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Is it natural for children to believe in God or do they have to be taught it?

April 21st, 2014

Babies

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 suggests that 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 Evans found 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.

Photo Credit: atomicshark via Compfight cc.

34 Comments

  1. I would agree that children are “wired” to find an explanation for what may seem as the unexplainable . They obviously have limited knowledge at their age.

    Since you like to use science in your posts , I would venture to say that as a child grows up , if they were not indoctrinated with religion and had science as their source of knowledge, most would give up religion as fables and fairytales.

    I would be interested to see if a study has been done on this.

    Thanks for allowing me to comment.

  2. Hi Ken how are you going?

    Studies show that people who are more secure are less likely to be religious, but I don’t know any study that gives information on the effect of belief in science (though I do know that, surprisingly, one study showed that religious believers in the US had a slightly better knowledge of science than unbelievers).

    I think one of the difficulties would be separating out true science from “science indoctrination”. For example, when Richard Dawkins writes on biology he is talking science, but when he suggests that teaching religion to children is child abuse he is indoctrinating. Your suggested outcome might be more likely if indoctrination was done along with science teaching.

  3. How gratifying it feels to actually be quoted, even if it IS buried on a blog that likely will be rarely read! I suppose I should thank you for that.

    You stated:
    “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.”

    I maintain that we should correct that to say, “It seems there is a broad consensus among (certain, hand-picked) cognitive scientists that….”

    I’ve already demonstrated, on Matt’s blog, that Christian Justin Barrett leaps to tall, unfounded conclusions in a single bound, and therefore cannot be considered as a credible source.

    Olivera Petrovich did, in fact, use a cross-cultural comparison (British and Japanese children), and found a belief she claims is inherent that a perceived agency is responsible for the existence of things, but this study was done among children of an age in which a large percentage of their lives are lived in a world of the imagination – American children straddle a broomstick, and suddenly, they’re riding a magnificent steed across a prairie; they’ve been known to yank out their own teeth, so the Tooth Fairy can overnight, compensate them for them; they leap out of bed on Christmas morning, to see what Santa Claus has left, and rivet their eyes to the ground to find the eggs the Easter Bunny has hidden for them to find. It’s a world populated with imaginary friends, but I’ve not noticed a “god” widely mentioned in the research above, as being one of them. Of course, no child can imagine something coming into being without a cause – how many intelligent adults truly understand the concept that the universe – the “Big Bang,” if you will – actually originated from nothing (i.e., quantum fluctuations)? That, totaled, the sum of all of the positive and negative energy in the entire universe, is equal to zero?

    I noticed that all of these children are of a verbal age, and I see no evidence that any of them were reared in a vacuum in which they had never heard of the concept of a god. I also saw no indication of studies done on pre-verbal children, that would indicate that children are actually BORN with an inherent belief, leaving the conclusions reached applicable only to children above a certain, and certainly verbal, age.

    You also cited studies indicating that children believe in an afterlife of some sort. Although this is admittedly anecdotal evidence, I recall, at five, learning that a young cousin had died. I vividly remember the shock of realizing that children could die at all – did that mean that I could die as well? My mother was honest when I asked, she said, “Yes, but not for a long, long time.” So far, so good —

    My point being that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find that children in general can’t imagine a time when they would cease to exist – after all, they’ve existed all of their lives, haven’t they?

    Keleman and Bloom mention, “evolved components of the human mind tend to lead people towards religiosity early in life.” “Bloom sees several evolutionary causes that lead to religious belief.” I couldn’t help noticing that in December, 2008, he came out with an article entitled, “Free Will: Praying for Atheists,” which would give one cause to wonder just how unbiased his research might be.

    You further state that, “Like Bloom and Keleman, Hood believes this propensity to religious belief is a result of how our brains evolved.”

    Both of these authorities, then, share a common belief that evolution plays a great part in any belief in a being greater than ourselves. I’d like to offer a suggestion as to where that belief might just possibly have sprung:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMjTSJR3M6M&noredirect=1

  4. “when he suggests that teaching religion to children is child abuse he is indoctrinating” … indeed! But the current indoctrination is less obvious: it is that science can explain everything, either now, or in the future. i.e. children are being indoctrinated with scientism, not science.

  5. I think one of the difficulties would be separating out true science from “science indoctrination”.

    Would not it be more ethical and beneficial to separate true science from religion masquerading as science? Creationism, ID, etc?

  6. Studies show that people who are more secure are less likely to be religious,

    This quote speaks volumes about the way to create a healthy, happy secular humanist society, and surely this is already reflected in societies that are more vigilant in these areas?

  7. The point Phil and Eric make about “science indoctrination” looks like a crucial one. There are cultural beliefs in our society about science and religion that would “pollute” such content-directed (and ideology-prone) subjects and thus the findings. I can easily identify at least three dogma’s:
    1. The warfare of science versus religion throughout history;
    2. The excessive salience given to the tiny correlation between measured IQ and irreligion;
    3. The idea that all religion is a God-of-the-gaps system that can be superseded by science.
    Some of these notions may seemingly be in decline (I think 1. is becoming less popular), but I think their average net effect is still to lead towards atheism. This despite the existence of beliefs biased towards religion(s).

    Taking up the distinction between “science” and “science indoctrination” and deconstructing it a little, I would cynically venture that Dawkins is also indoctrinating when he writes about biology though: the selfish genes, the individualism, the reciprocal altruism, the opposition to group selection do appear to have an ideological component, if you ask me.

    What seems very important about these scientific results is that they offer an example relevant to various formulations of the argument from reason. Atheists often respond to the argument from reason that our evolved faculties likely correspond to truth as that leads to more success in producing offspring, but this is an example where they cannot maintain that. It is an example where evolution went, according to the atheist view, wrong.

  8. Hi archaeopteryx, I’m glad you feel gratified – I like to make people happy! 🙂 Thanks for reading and interacting. I wonder if you would be willing, please, to answer a few questions (numbered and shown in bold) please?

    It seems there is a broad consensus among (certain, hand-picked) cognitive scientists that….

    (1) So in what way are these hand-picked? I reported on everyone I found who seemed relevant. If you are sure they are hand-picked, (2) can you give us some names of cognitive scientists working in this field who think differently?

    Christian Justin Barrett leaps to tall, unfounded conclusions in a single bound, and therefore cannot be considered as a credible source.

    In my post I carefully distinguished between the science (which I wrote a lot about) and people’s opinions (which I only mentioned briefly). One of the advantages of the scientific method is that personal views are pushed to one side and results should be repeatable by others.(3) So can you point out anything in Barrett’s science that merits this comment?

    Did you note two of the scientists I quoted (Bloom and Hood) were atheists, they generally agree with Barrett about the science, and one of them (Bloom) mentioned Barrett as one of the scientists working in this area as worthy of note? (4) How do you explain this?

    Bloom and Hood, like Barrett, made some comments about personal belief outside their scientific statements. (5) Do you suggest that we should discount them also? On what grounds?

    My point being that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to find that children in general can’t imagine a time when they would cease to exist

    I have quoted or referenced about 10 different scientists working in reputable universities. They follow the scientific method and their results are generally peer reviewed. I have pointed out where their conclusions on this question agree and differ. They are all clear that belief in God isn’t initially learned.(6) Can you give any reason why these experts have got it wrong and you understand the subject better?

    I couldn’t help noticing that in December, 2008, he came out with an article entitled, “Free Will: Praying for Atheists,” which would give one cause to wonder just how unbiased his research might be.

    Again we see this unsupported question about bias! (7) Did you read the article? (Actually I think it was a TV show – did you watch it?) Do you have any specific evidence of bias? Did you know Bloom is an atheist? (8) Does that change your comment?

    Both of these authorities, then, share a common belief that evolution plays a great part in any belief in a being greater than ourselves. I’d like to offer a suggestion as to where that belief might just possibly have sprung

    No-one I have quoted contests that humans evolved via natural selection. That is one of the bases for their conclusions. (9) Does this comment indicate you now accept that God belief initially arises in most humans without being taught?

    Thanks again for visiting. I look forward to your response and further opportunity to discuss.

  9. Hi Phil, I agree about scientism. But I’m not sure if everyone understands the term, and Ken used the word “indoctrination” so I thought I’d stick with that.

  10. Hi IgnorantiaNescia, I agree that often science results are presented in a way that supports a particular worldview, but that is the fault of the scientist not distinguishing repeatable results from personal conclusions.

    Yes I have wondered similarly about naturalistic views that explain human rationality in evolutionary terms, claim that this gives generally correct results, but then making exceptions when it doesn’t suit.

  11. I think you’re confusing agency with theism.

    Bloom (Banerjee, K., and P. Bloom. 2013) says:

    “However, there is no evidence that children spontaneously come to believe in one or more divine creators. It is one thing, after all, to think about natural entities as intentionally designed artifacts of a sort; it is quite another to generate an enduring belief in invisible agents who have created these artifacts. Indeed, other studies find that young children are not committed creationists; they are equally likely to provide explanations of species origins that involve spontaneous generation [10].”

    He goes on:

    “Older children, by contrast, do exclusively endorse creationist explanations. This shift to a robust creation is preference arises in part because older children are more adept at grasping the existential themes invoked by the question of species origins (e.g., existence and final cause) and also because the notion of a divine creator of nature meshes well with their early-emerging teleological biases [10]. However, these older children do not spontaneously propose novel divine creators. Instead, they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies.”

    Let’s repeat that: “they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies.” That’s pretty clear. Culture.

    And more:

    “Some, such as Barrett [4], take children’s readiness to reason about life after death as evidence that they are ‘born believers’ in an afterlife.
    This conclusion is probably too strong, however. There is no evidence that belief in the afterlife arises spontaneously in the absence of cultural support.”

    There it is again: culture!

    Overall, the recent studies find that although a notion of mind-body dualism “might” be hardwired (it’s stressed there is no conclusive indication of this), and this enables us to dream up imaginary friends, as much as fictional characters in literature, theism is cultural. It is learnt behaviour, much like a person’s unique pallet, or dress sense.

  12. “This you may find interesting, unklee.

    http://victorianeuronotes.wordpress.com/2014/04/18/neuroscience-explanations-for-spiritual-experiences-part-1/#more-2707

    Hi One Sceptic, I did find it interesting. Did you think it was contrary to what I have been saying here? I thought it was confirming.

    People have spiritual experiences, that is an experiential fact. The experts tell us some of this begins in a rudimentary way in early childhood, because some of it is hard-wired into the brain. And that is what this post was about.

    People interpret those experiences in various ways. The fact that this one lady interpreted hers in a non-christian way says very little about whether her interpretation is true. We can’t really know about another person’s experience. Other people (many of them) have experiences they interpret as coming from the christian God. We cannot really say about their experiences either, simply report them for others to draw conclusions.

    The one thing I would say is that if there are enough of one type of experience, that may give support to that interpretation.

    Thanks for the reference.

  13. “I think you’re confusing agency with theism.”

    Hi John, thanks for your input. If there is such confusion, it is in the experts, for I have just quoted them.

    My post was not trying to address the whole question of how people come to believe in the supernatural (that would take more than one post!). I was addressing the much simpler question of whether “we have to be taught” to believe in a god. But let’s look at the larger question, albeit briefly.

    Firstly, I note that your references come from one short article. I couldn’t find the article online (unless I paid to subscribe to an academic website), but I found the exact quotes you quoted in Jerry Coyne’s blog, so I guess you found them there?

    I think it is a little dangerous to base everything on a few quotes from a short article we haven’t seen by just one of many scholars – in my post I referenced more than eight different sets of scholars and a large number of quotes and ideas. Further, I think it is a little pre-emptive to draw such a strong conclusion (“That’s pretty clear. Culture.”) from such a limited source without referencing and comparing the many other sources – especially as Coyne says (which you didn’t mention) that he thought Bloom’s case was “pretty thin—so thin that I don’t think it shows anything.”

    But nevertheless, Bloom’s words merit attention.

    From reading a range of researchers (not all of whom I referenced because they weren’t so relevant to the question I was discussing), I came away with the following consensus view:

    1. Babies obvious cannot “know” anything much at birth, but they already have some predisposition to believe in the supernatural, mind-body dualism and hence an afterlife even after the body dies.
    2. The first few years of socialisation reinforces some of these innate predispositions as they interact with people and the world around them.
    3. These innate predispositions then make it easier for them to take on whatever religious beliefs they are taught or learn.
    4. Adults still have some of these predispositions, although to varying degrees they lose them – though even avowed atheists retain some of them.

    As I said in the post, there is disagreement at several points in this consensus view – especially about how much is “hard-wired” and how much is socialised, and also how much is later taught. But the consensus seems to be that quite a strong basis exists without being taught. For example: Bloom himself said: ““the universal themes of religion are not learned. They emerge as accidental by-products of our mental systems. They are part of human nature.”

    So the question is, how do we fit the quotes you found with that one? My one is older, so it’s possible he’s changed his mind in the intervening time. But I found a good explanation of his views on the origins of morality which seemed to be a clear parallel.

    In this interview with Sam Harris Bloom outlined the following process (much summarised):

    We all possess “hard-wired moral universals”, i.e. in our genes, and they “are not acquired through learning”. These universals are limited, so we build more specific morality on them, first in our early experience, and later through being taught.

    Now this view is very similar to the one I found about religious belief and outlined above, so I think, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that Bloom hasn’t changed his views, but holds to a similar process for how we come to God belief and moral belief.

    This conclusion is reinforced by the discussion of Banerjee and Bloom’s paper in this paper, where the distinction is made between ‘intuitive’ beliefs (which are “spontaneously generated by our cognitive system”) and reflexive beliefs which are taught.

    So I think your comment opens up a wider subject, but it is all within the parameters of my post. And seems that it is therefore not correct to say that religious belief is all culture.

    Thanks for your comment. Do you have other references we should discuss?

  14. People have spiritual experiences, that is an experiential fact. The experts tell us some of this begins in a rudimentary way in early childhood, because some of it is hard-wired into the brain. And that is what this post was about.

    Oh, yes, I can agree with this. But as a Christian, your posts always appear to have ulterior motive. Namely, the tacit implication that all of these things eventually lead to a Christian god, which is quite plainly not the case at all.

    Take away all cultural aspects and your god would merely be one of millions. As the commenter John Zande pointed out., this phenomenon is agency not theism, for which there is absolutely no evidence of any deity whatsoever.

  15. Hi One Sceptic, thanks for agreeing. I’ll put a cross on the wall! 🙂

    “But as a Christian, your posts always appear to have ulterior motive. Namely, the tacit implication that all of these things eventually lead to a Christian god, which is quite plainly not the case at all.”

    The whole website has the purpose of pointing to God. But this particular post didn’t have that purpose. Recall that I was answering a comment by someone else. It was a comment with some tacit assumptions, and I felt the assumptions were scientifically unjustified. Check back at the post and see that I made no implication about proving God – in fact I specifically said that people interpreted the data different ways.

    So it started with an atheist making dodgy assumptions and conclusions, all I did was use scientific studies to show they were dodgy. But if you see an implication that leads to God, then I suggest you don’t resist it! 🙂

    “Take away all cultural aspects and your god would merely be one of millions.”

    Honestly mate, I don’t even understand what this means. But whatever it means, it is just an assertion with no supporting argument or evidence. I’m sorry to say, but this is what you do most of the time – throw out a whole bunch of opinions as if they are facts. There is not a lot I can do with such opinions, but without evidence, believing them is certainly out of the question. I’m happy to discuss, but just “This is so.” “No it’s not.” “Yes it is.” without any facts is not very appealing.

    When I present information like this, I put a few hours of internet research into it, checking people’s qualifications, what they say, what other people say about them, etc. I’m not going to be very impressed by someone making supposedly factual statements without backing them up.

    ” As the commenter John Zande pointed out, this phenomenon is agency not theism”

    The studies show that full-blown theism requires teaching, but they also show that something more than just agency is innate. Check out all the references to see that.

    Thanks for continuing to visit and comment.

  16. It’s interesting (read: telling) that people zone in on the “Christian” (ominous drums and organ) implications of Barrett’s interpretation while they don’t make similar assumptions about what Bloom’s views might be. Besides, that “Christian” (ominous timpani and cowbell) interpretation is also shared by Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, who are atheists.

    The psychological phenomenon that is consummated here seems to possess a resemblance to bias.

    Perhaps it is proper advice to take a step back and look at our own biases in our assumptions before we resume argument.

  17. The studies show that full-blown theism requires teaching

    Which, irrespective of any other consideration, is enough to acknowledge that theism is man-made; and the evidence leads to this conclusion.

  18. unkleE, in response to your response to John Zande, like many of these situations , you tend to think if you 1.) discount the reference(s) the other person is using and 2.) provide more references than the other person, your argument wins.

    I think when John states, “they adopt the particular creationist account that their culture supplies.” That’s pretty clear. Culture.” , he doesn’t need to provide multiple sources. Reason alone would dictate the statement to be true.

  19. Hi Ken, I didn’t discount the reference, I said (1) we needed to know what it said, not just have some quotes from it, and (2) we needed to place it in the context of what other researchers are saying too. So whatever the majority of experts conclude is the default position for now.

    I think this is something I find most difficult to understand among many people who claim to be rationalist and evidence-based. So often they don’t do any research, just criticise what they haven’t really understood, or find one expert who thinks the same as them and grab a quote and say that settles the matter. And then criticise me for gathering as much evidence as I can find.

    I’m supposed to be the one who goes by faith, not evidence, and you guys are supposed to be the evidence-based ones, remember!? 🙂

    That seems to have been what John did, and so I suggested he needed to read the whole article and integrate its conclusions withy the wider group of cognitive scientists. I think, unfortunately, that this same truncated approach has been the reason why you and I have disagreed.

    So let’s insist we and others get all the data we can and then discuss. Not just say “Reason alone would dictate the statement to be true.”. Your reason might say that, but I fear that may be more because you want it to be true than that you have checked out the evidence.

    But never fear, a good friend has sent me a copy of the paper, and I am about to modify what I wrote previously to account for what it says. Evidence matters!!

  20. Hi John, I don’t know if you will be back to read this, but I have now obtained a copy of the Banerjee and Bloom paper, and can now comment on its contents. I think it gives both of us some confirmation and some questions.

    The question he is asking is one discussed by others in the papers I have read: If a person is raised completely without religious ideas, and perhaps even human input (the example he uses is Tarzan raised by apes), would they come to believe in an afterlife, in God and his creation of humans?

    There seem to be three views of how religious beliefs arise:

    1. Religion is a cultural invention akin to agriculture or writing.
    2. Religion is a biological adaptation, a natural feature of evolved human psychology.
    3. Religious belief is a biological accident – a natural byproduct of cognitive systems that have evolved for other purposes.

    They are presenting 3, not 1 (which it seems that you and Arch were suggesting). But they then go on to outline answers to the Tarzan question:

    (i) Adaptionists say yes, Tarzan would believe because adaptations emerge in the absence of cultural support.
    (ii) Some byproduct theorists (e.g. Barrett) also say yes, children have a natural tendency to believe so they may go on to “discover gods for themselves”.
    (iii) Other byproduct theorists (e.g. them) say “cognitive biases make humans ‘receptive’ to religious ideas but do not themselves generate them”

    In this they seem to be closer to what you were saying. They go on to give some examples for why they think this.

    Finally, they agree that if they are right, they haven’t explained how the first religious beliefs arose.

    I am still a little confused, because some of their statements seem contradictory, yet I presume they are not, it is just I don’t understand all the nuances. But a possible resolution of their different statements might be this. Biology makes people receptive to religious beliefs, and early life experience leads people to some vague understanding of and beliefs in agents, mind-body dualism and some sort of god. But these vague intuitions can lead to belief in creator god(s) or spontaneous generation, or other possibilities. Absorption of cultural ideas, without any specific teaching takes people a a lot further towards recognisable religious beliefs (they say this can happen even in specifically atheistic families), but it requires more specific teaching to get to very detailed and specific belief systems.

    That seems to be something like their view, which is closer to the “all culture” view you expressed, but not anywhere near that simple. It is also only one of several theories “on the table” at the moment.

    So it seems that most cognitive scientists believe humans are predisposed to religious belief, but they differ about the mechanisms and how much of that belief would be formed without culture. They don’t think it is all culture or all taught, but some of it clearly is.

    How do you feel about that?

  21. “Which, irrespective of any other consideration, is enough to acknowledge that theism is man-made; and the evidence leads to this conclusion”

    I’m sorry, bit I don’t think this is worth discussing any further, One Sceptic. You base your ideas on some scraps of quotes that you find congenial whereas I’m trying to understand what the consensus of experts is. The two don’t really meet. Thanks.

  22. I’m sorry, bit I don’t think this is worth discussing any further, One Sceptic. You base your ideas on some scraps of quotes that you find congenial whereas I’m trying to understand what the consensus of experts is. The two don’t really meet. Thanks.

    The quote was from you. I merely re-quoted it. And my response is accurate. It clearly does demonstrate that theism is man made.
    You present your post based largely on expert consensus.
    Now, faced with an obvious truth you shun the quote , dismiss my comment and adopt the intellectual high ground simply because your argument has hit a reef.

    Those you engage in the main have different opinions yet it is evident throughout your blog, and the comments on other peoples’, that you display little interest in entertaining views that challenge your inherent belief which is based primarily on faith, not fact.
    Your main goals comes across as merely proselytizing rather than engaging in meaningful discourse, and where your position is plainly in serious doubt you have a tendency to adopt a patronizing and dismissive stance.
    This does not strike me as someone looking for genuine truth.
    You already have your belief firmly in place and have not displayed an iota of genuine inclination to seriously challenge that viewpoint with open, balanced inquiry, rather you are continually seeking affirmation of faith.

    No evidence is needed for this position, so why put yourself in a position that threatens faith?

  23. Young children ascribe purpose to natural processes, but may refer to both spontaneous generation and creation as explanations.

    When they grow older, they do not just prefer creation as a hypothesis but exclusively choose it. But they do so by adopting existent cultural concepts, not by positing new ones.

    They then suggest that an explicit formulation of a creator may remain absent if there are no cultural beliefs to tack them unto.

    Similarly, children tend to come to believe in an afterlife, but there is no evidence they will do so in absence of cultural beliefs.

    They then propose that if such beliefs were generated by cognitive development, this would lead to spontaneous generation of specifically polytheism in monotheistic societies and to more spontaneous generation in general of such beliefs. Neither are observed, leading them to argue against cognitive generation.

    Instead they argue for these evolved cognitive traits leading to receptivity of culturally formed beliefs.

    I think that is an adequate summary of their expert opinion. I’ll now go to my pub level argument. This doesn’t mean I thought their line of reasoning was bad or anything, and I really see no need to second-guess their biases to discredit their opinion.

    However, I couldn’t fail to notice that a slightly weaker defined might also do the trick. If one posits that an implicit belief in creator deities and an afterlife is generated, but that this doesn’t lead to explicit beliefs separate from their cultural context. Rather, these implicit notions are then co-opted by explicit culturally conditioned concepts.

    I don’t think there is any good evidence for what I have outlined, though I note that such implicit beliefs do seem to occur among some people believing spiritually in some divinity, but not in a personal God. In secularised parts of Europe, “opinions” like that are quite common. Many people claim to be spiritual but not religious, however not many seem to be very active in pursuing New Age practices. Overall, I suppose the difference between the two views is under-determined.

    As a second point, I am unsure to what degree polytheism really is completely prior and therefore suitable as a default belief. At the very least, the expansive polytheistic systems of antiquity do seem to be the results of a long history of system building. Perhaps something like animism is a more basic belief, but that is difficult to know.

  24. Perhaps it is proper advice to take a step back and look at our own biases in our assumptions before we resume argument.

    It’s perfectly natural to focus on the Christian aspect of such research when the lead (?) investigator is a Christian and the study is sited by a Christian on a website ( this one) promoting Christianity.

    Even if we accept that Barrett’s study is correct there is still no way that one can draw any conclusion that this automatically leads to a theistic POV and a “personal god”.

    But this is not the aim of the post. And I am sure readers recognise this. The key is, One Step at A Time.

    If the premise is accepted ( it doesn’t even have to be factual) that kids naturally come with built-in god-belief, then it is one less hurdle to surmount in hammering out why the Christian version of this deity just has to be the right one. One out of god-knows-how-many. (sic)

    And this is where indoctrination is crucial to theism ( the personal god) and
    Christianity.

    Prevent the indoctrination and religion will dwindle to nothing, as have so many religions from past eras.

    Deism may still reside in some fashion, but religions such as the Abrahamic faiths will go one way…

  25. Hi One Sceptic, you seem to have some mistaken impressions.

    1. I don’t care which view is correct, for the studies have no bearing on whether God actually exists or not, as several studies say. Most of your comments seem based on your fear that there may be some evidence for God, but no-one is actually saying that.

    2. I have quoted at least 5 major studies or researchers, plus several supporting studies. The lead researcher in one study is a christian, several other researchers are atheists. Throwing doubts on one researcher’s integrity is a nasty aspersion (especially as the atheist researcher clearly respect him, and he was one of the reviewers of the Bloom article John referenced), while accepting all the others just shows bias in your own views.

    For the rest, your wish that all religion will decline seems to be contradicted by these studies. Atheist Bloom is quite explicit on this. Will you accept what he says because he is an atheist, or reject it because you don’t like it.

    Perhaps you should read the post again, plus all the references, and think about it all a little more. Thanks for visiting.

  26. Hi Arch, thanks for re-visiting. I was wondering if you’d like to continue the conversation by answering the questions I asked you please.

  27. I”ll get to it when I have time, it’s supposed to rain all day Sunday. By “get to it,” I mean I will respond, but as for playing your game and answering your questions, I can’t promise that.

  28. Perhaps you should read the post again, plus all the references, and think about it all a little more. Thanks for visiting.

    I have read the post and the links. I have read John Zande’s post and the ones I provided for you.

    However,I reiterate, you are once again, missing the point.

    Stats change all the time.

    This we can both agree on. It is a factual statement.

    Now, over the course of the past – lets keep it simple – 5000 years, how many religions do you estimate have come and gone?
    Now, I know you are likely going to come back with a comment that suggests I am merely throwing into the mix inconsequential data, so I will acknowledge up front that I have no real desire to trawl the internet looking for expert or exact figures.
    So let’s say 200 religions, okay?
    Most, along with their gods, have disappeared leaving behind nothing but a few statues and the odd reminder of what they were.
    ( you make a category error by writing ‘God’. Which god?)

    Judaism is already moving toward becoming little more than cultural adherence. This can be accurately measured. And the archaeology is right behind this movement toward secularism.

    The point you are refusing to acknowledge is this:
    I firmly agree with the experts regarding their belief that overall, religion is gaining adherents and is showing no OVERALL signs of decline. At this point in time.

    But all cultures go through a religious phase, however long this phase may be, but the place to look regarding long term trends are the societies that have withstood the depredations and idiocies of religion and are moving inexorably toward a secular humanist society where religion’s role is ever diminishing.
    Your country is a perfect example.
    Whether I wish for the decline of religion is immaterial. It is happening. It is inexorable.
    The most socially advanced nations on the planet are moving away from religion.
    It isn’t my fault. And I did not write the stats. It just IS.
    On this blog, it is you that has to deal with this, and religious organisations such as the Church of England acknowledge they are losing adherents right left and centre.

    Thus, I will refer you to the statement: If religious indoctrination is removed or gradually phased out ( as it appears to be the case in more ( democratic) secular societies then religion will eventuallysimply fade away.

    I understand perfectly why you struggle to accept this, as it brings into sharp focus your faith, and its veracity and relevance
    I’m sorry, unkleE, I didn’t write the Bible or Koran; lay out dogma or enforce church doctrine.
    Take it up with the religious authorities.
    But kids are a lot smarter than they are given credit for. If they do not suffer the abuse of indoctrination, most will grow up normal critical thinkers without the problems of religious baggage.

    Regards

  29. It’s perfectly natural to focus on the Christian aspect of such research when the lead (?) investigator is a Christian and the study is sited by a Christian on a website ( this one) promoting Christianity.

    1) The lead author of one study mentioned in the original post is Christian, but that doesn’t make the interpretation Christian. It has been pointed out that there are also atheist adherents of this view; the people who formulated it were atheists.

    It is glib, biased and unintegre to focus on the allegedly Christian aspects despite the above having been pointed out several times.

    2) It is therefore not natural to focus on the allegedly Christian aspect when the study is mentioned on a Christian website, unless you can demonstrate the view can be traced to a Christian bias. That is very improbable, as Boyer and Atran (who came up with this explanation) are atheists. But if you want to show that, be my guest.

    Even if we accept that Barrett’s study is correct there is still no way that one can draw any conclusion that this automatically leads to a theistic POV and a “personal god”.

    But this is not the aim of the post. And I am sure readers recognise this. The key is, One Step at A Time.

    How have you divined that the purpose is “one step at a time”? Where is your evidence for this?

    If the premise is accepted ( it doesn’t even have to be factual) that kids naturally come with built-in god-belief, then it is one less hurdle to surmount in hammering out why the Christian version of this deity just has to be the right one. One out of god-knows-how-many. (sic)

    The claim isn’t in any case that children naturally come with built-in theism, it is that there is a tendency towards purpose-oriented explanations that prefer religious beliefs.

    The crucial word is “tendency”. You are overstating the claim.

    Again, you have not presented evidence, you are just telling a just-so story.

    And this is where indoctrination is crucial to theism ( the personal god) and
    Christianity.

    Prevent the indoctrination and religion will dwindle to nothing, as have so many religions from past eras.

    Deism may still reside in some fashion, but religions such as the Abrahamic faiths will go one way…

    This is simply a vulgar formulation of the secularisation thesis. The prime vice of the secularisation thesis is that it seeks to infer sociological regularity from historical contingency. This is no different.

    Anyway, you have shifted the subject of the debate towards speculation about UnkleE’s motives with unsubstantiated conjecture.

  30. But all cultures go through a religious phase, however long this phase may be, but the place to look regarding long term trends are the societies that have withstood the depredations and idiocies of religion and are moving inexorably toward a secular humanist society where religion’s role is ever diminishing.
    Your country is a perfect example.
    Whether I wish for the decline of religion is immaterial. It is happening. It is inexorable.
    The most socially advanced nations on the planet are moving away from religion.
    It isn’t my fault. And I did not write the stats. It just IS.
    On this blog, it is you that has to deal with this, and religious organisations such as the Church of England acknowledge they are losing adherents right left and centre.

    Thus, I will refer you to the statement: If religious indoctrination is removed or gradually phased out ( as it appears to be the case in more ( democratic) secular societies then religion will eventuallysimply fade away.

    Empirical problem for you. Organised religions are declining in several Western countries, but unorganised forms of spirituality or religiosity do tend to be the main replacement. It has not been superceeded by full-blown irreligion.

    Grand schemes of such phases of societies are immensely speculative and an old hobby horse of good old positivism. It is not, however, something to which the empirical data definitely leads us. Other scenarios may be valid instead. As a matter of fact, that seems more likely.

    It is true that religious people often tend to view this trend of spirituality as indefensibly positive or promising for themselves. But it is still true that atheism has only rarely become a majority view.

  31. It has not been superceeded by full-blown irreligion.

    Who said it has? Not me?

    You are making a similar mistake as the host.
    For a start, your time frame is limiting.
    The point – which is becoming tiresome to keep making – is that the most socially developed countries ( let’s say western then, and include Israel too) have been through the worst religion has to offer and are slowly moving toward a democratic secular humanist society, and dumping theism and to a lessor extent, god belief
    So some may be trying out spiritualism. Wow! So what? They are still moving away from religion. Period.

    For religion to survive it has to first and foremost deliver on its promises.
    It doesn’t and never has…… no religion has.

    But indoctrination has always come to the aid of those pushing religion. (Read above the comment regarding full blown theism. I didn’t say it, either.)
    Eventually it will be its downfall. People are not innately stupid.
    Amen to that.

  32. Excellent article. As a Christian, scientist and skeptic of the evolutionary paradigm, it makes perfect sense to me.

    Afterall, Jesus did warn us not to lead the little ones astray. Now we know why.

    Neil.

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