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 Belief, which “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.