Other Studies Show Children Are Wired For Religious Belief: A Brief Review Of The Literature


In April, David Klinghoffer noted a story in the the Wall Street newspaper on how psychologist Deborah Kelemen of Boston University advocates “suppressing” belief in a “God-like designer” by trying “to make young children understand the mechanism of natural selection before theory intentional design alternative is not too ingrained ”. What was intriguing was not only how evolutionary scientists scramble to indoctrinate children against the perception of intelligent design in nature, but also how children have an innate tendency to recognize this design and, in turn, besides, to believe in a personal creator.

Indeed, I wrote earlier about how humans seem to be wired for religious belief, and an email correspondent reminded me how many other studies show children have a predisposition to believe in God. The following is a brief review of the scholarly literature which comes to the same conclusion: Young children seem wired to be “intuitive theists”.

A 2007 article in Development sciences by Paul Bloom, “Religion is natural”,1 reports:

[I]In recent years, a body of research has emerged exploring children’s understanding of certain universal religious ideas. Some recent findings suggest that two basic aspects of religious belief – belief in divine agents and belief in body-mind duality – come naturally to young children.

He explains that these beliefs are directly related to our tendency to infer design:

We have a similar bias in assigning an agent when we see a non-random structure. This is the impetus for the design argument – the intuition that design that is apparent in the natural and biological world is evidence for a designer. In a recent poll in the United States (July 2005), 42% of those polled said they believed humans and other animals had existed in their current form since the beginning of time, and most of the rest said that evolution had happened, but was guided by God.

He finds that these tendencies are particularly strong in children: “One of the most interesting findings in the developmental psychology of religion is that this bias towards creationism appears to be naturally cognitive.

A 2005 article in The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion discovered that children have an innate concept of God that does not come simply from anthropomorphization.2 They observe that “Traditionally, the development of children’s understanding of God has been described as anthropomorphic. In other words, that the starting point of children’s conception of God is that of a parent or a “superhuman” in heaven. According to this point of view, “God is a residue of the naivety of childhood supported by theological instruction.” But they find that this is not where ideas about God come from:

The results revealed that preschoolers distinguished God and special animals as having greater perceptual access than humans and normal animals, which were said to have limited perceptual access. These findings provide further support for the theory that, in developing a concept of God, even young children differentiate God from humans and resist incorporating certain aspects of the human concept into their concept of God.

They note how various “studies suggest that children can represent some of the characteristics of God, such as immortality, creative power, and omniscience quite easily and very differently from their human representations.” Their study adds to this body of research, offering “support for a recent hypothesis that children can be cognitively ‘prepared’ to understand both humans and God differently,” where “children can be cognitively equipped from the start. the start to develop concepts of God (and other non-humans) regardless of their conception of people. Further, “children acquire concepts of God relatively easily because these concepts capitalize on default assumptions children have about all intentional agents in general.”

They further write: “The results of these various bodies of work suggest that a strict anthropomorphic explanation for the development of concepts of God is incomplete. The original assumptions of the children relate primarily to non-human traits: immortality, creative power, omniscience. It is the fallibility of humans that must be learned and incorporated into the concept, not the infallibility of the gods. Their review reports:

Evans (2001) found that regardless of religious affiliation (fundamentalist Christian communities vs non-fundamentalist communities), a large majority of children aged 5 to 8 preferred creationist accounts for the origins of the natural world either evolutionary, artificialist. (created by humans) or emergent narratives.

This was also the conclusion of Deborah Kelemen, the aforementioned psychologist who felt the need to deprogram students and free them from their innate belief in an intelligent design deity. In a 2004 article, “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’? : Reasoning on purpose and design in nature ”,3 she reported that “separate bodies of research suggest that young children (i) have a broad tendency to reason about natural phenomena in terms of purpose and (ii) an orientation towards intentional accounts of the origins of natural entities. She suggests that young people can be “intuitive theists” – predisposed to interpret natural objects as if they were non-human artefacts; products of non-human conception ”, noting that children have“ promising teleological intuitions ”. She concludes that this trend must be fought by science teachers:

What a review of recent research on cognitive development reveals is that by around the age of 5, children understand both natural and non-human-made objects, can reason about the mental states of non-human agents. natural and demonstrate the ability to see objects in terms of design. . Finally, evidence from children aged 6 to 10 suggests that children’s goal assignments to nature are related to their ideas about non-human intentional causation. Taken together, these research findings tentatively suggest that the description “intuitive theistic” can accurately characterize the explanatory approach to children – a characterization that has broad relevance not only to cognitivists or the growing interdisciplinary community that studies the foundations of religion. (Barrett, 2000), but also, at an applied level, to science teachers, as this implies that children’s scientific failures may, in part, result from inherent conflicts between intuitive ideas and the basic tenets of scientific thought. contemporary.

In another article from Journal of Cognition and Development,4 Kelemen and Cara DiYanni also find:

Two distinct bodies of research suggest that young children have (a) a general tendency to reason about natural phenomena in terms of purpose (e.g., Kelemen, 1999c) and (b) an orientation towards ‘creationist’ narratives of origins. natural entities, either or they do not come from fundamentalist religious backgrounds (eg Evans, 2001).

Their research shows that “young children are inclined to generate teleofunctional explanations similar to artefacts of living and non-living natural entities and to approve of intelligent design as a source of animals and artefacts.” They even suggest: “children and adults may not be fundamentally different in their ability to entertain teleological ideas of promiscuity.”

An article in the journal Cognitive sciences, “The attributions of beliefs by children to humans and to God: cross-cultural evidence”,5 explains that “researchers have long assumed that children first acquire concepts of human action and then use them as models to understand all non-human agents.” But they suggest that this view could be wrong, because the children they studied “do not reason in the same way about the action of humans and God from the beginning of development.” Instead, children seem to have particular patterns of reasoning about God because “young children do not reason about beliefs of God in human terms.” Children naturally seem able to think of God in a different way from how they think of others.

Finally, an article from 2001 in Cognitive psychology6 finds that while parents and communities can have a profound influence on what children think of origins, high school and elementary students tend to have creationist beliefs even though these beliefs were not taught by parents:

Young adolescents (11 to 13 years old), like their parents, have embraced the dominant beliefs of their community, whether creationist or evolutionary. Their younger siblings, especially those in middle school (ages 8-10) were more inclined to be exclusively creationists, regardless of their community of origin. Young elementary school children (5 to 7 years old) approved of creationism more strongly if they had attended a fundamentalist school or if they remembered creationist explanations, such as in forced choice measures.

The author asks: “Why is the human mind (at least the Western Protestant mind) so sensitive to creationism and so relatively resistant to naturalistic explanations of the origins of species?” She believes this is due to the inherent functioning of the human mind: “The main argument presented here is that the two basic elements of Western philosophical thought, essentialism and final cause or teleological reasoning, emerge from intuitive propensities. of the human spirit. “

So we see multiple studies converging on a single conclusion: the innate predisposition of the human mind to believe that there is some kind of intelligent Creator God. Maybe as we get older we can get past this programming, but our core constitution seems geared towards religious belief. If you are an evolutionary atheist, don’t you find that a little peculiar? Darwinian explanations abound, of course, but they have the metallic and desperate sound of inadequate rationalizations.

References cited:
[1.] Paul Bloom, “Religion is natural”, Development sciences, 10: 1, pages 147-151 (2007).
[2.] Rebekah A. Richert and Justin L. Barrett, “Do You See What I See? Hypotheses of young children on the capacities of perception of God ”, The International Journal of the Psychology of Religion, 15 (4), 283-295 (2005).
[3.] Deborah Kelemen, “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’? : Reasoning on purpose and design in nature ” Psychological Sciences, 15 (5): 295-301 (May 2004).
[4.] Deborah Kelemen and Cara DiYanni, “Origins Intuitions: Purpose and Intelligent Design in Children’s Reasoning About Nature”, Journal of Cognition and Development, 6 (1): 3-31 (2005).
[5.] Nicola Knight, Paulo Sousa, Justin L. Barrett, Scott Atran, “The Attributions of Beliefs by Children to Humans and God: Cross-Cultural Evidence”, Cognitive sciences, 28: 117-126 (2004).
[6.] E. Margaret Evans, “Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of various belief systems: creation versus evolution”, Cognitive psychology, 42: 217-266 (2001).

Image source: Davie County Public Library / Flickr.

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