Do infants and very young children qualify as atheists? Most atheists will say so, working from the definition of atheism as “lacking belief in gods.” Theists tend to reject this definition, even if they don’t use the narrow definition of atheism as “denial of gods.” Why? If infants lack belief in the existence of gods, they can’t be theists - so why not atheists?
In Atheism: The Case Against God, George Smith writes:
Upon close examination, it is likely that the objections to calling the uninformed child an atheist will stem from the assumption that atheism entails some degree of moral degeneracy. How dare I call innocent children atheists! Surely it is unfair to degrade them in this manner.
If the religionist is bothered by the moral implications of calling the uninformed child an atheist, the fault lies with these moral implications, not with the definition of atheism. Recognizing this child as an atheist is a major step in removing the moral stigma attached to atheism, because it forces the theist to either abandon his stereotypes of atheism or to extend them where they are patently absurd.
If he refuses to discard his favorite myths, if he continues to condemn nonbelievers per se immoral, consistency demands that he condemn the innocent child as well. And, unless is theist happens to be an ardent follower of Calvin, he will recognize his sweeping moral disapproval of atheism for what it is: nonsense.
This assumption that atheism entails moral degeneracy is pretty serious when we consider the fact that being called “amoral” is usually thought of as very negative, but hardly anyone would object to calling infants “amoral.” After all, that’s obviously what they are: infants lack any conception of morality. Insofar as they make any decisions, they don’t do so while weighing the morality of their choices. Morality simply isn’t a concept for them.
The same is surely true about gods as well. No one is born with belief in the existence of gods any more than they are born believing that rabbits or streets exist. They lack the experiences necessary to arrive at such ideas. It may be fair to say that they are born with the capacity to develop such beliefs, just as they are born with the capacity to learn a language. Just how significant is that, though?
Some theists seem to go a bit further and think that we are all born with an innate desire to seek out God, but that’s quite different from being a believer in the existence of some god. Infants are not theists and thus must be a-theists. For some reason, though, calling them a-theists is treated as much worse than calling them a-moral. Why do you suppose that is? Do religious theists really believe that not believing in any gods is worse than not having any conception of right & wrong? This is an indication, I think, of just how extreme people’s dislike and distrust of atheists can go.