Saturday, November 29, 2008

Do children believe because they're told to by adults?

The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on "showing" in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

Justin Barrett, a Christian and member of the centre's research team (whether it is research or propaganda is the moot question here) says with his colleagues on the centre's website:

Why is belief in supernatural beings so common? Because of the design of human minds. Human minds, under normal developmental conditions, have a strong receptivity to belief in gods, in the afterlife, in moral absolutes, and in other ideas commonly associated with 'religion' … In a real sense, religiousness is the natural state of affairs. Unbelief is relatively unusual and unnatural.

This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

(source: AC Grayling in The Guardian and reposted in HASSERS)

Out of the mouths of babes

Do children believe because they're told to by adults? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Why do the majority of people – across cultures and throughout history – believe in gods?

One way to address this question is to look at why it is that children acquire beliefs in gods. If an idea cannot be easily learned by children then it is relatively unlikely to survive into the next generation and will die out. So if we can explain why children are so ready to believe in gods, we will be a big step closer in understanding religious beliefs more generally. It may seem that the answer is simple: indoctrination.

Children believe because their parents or other adults teach them, right? Unfortunately, the story is not that simple.
Fortunately, it is far more interesting.

Children will believe a lot of what their parents teach them, but not everything. Try to convince a child that a tarantula is harmless, that broccoli is a better food for them than crisps, or that Paul McCartney is a better musician than Miley Cyrus and you'll likely get nowhere. Likewise, teachers have difficulty teaching many scientific insights such as evolution by natural selection or that solid objects such as tables are composed almost entirely of space.

Children learn things that their minds are tuned to learn more readily than things that go against that natural tuning.

Developmental psychologists have provided evidence that children are naturally tuned to believe in gods of one sort or another.

• Children tend to see natural objects as designed or purposeful in ways that go beyond what their parents teach, as Deborah Kelemen has demonstrated. Rivers exist so that we can go fishing on them, and birds are here to look pretty.

• Children doubt that impersonal processes can create order or purpose. Studies with children show that they expect that someone not something is behind natural order. No wonder that Margaret Evans found that children younger than 10 favoured creationist accounts of the origins of animals over evolutionary accounts even when their parents and teachers endorsed evolution. Authorities' testimony didn't carry enough weight to over-ride a natural tendency.

• Children know humans are not behind the order so the idea of a creating god (or gods) makes sense to them. Children just need adults to specify which one.

• Experimental evidence, including cross-cultural studies, suggests that three-year-olds attribute super, god-like qualities to lots of different beings. Super-power, super-knowledge and super-perception seem to be default assumptions. Children then have to learn that mother is fallible, and dad is not all powerful, and that people will die. So children may be particularly receptive to the idea of a super creator-god. It fits their predilections.

• Recent research by Paul Bloom, Jesse Bering, and Emma Cohen suggests that children may also be predisposed to believe in a soul that persists beyond death.

That belief comes so naturally to children may sound like an attack on religious belief (belief in gods is just leftover childishness) or a promotion of religious belief (God has implanted a seed for belief in children). What both sides should agree upon is the scientific evidence: certainly cultural inputs help fill in the details but children's minds are not a level playing field. They are tilted in the direction of belief.

Justin L Barrett will discuss his research today at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion seminar, "Born Believers: the Naturalness of Childhood Theism" at St Edmund's College, University of Cambridge

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