Are kids born with an innate belief in God?

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By Brandon Ambrosino

What if children didn’t have to be taught to believe in God? What if they were born with that ready-made belief somewhere embedded in their minds?

That’s the thesis of a 2012 book by psychologist Justin L. Barrett called Born Believers. Barrett, currently a researcher at Fuller Theological Seminary, has spent his career researching children and religious belief. After observing that children tend to believe that the world has order and purpose, he came to the conclusion that kids are born with a tendency toward thinking that there is some sort of supernatural agent behind this order. Or, as he put it to me over the phone, “children have a number of natural dispositions to religious beliefs of various sorts.” And while he believes that these dispositions can “certainly be overridden by certain kinds of cultural and educational environments,” he thinks the research shows that a child’s cognitive “playing field is tilted toward religious beliefs.”

A new study out this month, however, pushes against Barrett’s conclusion. Published in the July issue ofCognitive Science, the article presents findings that seem to show that children’s beliefs in the supernatural are the result of their education. Further, argue the researchers, “exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction.” In other words, said Kathleen Corriveau, one of the study’s co-authors, the study found that childhood exposure to religious ideas may influence children’s “conception of what could actually happen.” She also told me her research suggests that Barrett’s Born Believers thesis is wrong — that children don’t possess an “innate bias” toward religious belief.

Here’s how Corriveau and her colleagues conducted their research. They gave a total of 66 kindergartners three different narratives: 1) religious, 2) historical, and 3) fantastical. An example of 1) was telling kids the story of Moses parting the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk through on dry land. They then changed that story in two ways. For the “historical” version 2) they told the same story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, but they took out all the references to God and miracles: Moses crossed the water in a boat. For the “fantastical” version 3) God was replaced with some other fantasy mechanism.

All across the board, children thought the historical narratives were true. When it came to religious stories, predictably children raised in religious settings classified them as true, while kids raised in secular setting classified them as fictional. What was most interesting to Corriveau, however, was how children classified the fantastical story: while secular children classified it as pretend 87 percent of the time, religious children only did so about 40 percent of the time. To Corriveau, this suggests that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” In other words, she told me, “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”

So is that a bad thing? “Not necessarily,” says Corriveau. “In many learning situations, what this might mean is that religious children might be more willing to accept seemingly counterintuitive phenomena in ways that secular children might not.” It also might mean, she notes, that religious children have broader conceptual frameworks, and might have a “better ability to engage in unexpected outcomes.”

Barrett agrees with Corriveau on that point, noting that there’s real value with allowing children to experiment with the conceptual boundaries of what’s real and what’s not. According to him, the question “what if things were different?” is an important part of the learning process. “It sure looks like that’s the backbone of innovation, creativity, and all kinds of problem-solving in the world, both artistic and scientific.” As Paul Harris, one of the study’s co-authors, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”

Some, however, might decide Corriveau’s findings offer a compelling argument against religious education. The Raw Story‘s reaction to the study was that “Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction.” And discussing the study yesterday in an article titled Is religion good for children?Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern seemed to answer his own question in the negative: “When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit.”

Read the full article here.


Disclaimer: The author would like it known that neither he nor the other researchers interviewed suggest that religion is harmful to children

55 COMMENTS

  1. There is an evolutionary advantage in having members of the tribe united and motivated for the good of the tribe. Therefore, their genes will pass on. If it could be shown that humans with a propensity to follow a leader, do better than humans who are more individualistic, then that characteristic will pass on to the next generation.

    Consider two valleys, with scattered villages. In one valley, the villages are likely to follow and obey a leader. In the other valley, the humans that make are the villages are all independent individualists. If an articulate and charismatic shaman appears in the first valley, allied with a strong chief, they can motivate their valley to invade the next valley, steal their land, resources and virginal women. With promises of ever lasting life, heaven, true believers, god’s chosen, against the heathens and the infidels etc in the next valley, you have a very motivated and united fighting force. They pass on their genes. Individualists die out.

    Multiply this trait over generations and you end up with a homo sapiens more likely to believe the incredulous, than not believe. I see this in modern society. 95% followers, and a scattering of leaders and free thinkers, many of whom inhabit this blog. Very few individuals that will stand out from the crowd. While this scenario doesn’t necessarily require the religious shaman, it is a huge motivator. So I would argue that there is a evolutionary propensity to be followers, which includes religion and provides a niche for its ongoing propagation.

    Human babies require an enormous amount of time, resources and effort to bring from the womb, to safely independent. The longest by far in the animal kingdom. One of the properties of homo sapiens children during this stage is blind obedience and belief in whatever they are told by adults. Children with this property survive and pass on their genes. Children who don’t obey, die out.

    “Ugg. Stop now. Don’t step forward. There’s a snake in your path.” etc. “Don’t go in the water, there are crocodiles.”

    This means our children are a blank slate for the religious to inculcate. The Jesuits new what they were doing when they said “Give me the child till 8, they will give you the man.” They new if they could get at your children while they were young, they will trap them into religion for the rest of their life. A child left alone, with a good rational and questioning education, will never be religious. Religion is like a virus, that replicates and passes itself on to the next generation.

    I concur with Christopher Hitchens, when he says, “religious education of the young is child abuse.” (Or words to that effect)

    I wonder what would happen if you could take a city of a million people in America and follow it for 30 years, where no child under 18 has any exposure to religion apart from the fact that some people believe stuff in the absence of evidence. More like a social studies of human culture, than BELIEVE OR YOU WILL DIE IN HELL FOREVER, sort of education. I would hypothesize that very few children would become religious, and the society would do better, because the population would be evidence based decision makers, not faith based ideologues.

    • You follow my reasoning, but the link between evolution and tendency to belive could be dated far earlier. I think that in most species of ape there is a dominant ‘alpha’ male who is the leader of the pack and whose authority is seldomly challenged. Most of the apes are following the leader unconditionally like he would be the God. The pack of apes never grow so large that a leader coudn’t supervise the subordinates directly, but when the tribes of men grew bigger than the eyes can see, the leader was replaced By a God. Or control was mainteined By inventing a God who can see everywhere. God was readily accepted because men wanted to belive the same way apes wanted to trust their leader.

    • There is an evolutionary advantage in having members of the tribe united and motivated for the good of the tribe. Therefore, their genes will pass on.

      But of course it only gets passed on if it benefits the individual, that is where you have to measure the advantage of an adaptation not the group, unless you are talking about Termites or people who live in the US bible belt.

      • or people who live in the US bible belt.

        LOL.

        I see this survival advantage play out like our human altruism trait. Sometimes, it is better for an individual to take one for the team, especially if it is an immediate or near genetic relative who gets the leg up. The victorious army gets to pass on it genes. The Genghis Khan gene can be seen all over Asia and just into Europe. If my little tribe of pondering scientific philosophers stands in the way of a united religious army, we’re toast. Our genes die out. The armies live on.

        It may be that what I am talking about is just collateral damage or accidental, but it seems to me that it may explain why homo sapiens have this innate and annoying trait to want to believe in gods.

        • I have the same intuition but it is problematic. We know from the work by people like Dawkins that the way adaptations work is that they have to benefit the individual not the group. Actually Dawkins didn’t do much of the actual research that showed this to be true but he was the one who summarized it and made the rest of the scientific and intellectual world understand it.

          So given that there can’t be an “altruism gene” as altruism is traditionally conceived. One thing that has occurred to me, if we still had discussions I was planning on creating a discussion topic on this at some point, is maybe there could be a “justice gene”. A gene that was neutral as far as survival benefit for the individual but that made humans predisposed to be more altruistic to people that were altruistic to the tribe and to be less altruistic to those who weren’t. Although even that would be problematic I think unless you could show that the justice gene would help the individual. I could see how it could be beneficial once enough people in the tribe had it but how it would spread in the first place would be an issue I think.

    • David R Allen – Well state, and as a read, you asked the questions that came to mind. It seems to me, religious belief is a side affect of the instinct needed to service, but I don’t believe it would come on it’s own in a modern open society, it needs to be learned. Just like most Deist would have probably been atheist, if they would have had the knowledge of evolution. In the absence of knowledge, the more susceptible you are to religious ideas. Then there were those like Giordano Bruno, with ignorance all around him, still found his mind functioning with reason. We need to recognize that the human race didn’t all evolve equally, you touch on this, at any one time the top 10% of the human race, are those who show the most character traits of an evolved human. Unfortunately there are old human traits that make the bottom 90% dislike the top 10%. In spite of the high probability that it’s the top 10% that has made their lives better. There is a book called the Fourth Turning and I think this plays into this. The idea that every 90 or so years, a average human life time, we have to have an upheaval in society. That upheaval, in my opinion, is needed to break the mind set of those who lack higher reason. WWII and the Great Depression was the last “reset” we had. Basically, until they see their lives and families suffer, they won’t think rationally; it’s hard to be distracted by gay marriage if you are starving to death. After WWII, most Americans understood the need to compromise, all those people are dead or dying today. We are coming to the end, or the Forth Turning as the author puts it.

    • I recommend to all readers the children’s book The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall, in which a tiny minority of free thinkers save an entire society from invasion and destruction. It is one of my favorite reads to inculcate free thinking to children at a still impressionable age.

  2. @OP – That’s the thesis of a 2012 book by psychologist Justin L. Barrett called Born Believers. Barrett, currently a researcher at Fuller Theological Seminary, has spent his career researching children and religious belief. After observing that children tend to believe that the world has order and purpose,

    Of course THEIR world has an order and purpose! Their parents, extended family, and community, have organised the order and purposes for them!

    he came to the conclusion that kids are born with a tendency toward thinking that there is some sort of supernatural agent behind this order.

    What other view could be possibly be reached from the child-like thinking in a theological seminary when looking through “faith-blinkers”.
    “Can’t grasp the science, so the magic father-figure – god-did-it, and I know-it-all!”

  3. “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”
    So is that a bad thing? “Not necessarily,” says Corriveau.
    “Barrett agrees with Corriveau on that point, noting that there’s real value with allowing children to experiment with the conceptual boundaries of what’s real and what’s not.”

    This makes me sad for the children.
    They count on the adults to look out for them.
    Unlearn bad philosophy.

    • I don’t think fantasies in early childhood are a bad thing at all. Santa the tooth fairy, magic etc. They help develop empathy skills, imagination, thinking outside the box. They also provide early thinking and reasoning skills in the absence of complex thought processes and knowledge.

      Children, even the most religious children, grow out of them. My child became a full blown atheist at ten but at three had an imaginary friend and at seven penned letters to the tooth fairy and Santa.

      They’re a necessary but transient part of development. The question is why does the one irrational fantasy persist in the religious. And why does it often first appear in adulthood? I would say those raised in religious backgrounds are often far less devout and even knowledgeable about what they believe than converts. I managed to stay religious for most of my life simply by never having had to think about it cos it had always been there. It was only when a convert started spouting all the stuff I should have thought about.

      • For reasons that I will later offer up to scrutiny, you have distorted the nature of my objection and the important truth behind it. You make it sound as if I am dismissing the reasonable benefits that can be had by children who are given “religious exposure”;for example, enjoyment from reading religious stories, or practice in public speaking with prayer.
        That is not my objection
        My objection is to the explicit intellectual retardation inflicted upon children when they are taught to joyfully and willingly abandon reason and the use of their own intellect, in favor of a belief methodology which is fundamental to religion, one that they drill into the minds of children as being completely superior to reason, the mental pitfall they call “faith”.
        As you can see, I could not have been addressing “fantasies” because fantasies are generally accepted and taught as fiction. It’s the fundamental difference in the intellectual scrutiny applied when, for example, teaching a child, a lesson from Aesop’s fables versus teaching a lesson from the book of Job, or the story of Noah. No character in Aesop’s fables is even hinted as real, but how many “scientists” (forget the gullible children), have gone searching for the elusive vessel or wrote dissertations on the construction and whereabouts of the ark.

        “I don’t think fantasies in early childhood are a bad thing at all. Santa the tooth fairy, magic etc. They help develop empathy skills, imagination, thinking outside the box.”

        I can tell by how you interchanged “religious exposure” with “fantasies”, that you do not understand the true nature of religion and thus what the core objection to religion or “religious exposure” is. You obviously are careful not to show your religious leanings. Your usage of secular examples to make your point, (“fantasies” such as Santa and the tooth fairy), and blatant omitting of religious examples, like the bible and its stories, reveals your own inner battle with having to deny your deep rooted religious identity; an identity that is comfortable, familiar, and more importantly, meaningful. No doubt you think religion is plagued by unjustified criticism, and an inner conviction drives you to defend it; but you worry about appearing in any way irrational. The intellectual compromise made to address this dilemma, manifests itself, perhaps unconsciously, in your resulting argument, which is distinctly religion oriented, but repackaged with secular terms and submitted under the guise of critical thinking.
        If you think religion can help with “thinking outside the box”, it is because you have been convinced by the irrational and misleading argument that connects the mystery of the unknown to the position that anything can exist. A closer look reveals it is nothing more than illogical word play used to justify indulging in imagination and wishful thinking, opening the door for supernatural things like a god or souls. It’s the commonly misused position “there are things beyond our ability to understand, beyond reason…there are things beyond science”. If you have not confronted this very common example of uncritical thinking, then please let me know so I can share my perspective and possibly shed some light on it.

        • Sorry to digress, but facts can be useful!

          nothink Aug 5, 2014 at 1:20 pm

          It’s the fundamental difference in the intellectual scrutiny applied when, for example, teaching a child, a lesson from Aesop’s fables versus teaching a lesson from the book of Job, or the story of Noah.

          We know the Noah story was copied from earlier mythology.

          No character in Aesop’s fables is even hinted as real, but how many “scientists” (forget the gullible children), have gone searching for the elusive vessel or wrote dissertations on the construction and whereabouts of the ark.

          Let’s discount the pseudo-scientists and theist wish thinkers who have wandered Mt. Ararat.

          Actually some scientists/ historians have investigated the matter, and while the story is probably fiction, it seems to be based on a real vessel, actual construction methods, and a local flood!

          http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/01/24/was-the-ark-round-a-babylonian-description-discovered/

          Was the ark round? A Babylonian description discovered

          Irving Finkel, curator, British Museum

          • How are children taught in churches to view (as in fiction or non fiction) the story of Noah or Jesus coming back to life after three days of decomposition, or any of the many other supernatural stories..

            “while the story is probably fiction”
            What parts of the story are you unsure of?

            “it seems to be based on a real vessel, actual construction methods, and a local flood!”
            Is it reasonable to validate a story (the narrative, intentions of the characters, the purpose of artifacts) if the evidence used to make that claim of validity, does not relate to the story in any direct meaningful way? Is the story of the parting of the red sea real just because there is a sea in the area?
            How many various “stories” like noah’s do you think were created by the various groups after experiencing the same phenomenon (eclipse, flood, drought)? If the stories are all completely different except for the mention of the phenomena, is it reasonable to assign truth based on the criteria you mentioned above in the noah example..

          • nothink Aug 5, 2014 at 2:46 pm

            Did you read the link I provided?

            while the story is probably fiction

            What parts of the story are you unsure of?

            I am talking about the story on the Babylonian tablet in the British Museum.

            it seems to be based on a real vessel, actual construction methods, and a local flood!”

            That is what the report surmises from the translation! The story is fiction, but is based on the local construction of CIRCULAR river boats at that time, specifying the actual materials used!

            It also pre-dates the Biblical Noah story by centuries!

  4. I find it easy to accept that belief in God, like belief in faeries and Santa Claus implants easily in young minds.
    Children have vivid imaginations and see agency in everything at a young age. Ask a three year old why we have carrots and they might well answer to feed rabbits.
    Or say it rains to feed plants.
    It is noteworthy that those atheists of religious background generally start to have their first doubts when they get into scientific understanding in their teens and start to realise that nature does not exist for the benefit of man or that man is a necessary part of nature.

  5. mr_DNA Aug 4, 2014 at 6:36 am

    I find it easy to accept that belief in God, like belief in faeries and Santa Claus implants easily in young minds.

    It is noteworthy that those atheists of religious background generally start to have their first doubts when they get into scientific understanding in their teens

    Unfortunately, this is one of the (wilfully?) neglected areas of education!

    http://psychology.about.com/od/piagetstheory/a/keyconcepts.htm

    If it was better known, theistic attempts to retard child development, would be more widely understood!

    • Ah Piaget! I remember him. We covered him in our educational theory lectures when I trained as a teacher 25 years ago. This was before teacher training was turned into an agency so I don’t know if he is still taught. i think most teachers probably regard this body of knowledge as too theoretical sadly.

  6. To Corriveau, this suggests that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” In other words, she told me, “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”

    So is that a bad thing? “Not necessarily,” says Corriveau. “In many learning situations, what this might mean is that religious children might be more willing to accept seemingly counterintuitive phenomena in ways that secular children might not.” It also might mean, she notes, that religious children have broader conceptual frameworks, and might have a “better ability to engage in unexpected outcomes.”

    Barrett agrees with Corriveau on that point, noting that there’s real value with allowing children to experiment with the conceptual boundaries of what’s real and what’s not. According to him, the question “what if things were different?” is an important part of the learning process. “It sure looks like that’s the backbone of innovation, creativity, and all kinds of problem-solving in the world, both artistic and scientific.” As Paul Harris, one of the study’s co-authors, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”

    Even if it is qualified by a lot of hedging, I think this is a dubious and unwarranted extrapolation from the data provided, especially given the size of this particular digression in the text. The majority of secular children simply – and correctly, one might add – identified the fantastical elements as pretend. That doesn’t mean they will reject counterintuitive phenomena (what’s counterintuitive about the notion of magic?), much less that they naturally handle surprises less well, don’t ponder hypothetical alternatives, lack innovation, creativity, and problem-solving skills, or have poorer imaginations. None of this is demonstrated by the fact that secular upbringing produces less gullible children.

    We don’t hedge a schizophrenic’s hearing voices in their head (versus a non-schizophrenic recognising the voice as their own quirky and meaningless flight of fancy) by spending three paragraphs imagining the mental benefits of schizophrenia. The kids who couldn’t distinguish fantasy and religious stories from historical narratives are simply incorrect, and I contend this “they might be more open-minded and creative” speculation is simply sugar-coating an awkward fact.

    • Even if it is qualified by a lot of hedging, I think this is a dubious and unwarranted extrapolation from the data provided

      I agree. It’s the first thing that jumped out at me when I read the article, it seems like a huge unjustified leap. It’s an example I think of the different standards between the social sciences and the natural sciences. Most biologists would never make such an unjustified leap even in an informal discussion with a journalist without at least qualifying it by saying “well this is complete speculation but just maybe…”

  7. It’s an oversimplified experiment but in conjunction with others it shows that children believe what they’re told without too much question. After all even the secular children believed the ‘historical’ account. Most children believe in Santa and the tooth fairy. Lots have imaginary friends lots of those have no links whatsoever to religion. That has has a huge evolutionary advantage for lots of very sensible reasons.

    The agency thing, like carrots are to feed rabbits are explained, as someone has already said, by simple cognitive development.

    The more intersting question is what is preventing the move to cynical adulthood for some. After all, even the most devout Christian no longer believes in Santa. There has to be some evolutionary advantage beyond the simple obedience of childhood. The same advantages don’t pan out as well for adults.

    If you look at some of the qualities of human existence it’s easy to see how religion could satisfy them. We seem to have a deep seated need for justice as evidenced by things like the Jimmy Saville, Stewart Hall and Rolf Harris cases years after the events. Or the fights of the families of the Hillsborough victims or the family of Steven Lawrence. In an unfair world an afterlife with some kind of cosmic reward punishment system might be the only thing provoding it. And it does seem that the more just and equitable a country is the more secular it is. Which might explain up surges in religion in times of austerity? Didn’t lots of sects like the Southern Baptists first appear in the US during the Great Depression?

    And we also form deep attachments to others and have string and long lasting parental bonds. Move to a time of high infant and maternal mortality and again you find religion and an afterlife offering comfort.

    It is a small step to move from religion offering the above to it slowly evolving all sorts of additional rules. So I think the gullibility of children is a starting point to fix the right gods in their minds. But it doesn’t explain why all other fantasies but that one disappear with age. But I’m not really sure.

    • It is a small step to move from religion offering the above to it slowly evolving all sorts of additional rules. So I think the gullibility of children is a starting point to fix the right gods in their minds. But it doesn’t explain why all other fantasies but that one disappear with age.

      This has always fascinated me. When I can’t get to sleep at 3.00am, I ask questions like, Why does every tribe on the planet have gods and religious ceremonies? If a behaviour extends across a widely dispersed population, there is usually a common evolutionary drive to pass on genes. Did all of these tribes independently invent religion or did religion migrate with us out of Africa hundred’s of thousands of years ago? Did it then get re-branded to suit local conditions? If there was one true god, then all of the tribes would have the same religion, 10 commandments, ceremonies and rules. (Which incidentally is an argument that there is no god.)

      The anthropologist Jared Diamond did 30 years work in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He wrote about the ‘Cargo Cults” that developed during world war 2 and are now established religions. What were basically stone aged tribes saw aeroplanes arrive all the time and bring “Cargo”. They thought it was from the gods. A telling mental linking of A to B. The natives actually cut large runways out of the jungle, built control towers out of bamboo with bamboo radio aerials. Some stood in the control towers with coconut earphones and a mike intoning to the planes trying to attract them. They lit fires at night down the sides of the runways. They believed that if they did the ceremony right, god would bring them the “Cargo” too. In some areas, they build jetties into bays, to attract the cargo ships that did the same thing.

      Here with cargo cults, a religion was created from scratch right before the eyes of the world. Another well recorded anthropological study is available to all to read about. The creation of the Mormon religion. A convicted confidence trickster, finds magic glasses and stones that allow him to write a religious book, most of which is plagiarized straight out of the bible and create a new religion. He would then have “Revelations” whenever he wanted to order some action, including access to the young women. I see this as a template for how religions get started. There has always been and always will be charismatic charlatans. The gift of the gab to sway crowds. I think these are the guys who realized as Smith did with Mormonism, that he was on to a good thing.

      What stuns me about mormonism is that the people of the time believed it, and that even with modern education, people still believe it. So what is this trait in humans that makes us so susceptible / gullible to religion. I argued above in another post that I suspect there is a survival advantage if most of the tribe are “Followers” with a small but constant percentage of potential leaders in each generation. To me, that would give a survival advantage to populations of this make up, compared to populations of individual rational thinkers. They get to pass on their genes. The free thinkers are very few and mostly hiding.

      One last beautiful trait developed by the Cargo cults. They had a visit from Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip. Some of the cargo cults saw Prince Phillip is his military uniform as the “Second Coming” auguring in the time when the cargo would start to flow. They worship pictures of Prince Phillip as a god. They pray to pictures of him. Enjoy this link.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Philip_Movement

      I think this is how all of the random religions of the world started. What I want to know is what is the “Seed” / “Gene” that creates this defective thinking in homo sapiens, and how can we save the planet by turning it off. How can we get the grubby hands of religion off our children. Education??

      • I’m also fascinated by initial seed/gene that sparked belief. Or to know if it’s just an artefact of being human?

        I’d not heard of the cargo cults. And to move that to a more sophisticated society, as the UK has become increasingly secular I’ve seen a mini up surge in new weird beliefs. Go into any reputable bookshop and you’ll find the mind/body/spirit section where you can find books telling you do some Cosmic ordering (or God free praying), crystal healing, reiki and so on. A friend who used to mock me when I was religious has gone from atheism via reiki, crystals and cosmic ordering to being a priestess of the goddess of Avalon and has moved to Glastonbury (those in the UK will know what that means, for the US think poor mans California minus glamour). So new religion doesn’t seem to be a phenomenon that’s disappearing.

        I agree with you very much about a survival element. I sometimes think, looking at what all religions offer, is hope and some measure of control. After all it’s easy for me to be an atheist when I have a relatively comfortable life, an NHS and a measure of security. If I lived on the brink of a war torn state or under the pall of the Taliban is a deity the only thing that would keep me going? And would prayer be the only thing that would give any impression of having control?

        • “I’m also fascinated by initial seed/gene that sparked belief”

          It must be frustrating, and confusing, to constantly try and accommodate reason with your supernatural leanings.

          gene – reasonable, scientifically investigable
          seed – I assume you mean the supernatural kind implanted in the mind/ heart/ soul by a god, and not “seed” in any real investigable sense.
          spark -poetic usage but more than that unless you can explain what rational process it is referring to

          How does one begin investigating what it is you are fascinated with? Are the assumptions in the premise (a “seed” that “sparks” belief) coherent let alone rational?

  8. Thanks for all the comments above. They’ve all added various aspects to the subject of children and religion. When I put my mind to it and try to come up with some other angle, the only additional input I can give is the concept of ‘luck’. Children are very quick to attest to the ‘luck giving’ properties of various inanimate objects, be they lucky pencils for exams or lucky socks for soccer. Like Skinner’s pigeons, they’re ready converts to superstitious thinking.

  9. No.

    When born our minds are Tabula rasa, but extremely open to new information and experiences, which also makes them vulnerable to those who wish to control us for ulterior motives.

    Say this out loud, Give us your child before it’s seven and it’s ours for life.

    All I’ve done is replace the indefinite article ‘a’ with the possessive determiner ‘your’. Horrible, isn’t it!

  10. Oh, further to my last, I have a tale from the sauna.

    An acquaintance therefrom once told me that he’d been born a Catholic, and that even if a gun were to be held to his head he would never change. I resisted the temptation to ask him if he was wearing his hat at the time he emerged.

    He then immediately went on to say how weird and dangerous Islam is.

    A short while later he asked me whether I was a Catholic or a Protestant; I told him I was neither, but a none; there was a moments caesura, then came the next inquiry, and I explained what none means. He allowed himself a slight smile.

    We are always courteous to one another; but then, this is England, and we’ve given up on Priest’s holes.

    However, new dangers lurk!

  11. A more interesting question to me is whether children born with that ready-made belief in causality somewhere embedded in their minds. My guess is that this is very likely and also likely to lead to a number of misattributions amongst which one would be some kind of hidden force that might produce a bias towards superstition.

  12. Article continues with RD’s stance. He got flak a-plenty labeling religious indoctrination of young ‘uns “child abuse”. I presume he still feels this way, but is it too harsh.

    Barrett: I wonder if the real story here is that non-religious kids are the peculiar ones – what if children are taught not to believe in goD, we’re all inculturated (is that a word?)<

    Non-stamp collecting.

  13. As a teacher who is both atheist and strongly opposed to religious education mingling with the secular (Catholic school is a very popular choice in my part of Canada), I know that I am biased. However, I don’t believe that I have seen an improvement in creativity of my students due to a belief in the supernatural. I have certainly seen the opposite: students who prefer a supernatural explanation, being unwilling to consider a scientific one, and showing a lack of curiosity about science. For example, in a class discussion about planetary formation, while several students became increasing engaged (as evidenced by their great questions), a few sat back and refused to participate because as one girl explained, “all we need to know is that God did it.”

    • “As a teacher who is both atheist and strongly opposed to religious education mingling with the secular… ”

      I have possible reservations about your usage of the word “both”, specifically your reasoning behind it. And so before I comment, if I may, I’d like to ask you a question that will clear up your position for me.

      If you could only choose one of the following labels to identify with, which would it be? A critical thinker, an atheist, or something else? Please briefly explain why.

  14. An overwhelming number of Western Christian children under the age of 6 believe in Santa Clause. Is this an innate characteristic? The difference between Santa and Jesus is that children fairly early on actually reach a point are willing to accept the utter improbability that one man can deliver an array of in-house manufactured wished-for gifts to every Christian household on the planet on the night of December 25th, in a gravity-defying contraption propelled by ungulates, including one with proboscoidal bioluninescence. At some point kids do figure out all on their own that Sanata is bullshit. Too bad it is frowned upon when it comes to God.

    • The properties of Santa are a bit like God. He only gives you toys if you’ve been good after all. And he seems to prefer rich to poor kids from my recollections.

      So why doesn’t Santa persist, or be ‘found’ in the way Jesus is?

      • It is the personal nurturing nature of the concept of “God” that helps it persist. For example, people might try to claim their belief in rational terms, as in something that explains a phenomena, (the universe, humans, existence, etc..) but what if I said you could keep that, but “God” has no personal involvement with you, and therefore doesn’t know you, or care about you, or listen to your prayers, or have a purpose for you. Assume the personal crutch attribute is removed and “God” is just an explanatory proposition.
        Would you believe or “search” for this “God” with the same fervor as the personal “God”?

        Also, Santa only cares about you for one day, maybe the night before…but the gods of any religion look out for you and are available 24/7.

  15. Not this one; I was never down with the god. At best, the headline should read some, many or most but not flat out children in general. I see a lack of interest for authority (I say interest instead of respect) in my daughter, as well. Pretty much, if there is a way to do something, that is not the way she will do it. Authority gets in the way. I agree with her.

  16. Admittedly I only have a sample dataset of two, which may not be representative of the population as a whole, but I can safely (and happily) report that my children have not presented any evidence to suggest an innate belief in a god or gods.

    @Neil Robert Jones – “I’m living in Norway and have had problems with my child’s School, in getting her out of any religious classes”.

    I had this dilemma too here in the UK. The closest (and nicest) primary school is a voluntary controlled school run by the local church and my initial reaction was to put my foot down and say that I didn’t want my eldest daughter to attend any religious classes whatsoever. However, when we discussed this she felt that being excluded from certain activities and separated from her friends would be far worse than simply having to put up with the religious classes. So we agreed that she would attend all classes at the school but she should remain open minded and not necessarily believe everything that she was told as fact. I think having a young sceptic in class may have benefitted several others and even a teacher that she was fond of admitted to her (discreetly!) that she was also a non-believer.

    Once a week the local head of the church visits each class at the school for an hour of bible babble. Imagine my pride when my daughter came home (at the age of around 10) and said that she’d asked him for evidence to support the claims he was making on the existence of his god!

    We read The Magic of Reality together and it was a wonderful moment when she read the initial pages of Chapter 2 (Who was the first person?) laughing at the absurdity of the Tasmanian aboriginal myth of the first people with kangaroo tails and no knees, which is followed in the chapter by the first person myth of Hebrew tribes from the Middle East. Her reaction – ‘wow this is what they’ve been teaching us in school, and it is just as silly as the no knee kangaroo tail story!’ – was priceless.

    My youngest daughter goes to the same church run school and is more of an antitheist than admittedly her tender years and experience should allow. A recent conversation with her went along the lines of “Do you believe in god?” – “No” – “Do you believe in Santa?” – “No” – “Do you believe in Fairies?” – “YES!!…..well….errr….thinking about it they probably don’t exist…….but it would be really good if they did”. And there you have it – a major reason why people find it hard to shake off certain beliefs expressed perfectly by a 7 year old.

    • @Steve..M
      The reason the school your daughter attends is the nicest, is most likely the down to children it’s able to deny entry. Private schools have the luxury of being able to bar trouble makers, those with ADHD, dirty, neglected, poor and disabled children that could possibly cause a distraction to the earnest little learners in their midst. On the other hand local schools have to take in everyone.
      I see this as a decidedly ‘unchristian’ thing to do, but everyone knows the score and accepts the reality of the situation. I would have done the same under the circumstances, hypocrite that I am. Luckily our local school catered for a fairly socially-acceptable group of students in the main, so there were no unpleasant choices to be made.
      This situation may emerge for my grandson when he reaches school age. His parents live in a large country town and I suspect the ‘in-area’ intake may not be the best. They hold very egalitarian views but I’m not sure these views will stand up when it comes to the best choice for their child. Being a parent comes first and they may feel compelled to send him to the nearest catholic school ( there are many in the area. ) if this situation comes to pass I feel they will need to ‘put him right’ every afternoon.

      • Hello Nitya,

        The reason the school your daughter attends is the nicest, is most likely the down to children it’s able to deny entry. Private schools have the luxury of being able to bar trouble makers, those with ADHD, dirty, neglected, poor and disabled children that could possibly cause a distraction to the earnest little learners in their midst. On the other hand local schools have to take in everyone.

        The school is a state school, not private, and it doesn’t deny entry to anyone within it’s catchment area, it is a local authority school that has to take in everyone. I provided a link to the definition of what constitutes a voluntary controlled school in my post where it clearly states that “they are funded by central government via the Local Authority, and do not charge fees to students.” – ie they are not private schools, which by definition “are not administered by local, state or national governments; thus, they retain the right to select their students and are funded in whole or in part by charging their students tuition, rather than relying on mandatory taxation through public (government) funding”.

        The school is the only primary school in the town (state or private) and was build relatively recently to replace three older, smaller state schools that were closed. Hence the reason its the nicest in the area (at least the nicest state school) – it’s the newest and has the most modern facilities. For this reason it seemed daft to travel further out of the town to a school that had not such good facilities purely on the grounds that it didn’t push the religious side as much (all state schools in the UK have to have some religious education by law).

        I’m certain that you need not worry – your grandson will be fine irrespective of the school he attends provided his parents find the time to ‘put him right’ every afternoon, which should be the responsibility of any parent in any case. This is kind of the point I was trying to make with my post – that even though children may attend overtly religious schools – in spite of the attempted indoctrination, provided they are exposed to balanced views at home, they do not appear to show an ‘innate belief in a god or gods, at least on the basis of my (admittedly limited) experience.

          • Sorry! When posts contain links they are generally held back by the system until a moderator has seen and approved them. And we’re not constantly online so sometimes it can be a few hours before we see them. Assuming the comment isn’t spam etc, we’ll obviously approve them as soon as we’re back.

            The mods

    • pps – I missed out another category of school in UK called voluntary aided schools – it seems that many catholic schools fall into this category, whereas church of England/Wales schools mostly opted for the voluntary controlled status. Voluntary aided schools maintain some control on their admissions policy in consultation with the local education authority, whereas the admissions for voluntary controlled schools (such as the one my children attend) are usually wholly controlled by the local education authority alone.

  17. I’d say children don’t have an innate belief in God. Maybe I can offer myself as an example as I was brought up without much religious indoctrination. My father was an atheist, a biologist actually, and my mother an agnostic (and a teacher). My brother and I were never christened although we did go to a Church of England school but that was because there wasn’t much else available at that time. At school, I guess there was some mild indoctrination (school assembly, being taught various bible stories and I do remember being given a bible the first day of secondary school) but even this was countered by my parents who would tell us that some people believed in God but others didn’t and that we should make up our own minds when older. So I’d say in our case it was our parents we ultimately listened to.

    As adults, neither me or my brother have any belief in God at all (although for both of us we were adults before we would specifically call ourselves atheists). In my case, I went through a phase when I looked closely at various religions and did find some respect for certain Buddhist ideas (but then it is questionable as to whether Buddhism is really a religion, more of a way of life in a lot of ways). It was seeing Richard’s films which made the difference and made me start to really identify as an atheist but even before this I never had any real belief and was always mystified that so many seemed to. What’s more, we have a large number cousins on my mothers side, some who had religious parents and some who didn’t and the correlation between the religious parents and the religious children (and vice versa) seems absolute except in one case (one cousin has rejected Catholicism).

    So I’d say that maybe, as one person said above, religion plants easily in young minds, but it will only do so if someone influential is around to do the planting. It doesn’t happen ‘innately’.

  18. Hello Nitya,

    I replied to this post last night but it somehow seems to have disappeared – so here we go again! Regarding your point:

    The reason the school your daughter attends is the nicest, is most likely the down to children it’s able to deny entry. Private schools have the luxury of being able to bar trouble makers, those with ADHD, dirty, neglected, poor and disabled children that could possibly cause a distraction to the earnest little learners in their midst. On the other hand local schools have to take in everyone.

    As I mentioned in my post – the school is a voluntary controlled school, which is a state school that by definition is funded by central government via the Local Authority, and does not charge fees to students. The school therefore has to allow entry to all within its catchment area – in contrast to private or independent schools which are not administered by local, state or national governments; thus, they retain the right to select their students and are funded in whole or in part by charging their students tuition, rather than relying on mandatory taxation through public (government) funding.

    The school is the only one in the town (state or private) and was built relatively recently to replace three older, smaller schools that were shut down. It therefore has very modern facilities which are well thought out – hence my comment that its the nicest in the area. I didn’t want my children to miss out on that and have to travel further afield to a less overtly religious school, with lesser facilities, on the basis of the religious angle alone (all state schools in the UK have some religious education and ‘acts of worship’ anyway mandated by law).

    Regarding your grandson – don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll turn out fine even if he attends a catholic school (are the ones you mention voluntary controlled schools or private/independent?). Provided his parents do ‘put him right’ now and then in terms of providing balanced views at home all should be fine. This was kind of my point in my initial post, in that (at least based on my limited dataset of two!) my children do not appear to have shown signs of an innate beleif in a god or gods even in spite of the local church trying to get in on their education and exert its influence on them from a young age.

    Cheers,
    Steve

    ps. I should add that in principle I am against any form of faith schools, particularly state faith schools, but given the situation at present here in the UK, it seems wise to only view the religious angle within the overall context of a number of different factors when selecting what you feel to be the most suitable school for your children.

    • Hi Steve M. Sorry that I jumped to the conclusion that it was a private school because it was religious. I interpreted the ‘voluntary’ part to mean that parents were obliged to volunteer their services from time to time in order to keep fees down. Mea culpa! so many erroneous assumptions! I should know better by now.
      I agree with your point that going to a religious school is no guarantee of the religious aspect taking hold. Most of the young people I know are atheists irrespective of their place of schooling, ( much to their credit). Of all those who have progressed into scientific fields not one has faith! This is from the small sample of people I know, I hasten to add.
      Whatever educational choices my daughter and son-in-law make, I’m confident he’ll turn out okay, after all he’ll be getting a good dose of critical thinking skills when he comes to stay with grandma, (I’ve got it all planned.)

      • Hello Nitya – no worries on the confusion of terms. The ‘voluntary’ term does seem a bit odd, I guess its because the land/buildings tend to be owned by the church and hence are ‘voluntarily’ offered for use as a school, provided that the Church can maintain some form of influence over it. Great to hear that you have it all planned out in terms of introducing critical thinking skills for your grandson – I’m sure he’ll enjoy it and benefit from it hugely.

  19. @OP – All across the board, children thought the historical narratives were true. When it came to religious stories, predictably children raised in religious settings classified them as true, while kids raised in secular setting classified them as fictional. What was most interesting to Corriveau, however, was how children classified the fantastical story: while secular children classified it as pretend 87 percent of the time, religious children only did so about 40 percent of the time.

    It looks like the census shows this carrying over into adulthood:-
    Religious, Nones, and Jedi!

    To Corriveau, this suggests that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” In other words, she told me, “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”

    This looks like a leap of faith showing cognitive bias.

    So is that a bad thing? “Not necessarily,” says Corriveau. “In many learning situations, what this might mean is that religious children might be more willing to accept seemingly counterintuitive phenomena in ways that secular children might not.”

    In the absence of available evidence or appropriate levels of understanding, , advice from trusted authority figures can be a sound basis for action, but much depends on the quality of the information and the competence of the authority figures! Uncritical acceptance is always a risky strategy, even when it is the best or only one available.

    However examples of refusal to evacuate an area, vaccinate, etc. when told to do so by scientists and public authorities is also a high risk strategy!

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