One day Anna, the 5-year-old daughter of two “proudly secular and well-educated urban Danes”, asked her mother if God had created the world. Frederick, his father, carefully explained: “The world was not created. He’s always been here. Anna didn’t buy it, so he went a little deeper: “Well, a long, long time ago there was that big bang and all of a sudden it all came out.” The girl ponders this, trying to get a feel for a concept that we all struggle with.
“God must have been surprised,” she said.
It’s an unforgettable anecdote and a perfect synthesis of Justin Barrett’s argument in his new book, Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief. Children are not blank slates on which we write our religious or irreligious convictions. Rather, they come into the world with a strong cognitive propensity to “preinstalled” religious belief – and, as in Anna’s case, it can be difficult to shake it.
At first glance, it seems like the kind of books that atheists and laity around the world would want to memorize. After all, Barrett, a psychologist at Fuller Theological Seminary who has dedicated his career to unraveling the cognitive foundations of religious belief (his previous book, Why would anyone believe in God?, is an excellent introduction to the subject), argues with force and conviction that when it comes to children’s brains, play is against atheism. Children come into the world predisposed to believe in supernatural entities – their “minds are naturally set to believe in gods in general, and perhaps God in particular.” Drawing on a wide range of studies and experiences, including his own, Barrett shows that children do not need to be brainwashed into religion because their wiring virtually guarantees that they will be believers, in sort of whether their parents like it or not. them to be.
From an atheist point of view, this leads to potentially fruitful arguments: we are driven to religious beliefs not because they are true, but by obsolete components of our cognitive architecture, by evolutionary accidents that may no longer serve to nothing.
But in the midst of the bubbling American culture wars, and in the wake of the rise of the “new atheists,” nothing is ever easier. And this is why Barrett, although he takes a very rigorous and scientific approach to his subject, finds himself at an intellectual disagreement with Richard Dawkins and many other atheists. This, and because he himself is a believer.
Barrett devotes a good part of Born believers to debunk the indoctrination hypothesis, the idea, as he puts it in the book, that “children believe because their parents (and other trusted adults) act as if they believe and speak like s ‘they believed “. Dawkins is one of the most fervent purveyors of this point of view (or, rather, of “evolved gullibility,” a close cousin of it), and he goes even further by asserting that it is offensive expose children to organized religion. As Barrett quotes from The illusion of god: “Even without physical abduction, isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?”
Barrett clearly doesn’t think Dawkins has done his homework, that he’s expanding his political agenda into an area of research he’s unfamiliar with. “I think he is relatively unaware of relevant research, especially development research,” he said. “I don’t think he knows about his psychology of religion.”
“Why could that be? Well, I suspect he just has other things to do.
“He’s a biologist, a very good biologist in every way, who has this other life of promoting science and opposing religion,” Barrett said. “That may not give him enough time to really get to know the relevant research in psychology intimately.”
But isn’t it his responsibility as a public intellectual to ensure that his arguments are well-founded empirical research? “I think to the extent that he wants to make certain types of psychological claims, his credibility as an advocate for science would be much enhanced if he actually relied on the relevant science,” Barrett said. “So would it be good for him?” Yes, I think it would be good for him.
That said, Barrett was not entirely devoid of charity towards Dawkins. Since The illusion of god, he said, “he seems to have become more aware of some of the work going on in the cognitive science of religion and some of the developmental work, and his take on what happens in childhood. seems to be a bit more complex than that. was now. “
The setback with Dawkins reveals the interesting flip side of atheists’ reaction to Barrett and his work: Yes, the cognitive science of religion can be used to bolster the atheist cause. But it also hits it a blow, because it highlights the futility of some very popular notions of how to “heal” people of religion.
“The current rhetoric is that it’s about teaching,” Barrett said. “It’s about our education system. It all depends on our parenting style. It’s all about enculturation. It has been a common line for a long time. “The cognitive revolution has never been able to enter the public mind.”
If our brains have evolved, as Barrett argues, to find religion much easier to grasp than non-religion, then this is not simply a matter of education or culture. As popular as the atheist opinion is that getting children to read Carl Sagan and Sam Harris from an early age will lead to a deeply secular society, it is unsupported by science. Not when religious beliefs flow from these foundational elements of our cognitive architecture.
“The people who seem to get mad at me the most are atheists,” Barrett said. He finds that confusing. “I don’t know if what I’m saying is that different from what they claim.”
It might have something to do with Barrett himself being a pretty staunch believer.
“On these issues, I’m a pretty traditional Orthodox, a little O-Christian,” he said. “I think there is a God who is interested in our behavior. I think God mainly acts in a sustainable way through natural processes … that God interacts with us, which also requires that he act a little according to our behaviors and actions. I’m not sure God is dealing with finding us the best parking spot ”—he was referring here to an example of religious thought from the book I had mentioned—“ but I have no solid reason to think that if finding a good parking space in a certain situation can strengthen our relationship and our dependence on it, then it might not use it.
Barrett’s beliefs are to be seen as completely separate from his work; he is an undisputed leader in his field (and it is one, he pointed out, in which many of his fellow travelers, like Jesse Bering, are atheists). But his theism clarifies some of the tension between his work and popular atheism.
It is understandable that the average American atheist, someone who is angry that fundamentalist beliefs have done a lot of damage to the world, that we are still debating evolution in the United States, could feel more sympathy and sympathy. connection with Dawkins’ work than that of Barrett. Dawkins, after all, is a strong advocate of atheism, so the fact that his positions on rather complex psychological issues are misinformed may be overlooked. Barrett, on the other hand, offers rigorous but largely apolitical cognitive explanations of religion – and won’t reject the idea that God helps someone find a parking space.
It’s no wonder that some of the strongest voices for the scientific method support Dawkins in this fight, even though he seems to ignore that method when it suits him.