Do children naturally believe in God?

Children in Sunday School class

Many modern atheists oppose the teaching of religion to children. Richard Dawkins has famously said that teaching religion to children is a form of child abuse. In 2004 he wrote: “Isn’t it a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?”. And in 2012 he said: “We need to protect children from being indoctrinated.”.

But what if belief was their natural state? Some interesting studies suggest this is the case.

Atheists and the science of religion

There is a lot of interesting research being done, by both theists and atheists, into how people hold religious beliefs and what is going on in their brains when they attend to their belief. Yet it seems that some atheists (and probably many christians too) are not very interested in this research – which is surprising if they profess to base their views on science. For example:

  • Richard Dawkins was criticised by biologist David Sloan Wilson for writing a book on religion (The God Delusion) without taking much account of scientific work on the subject. Fellow biologist H Allen Orr made similar criticisms.
  • The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a book on “how religion poisons everything”, and Dawkins and many other atheists have joined in him in pronouncing religion as harmful to the human race, despite the fact that studies show that religious belief has many benefits for both individuals and society.
  • A recent thorough study by Oxford University showed that religious belief is common across all societies and it seems to be natural for people to believe in God. But some atheists criticised the study rather than accept its findings.

Justin L Barrett

Justin Barrett is Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development, Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He was formerly senior researcher of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind and The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University (Wikipedia).

Barrett has studied how religious beliefs are formed in the brain (“the cognitive science of religion”) and previously published a book on this topic Why would anyone believe in God?, which concluded (in the publisher’s blurb):

belief in God is an almost inevitable consequence of the kind of minds we have. Most of what we believe comes from mental tools working below our conscious awareness. And what we believe consciously is in large part driven by these unconscious beliefs. Barrett demonstrates that beliefs in gods match up well with these automatic assumptions; beliefs in an all-knowing, all-powerful God match up even better. Barrett goes on to explain why beliefs like religious beliefs are so widespread and why it is very difficult for our minds to think without them.

Born believers?

Now Barrett has published a book on children’s belief: Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief. In it he argues that children across the world learn from an early age the difference between living and inanimate objects, that some objects care for them and respond to them, and that there seems to be order and purpose in the world. These and other facts naturally lead them to the conclusion that there is “at least one creative and intelligent agent, a grand creator and controller that brings order and purpose to the world.” So it is natural for children to believe in a God who provides meaning, ethics and security, and to believe in an afterlife, and this natural belief tends to continue into adulthood.

Barrett criticises those who argue that religious belief in children is the result of indoctrination. Based on “considerable research on the relationship between religious commitment and psychological and physical well-being”, he points out 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”. Therefore he says rather than indoctrination, parents can responsibly encourage children’s natural religious development.

How do these findings change things?

Atheists can fit these findings comfortably into their beliefs. The fact that belief in God is “natural” to children doesn’t necessarily make it true – it could just be a leftover evolutionary byproduct. But it does make it harder for them to claim that religious belief is the result of indoctrination and inevitably harmful, and that it is feasible and desirable to eliminate it.

Christians need not fear these conclusions either. Barrett is himself a christian, and doesn’t think that improving scientific understanding of belief is any threat to his faith – in fact he seems to find his conclusions reassuring: “Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?”

Further reading

Read reviews of the book by Jesse Singal of Princeton University, and B Hodges, and Barrett answers ten questions (in 2006).

Photo from morgueFile.

3 Comments

  1. A recent contribution to Comment is Free made a very sane point about the indoctrination charge:

    “My daughter (you know, the one who’s very advanced – so glad you all picked up on my irony there by the way) demonstrated a powerfully strong will before she could sit unaided. Indeed all the toddlers I know are so feisty and individual that you’d be on a fool’s errand to try to indoctrinate them.”

    “Sharing your passions and beliefs is not indoctrination. Indoctrination happens when children aren’t listened to, when they’re not encouraged to voice their views or to dare to disagree. But having the chance to meet adults with strong passions and convictions – be they teachers, grandparents, vicars, family friends, whoever – is a wonderful and inspiring way for a child to explore and question what they really believe. And yes I’d ideally like to make sure that most of those people come broadly from my stable – I’d like the odd firebrand Islamic radical or Jan Moir disciple to be outnumbered by those with nice community-spirited, egalitarian beliefs.”

    http://charlottesimpson-journalist.blogspot.com/2012/02/my-baby-guardian-reader.html

    Of course, there is often an ideological sleight of hand in play when the word “indoctrination” is used in this context; in most other contexts sociologically informed people would deliberately use “socialisation” instead.

    Also interesting on this subject is the little exchange between Anthony C. Grayling and Justin L. Barrett in Comment is Free, it’s the one that contains these great and memorable words:

    “Unlike Andrew Brown, AC Grayling has opted to ignore the science and focus on the alleged motivations of the scientist (me) and one of his sources of funding (the John Templeton Foundation). As a philosopher, Grayling should know that attacking an argument not on its merits but by discrediting the arguer commits the ad hominem fallacy which is generally the strategy of school kids and desperate, uninformed people.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/28/religion-children-innateness-barrett
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/29/religion-children

  2. Barrett certainly came off better in that exchange with Grayling. I think I will post soon on atheists who won’t accept academic findings, because the list is growing. (Of course there are also many christians who won’t accept scientific findings, but that’s hardly news!)

  3. Ah…had to read the whole darn article, but there it was… Barrett is a Christian.
    Now, would he/you say similar things about Muslim children,seeing as they are predisposed to believe in Allah,I wonder?
    And , of course, Islam acknowledges Jesus, but not as your god.
    So, are they not indoctrinated to believe in the Muslim faith and reverence of Mohammed?

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