Are We Born Believing in God?

Born Believing in God?Shutterstock

In conversation with Muslims and Hindus I have been told that children come into the world already knowing God. This theme that children have special access to the divine appears in various traditions, but independent of theological claims, do we have reason to believe that we are born believers in God? Understanding the question in the most straightforward way, we do not have strong evidence that children come into the world believing–or not believing–in God. Understanding the question in a different way, however, opens up some interesting possibilities concerning children’s natural receptivity to theistic beliefs.

By “we” let us mean the typical, ordinary human in typical, ordinary human environments. For the sake of discussion, take “born believers” to mean “born with such propensities that under ordinary developmental conditions—biological, social, and cultural—belief will typically arise.” This use of “born” parallels the colloquial way in which we may talk about someone as a “born musician” or “born athlete”—not actually coming out of the birth canal performing music or doing sports but having strong natural propensities to attain mastery in a particular area. Let us take “God” to mean an intentional being or agent with mental states and a will, who can and does act in the natural world. Let us also understand “God” to designate such an agent who has played some role in designing or ordering the natural world, has superhuman access to information about what is the case in the world, and is immortal. With these definitions in mind, then, the big question is: Are typical humans born with such propensities that, under ordinary developmental conditions, belief will likely arise in the existence of at least one God (i.e., an intentional agent who has played some role in ordering the natural world, has superhuman access to information about the world, and is immortal)? If that is our question, then we have reason to think the answer is yes.

To reach such a conclusion one must understand that children’s minds are not generic, all-purpose learning devices that treat all information the same. Selective pressures appear to have led to a mind that has natural dispositions to attend to some information over other and process information in particular ways to solve specific problems in navigating the world in which we live. To take one example, studies by Andrew Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore show that newborns—less than 24 hours old—can already pick out human faces in their environment and imitate facial expressions. Human minds have evolved in such a way as to render this task automatic and easy for newborns, perhaps because of how important it is for a hyper-social species such as ours to “read” each other’s attention, intentions, desires, and feelings from each others’ faces. Face detection, recognition, and imitation is only one example of the many subsystems of the human mind that appear to develop as a normal part of human maturation—what philosopher Robert McCauley has termed ‘maturationally natural’ cognition. Because these maturationally natural subsystems are a product of biological predispositions and environmental regularities, these systems are largely constant within and across cultures. These subsystems structure human interactions with their environment and subsequent learning and conceptual development. Consequently, they serve to inform and constrain cultural expression, including religious beliefs.

These maturationally natural cognitive subsystems encourage belief in at least one God, by creating a conceptual space that is most readily filled by such a God concept. That is, rather than the idea of a God being hard-wired into our cognitive systems, we are naturally inclined to reason about the world in such a way that a God concept fits like a key in a lock: God sits well with many of our natural intuitions such that belief in a God makes sense of how we conceive of the world and many events in our lives. I do not mean that we reflectively, rationally consider aspects of the world (such as its mere existence, apparent design or purposefulness, apparent coherence, etc.) and conclude that the existence of a God best accounts for these observations, though some people do. Rather, our naturally developing, untutored, conceptual equipment leads us to find the existence of at least one God intuitively attractive even absent any argumentation on the matter.

The primary culprits for our natural receptivity to believe in God appear to be the cognitive subsystems that we use to understand intentional agents, minds, and features of the natural world. From the first few months of life babies distinguish between those objects that move themselves in goal directed ways from all other objects. Before long they begin attributing rudimentary mental states such as goals and desires. On this foundation they build sophisticated understandings of how percepts inform beliefs, which guide the agent to act on desires leading to positive or negative emotional states. These ‘mindreading’ abilities are unparalleled by any other species. Importantly, the system that picks out intentional agents from other objects and things does not require a human body or even a three-dimensional form to be activated. Indeed, even three- and four-year-olds commonly have invisible companions with which they interact and converse, a demonstration of how facile humans are with agent and mind-based reasoning even without the aid of physical bodies, facial expressions, and other material data from which to work. Gods, then, pose no special problems.

Further, and more importantly, when children reason about agents (seen or unseen), they appear to err on the side of over-attributing access to information or knowledge in many situations. That is, preschool-aged children tend to think others know what is true of the world (at least as the child knows it), can perceive what is really there (even under conditions of darkness or occlusion), and can remember things that the child cannot remember.  Indeed, research by Bradley Wigger and Nicola Knight suggests that these attributions of superhuman information access may be especially true of unseen agents, including gods and invisible companions. Further, research by Emily Burdett and others shows that the idea of a being that lives forever appears to be acquired earlier by children than the idea that humans will eventually die. The idea of a being that is god-like on these dimensions appears to be easier for preschoolers to reason about than a human being.

These observations speak to the readiness for children to conceptualize a God, but not the motivation for them to do so. Some of the most intriguing research concerning explanatory motivation comes from Deborah Kelemen’s research team. Kelemen has shown that children naturally interpret features of the natural world as having purpose. Animals, plants, and even rocks and rivers are the way they are for a function external to themselves, and that is why they are here. Kelemen has also shown that this perception of purpose or function is closely related to supposing that the natural thing in question was created by someone. Preschoolers know that function is best explained by an intentional being bringing it about. This link between perceived functionality and intentionality creates a conceptual space for a designer or creator: who did it? Contrary to what Jean Piaget argued in the early 20th century, children do not assume that humans account for the design they perceive. They recognize the need for someone(s) mightier. Enter a God.

Other scholars such as Scott Atran, Jesse Bering, Pascal Boyer, Stewart Guthrie, Robert McCauley, and Ilkka Pyysiainen have identified additional factors that may make belief in some kind of God relatively natural. Further, Ara Norenzayan and Dominic Johnson have each argued that belief in some kind of morally interested, watching deity may also be part of an adaptive gene-culture complex that then is selectively reinforced. Belief in a super observant moral police may make us more trustworthy and generous community members, leading to better fitness. Note that none of these scholars argue for the naturalness of theistic belief from any theological conviction. They recognize that the growing body of research in this area points to the typical human being naturally drawn to belief in something like a God by virtue of the way their minds develop in early childhood.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Given that humans are ‘born believers in God’ in the sense discussed, how does this observation bear upon whether theistic belief (or unbelief) is rational, justified, or warranted?

2. The United Nations has long affirmed the right to practice religion, including raising one’s children in one’s religious tradition. Contrariwise, some recent commentators have raised concern that raising children in authoritarian, coercive religious traditions (if not all religious traditions) is tantamount to child abuse. Does this new perspective from the cognitive and evolutionary sciences importantly bear on the debate over religious freedoms and freedom to “indoctrinate” children?

3. Even if people typically are attracted to belief in God, not all people are believers. Why not? What contribution do personal psychological differences and environmental factors make?

4. An inclination to believe in some God is a far cry from an inclination to being devoted to any given God or even getting theology straight. Might there be a sensitive period for religious acquisition akin to the sensitive period for language acquisition? What other factors might encourage or inhibit religious development?

Discussion Summary

The thesis I have presented––that children naturally develop with propensities toward belief in at least one god––is one of a number of similar, and often complementary, accounts that draw upon cognitive and evolutionary sciences to explain the recurrence of cultural forms we typically call “religion”.  In this scholarly sphere, the “naturalness of religion” thesis has been a common, if not consensus, position for over a decade, and versions were offered as early as 30 years ago. Stewart Guthrie’s rejuvenation of the anthropomorphism theory of religion appeared in 1980, arguing that the cross-cultural recurrence of belief in non-material beings that willfully act in the natural world (i.e., gods) was due to the natural operation of ordinary human cognitive systems for making sense of the world around them, specifically a tendency toward anthropomorphism. Other theses that emphasized either ordinary natural human cognitive systems or selection pressures followed with various scholars from multiple disciplines making contributions to this “naturalness thesis.”

The discussion here on Big Questions highlighted that this approach to explaining religion is aimed at explaining why religious beliefs are cross-culturally recurrent. That is, why do some cultural forms that we tend to call “religion” appear across cultures in recognizable forms? This approach then is not primarily concerned with why any given individual has the sorts of theological beliefs that they have. Further, these explanations are only partial and probabilistic, allowing for the reality that some people have no religious leanings.

These cognitive and evolutionary “naturalness” approaches to explaining the recurrence of religious beliefs and practices may be profitably contrasted with two other, common approaches: indoctrination and abnormality approaches. Further, comparison with these approaches suggests some possibilities to combine approaches in hopes of yielding even more complete accounts.

In brief, indoctrination approaches emphasize the local social and cultural dynamics through which people acquire religious beliefs from others. How are religious beliefs taught so that they are so compelling? How do religious communities guard orthodoxy and regulate innovation? Of course, such questions may profitably benefit our understanding of how religious ideas and practices spread, but an indoctrination approach, by itself, runs the risk of being mind-blind. That is, such approaches often assume that any ideas can be acquired as easily or readily as any others—that minds resemble sponges in that they passively soak up that with which they come into contact—and so the real explanatory factors are in the cultural environment. Minds are not passive, however. The right amount of repetition, motivation, clever pedagogy, or coercion will not account for the broad cross-cultural recurrence of religious ideas and practices because they do not square with cognitive science, nor do they account for the recurrent content of religious thought. Why gods? Why afterlives? Why souls and spirits? Indoctrination approaches run the risk of trying to explain culture by reference to culture.

Even though emphasizing indoctrination has its limitations, it may be that the normal communication and persuasion dynamics that account for how much cultural information gets transmitted interacts in some surprising ways with the content toward which naturalness approaches say human minds are attracted. That is, perhaps injecting ideas about gods, spirits, afterlives, and such into discourse importantly changes the impact of normal communication dynamics or otherwise opens up possibilities for ‘indoctrination’ that otherwise are unavailable. A helpful question, then, is: Might some interaction, then, between the cognitive dynamics that naturalness theories espouse and the persuasion dynamics that indoctrination approaches champion produce an even more powerful account of why religious ideas and practices are so recurrent?

In contrast, abnormality approaches seek the origins of religious thought and practices in abnormal states of mind or brain malfunctions. Epilepsy, schizophrenia, drug-induced altered states, and others have been made for the source of religious ideas. Though it very well may be that some religious ideas have their inspiration in the unusual experiences of a small number of individuals, why abnormal brain firing or hallucinations would converge on experiences of gods and other recurrent themes, and why such ideas would be attractive to others who have not had such experiences remains unexplained. Clearly lots of strange dreams, hallucinations, and other experiences are had that never lead to shared religious ideas. Most such experiences and ideas are simply forgotten, even by the individuals who have them. The problem of recurrence still needs to be explained. Nevertheless, perhaps these approaches have something valuable to offer for explaining at least some religious ideas. A big question for continuing research is: Can naturalness, indoctrination, and abnormality accounts be fruitfully joined; and if so, how?

The Big Questions discussion concerning whether children are “born believers” also raises a question about big questions. Given my experience with similar discussions, I suspect that some of the participants were dismissive of the question because they are wary of what implications may fall out from the answer. That is, I find that when it comes to explanations of religion, it is very tempting to skip the scientific arguments and interpretations and go straight to whether the findings affirm or challenge my own worldview commitments. Some audiences have assumed the “born believers” and naturalness theses are anti-religious and therefore reject or embrace them based upon whether they themselves are religious or not. These reactions have made me wonder about the big questions listed below.

New Big Questions:

1. Can naturalness, indoctrination, and abnormality accounts be fruitfully joined; and if so, how?

2. What is the folk epistemology behind how people tend to consider whether or not something is a good “big question” and to what extent they will engage the evidence offered in answer of a “big question”?

3. Are big questions concerning religion and theology in step with ordinary dynamics of folk epistemology or are they deviant in some specifiable way?

24 Responses

  1. DonPhil says:

     “In conversation with Muslims and Hindus I have been told that children come into the world already knowing God.”  This seems an inadequate basis for discussion.  Other communities (e.g. Buddhists and non-religious people in historically Christian countries) tell us their experience is that no child is born with innate knowledge of God.  At the minimum, we need a way of arbitrating between these conflicting opinions.

    Buddhism is recognized to be both a religion (or a cluster of related religions) and an atheistic or nontheological religion at that.  Buddhism appears to enable religious discourse (and discussion of what children know) without invoking disagreements about the nature and knowability of God (e.g. disputes among the multiple Moslem, Christian and Jewish traditions)

    • Justin Barrett says:

      DonPhil, you are absolutely correct that a few comments by Muslims and Hindus regarding their theological convictions is not much to go on by way of a serious discussion regarding children’s tendencies toward theistic beliefs. But it does make for a good rhetorical hook! My point is not to argue for or against any Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist doctrines directly. Rather, this discussion concerns whether we have any natural tendencies toward belief in supernatural agents that emerge in early childhood, and if so, what the character of those tendencies are. Whether Buddhism is theistic or atheistic or supports the idea that children have privileged access to the divine is beside the point. The claim is, however, that even the majority of Buddhists are likely to have some cognitive attraction toward the idea of superhuman agents with special access to information about the world, immortality, and the like. That people’s theology and intuitions contradict would not be surprising from this perspective. Indeed, D. Jason Slone in his book Theological Incorrectness (Oxford, 2004) gives some examples from Buddhism in which Buddhists seem to run afoul of their own theology in ways that are explainable in terms of cognitive tendencies or biases.

      • DonPhil says:

        JB clarifies:  ” Rather, this discussion concerns whether we have any natural tendencies toward belief in supernatural agents . . . .  the majority of Buddhists are likely to have some cognitive attraction toward the idea of superhuman agents with special access to information about the world, immortality, and the like.”   The clarification, however, threatens to exclude what the 18th century called “natural theology,” systems of belief that qualify as “religious” while avoiding supernaturalism (knowledge by divine revelation, gods as agents intervening in human history, etc.)   The key word here may be “special” which the natural religionists sought to repudiate.  Such theistic philosophers as Whitehead sought a natural theology, repudiating claims of special agency as both theologically unnecessary and socially divisive.

        • Justin Barrett says:

          Quite so. The aim here is not inclusiveness. The claim I have argued for is not that any and all religious systems of thought—theistic or otherwise—are maturationally natural. Some theologies are going to be ‘closer to the ground’ than others. Absent unusual cultural support (or ‘scaffolding’), the closer to natural cognitive biases a belief system is, the more likely it will be to spread and persist, particularly among the folk and in day-to-day life.

          I regard it as a virtue of cognitive approaches to the study of religion that they are not overly concerned with explaining every belief or behavior that may be considered ‘religious’ based on surface-level similarities or for historical or political reasons. To do so would be analogous to insisting that all plants that have been called ‘trees’ must be close biological relations and explainable in terms of a common evolutionary history—even though (from what I am told) botanists have rejected such a notion. As a scientific approach, of greater concern is whether the phenomena under consideration are causally related in some meaningful way and not whether observers have regarded them as members of a particular category.

  2. enuka says:

    Define the question so that there is no other way to answer it except the one that you predetermined?

    Until you can find a wolf boy with a religious bent, arguments in this area seem to be doomed to the definition of premises.

    Re: Buddhism; it is not atheistic or nontheological; the Buddha has defined the problems with which he deals as out of that realm (e.g. Acintita Sutta, a short version). He witnessed his enlightenment before Mara, the Hindu deity.

    • Justin Barrett says:

      It is true that I could have defined or interpreted the question in different ways, but I regarded this one as the most productive in terms of relevant scientific and scholarly work. I could have simply ended with “I dunno,” but I that would be far less fun.

      I do take issue with the claim that all that is at stake here is a matter of defining premises. If that were so, I could claim that by ‘God’ we mean belief in a flying spaghetti monster (a popular divine alternative in some pseudo-scientific neighborhoods) and then conclude that children are born with tendencies to believe in that—never mind that there is no credible evidence in this regard. No, I picked the attributes I did because they approximate what I see as an emerging consensus in the cognitive science of religion and religious development literatures. I did not pick ‘being made of semolina’ or even ‘being a non-temporal triune person’ because the evidence to date does not support the claim that children find such properties for a god attractive.


      The more interesting question in your comment concerns the ‘wolf boy’ test. Of course, any child raised in complete isolation from other humans is likely to be cognitively and behaviorally exceptional in many ways, making us doubt that such a child would be representative of normal human development, and thus providing good evidence from which to generalize. Where then do we turn for evidence? Much as when Noam Chomsky and his ilk began producing arguments for a naturally-developing language learning faculty in humans, cognitive scientists of religion (or other cognition and culture scholars) turn to several types of evidence to support the thesis that humans naturally are drawn to religious or other cultural beliefs and practices: (1) the cross-cultural recurrence of certain ideas and practices, particularly in cases in which they seem to have arisen in similar ways independently; (2) early emergence of certain beliefs and practices in human development, especially if under explained by cultural inputs; (3) systematic developmental changes that are not readily accounted for by changes in the environment; and (4) evidence for cognitive systems that appear to undergird religious thought and practice that are operational in other, non-religious domains, and therefore, would likely be present even without religious inputs. With these types of evidence in hand, we can build a cumulative case for some degree of natural receptivity to certain cultural ideas and practices, including religious ones. In his book, Why Religion is Natural and Science Isn’t (Oxford, 2011), philosopher of science Robert McCauley argues for these among other clues that a cultural phenomenon may be very ‘natural’ in terms of underlying cognitive systems.

      • Justin Barrett says:

        Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom wrote a brief opinion piece for the January 2013 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences. In it they argue that the sorts of cognitive biases that I argue for in my Born Believers book (and here) are insufficient to answer affirmatively to the question of whether Tarzan or a wolf-boy would generate religious beliefs without cultural input. Since they use me (among others) as their foil, let me be clear that I do not argue that any isolated child with no human social or cultural interaction would necessarily believe in one or more gods, the afterlife, souls, or the like simply on the strength of naturally-developing cognitive dispositions—even if we granted that such a child developed normally (which is unlikely). On this matter, I agree with Banerjee and Bloom.

        • jbjorck says:

          I agree with your qualification, but unless I am missing something, it would seem that the wolf boy or Tarzan arguments are spurious. For example, we also cannot expect Tarzan or the wolf boy to develop language because modeling is an integral part of language development. This does not, however, mean that humans are not genetically predisposed to develope language.

          • Justin Barrett says:

            jbjorck, thanks for the comment. You are quite right. If we take ‘wolf boy’ or ‘Tarzan’ questions scenarios at face value, the failure to develop religious thoughts would not demonstrate that there are not strong natural dispositions that facilitate acquisition. Language acquisition is a good parallel example. Fear of snakes is another: there is good evidence that we are ‘prepared’ to form fear of snakes, but we won’t likely be afraid of snakes if we have never ever encountered one (and not everyone is afraid of snakes). So, would a child raised in isolation be afraid of snakes and have language? No. But it doesn’t follow that we don’t have strong natural receptivity to fear of snakes or language acquisition. Thanks, for raising this point.

  3. Lime says:

    As a believer in sercular humanism, this article makes almost no sense.

    • Justin Barrett says:

      That people are, in general, ‘born believers’ in at least one God, does not entail that there will not be secular humanists or committed atheists. (We would expect them to be a relatively small proportion of humanity and they are.) Analogously, humans are ‘born believers’ that other humans have conscious minds with beliefs, desires, emotions and other mental states, but not all children and adults believe in others’ minds. There are three major classes of people who do not believe in minds: those who have a developmental abnormality (e.g. autistic people), those who have reasoned their way to the rejection of minds (e.g., some philosophers and cognitive scientists), and those who have been indoctrinated by those who have reasoned to reject the existence of minds (e.g., the students of some philosophers and cognitive scientists). Likewise, though the cognitive science of atheism is young, we may expect that some people do not believe in any gods because of differences in the development of their cognitive systems (through biological or environmental differences from what is typical), reasoning, or indoctrination—or some combination of these factors.

  4. dukeofthrive says:

    @DonPhil – I think JB is quite correct here. To formulate a causal perspective on something as messy as ‘religion’ we’re going to have to identify some cross-culturally recurrent components of religiosity for explanandums.


    I tend also to see this type of research as a more humble and responsible alternative to the grand theorizing that tends to occur in my own discipline, anthropology. JB aims to explain just a few tiny parts of human religiosity (though even that would be a huge accomplishment) rather than to account for human religiosity in toto

    • Justin Barrett says:

      Thanks for the support. Yes, the cognitive approach is generally piecemeal in character: can we explain the recurrence of gods? Of afterlife beliefs? Of certain ritual forms? Then, can they be put together? If so, so much the better. If not, some identifiable cultural phenomenon has still been explained (at least in part and probabilistically). Former president of the American Academy of Religion, Ann Taves, has been advocating similarly for a ‘building blocks’ approach to the study of religion.

  5. trent.g.dougherty says:

    This is interesting research.  I have lots of questions about the relevance of certain particular studies, but the general line of though seems to open up an interesting new line of evidence for God, at least from a philosopohy of science perspective.  

    • Justin Barrett says:

      Where do you think the most interesting lines of evidence for God fall out from this research? Many writers in and around the cognitive science of religion area seem to think this work presents evidence against warranted belief in God (Jesse Bering, Dan Dennett, and Paul Bloom–at some moments but not others are examples).

  6. jbjorck says:

    I truly enjoyed the author’s fine essay, and this is an interesting conversation. I wonder if the author knows of any research that might also point in the other direction, toward a genetic propensity for humans to strive for the experience of self-sufficiency (e.g., being god-like)? In other words, might each human also be born with a propensity toward viewing the self as “All there is,” and when reality almost immediately contradicts this (e.g., with hunger that cannot be satiated without an other person), humans might begin a life-long attempt to compensate, continually striving to regain and optimize a sense of mastery and control? 

     Such a tendency would seem to be commensurate with various components of some psychodynamic theories of development. For example, in response to the fear arising from a failure to maintain sufficiency, various defense mechanisms might develop.

     Seen in this light, might a developing belief in God be viewed as one means of obtaining sufficiency/control by proxy (e.g., if the God concept includes the idea of a powerful Helper)? I realize that there may be no cognitive science research going in this direction. I merely voice the possibility as another lens with which to view the development of the “God propensity,” which could place it more squarely in the realm of a survival mechanism to cope with the fears caused by insufficiency. 

    • Justin Barrett says:

      jbjorck, writes: “I wonder if the author knows of any research that might also point in the other direction, toward a genetic propensity for humans to strive for the experience of self-sufficiency (e.g., being god-like)? In other words, might each human also be born with a propensity toward viewing the self as “All there is,” and when reality almost immediately contradicts this (e.g., with hunger that cannot be satiated without an other person), humans might begin a life-long attempt to compensate, continually striving to regain and optimize a sense of mastery and control?”

      If such research exists, I am not familiar with it, so thank you for the interesting suggestion. You question does raise an important issue concerning natural cognitive dispositions of any kind, and that is that ‘maturationally natural’ does not mean ‘innate’ or ‘hardwired’ or ‘developing without important environmental cues’. A universal feature of human development is that they come into the world dependent upon at least one much more powerful intentional being. Such a feature of their environment is likely just as important for their cognitive development as the regularity of gravity acting upon objects around them or that animals move themselves.

      • Justin Barrett says:

        Banerjee and Bloom (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Jan. 2013) seem to think we have no evidence that children ever ‘spontaneously generate’ religious ideas. In an uninteresting sense they are right. From common cognitive science of religion perspectives, an idea isn’t ‘religious’ until it is shared. Thus, no one person’s spontaneously generated idea is ‘religious.’ Tarzan couldn’t, by definition, have religious ideas or any other ‘cultural’ ideas. Similarly, Tarzan couldn’t spontaneously generate a language—assuming language is a form of shared cultural expression.

        But what if ideas about an invisible being or an afterlife spread to others—other Tarzans raised together but with no previous ‘culture’ (if that is even possible)? When an idea does spread, we should wonder why others were receptive to it. For this reason, as Pascal Boyer has argued in his two books on the matter, explaining why we are receptive to cultural ideas is where the action is, not explaining so-called ‘spontaneous generation’ (if that ever occurs). For this reason, when asked the Tarzan question, Boyer once answered that one child raised in isolation would not create religious ideas and practices, but two raised together very well might.

        • Justin Barrett says:

          Is there any evidence that children generate their own ideas about disembodied or invisible beings that may be god-like? Yes. Marjorie Taylor reports that about half of preschool aged children have invisible friends that (typically) they alone believe exist. Bradley Wigger has found that these invisible friends are often granted super knowledge or perception even when they understand the limits of their visible friends. Given that children often do “spontaneously” generate ideas concerning invisible beings, it does not strike me as incredible if sometimes their interaction with the world, usual experiences, or even a little bit of reflection could lead some children—even in a Tarzan-like environment—to postulate the existence of a god-like being or an invisible being that accounts for what they perceive as design or purpose in events and structure around them. But again, spinning an origin story is probably not where the action is. We are cultural animals that develop in cultural environments, so why such ideas spread and become shared and agreed upon is a more interesting question.

  7. Stewart Guthrie says:

    Barrett brilliantly summarizes a complex topic by presenting central consensual findings in the cognitive science of religion (CSR), a field to which the author has long been a key contributor.  Reporting these findings, Barrett shows that science can clarify the human propensity for religion–long thought mysterious–just as it can clarify other aspects of human thought and action.
        Probably the major CSR consensus reported here is that human perception of the world is biased to detect agency, with evolved sensitivities to such physical features as faces (as when newborns prefer them to other things in their environment) and to such behavioral features as goal orientation.  Human sensitivity to goal-seeking behavior and to purpose in the world in general, in turn, may be seen as aspects of our unusual capacity for, and interest in, reading the thoughts, feelings and motives of others.  These and related sensitivities and abilities mean, as the author notes, that ideas about varied humanlike agents, including gods, fit our minds like keys in locks.  Whether or not particular agents really exist is a separate question from why we so readily entertain ideas about them.
        Defining “religion” and “god” remains contentious, a situation exemplified by some terminology in the article.  The most important term here is “God,” and capitalizing it, in my view, colors the discussion by emphasizing differences between gods and other humanlike agents.  God, Barrett writes, may be taken to mean an agent with a role in designing the world, superhuman access to information, and immortality.  Yet many gods are more humanlike than this (indeed some begin their careers as actual humans):   they may have limited knowledge of the world and little hand in making it, and they may be subject to death. 
        This apparent lack of a bright cross-cultural line between gods and other humanlike agents, however, by no means undercuts Barrett’s basic position.  On the contrary:  our readiness to conceive and deal with gods is, as he suggests, continuous with our capacity to conceive and deal with other intentional agents.  In sum, this article represents state-of-the-art CSR concisely, accurately and persuasively.

    • Justin Barrett says:

      Stewart, thanks for the comment. Of course, Prof. Guthrie is correct that many gods are more human-like than God as described here. In his numerous articles and book chapters, and especially his book Faces in the Clouds (Oxford, 1993), Prof. Guthrie lays out his account of why it is people are so naturally drawn to believe in gods. We agree that the strong human tendency to make sense of their world in terms of the presence and activity of minded intentional beings is the key cognitive attribute that makes humans inclined toward belief in gods—whether they are ghosts, spirits, local deities, or a cosmic God.

  8. ianful says:

    Believing in God and knowing God are not the same.  What Hindu and Muslim theologies mean is that a new born baby is still connected with God through its soul.  What they are not saying is that as the child establishes its perception of its physical world, and as it builds the virtual reality of a ‘self,’ then the connection with God fades and is usually lost.

    The self doesn’t owe its existence to God and indeed has no use for anything that is not a physical entity or something of its own devising. The self may choose to believe in God because that is culturally accepted, but it cannot know God. The realm of God is in the inaccessible abstract as far as the self is concerned (this abstract is not the contrived abstract of numbers and things that do not fit in our world). God is only accessible through the soul.

    • Justin Barrett says:

      ianful, thanks for the comment. You make an important distinction between believing that a god exists and ‘knowing’ god in some sense. We could also say, that believing in a god (or God) is not the same as being devoted to that god or re-ordering one’s life around the conviction that the god exists. I may believe in the existence of anti-matter and it not change me in any way, even if anti-matter does exist and it matters very much to my life whether I know it or not. I have not argued here (or in my book Born Believers) that we are born religious devotees.

      • Justin Barrett says:

        ianful’s comment also raises the matter of how the scientific findings in the cognitive science of religion (and also evolutionary studies of religion) bear upon different theological propositions. Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist theologies teach many different things, sometimes at odds within and across traditions, but do the scientific findings matter to these claims? Do they make some claims more or less likely? Or do the theologies lead to some interpretations of the science to be more or less favorable? To give but one example, within the Reformed branch of Protestant theology multiple views of the sensus divinitatis exist: the idea that within each human is a natural sense of the divine. The views differ along many dimensions including how narrowly this sensus divinitatis points people to God as opposed to the supernatural more generally, whether this faculty is always operational or only triggered under certain conditions (such as when seeing a particularly spectacular sunset), and what the consequence of human sin on the deliverances of the faculty might be. Whereas the science to date is far from conclusive on such matters, I find it conceivable that more progress could provide empirical evidence that bears on questions like these. Already the evidence should suggest to the Reformed Christian that the sensus divinitatis is at least more specific than simply inclining people to believe in the existence of some Great Otherness, but rather encourages belief in one or more minded, intentional beings, perhaps with the power to create or order features of the natural world, immortality, and superhuman knowledge.