Are Kids Born with Belief?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

That is the title of an interview with author Justin Barrett in the June 2012 issue of Christianity Today.  Barrett recently released a book, titled Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefwhich “builds upon previous research on cognitive development to show that children naturally intuit design—and a Designer—when exposed to the natural world.”

This type of research is important because of the occasional refrain that children must be brainwashed into belief in God, because without brainwashing children would not believe in God.  Put another way, belief in God is unnatural to children and must be forced upon them.  Is this correct?

Barrett’s research leads him to conclude that “virtually all humans are essentially born believers—they have a natural receptivity to religious belief.”  Barrett adds:

We are not starting with unformed blobs that can be shaped into anything we like. Research from developmental psychology suggests children learn some things more easily and are attracted to some ideas more than others. There are certain kinds of ideas that children can learn more easily and rapidly than others, and internalize more deeply, such as believing in gods.

Children have a natural disposition to see the natural world as having purpose. Research has shown that children have a strong inclination to see design in the world around them, but they are left wondering who did it. They also know design doesn’t arise through random chance or mechanistic processes. In fact, children (and adults) automatically look for a person behind purpose or design. By five months old, infants already make the distinction between things that are acted upon and those things that do the acting, that is, intentional agents (like people). And preschoolers’ default assumption is that these agents are super-knowing, are super-perceiving, and are not going to die. If a child is exposed to the idea of a god that is immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving, the child doesn’t have to do a lot of work to learn that idea; it fits the child’s intuitions.

In response to the argument that belief in God is just another childish belief that children grow out of, Barrett reminds us that

there are all kinds of childish beliefs, such as the idea that other people have minds, that there is a real world out there, that the laws of nature are stable, that my mother loves me. All these ideas are rooted in children’s early developing intuitions. If that is someone’s claim, I accept it; religious belief is in awfully good company.

It seems that the brainwashing runs the other way.  Children have to be inculcated with non-belief, not belief.  Belief in God comes easily and naturally for children.  Telling a child that there is no “immortal, super-knowing, super-perceiving” agent goes hard against the grain.  It seems that God has designed the human brain to be receptive to belief in him.

  • tildeb

    If Barrett’s research concluded that there is compelling evidence that we are predisposed (as children) to assign agency to causation, then I don’t think any serious child psych researcher would have a problem with this. But note how slippery is the move he makes to define this willingness to assign agency with belief in supernatural agency. He must do this to attribute religious belief about supernatural agencies of causation to child development. This link is very tenuous, in the sense that children are willing to assign supernatural causation to all kinds of imaginings like Santa Claus and boogeymen and the Easter Bunny with zero religious overtones.

    Put another way, children as well as adults will assign agency automatically to causation (think of running a little late for an appointment only for your car not to start or the bus to be late for you to feel the need to blame malignant forces for this intentioned setback – hence revealing the common impulse to anthropomorphize our environment to better understand it – but no one actually believes in the reality that our environment is full of anthropomorphic supernatural agencies with malignant intentions towards us.

    Our ancestors survived in part because they assumed the rustling in the grass really could be a lion and reacted accordingly rather than assume – almost always correctly – that it was just the wind. We have inherited this emotional impulse to assign agency first and automatically, but learn – as our brains develop into adults – to temper these emotional impulses with further evidence from reality before we assign it truth value rather than assume our childish feelings of agency populate our environments with supernatural beings.

    Similarly, when Barrett tells us that we come very well equipped to detect patterns, he’s right. But again, to shift the meaning of this to be one of looking for ‘purpose’ in the religious sense is to oil the ground of our psychology with loaded terms favourable to the religious. Why would he do this if not accompanied by a religious agenda?

    Also, is it any surprise that children are willing to take their parents’ word about the nature of reality to heart, long as it is before our young mature into functional adulthood. It would be very surprising if they didn’t come well equipped to be credulous and susceptible to indoctrination. But this aspect of the child-parent relationship wanes over time, to the point where a young person’s vast worldly ignorance is assumed to be far superior in quality by the youth to any adult’s actual experience of how the world is! And this, too, is a reasonable means to bring about the emotional conditions that favour a separation for our young transitioning from dependence to independence. None of this argues in favour of some innate tendency to hold religious belief in general and certainly not some specific denomination.

    Barrett does us all a tremendous disservice by not demonstrating and clarifying the link he says exists between what the research shows and his thesis – and the confusion he creates by using research terminology that assumes agency to mean belief in the actual existence of a supernatural divine being, assumes pattern seeking to mean belief in the actual existence of a supernatural intervening Designer, assumes purpose of agency to mean belief in the actual existence of this Designer. This the research does not show. The link Barrett assumes is borne up by research – through his switching of meaning – exists only in Barrett’s mind.

    Another way to think of the default setting to non belief that atheists say exists for all of us can be shown by your own utter lack of belief in the Central American pantheon of gods. At no time do you go through some master list of believing in all but striking those that do not match your willingness to assign agency, patterns, and purposes to the universe. You simply have no compelling reason to believe in their existence in the first place and can safely and utterly ignore them all. Your default setting is non belief in almost all of the gods ever produced by humans anthropomorphizing their environments. And (spoiler alert) you safely dropped believing in Santa Claus without risking your morality because it became apparent that he simply did not exist in fact. Non belief was established by bringing to bear reality as arbitrator rather than rely only on your emotional impulse to follow the authority of your parents’ apparent belief. You are no more hardwired to believe in the christian god than you are in Santa Claus but we can excuse the credulity of children for many compelling biological reasons.

    Does anyone think that a child borne of atheist parents in Rapid City, Iowa, is going to be playing one day and suddenly believe in Vishnu? I think all of us would immediately look for a very specific influence by a believer in Vishnu to have caused this indoctrinating effect. The same is true for children indoctrinated into any one of the 30,000 some odd sects of christianity. Without the indoctrination by a specific believer, the default for children has not been demonstrated to be some other specific religious belief. And Barrett knows this perfectly well.

  • Boz

    Research shows that children assign agency,

    but this article inappropriately extrapolates from ‘agency’, to ‘supernatural agency’, to ‘supernatural agency of a deity’.

    And finally to ‘supernatural agency of a deity whose name begins with the letter Y’.

  • Very well written, tildeb. Thank you.

  • The article never says anything about kids being born to believe in Yahweh. They are born with a disposition to believe in “agents [that] are super-knowing, are super-perceiving, and are not going to die.” Family and culture fill in the details about which god or gods a child will come to specifically believe in.

    What’s strange about the responses from you, tildeb, and dagoods on this article is that this research seems completely uncontroversial and obvious to me. With over 95% of people believing in some form of the supernatural, this research is merely helping to explain why that it is. Humans are programmed by their brain chemistry to believe in this stuff. We have to be de-programmed to become atheists. I really didn’t expect you guys to have an issue with this at all. I’m surprised.

  • tildeb

    Bill, the deprogramming you mention is a natural function of frontal cortex brain development where our higher cognitive functioning moderates our impulses. Yes, we have the impulse to assign anthropomorphic agency to unseen forces as children but most of us learn our way past this tendency. We may find it endearing to have a four year old very excited to be visited by Santa Claus but we find it highly disturbing in a forty year old. To attribute religious belief to a ‘natural’ brain state for adults presumably with developed adult brains is not what the research is showing; this is a highly biased interpretation that avoids compelling contrary evidence.

    I also must question your use of the 95% figure for belief in the supernatural; 100% of us fail to apply critical reasoning and proper skepticism some time but this is not a ringing endorsement to do so when faced with a door-to-door salesperson, any more than it is evidential support for people to believe in the magical properties of water (homeopathy) or divine authority (most religious beliefs). Our brains are not computers that respond to code; they are bicameral organic networks of neurons keenly subject to damage easily influenced by both interactive chemical production and responses as well as interactive environmental factors… factors like parental indoctrination that solidifies neural pathways. This is not a testament to their benefit; some dominant neural pathways result in self-damaging behaviours (hence, the reason for long term cognitive behavioural therapy to slowly and with great difficulty rectify compulsive and addictive mental processes that recognized by the self and others to be highly damaging). Again, the application of belief in agency inherent in our biology is an impulse that does not inevitably lead one to religious belief any more than the impulse to procreate leads one to horseback riding.

  • Boz

    I disagreed because the article makes assertions that are not evidenced. The article extends beyond what is known.

  • tildeb,
    The vast majority of people who have ever lived believe in the supernatural, as adults. Just go google any statistic you want about supernatural beliefs. Atheism is a tiny minority belief, mostly confined to modern western Europe. Again, this is common knowledge that few atheists bother to argue. I am surprised that you are arguing this fact, honestly.

    What this means is that children, who are pre-disposed to belief in the supernatural, are mostly carrying this viewpoint through to adulthood and retaining it for the rest of their lives. This doesn’t mean that the viewpoint is correct, obviously, but it does mean that there is no need to posit pervasive brainwashing to explain why children come to believe in the supernatural.

  • I think the atheist claim is less that kids must be brainwashed to believe in God, but that they must be taught the specific dogmas of their religion. And you say that is true yourself, Bill, in your comment below the article. Unless you can find me examples of atheists making the first claim.

  • tildeb

    The argument about non belief being the default for all of us has to do with very specific religious claims. For example, christianity is its tens of thousands of guises, is still a minority religion, as is islam and buddhism and judaism and hinduism and jainism and mormonism and scientology and so on. Belief in any of them is not ‘natural’ whatsoever, but reliant on very specific dogma. It is in this sense that you, Bill, assume non belief for all except the one you decide to accept, and this has nothing to do with children’s impulse to assign anthropomorphic agency. This is why trying to relate child psych studies to reveal religious belief as some kind of default through Barrett’s ‘evidence’ is so problematic. In other words, the scientific case for conclusion is not borne out; non belief remains the default that all of us exercise except by intentional intervention to cause a specific religious belief.

  • “It does mean that there is no need to posit pervasive brainwashing to explain why children come to believe in the supernatural”

    Sure, but it doesn’t mean ‘brainwashing’ isn’t required to make them retain it into adulthood. I use quotes, as I wouldn’t use a term as severe as brainwashing myself. My daughter at two may have believed her doll was alive. No brainwashing required there. But that doesn’t mean she’d naturally retain that belief into adulthood, though if I made the effort I could probably convince her to retain it, if her mom, friends and the rest of society/culture was backing me up.

  • Cliff

    I bet that children that are not exposed to science would say the world is flat too.