Yesterday Mike D posted a comment in the discussion thread of my article “Christians reason from Christian assumptions! Who woulda thunk it?” Since I thought there is an instructive error here (but then, aren’t all errors instructive?) I decided to spotlight it for further reflection. Here’s what Mike D wrote:
As for whether children can be “indoctrinated” into atheism, that only works when someone is operating from a caricature of atheism. Atheism is the rejection of theism; no more, no less. You can’t indoctrinate children into a belief which has no doctrine!
First off, I would recommend that Mike and anybody else who thinks people can’t be indoctrinated into atheism read the section “Indoctrinated atheists” in my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think (Biblica, 2009) 63-69. (Ideally, read the whole chapter, or better yet, the first six chapters, to understand the analysis in context.)
But now setting aside the further reading suggestions, let’s look at the comment itself. Mike says that “Atheism is the rejection of theism; no more, no less.” This is where the problems begin. You see, from this it follows, of course, that “theism is the rejection of atheism; no more, no less.” Let’s call the minimal position that God exists theism simpliciter while the negation of theism simpliciter is appropriately termed atheism simpliciter. And so, if atheism simpliciter is not liable to indoctrination, then neither is theism simpliciter.
Fair enough. Now let’s say that the atheist responds like this: “Fine, theism simpliciter may be too thin to indoctrinate a person. But then theists are not typically theists simpliciter. They are theists of one or another type. And those richer conceptual frameworks are indeed of sufficient complexity that a person can be indoctrinated into them.”
But note that for Mike to take this response, he’d have to demonstrate not only that atheists are typically atheists simpliciter, but that they are always atheists simpliciter. And of course this is false. The leaders of intellectual atheism from W.V.O. Quine down to Thomas Nagel have always been committed to rich metaphysical frameworks. Quine was a naturalist. Nagel has famously renounced naturalism as a failed quest while retaining commitment to a complex set of metaphysical desiderata. But regardless, not only are many atheists not atheists simpliciter. the intellectual leaders of atheism are emphatically not atheists simpliciter. (And just so you know, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins aren’t the intellectual leaders of atheism. Instead, they are the religious skeptic’s equivalent of teen pop idols, albeit with frumpy looks and greying hair.)
Now for our deliciously ironic and sobering conclusion. When you delude yourself, as Mike D does, into thinking that you are specially exempt from indoctrination, you inadvertently make yourself even more liable to indoctrination. Think, by analogy, of the man who errantly thinks he has a natural immunity to the latest flu epidemic. As he eschews an inoculation and recklessly licks door knobs hither and yon, he makes himself even more liable to infection than he would if he had recognized that he is as liable as anybody else to infection. So it is for Mike D and other atheists who have deluded themselves into thinking they are somehow exempted from the danger of indoctrination.