Do children naturally believe in God?

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A thought-provoking piece by Eric Hatfield

Published on his blog under the title “Is it natural for children to believe in God or do they have to be taught it?” Read the original piece here:
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This comment was made on a blog I was visiting recently: “None of us are born with any smattering of whether or not there is a god, or for that matter, even what a god is (or is not) – we have to be taught that”

I was interested, for I knew of some scientific research that suggested the opposite. I asked the author of the comment whether they had any scientific evidence for the statement, but none was forthcoming. Instead, I was asked what evidence I had seen.

A blog comment isn’t the place for an extended review of evidence, so I decided to post it here. This post repeats some of what I wrote a year ago in Do children naturally believe in God?, but adds additional information I have found since then.

Science and opinion

In the following discussion, as always, I distinguished between the science (which I outline first) and opinion (mine and others’) based on the science. The science is by qualified professionals at recognised universities (I have found a number of different studies), and should be accepted by anyone who recognises the value of scientific study. Each person is entitled to their own opinion based on the scientific findings.

Scientific studies on the cognitive science of religion

Kelemen & Rottman (Boston University)

Deborah Keleman studies cognitive development in children and Josh Rottman is a PhD student working with her. In a chapter in Science and the World’s Religions they write (p206, 7):

…. religion primarily stems from within the person rather than from external, socially organised sources …. evolved components of the human mind tend to lead people towards religiosity early in life.

They discuss theories on the development of religious concepts in young children. They conclude that religion “cannot be understood as resulting primarily from education or passive acquisition from parents or society”. For them the question is whether children come into the world as “born believers” (a view held by others in the field but not by them) or that children develop religious views as they try to understand the world around them (the view they accept).

They say the research suggests that various factors inherent in children’s thinking lead to religious conclusions: understanding other minds, agency detection, beliefs about creation and purpose, and belief in mind-body dualism.

Paul Bloom (Yale University)

Paul Bloom runs the Mind and Development Lab at Yale University. He says that humans have a tendency to believe in God:

…. the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.”

Like Kelemen & Rottman, Bloom sees several evolutionary causes that lead to religious belief in young children: distinguishing bodies and souls (“we are natural-born dualists”) and “we’ve evolved to be creationists”. He nominates Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Deborah Kelemen as other cognitive scientists who share these conclusions.

Bloom is convinced that all humans, even his own children, will inevitably see design and divinity in the world: “Creationism—and belief in God is bred in the bone.”

Bloom says of course much of the content of religious belief is learned but “the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.”

Bruce Hood (Bristol University)

Bruce Hood is professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University whose work suggeststhat magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth.

Our research shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works

Like Bloom and Keleman, Hood believes this propensity to religious belief is a result of how our brains evolved: our brains have a mind design that leads us naturally to infer structures and patterns in the world, and to make sense of it by generating intuitive theories.

Hood believes it is futile to try to get people to abandon their beliefs because these come from such a “fundamental level”.

Olivera Petrovich (Oxford University)

Olivera Petrovich is a psychologist studying religion and human development at Oxford University. Her studies have led her to conclude that basic religious belief, primarily “the concept of God as creator” is hard-wired into the human psyche.

It isn’t religion that has to be learned, she says, but atheism. “Atheism is definitely an acquired position”.

The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project (Oxford University)

This study, led by Dr Justin Barrett from the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at Oxford University, drew on research by an international body of 57 researchers from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and theology. They conducted over 40 separate studies in 20 different countries that represented both traditionally religious and atheist societies.

According to the Oxford university website, “the project was not setting out to prove the existence of god or otherwise, but sought to find out whether concepts such as gods and an afterlife appear to be entirely taught or basic expressions of human nature.”

Barrett says “young people have a predisposition to believe in a supreme being because they assume that everything in the world was created with a purpose”. He concludes “cultural inputs help fill in the details but children’s minds are not a level playing field. They are tilted in the direction of belief.”

The conclusions Barrett cites come from the studies that made up the project, including:

  • Studies by Emily Reed Burdett and Justin Barrett, from the University of Oxford, suggest that “in early childhood we have a natural tendency to attribute super properties to other humans and gods, including super knowledge, super perception, and immortality.”
  • Experiments involving adults, conducted by Jing Zhu from Tsinghua University (China), and Natalie Emmons and Jesse Bering from The Queen’s University, Belfast, suggest that people across many different cultures instinctively believe that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after death.
  • Children expect that someone, not something, is behind natural order. Margaret Evansfound that children younger than 10 favoured creationist accounts of the origins of animals over evolutionary accounts even when their parents and teachers endorsed evolution.
  • Based on inputs from a range of researchers in UK and US it seems that the idea that some part of us — our mind, soul, or spirit — does not need a physical body and can persist after death may be largely intuitive and that we have to be talked out of beliefs in the afterlife rather than talked into them.

Summary of the science

It seems there is a broad consensus among cognitive scientists that the basics of religious belief – God as a creator, an afterlife and mind-body dualism – are innate. Some believe they are hard-wired at birth because of our evolutionary origins while others believe that early experience of life and the external world leads children to the religious predisposition.

But it is clear that, at the present at least, those who say religious belief wouldn’t occur without teaching are not basing their views on the best science, though of course much of the specific content of belief is taught. It appears in fact that it is unbelief that must be taught if it is to be acquired.

Draw your own conclusions

That is the science, on which there is broad agreement. And all seem to agree that these findings say little about whether God actually exists and the natural beliefs are in fact true. But the scientists have their opinions.

As a christian, Justin Barrett believes the innate disposition towards religious belief is part of God’s plan – perhaps what philosophers and theologians call a sensus divinitatis. On the other hand, atheists Paul Bloom and Bruce Hood believe the propensity to believe is a result of evolution and has nothing to do with any God.

We are each free to interpret the information as we choose. What appears not to be open to anyone who believes in science is to say that religion only exists because it is taught.

Religious indoctrination?

It has been claimed that teaching children religion is indoctrination that amounts to child abuse. These studies show that children don’t have to be taught to be religious, but will tend to be religious naturally.

Other studies (summarised at Faith and Wellbeing) show that giving content to children’s religious impulses improves their life in many ways. As Justin Barrett says, based on“considerable research on the relationship between religious commitment and psychological and physical well-being”, that religious beliefs “tend to better physical and mental health” and that believers are “psychologically healthier and better equipped to cope with emotional and health problems than non-believers”.

Doubtless the arguments will go on, but these studies suggest that atheists who continue to promote this view care more for polemics than for science.