Why Atheists won’t believe in what is not seen

My son, Daniel, is 6 months old. A key developmental milestone for him over the next few months is for him to learn that when an object is out of sight, it still exists. For him, an object only exists if he can see it. This goes for any object; animate or inanimate. Psychologists call this developmental phenomenon ‘object permanence’. We typically grow out of it within a year or so as a baby, but it causes a great deal of anxiety for a baby. This is because when mommy leaves the room, she ceases to exist for Daniel. Part of the learning curve is to learn that mommy is ‘permanent’.

Now, I said above that we typically learn object permanence at an early age. I wonder what happens if we don’t fully resolve our object permanence issues and if this might shed some light when considering how some individuals purport to only ‘believe in what they can see’. Atheists are some of the most vocal proponents of this philosophy.

Talk to a hardcore atheist and s/he will tell you how, if ‘it’ cannot be measured, empirically tested or just plain observable, there is no use in wasting energy in trying to believe in it. The ‘it’ for atheists is obviously God. The atheist’s view does however extend beyond God to almost anything beyond the natural realm. If it has a hint of supernatural, it is disregarded and often ridiculed.

Atheists get me giggling when they speak of God as our ‘imaginary friend’. It reduces our faith to an infantile delusion and obsession.

Now, what happens if I apply the same thought process to atheists themselves and try understand why believing in the not-seen is such an impossibility. I think object permanence can shed some light on the matter.

The argument is this: that atheists have in some way, become retarded in their psychological development, and become stuck in their object permanence phase thus limiting their tolerance for acknowledging the not-seen elements of human existence, most notably God. Besides all their clever arguments against the existence of God, or any supernatural realm, rooted in the supposed absence of evidence, atheists may have some other psychological make-up that prevents them from coming to the realisation that God is the foundation … of everything, seen or not seen.

Now, for those mentally agile atheists reading this, let me say this before you bash your keyboard in commenting that if you had seen God first (or at all) you would have believed in God: my theory is about the potential of a stunted developmental phase that in some way gives a person a proclivity for resisting the ‘not seen’.

Object permanence is rooted in seeing the object first, for sure, but we homosapiens do believe in things we have never seen (even atheists). So for example, lets take historical people. Only the most deluded atheist would argue that Jan van Riebeck never arrived at the southern tip of Africa (excuse the South African example). You’ve never seen him, but you believe he existed. So, seeing is not believing for atheists. If this is true, they have a bias towards arguing against the existence of God for some reason?

I don’t have the foggiest clue as to why, or how, this object relations retardation may I occur. But no doubt some of you will want some form of empirical evidence to disprove the theory. Be my guest. I look forward to seeing how off the rocker I am, or not, by positing this theory.

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13 responses to “Why Atheists won’t believe in what is not seen”

  1. Rich...! says:

    Dude, we believe in van Riebeek because he existed, and there is historical proof of it. There is no proof that god ever existed at all. However you’re barking up the wrong tree altogether. Your whole ‘object permanence accusation was voided null and void by your own follow up example).

    Atheism is not about what doesn’t exist, what is unseen etc. If that was the case you could argue that we have “become retarded in their psychological development” with regards Dragons, Pixies, and the Loch Ness Monster.

    Atheism is about the very example that you cited above, we look at date (van Riebeek’s arrival) and make judgments based on that.

    A child thinking that there is a monster in the cupboard is not advanced in it’s handing of the art of object permanence.

    God, is your monster in the cupboard…!

  2. Gunter says:

    Your article makes for interesting reading, but the theory is flawed and easily dismissed.

    I am guessing that you became annoyed by atheists referring to your God as an imaginary friend, or you found the research that Piaget performed interesting and a possible explanation as to why atheists dismiss God.

    While ‘object permanence’ readily explains a toddlers behaviour, that’s about all it does and in fact, in certain respects is not conclusive at all. The reasons for toddlers and older children ‘outgrowing’ object permanence and imaginary friends (as well as other superstitious beliefs such as Father Christmas, The Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy), are the same that most atheists base their conclusions on. That is observation and reasoning.

    So pragmatically, a toddler will begin to reason based on observations such as ‘Mommy does leave the room, but then she comes back’ or ‘I realise now that my imaginary friend – let’s call him Gordon – does in reality not exist because he never eats the cookies I leave, never gets sent to his room for bad behaviour, or in fact never makes any of my Christmas wishes come true’.

    These are the same skills that atheists use to dispel the notion of God – of along with a reasonable dose of the facts. Probably the same set of skills that you use to dispel the notion of other gods in which you do not believe.

    A theory that would be of more value, would be one that explains why religion and supernatural beliefs exist, especially in the light of compelling contradictory evidence, that grows almost daily. Could it be some kick-back that inhibits the development of reasoning in children (and adults). Children – by nature – are gullible and it seems that this gullibility may be a pervasive symptom of individuals that maintain these supernatural beliefs.

    Or is it just a general genetic trait of humans that they do not like to take accountability and therefore externalise events and experiences, i.e. ‘God help us’, ‘God will provide’,’I’d like to thank God for this Grammy’, or the famous Hansie Cronje explanation, ‘the Devil made me do it’.

    At the end of the day, it’s a real pity then, that many humans (as the supposedly superior species on this planet) do not use these skills of observation and reasoning in a productive manner rather than perpetuating superstitious and outdated beliefs.

  3. aiden says:

    Rich, just out of curiosity’s sake … why does Jesus not qualify as proof that God exists?

  4. aiden says:

    Gunter, you’re a breath of fresh air … the first reasonable argument against my hair-brained thought experiment.

    A few responses and questions:

    I’m not at all annoyed by references to my God as an imaginary friend. I pride myself in not being one of those overly sensitive Christians who gets offended at genuine wit.

    Your argument about why children move beyond object permanence is partially true – we do learn from observation that things exist if we don’t necessarily see them, BUT the argument does not apply to Father Christmas et al. It was not observation and reason that convinced us they didn’t exist, but rather the fact that at some point our parents informed us that they didn’t exist and were mythical. There is no observation and reasoning in that respect.

    I’m interested by your counter-theory of reasoning development … a worthy reposte to my theory. The reason why I don’t agree with it is because of my own experience … I was a lazy atheist until I found faith in God at the age of about 20. If your theory were true, the inhibition of reasoning would have applied from the moment I started to reason as a toddler.

    Let me put another theory out there for you to chew on …

    What if the reason that a lot people have this irrational, illogical and reason-bending belief in God because God is the foundation of everything … that God is so pervasive in our world, that God *is* our world. This is a wide-reaching theory: that if God created everything, God is everything. God is so foundational to everything we know that God is the reason we think and reason, but that God is deep in our beings that we do not notice God as being distinct and separate from us (hence the difficulty atheists have in finding God). The reason why God would choose this way of being is another blog post in the making, suffice to say for now that it may have something to do with the freedom of finding God, but let me know your thoughts.

  5. Konrad Michels says:

    Jesus cannot be proof of god’s existence because you cannot reliably prove that Jesus existed, and even if you could prove he existed, you couldn’t reliably prove that he *was* the son of god. Dead easy to reliably prove who Jan van Riebeeck was and what he did.

    Let me address your article a little more reliably, although this article is just so completely wrong in so many ways and on so many levels its hard to know where to start really. Let me try ..
    So the first thing that struck me about this was that you definitely do not understand causality. Lets assume for one moment that atheists are developmentally stunted and have not quite figured out this object permanence malarky. To make a statement like this you would have to be able to show that *all* atheists have this condition, and then you would have to prove that no non-atheists have this condition. Assuming again, for a moment, that you could prove that *some* atheists have this condition, it would again be a logical fallacy to attribute their atheism to this condition, since you could not possibly prove beyond a reasonable doubt that *all* atheists have it and that no non-atheists have it. Just one single non-atheist with this condition would completely invalidate your premise.
    Secondly it is a nonsensical premise, because you could never test for it, since you have no god you could show the atheists and then take the god away to see whether the atheists still did not believe the god existed.
    Third, you completely contradicts yourself *and* shows your complete ignorance of the concept that you are using to diagnose a cause of atheism by firstly describing the test as showing an object, removing it, and then ascertaining whether or not the test subject stil believed it to exist, and then goes on to proclaim that the test result would *still* be valid without first showing god? That is mind-blowingly retarded I’m afraid. That’s like saying to the test subject: “I want you to pretend there is a yellow block over here on the table in front of you. Now I’m going to put the yellow block in a box here so that you can’t see it anymore. Right, now tell me whether or not the yellow block still exists?” WTF? Seriously WTF? There was no yellow block (god) to start with, you asked someone to imagine it existed (same as asking someone to imagine god exists simply because you say so), and then with a straight face asking whether the yellow block (god) still exists? I’m sorry, but that is crazy talk by *anyone’s* standards, not just atheist standards.
    And then the cherry on the cake, the Jan van Riebeeck example. Oh man … you can’t even spell the man’s surname correctly! Not a good start to this part of your argument. So, we have a comprehensive and detailed history about Jan van Riebeeck, not only from his own writings, but from many many third party sources. He didn’t arrive in the Cape on his own, or even only on one ship – he arrived with *three* ships, and then we also have well attested records of his time in the Cape, often by sources who had no vested interest in whether or not he was in the Cape and could be considered fairly impartial sources. We have records of van Riebeeck’s birth and where he was born – official government records. In other words, we have *tons* of information about Jan van Riebeeck and what he did, the important parts all attested to by external sources. It is easy to “believe” that Jan van Riebeeck was a historical person and did what it is claimed he did.
    By contrast we know almost *nothing* about the historical Jesus. We have one vaguely reliable external source that only once mentions a “prophet” or itinerant preacher (depending on how you translate it) from Galilee named Jesus. Josephus’s “Testimonium Flavianum” found in the Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-64, in its current form summarises the ministry and death of Jesus; but the authenticity of this passage remains contested by many scholars, and has been the topic of ongoing debate since the 17th century. The most widely held current scholarly opinion is that the Testimonium Flavianum is only *partially* authentic, but that those words and phrases that correspond with standard Christian formulae are more likely to be interpolations of a Christian copyist.
    In those parts of the “Testimonium” that are commonly regarded as authentic, Josephus describes Jesus as “a teacher and miracle worker, attracting a large following who revered him after his death.”
    Even then, as is common with ancient texts, “The Antiquities of the Jews” only survives in medieval copies. The manuscripts, the oldest of which dates from the 11th century, are all Greek miniscules, and all have been copied by Christian monks. So we don’t even have the “original” sources! In short we have *nothing* that can reliably be said to attest to even the *existence* of Jesus, nevermind reliable sources about what Jesus did or said.
    The analogy using Jan van Riebeeck completely disintegrates.
    I’m afraid your thinking is very very muddled, and you certainly did not take the trouble to check *anything* you’ve written here or think the analogy though.

  6. Rich...! says:

    Firstly, show me historical evidence of Jesus. Most references to Jesus only started appearing hundreds of years after he lived, even though there were a lot of records created at the time.

    Secondly, even if he existed, how could that possibly be proof of god? He could just have been a con man. It’s a lot of sketchy hearsay to rest your whole belief system on.

    Now, back to you, “the first reasonable argument against my hair-brained thought experiment.” which part of my argument was not reasonable? And yes, your experiment was hair-brained 😉

  7. sarah says:

    This is such nonsense.
    When last did you believe in something or someone without evidence of their existence in one form or another?
    Wouldn’t you consider someone who did that to be “psychologically stunted” or at the very least gullible or naïve perhaps?
    People with higher levels of education tend towards atheism, indicating that rather than stunted growth, atheism may be at a more advanced level of cognition and critical thinking.
    I would be cautious of who you insult here. Perhaps belief in a god or gods indicates an inability to tell fantasy from reality, a lingering belief in fairy tales or poor critical thinking.
    If that’s the case, who are the ones who are “stunted”?
    And certainly, I think there’s more evidence for JvR than there is for God.

  8. aiden says:

    Konrad, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to shoot holes in my argument, but it takes a man of serious intellect to go to the lengths you did. In fact, by what I’ve read, you are probably the most researched atheist I’ve engaged with (no offense to my other sensitive atheist mates). Most atheists could not be bothered with researching and formulating arguments in the way you do – after all, if God doesn’t exist, why waste the energy?

    I find myself being quite curious about your personal story. Why the intensity in this argument? Surely not because I postulated a thought experiment that got up your nose?

  9. aiden says:

    Sarah, why so sensitive?

    If you perceived my argument to be insulting, you would no doubt feel the same about the bulk of Psychology’s contribution to our understanding of ourselves. The majority of psycho-pathology is rooted in the under-development or retardation of some form of emotional or cognitive development.

    I’m curious as to why an agnostic gets so heated by an argument aimed at atheists?

  10. Konrad Michels says:

    I think that you will find that atheists who are atheists as the result of a conscious decision, ie they were religious at one point in their lives and then decided that it didn’t make sense and that atheism was the only logical alternative, that kind of atheist will have done extensive research into what they believed and why. Some even go as far as to start asking “how” it is we believe in terms of trying to understand the psychological and physiological mechanisms of religious belief. Because atheism is, for most atheists, a *considered* position, it is not a position which they have arrived at arbitrarily. I can’t vouch for people who have had the good fortune of being raised in an atheist home, but looking at how I am raising my children, and looking at the way other atheists are raising their children, I am fairly certain that children, such as mine, being raised in an atheistic home, would be encouraged to fully embrace the scientific method and learn to think critically, and not to believe anything as truth or fact without substantiating evidence.

    The reason I reason I “wasted” the energy was not because I give a monkey’s about the non-existence of a deity. It was because a deeply misguided friend sent me links to your blog as an example of why I should give up my atheism and return to the fold. She is only one of many people whom you influence, both intentionally and unintentionally, and the fact that she takes your blog as serious christian thinking is why it was necessary to not only shoot holes in your argument, but to shred it completely. It was not the thought experiment per sé, it was that your logic was, well, not logical. At all. And because you had clearly not understood the concept of object permanence at all.

    If you want to get up on the soap box of the interwebs and sprout your stuff about what the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich described as people’s “ultimate reality”, then you need to realise that what you are saying can potentially influence someone’s life, for better or worse, and in that case you better be very sure you know what you are saying, and that you have good reason for saying what you are saying, and the evidence to back up your point of view. This thought experiment of yours only serves to demonstrate really sloppy thinking.

    And sloppy thinking really really irks me. I have taken the time and trouble to question what I believed and why I believed it, which also lead to the “how” of belief, and being brutally honest with myself about what I discovered brought me to the point of understanding that there is no need to postulate the existence of a deity, and those that *do* postulate the existence of a deity have not given the matter sufficient thought, and if they have then they have been far less than honest with themselves about what they have discovered.

    The short version of my personal story is that I have, inter alia, a degree in theology. Whilst doing my degree I asked myself why christians (in particular, but this is applicable to all adherents of all religions and belief systems based on a canonical scripture) would exclude the bible from the same rigorous examination and critique which they accord other writings. I spent 4 years of my life dissecting the christian cannon, reading wide and diverse opinions on it on a meta as well as macro level, reading at least the new testament parts of it in Greek to the point of being able to distinguish the textual characteristics of the various major contributory authors of the Greek text (yes, there were several, even within individual biblical books), reading wide and diverse opinions on church history and systematic theology, reading widely and diversely in the fields of philosophy, psychology and anthropology.
    After all this I could find no good reason why I should *not* treat the christian scriptures in exactly the way I treated any other writing, and when I did this, I no longer had any substantiation for what I had been taught to believe as a christian. Without the authority of the bible, christianity has no meaning. All the other arguments are actually superfluous in this light, because christianity bases itself on scripture, so until christianity can produce proof to substantiate *its* claim that scripture is the inerrant word of their deity, they actually have *nothing* to go on.

    In short, it makes me angry that christians are so damn lazy when it comes to what they espouse as their “ultimate reality”. If it is as important as you all say it is, how about investing a little time and honest scrutiny into what you believe instead of doing inane and meaningless thought experiments?

  11. aiden says:

    Konrad, thank you for sharing your story so openly – you really didn’t have to, so I appreciate it.

    Would I be correct in understanding your approach to parenting as being one that ‘saves’ your children from the indoctrination of faith? That, teaching them the scientific method and critical thinking will help them make better choices?

    Your point about my interweb soapbox is interesting. By my last count, there are more people who hear me speak on a daily basis than those who read my blog. Are you saying that I should also not speak about my thoughts aloud amongst fellow human beings?

    You seem to place the role of the Bible as central to the Christian faith, no, as the sole foundation and reason for being i.e. there is no other foundation for believing in God. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts/reactions to something like Wesley’s Quadrilateral.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your critique of lazy Christians, as there is a plethora of them in the faith, but I do wonder why scrutiny is not as important for many people as it is for you? I do however take exception at you including me in the “you all” that you refer to in your last sentence as I have a theological and religious studies history very similar to yours (including the critique and scrutiny of the worlds major non-Abrahamic religions). So I would consider myself to have applied the honesty you refer to, and yet retain my faith (knowing full well all the critiques you have listed in your diatribes). What would interest me is if you believe that any faith position is valid i.e. you may question how honest I have been if I am still faithful? So, my effort and time spent on generating ideas and thoughts on this blog is for fun, and as a way to spark off conversation with people like yourself (which I happen to enjoy immensely).

    Maybe I should say a little something about my own apologetic stance so that I can remove myself from your prejudiced categorisation of people living in faith: unlike most fundamentalist Christians, I have no desire to free you from your ‘wicked ways’, but I have a deep desire to understand why you believe what you do. This is also based in a reality where most Christians are piss poor at defending their faith, so I see these kinds of conversations as moulding my faith and strengthening it. And .. I try to have a little fun while doing it … you atheists are an awfully serious bunch.

  12. Konrad Michels says:

    Our approach to parenting is not about “saving” our children from religious indoctrination. It is about equipping them to make their own decisions based on scientific method and critical thinking, and that no religious text or idea should be exempt from the same intense scrutiny they afford any other text or idea. The concept is that we give them the tools, show them how to use them, and then let them use them for themselves and see what they come up with.

    Regarding Wesley’s quadrilateral, it has been a while since I had a look at it! It is an interesting framework placed in its late 18th century context for sure, and from a christian perspective would have appeared to, and may still appear to, make sense. It is, however, fatally flawed in its assumptions and when applied by an atheist actually becomes a framework by which to highlight the disconnect between the “primary” source, the bible, and the “additional” sources.
    The reason it is flawed in its use as a framework by christians is that the so called “lens” of tradition will inevitably and unavoidably coloured by the user’s own christian experience, which in turn itself derives from the scripture which it purports to be interpreting. “Reason” too cannot but be influenced by the very scripture it is supposed to be interpreting: when there is an unambiguous clash between reason and scripture, scripture *has* to win, or else it cannot be said to be the word of god since how could human reason trump the word of an infallible god?
    The two millennia of tradition that make up the lens are themselves a very subjective source, and the lens is badly clouded by all the despicable things that christians have done and condoned as completely acceptable parts of christian tradition: slavery comes to mind, as do the crusades, not to mention the crazy attitude toward women, all of which have been part of the two millennia of tradition, and would have, at the time, have formed a part of the lens. The number of imperfections on that lens would provide, at best, a flawed view of scripture.
    As for experience, well, just as tradition and reason, it is a self-enhancing positive feedback loop, since the experience is very explicitly the christian experience, if Outler’s description of it as a “journey in Christ” is accurate. All three the secondary sources require the existence and authority and influence of the primary source for the context of their operation, which effectively nullifies their validity as subjective interpretive tools.
    In this sense the quadrilateral is nothing more than a description of the cognitive framework necessary to support theological thinking, and not really a biblical exegetical tool.

    However, remove from Tradition, Reason and Experience the scriptural influence and you have a rather useful set of tools which make scripture appear to be nothing more than an interesting collection of badly collated stories, sayings and philosophies.

    To return then to the scriptures themselves, what else is there other than the scriptures to which you, as a christian, can authoritatively refer when seeking guidance on how to live your life? Christianity has always revered the bible as the word of god and as such it has to form the basis of the christian religion. If come to you and ask you to show me what the fundamental foundation of your belief is, would it not be the bible? Remember that your interpretation of tradition will itself be through the lens of your own christian experience and that there are areas of reason that will clash with what the scriptures say where you have to side with the scriptures, as a christian, so they in themselves are indeed only ancillary to scripture. Or have I missed something?

    As for your own application of honesty, on that I cannot comment, but anyone who (a) quotes Donald Rumsfeld and (b) does not mention that Rumsfeld is misquoting the original quote does make me wonder about how carefully you have thought through some of the stuff you put up on your blog. But just quoting Rumsfeld in the first place speaks volumes I’m afraid.
    I personally don’t think any religious faith position can be valid, especially when it comes to critically evaluating belief. Religious faith is, by definition, a strong belief in a god or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. Religious faith cannot be a valid position for objective evaluation of one’s own belief, since that belief depends on a faith position in the first place. Remove the faith element and evaluate the beliefs in their own right and I would consider that a honest appraisal.

    A serious bunch we atheists are indeed! Remember we are the ones that can masturbate, have orgies, sex before marriage, and eat and drink ourselves into a coma without worrying about offending some mythical man in the sky 🙂 We can even do all those things at the same time without pissing off a god somewhere! We also tend to take each and every moment of our brief time on this planet very very seriously because we know it is all we will ever have, and also realise just how insanely lucky we are to be here in the first place as sentient lumps of stardust.

    So, here’s a challenge which no other christian has *ever* been able to respond to in a meaningful way: why should anyone believe in the god you believe in? You can’t use the bible to tell me why I should because the only authority it has is that which it claims for itself, which doesn’t count at all. Tell me why anyone should believe in a deity who either chooses to allow innocent suffering either because he does not *want* to do anything about it or is impotent and *cannot* do anything about it. The very existence of suffering negates any possibility that if a deity created this world that the deity would be a loving, omnipotent, omniscient infallible deity.

  13. Yvette Ball says:

    Wow! Just the way I remember Barry. Thanks Aiden.

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