the neutrality of atheism

I don’t normally write about atheism and belief in God. I believe such discussions should generally be left to the context of personal relationships; public debates on the topic change no one’s opinion (people have almost always made up their mind before the often shrill debates begin).

However after watching Scott Stephens’ Compass interview with The Chaser’s Julian Morrow on the topic of Life’s Big Questions, I thought I would make a brief comment about atheist “non-belief”.

Morrow, speaking about his Jesuit Catholic upbringing, recalls:

So you know that’s a lot of inculcation and indoctrination time that I was exposed to.
… I think it is indoctrination. And I remember seeing it in my little brother; seeing a little baby who had absolutely no conception of these ideas of God or the devil or Jesus or resurrection and they’re simply inculcated into a person to the point that they accept them.

Now, just to be clear, I am a professed follower of Jesus, so of course my perspective is biased. In saying this, I am not interested in debating the existence or non-existence of God; this is a debate for another context.

Instead, I merely wish to ask the question of whether the implied neutrality of atheism as stated by Morrow is valid. After all, Morrow explicitly states that religious information communicated to a child is indoctrination.

This makes a significant assumption; that atheism is a purely negative belief (i.e. it is only a lack of belief, and not an actual belief in and of itself), and by implication should not fall into the label of indoctrination.

So then, is the communication of an atheist worldview to a child not to be considered ‘indoctrination’? Does so-called ‘non-belief’ not equally count as inculcation?

My view would be that there is no such thing as a purely negative belief system. Rejecting one point of belief does not occur in a vacuum; it will always result in another positive belief, and the construction of an alternative symbolic universe (whether or not ‘God’ is a part of it). This is certainly true of atheism, which though rejecting belief in God still forms a web of positive beliefs, often including scientific positivism and naturalism.

So can the rhetoric of atheism’s ‘doctrinal’ neutrality be sustained?


Posted on March 7, 2011, in Culture & Art, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Is athiesm negative indoctrination? Hmmm. Day/night, light/dark, good/bad,up/down,good/evil,sad/happy,male/female,light/heavy,cold/hot……….belief/?????? Of course athiesm is negative. When speaking of Christianity….or any other religion….athiest are unbelievers. The very platform/explanation of their unbelief is a form of religion in itself. Were they truly ‘neutral’…positives and negatives could not be identified. Speaking ‘against’ Christianity negates their neutrality. Hmmmm. And I contend that everything in God’s creation operates in some way with its opposite. They validate the existence of the other.

  2. This is great Matt. Agree with it entirely. Closing paragraph was good with the fact that a lack of a certain belief does not result in a ‘no-belief’ or vacuum as you put it. One problem in atheism though is that most people are consumed with denying a certain argument (or just not-believing a certain viewpoint) that in actuality, they fail to understand what they believe in.

  3. I have no problems with Atheists defending their position with what it is they believe; I have trouble when they define who they are by what they don’t believe. I have to say though that I have come to the conclusion that I must be a Atheist myself.

    Because I agree with many of them; in that the god they say they don’t believe in is the same god I don’t believe in 🙂

    The reality though is that there cannot be a pure Atheists, only agnostics….no matter how much they may cough and splutter otherwise…as to training your child as to the way they should go… How do they handle those who turned to God from a generational background of Atheism : C.S Lewis for an example.

  4. I think this “neutral” idea came when Atheists changed the definition to “lack of belief” instead of the traditional and linguistic definition “I believe there is no God(s)”.

    But even if it were true that people start from a neutral position of atheism, it doesn’t mean the view is true any more than “no such thing as math” is true. When we are born we have no concept of numbers or math, which are imaterial abstract objects, but it doesn’t mean math does not exist, or numbers do not exist. In fact when we are born we must be “indoctrinated and inculcated” to believe everything we come to know. This is the job of schools and parents in general.

    Just because we may need to be taught about God/theism doesn’t mean it is a false idea.

  5. An interesting point of view Matt.

    Makes me wonder that if the implied “neutrality of atheism” be questioned (and I agree it should be) … then should we not also have to question society’s implied “neutrality of heterosexuality”? Is it an innate default or rather an indoctrinated institution? Just food for thought!

  6. Hi Janine, thanks for commenting. In my latest post ( I have linked to a short Bible study I wrote for my organisation’s magazine which deals with the implications of your proverbial food, but with a focus not on sexuality, but disability. The foundational principles however would be similar, if not the same.


  7. Great post Matt, totally agree with you.

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