A popular Enlightenment-era conception of the human mind was that it was a tabula rosa, a blank slate devoid of content until an idea is impressed upon it by the child’s environment. It is often linked to the philosopher John Locke.
It is not universally accepted, however, and many philosophers believe there is some pre-existing content. Atheists because they think we’re all neurobiological machines with a biological inheritance that at a minimum inclines us toward some ideas and not others, and at a maximum fully predetermines our whole life, including but not limited to our thoughts. Theists because there is a divinely-informed intuition that drives us toward God, a sensus divinitatis, an idea entwined with our being made in the image of God; an idea developed by Augustine and Calvin, revived more recently by Alvin Plantinga.
If there’s no mental content at the beginning, then for there to be something now, the person had to move from no idea at all, to the ideas he presently holds. Further, that if the current ideological content is atheism, then they had to affirmatively adopt that idea, to the exclusion of its opposite, theism. An inference would be that atheism is not some sort of default position.
That’s important, because typically those who are atheists, or agnostics, or “not religious” suppose that their metaphysical view is in fact a neutral position, though it cannot be.
People affirmatively embrace the ideology of Christianity as an overt choice. But people affirmatively embrace atheism, too, but may not see it that way because it’s not such an overt act, as is adoption of Christianity. Atheism is a set of doctrines that is more veiled.
What I mean is this. Contrast Christianity. Christianity is quite intentionally presented as a set of creeds. We have a catechism and we have confessions of faith, and anyone can read them and understand exactly what Christians say they believe (whether they actually do or not is another story, of course). I don’t mean that Christian doctrines are simple. I just mean they don’t pretend to be anything other than doctrines.
The reason I so often write about the principle of false neutrality is that I don’t think most people become atheists because they consider the set of doctrines for which atheism stands, and become persuaded to them. People are (usually) atheists because of a statement of what they don’t believe, rather than what they do. They feel they’re only rejecting doctrines they’ve come to identify as false. They don’t understand (often, not always) that they’re adopting certain competing doctrines as true. Theirs is a position of unbelief, not belief, they feel.
That’s just false. Atheists do embrace doctrines. They’re not merely rejecting theist doctrines. But they often don’t know what they’re embracing. That’s why I say it’s “veiled.” And I keep saying “embracing” instead of “believing” because atheists often don’t try to articulate the things they do believe. Instead they defend their way of understanding reality only by saying what is not true, rather than what is. They very word, “atheism,” is a statement of non-belief in any theistic doctrine. But that doesn’t mean atheists literally do not believe anything.
Why not? Well for starters, atheists do not believe, nor say they believe, that there is no reality at all. They aren’t saying that all of what they experience is not actually happening, as though they were a brain in a jar. Atheists have affirmative beliefs about reality. They believe that material things are real (indeed, that material things are all that is real); that time is real; that they are conscious, and that their experiences are experiences of real things. Further, that other human beings are distinct but all have similar consciousness and similar ways of interacting with the dynamic environment in which they live. So atheists believe that much, obviously.
They further believe the doctrine that there is no metaphysical reality; only a physical reality. Everything they observe that is manifestly not physical (beauty, morality, the concept of truth) is nonetheless an emergent property of that which is physical. There is no transcendent truth, only true things that are especially important — so important that they borrow a religious word, “transcendence,” to describe them. There is no basis whatsoever for gratitude, because to whom would the gratitude be directed? There is no basis for humility – a component of gratitude – either. Those are merely emotions that confer survival advantage because of their contribution to social living. Same with the impulse toward religion. Same with the strong but false impression that there is any purpose for our existence. Further, nothing is beautiful unto itself. Beauty is a subjective discriminating projection occurring for purposes of making us more fit for survival.
Nothing is inherently right or wrong. Though we are awash in moral considerations, all the time, in the inmost core of our being, that is only because social consensus dictates morality so that we can live socially; again, for survival advantage. This socially-constructed morality is so important that we put transgressors on trial for violating it, even though the transgressor transgressed because of the sum of physical actions and reactions up to the moment of his transgression. He has no actual responsibility for it. Law and the enforcement of law is purely for benefit of the tribe. It has nothing to do with any moral imperative apart from the sum of human experience and behavior boundaries that it produces.
Differences in Doctrine
Atheists view material reality in the same way theists do, but the difference is that they think material reality is all there is. That is a central doctrinal point, from which these other doctrines spring. The reason I often use the word “materialism” instead of “atheism” is that the word, materialism, can perhaps be better understood to denote this point of doctrine. “Materialism” denotes the doctrine that all of reality is physical or a property emergent from the physical.
If atheists self-described as materialists, they might be less likely to make nonsense statements like “atheism is unbelief.” The negation of a set of doctrines is non-belief in the doctrine? What the heck? This is also a nonsense statement because every point of view possible includes unbelief in something. If you think the sky is blue, you are an unbeliever that it is red. I am a Christian, but if the matter under discussion is the proposition that “in the beginning there was nothing, and then it exploded,” then I am an unbeliever, too. On that point, Christianity is “unbelief.”
Atheism (materialism) is not only doctrinal, but it is doctrinal on the exact same subject matter as theism: the subject of what comprises all of reality. If material reality is x, and spiritual reality is y, then atheists say all of reality is x, and theists say all of reality is x + y, with y also pervading x. Atheists are not neutral on what constitutes all of reality. They say it is x only. They are unbelievers in y, but believing x and rejecting y has profound doctrinal significance. It’s not neutral.
So the point in all this is that an atheist (or materialist) adheres to doctrines just as surely as does a theist. Moreover, if you pay attention to what’s going on in the culture, those doctrines are presented in a way that is every bit as dogmatic as those of Christianity. In fact, they are presented in a way that is more smug, overweening, and preachy than Christianity is supposedly presented. Everywhere you look, principles that could only derive from materialist ideology are put forward in a way to excite social approbation. It is moral preening, worse than any Christian hypocrisy I have ever observed, and that’s saying something.