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Are We Born Believing in God?

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?