Cognitive Impairment and Belief

I just finished reading a...well, puzzling OpEd over at OpEdNews by Jack Flash entitled Cognitive Impairment and Belief. Ordinarily, I don't comment on material like this because I don't want to unnecessarily denigrate the author, but I think that he inadvertently raises an interesting point.

Let me attempt to fairly summarize the rambling opinion piece. Mr. Flash begins by seeking to evoke sympathy by saying that he has grown up suffering from a birth defect that caused his teachers to make fun of him and which has made it difficult for him to feel accepted in a "culture that is unforgiving of nature's diversities." Then he reveals that his birth defect is that he is an atheist. No, I'm not kidding. According to Mr. Flash:

My Birth Defect: I was born an atheist! This is what my experience tells me. I have no memories of ever believing in a god. I have searched the world of knowledge and the depths of my mind only to find: NOTHING. There is nothing within me that can relate to the concept of god.

The first traumatic memory I have of discrimination is of a teacher's statement in about the fourth grade: "You don't believe in Jesus? What's WRONG with you?" I've been called a worm, an enemy of America, and a whole host of expletives. I've been told that I can have no moral values without believing in god. Countless numbers of people have told me they will pray for me, indicating that atheism is a defect needing Divine intervention. Even at the age of 62 I am still patronized, insulted and ridiculed for this defect that I did not choose for myself.

Mr. Flash, however, finds solace in his "faith" in the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal." He says,

I have Faith that each individual has the right to respect and dignity regardless of their beliefs. I have Faith that everyone has the right to express their opinions and beliefs. I have Faith that my opinions and beliefs are just as valid to me as theirs are to them. I have Faith that I treat others as I wish they would treat me, a golden rule that Christians would be wise to adopt.

He closes the article by noting that the reason he wrote the OpEd in the first place was because someone told him "that everybody is born with a link to God and therefore belief is innate."

That's it. That's Mr. Flash's OpEd. In reading it I am torn by several things.

First, the title of the piece (adopted for this blog) is "Cognitive Impairment and Belief", yet there is virtually nothing in the article relating cognitive impairment to belief. Who exactly has the cognitive impairment according to his article? Now, I suppose that an editor may have chosen the title, but on a little website like OpEdNews I would suspect that the authors choose their own captions. So, I have to ask who is cognitively impaired? I doubt he is saying that he is cognitively impaired as an atheist, so it must be all of those evil Christians who have done the litany of evils generalized in his OpEd. But, of course, there is no argument that those who have faith in God are cognitively impaired. So, whence the title?

Second, Mr. Flash finds that he, as an atheist, believes that "all men are created equal." If he has any cognitive dissonance from the word "created" in the thing in which he professes faith, he certainly doesn't note it.

Third, I suspect that he overplays the sufferings that he has undergone as an atheist. I mean, as a Christian who regularly debates with atheists about the truth of Christianity, I can tell you that I have been called much worse things than "a worm," and Christians (especially conservative Christians) are regularly called "an enemy of America, and a whole host of expletives" in opinion pieces and Internet chatrooms. Moreover, I am regularly "patronized, insulted and ridiculed" for my beliefs -- usually by atheists. Thus, I don't find very convincing his argument that it is somehow Christians who need to discover the Golden Rule.

Fourth, Mr. Flash says that atheism is a birth defect. Really? I understand that he is being facetious to make a comparison. He is saying that since some Christians say that belief is innate because people are born with a link to God that he atheism (to those individuals) is a birth defect. But seriously, using the phrase "birth defect" puts being born with lack of belief on the same level as being born with Down's Syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy or other serious physical or mental defects. It's not.

However, this is where, in my opinion, the article raises an interesting question for Christians -- especially those of the double-predestination Calvinistic bent. Mr. Flash was told by someone (likely, a Christian) that belief is innate. But if you believe in double-predestination, is faith really innate? I mean, aren't some people born pre-destined to not turn to God? If that is the case, then is he right that atheism is some type of birth defect from the Calvinist point of view?

But as a Christian who walks the line between Calvinism and Arminianism (I don't believe either side of the debate is wholly correct), the claim that atheism is a birth defect is wrong, but not wholly. I don't doubt that Mr. Flash has not ever found himself believing in God -- even in the slightest. But I don't think that he was born an atheist any more than I believe that I was born a Christian. Belief and unbelief, it seems to me, are not something that are genetic.

Let's suppose that I share Mr. Flash's belief that "all men are created equal." Is that something I was born believing? If someone believes (as in Animal Farm) that some men are more equal than others, is that belief also innate? I think not. We learn our beliefs. Our experiences and our teachers shape our beliefs.

Now, in the Christian understanding, belief in God is not the same as other beliefs. Faith is not strictly something arrived at by experience and teaching. It is something that is a gift of the Holy Spirit. But either way, it seems that most people or philosophies would agree that faith is not something that you are born with or without. It is something that is acquired through life.

But to a certain degree his non-belief is a defect that he held at birth. It is a defect called "original sin," i.e., every person is born with a sin nature as the result of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. This sin nature is what separates us from God and makes us all, from birth, non-believers until we receive faith through the Holy Spirit. For some of us, that faith comes early. For others, it comes late in life or at any of the millions of points in between. But it is not a birth defect as Mr. Flash is suggesting because this defect can be overcome by the work of the Holy Spirit.

You see, I don't think that (with the possible exception of double-predestination Calvinist) Christians believe that atheism is a birth defect in the sense that it is something with which a person is born which is unchangeable. If it is, then there are a whole lot of Christians and atheists who are wasting hours of time debating about something that cannot possibly change anyone's predetermined mind.


Jason Pratt said…
He also falls foul of the rhetorical claim of being "born an atheist". No one is born disbelieving in God, any more than anyone is born disbelieving in rocks (or believing in rocks for that matter). It isn't a topic people are born having an opinion about, although it may be a topic people are born more likely to have a belief one way or another about than not (thanks to a deficient "God Module"--perhaps this is what he means by having a birth defect. {wry g})

People are born agnostic. Not born atheist.

Then when (and as) we grow up we learn better, one way or another. Or perhaps, due to various reasons (intrinsic or extrinsic), we don't.

That's riht Jason. In fact with the new info on the God part of the Brain from people like Andrew Newberg there's good evdience we are all pretty much born believing in God, at least in the sense that the innate idea is implanted at birth.

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