Atheism: were you born that way?

Greg: I’ve long been of the opinion that atheists’ rights will be the next big civil rights movement in the United States, after gay rights. And now an article from the Huffington Post this week seems to be pointing in that direction.  It says,

“In at least seven U.S. states, constitutional provisions are in place that bar atheists from public office and one state, Arkansas, has a law that bars an atheist from testifying as a witness at a trial, the report said.”

At least people are starting to talk about the issue.

Neal: As an atheist playing devil’s advocate, I expect the counter argument would be that unlike sexual orientation, the lack of religious belief is a choice.

Greg: Possibly. Although I’ve always thought the “choice vs. innate” argument was a red herring. Even if being gay were a choice, since when is it OK to discriminate against people for making personal choices about their own lives?

Szebastian: I never chose to be an atheist. I was subjected to Hinduism by culture, Sikhism by network, Catholicism by my God Parents, and No Obligations from my Biological parents. I grew up believing in humanity and good work, nothing else. I tend to think I was born an Atheist.

Greg: That’s a very interesting point. My own atheism arises from my thoughts and feelings about the world, and my own history of my experiences. I could sit down one day and say “I believe in God”, but it would be a sham and a lie. Would I be able to eventually get myself to believe in God, if I tried hard enough? I don’t know… but it certainly isn’t obvious to me that the answer would be “yes”.

Neal: To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence to suggest that one’s religious belief, or lack thereof, is a function of genetics. Perhaps one could make the case that some people are genetically disposed towards (or against) the rational, logical, questioning mindset that often leads to atheism, but based on what we know today, I have to give this point to nurture, not nature.

Greg: “Genetics” and “Choice” are not the only two options. There are plenty of things in one’s life that one didn’t “choose”, but that are the product of upbringing.

Neal: What you’re talking about is “conditioning”. Which is still a matter of nurture, rather than nature.

Greg: True, but it’s not “choice.” A “choice” is a willful act, by definition. The question “is something biologically determined?” is not direct inverse of “is something a choice?”

Szebastian: How could I attribute belief to a “choice”?  An amoeba does not choose its shapes; it adapts. There is so much grey area that it is impossible to restrict things into only Choice or Nature. Life isn’t confined to Version A or Version B. There is a huge set of permutations and combinations…

Neal: So what would you say about a hypothetical subject, a 50 year-old man who has been a devout Christian all his life, suddenly deciding that it’s all bunk? Did this man make a decision, or not?

Greg: I think we’d have to unpack the details of went on in this guy’s mind. People casually use the phrase “he decided it’s all bunk” and they also use the phrase “he decided he was gay”, but in both cases I think the term is not being used in the same way as when someone says, “I decided to have chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla” or “We decided not to go see The Amazing Spiderman in the movie theater.”

Atheism isn’t a singular belief in “not God” that can simply be swapped out of a person’s world-view without changing anything else. It’s a part of a larger world-view, right? In many ways, being an atheist isn’t about a single propositional statement in a person’s belief system, but it’s more about the larger pattern of beliefs that make up how a person views the world. Now, I think that one can reflect on the larger pattern and come to the realization that that larger pattern of beliefs doesn’t require a “God”, and in that moment there may be a “decision” to embrace the propositional statement “There is no God”. However, that “decision” is rooted in a moment of discovery about one’s own view of the universe. It is not, therefore, a choice in the sense of “Oh, it could have gone either way, I just needed to make up my mind”.  It is a discovery about an existing condition.

I think there is a direct analogy to the situation with being gay, as well. There may be a moment in a person’s life when he comes to the realization that the pattern of affections and sexual interests in his life mean that he is gay. At the moment of realization, he may choose to add the proposition “I am gay” to his conscious belief system. But that “decision” is actually a realization of a larger pattern of information about his mental and emotional life. As before, it’s not as though the choice “could have gone either way” … it was a choice to acknowledge something about the bigger picture of his cognition.

Neal: Doing some research, and it looks like there is some evidence that genes may play a key role in long-term religious behavior, and that the effects of a religious upbringing may fade with time.

Greg: I was able to have some great conversations with Scott Atran while at the University of Michigan about cognitive biases for believing in God. Apparently there may be some hard-wired modules in the brain that contribute to our inclination to believe in God, and natural variations in the strengths of these regions in the brain can lead to variations in one’s impulse to believe in God. I think it’s fascinating stuff.

But… I still steadfastly maintain that it doesn’t matter. Whether something is genetic or not doesn’t matter. Even if atheism or being gay are shown to be due to… I don’t know… the mean ambient temperature in the room that the infant is in during its first 3.5 seconds of life (therefore making it not genetic), people still shouldn’t be discriminated against for it. Even if it were a choice, people shouldn’t be discriminated against for it.

Neal: Well, let’s play another hypothetical. It’s a fairly safe bet that kleptomania has a genetic component. Obviously, some are better at restraining their urges than others, but that doesn’t change the diagnosis. If an employer were somehow privy to a job applicant’s kleptomania diagnosis, would the employer be justified in taking it into consideration?

Greg: I would expect that the job discrimination, in the case of kleptomania, would be on the basis of an expectation that the person would have a higher likelihood of stealing from the company, which most employers frown on. I don’t think the employer would discriminate solely on the basis that the person “experienced a desire to steal”. Right? It’s the behavior, and the expectation of future behavior, that would justify the discrimination… not the desire.

When a genetic trait actually affects a person’s ability to perform their job, it’s widely accepted that it’s “fair” to include that in the hiring decision. In a sense you could say it’s fair to discriminate on those things, although it’s usually not referred to as “discrimination” in those cases. We don’t say that the NFL “discriminates” against people who are 5’2″ and 100 lbs.

Szebastian: Neal, I’m confused. Are you saying that religion is a disease, like kleptomania? Or that being gay is a choice? Or that both are diseases? Or what?

Neal: The word “disease” has negative connotations that I’d rather avoid. I prefer the word “condition” on the grounds that conditions can have positive benefits. Sexual orientation is a genetic variable – nothing more. We can’t choose who we find attractive any more than we can consciously decide to enjoy the taste of earwax. My angle is that while certain genetic markers may tilt one’s proclivities towards (or away from) religious belief, these proclivities are unlikely to manifest without direct exposure. And the influence of exposure is greatest during one’s upbringing, which is when we seek out role models.

Szebastian: Interesting point there! Food for thought.

Greg: Neal, I agree that I don’t think it’s a benefit to talk about any of these things as diseases, although I also don’t think that the word “condition” is as neutral as you think it is. 🙂

Whether you are talking about sexual orientation, religious affiliation, reading ability, the tendency to steal, or the desire to eat potato chips, I think the following statement is ALWAYS true: “Your inner inclination toward the behavior is influenced by genetics, molded by upbringing, and although it guides your actual behaviors it does not outright determine your actual behaviors.”

ALL OF THESE THINGS are identical in that particular way. Given that, if we are trying to understand what differentiates these things from one another, one has to look elsewhere. When trying to determine why we think stealing is a desire that should be suppressed while being gay is a desire that should not be suppressed… whatever the explanation of that difference turns out to be, it is not a matter of nature versus nurture.

I think that is the fundamental problem with trying to map the question of “nature-nurture-choice” onto the question of “acceptable-unacceptable”: they are completely and demonstrably independent. The interplay of nature and nurture and choice are the same in sexual behavior, and religious belief, and in kleptomania. That doesn’t mean that these things are all “the same” … it just means that the important different lies elsewhere.

That’s my position. That’s why I think the issue of choice vs. conditioning vs. genes is actually irrelevant to the question of morality or desirability.

Atheist Gene



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  1. Niles Chandler says:

    What so often seems to go unnoticed is that the “choice” argument cuts both ways. If being gay is merely a choice (“…therefore, you could change your mind!”) , then heterosexuality is merely a choice, too, and does not automatically have more validity.

    Similarly, if someone says, “Oh, you just CHOSE to be an atheist,” my reply would be, “And you just CHOSE your religion.” They can’t have it both ways.

    (Of course, some people might say they didn’t actively choose their religion, because they were raised in it from early childhood onward. In which case, their beliefs lose even more validity, being a result of mere indoctrination!)



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