.
The Bible teaches that, even without Christian intervention, people can find God in his creation. The problem is that, because of their foolish hearts, they skew their findings. Please note well what the problem is not: These people are not atheists. On the contrary, they are very drawn to worship. They mess it up, of course, but that’s not the point. What is our birth default? According to the Bible we are born ready to "see" God. It takes time and effort to ruin that vision.
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
(Romans 1:20–23, ESV)
Atheism is merely one of many philosophical positions that rail against the biblically revealed God. An atheist believes that no God exists…and any thinking person should see a problem right away: You cannot prove non-existence. So, to be an atheist, one must first decide against logic, reason, revelation and instinct—and then stack up the reasons anyway. This takes training, education and determination—all which show an intellect. But an intellect is not a predisposition, and a predisposition toward faith is no assault on intelligence.
To prove that no God exists, you would have to search for God in every picoliter of the universe, in every theoretical dimension, and throughout all possible time. Additionally, since God is infinite, he can never be defined, and therefore can never be exhaustively investigated with mortal intelligence. Since atheism can never be verified as a true condition, to believe it requires faith—faith in the improvable! God says of such people in Psalm 14:1, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God…’” Yes, we are born sinners…but we are not born fools—becoming a fool takes some work.
By contrast, Christianity is eminently provable. In fact, we invite non-believers to investigate the person of Jesus Christ, his teachings, and his historical veracity. We invite people to test the scriptures to see if they’ve been transmitted through the ages accurately, and to see if they record a correct history. We invite people to investigate a unique fact of history—the one, which, if they proved as false, would cause Christianity to evaporate: The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I used to dismiss the old saying that everyone is born with a God-shaped hole that only God can fill as true sounding and true feeling...but anecdotal. After all, how could anyone prove such a thing? Well, behavioral scientist Justin Barret did—and now we have some data! I would encourage you to read Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief, by Justin Barret (Free Press 2012). His eye opening reasearch means that I no longer have to qualify those born-to-believe statements as anecdotal. (I just love science!) Barret deals more in theism than in Christianity per se, but that was your question really. Since atheism is the direct logical opposite of theism, I must conclude that atheism cannot our default condition because theism is.