God in the Lab Review Part 3: Born Believers

Baby JesusThe third talk in the God in the Lab event was by Dr. Justin Barrett, another researcher from the Oxford Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, who was discussing the evidence for the theory that children are ‘born believers’, in that they possess a strong natural receptivity to religious beliefs.

Dr. Barrett, as befitting someone whose research involves developmental psychology with children, is an incredibly expressive speaker (with a strong American accent) and is particularly good at relaying how important intonation is when dealing with children (or at least I got that impression from his reconstructed dialogues). His talk started off with him identifying a number of recent researchers who have published books and articles detailing strong evidence that religion is a natural belief that the human mind is naturally receptive to, especially in childhood.

He pointed in particular to the research of:

  1. Pascal Boyer– an anthropologist at Washington university, who wrote The Naturalness Of Religious Ideas (1994), Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Foundations of Religious Belief (2001) and published an article in Nature in 2008 titled Religion: Bound to Believe
  2. Paul Bloom– a pyschologist at Yale, who wrote Descartes Baby: How the science of child development makes us human (supporting the conclusions of ‘innate dualism’ discussed in Emma Cohen’s talk) and a 2007 article inDevelopmental Pyschology titled Religion is Natural.
  3. Deborah Kelemen– a pyschologist at Boston University who has published a whole slew of articles dealing with childhood cognition and it’s relationship with religious modes of thinking. Including, notably, the articles Counterintuition, existential anxiety, and religion as a by-product of the designing mind in Behavioral and Brain Sciences and Are children “intuitive theists”?: Reasoning about purpose and design in nature in Psychological Science both published in 2004.

Just examining the titles of their papers and books it is clear that they certainly seem to support the theory that religion is ‘a natural belief’ especially for children (and if you require further evidence take a look through their websites- alot of their articles are available online). Having established that there was plenty of research supporting the ‘natural believers’ theory Dr. Barrett went on to discuss in more detail what some of that research had shown and how it contradicts the ‘indoctrination hypothesis’ promoted by Richard Dawkins and others. 

The first research he discussed was Deborah Kelemen’s work with children, which found that there is a kind of bias within children for ‘intelligent design’ type explanations or, more precisely, that they tended to favour explanations that suggested things were ‘made for’ something. So for instance, children would tend to explain that birds exist so that we can hear nice music, monkeys exist because something had to live in the trees, rivers exist so boats have something to float on and so on. Kelemen referred to this bias for seeing design in usual places as ‘promiscous theology‘ and apparently has some unpublished research that shows this bias in some cases persists into adulthood. I would have thought that this is quite obvious given how popular intelligent design type movements and/or explanations are worldwide but maybe the research shows something more nuanced.

Anyhow, following on from this he went on to talk about some research by George Newman & Frank Keil whose findings supported Kelemen’s theory. Newman & Feil where able to demonstrate that even at 12 months old babies already recognised that agents create order and where suprised if a non-agent did so. How they tested this was by showing a variety the babies a variety of moving images depicting the following scenarios:

  1. A ball rolls towards a tower of bricks. Before it hits a cover comes over the tower and the ball rolls behind the cover. The cover is removed and the bricks are scattered around and the ball has stopped moving.
  2. A ball rolls towards a pile of scattered bricks. Before it hits a cover comes over the pile and the ball rolls behind the cover. The cover is removed and the bricks are arranged in a straight tower and the ball has stopped moving.
  3. The same as two except this time the ball has a smiley face on it.

Dr. Barrett explained that many, many studies have established that you can measure young babies suprise by how long they stare at an image- with suprising images being stared at for longer. Using this measure Newman & Klein found that when 12 month old babies were presented with the three scenarios above the first scenario was not suprising to the infant but the second one registered as very suprising. However, the ball creating order (i.e. stacking up the bricks) did not suprise the infants when a smiley face was drawn on the ball, as in scenario three. Thus, the research found that even 12 month old babies already associate agents (as in active thinking entities) with the constuction of order (which is bad news for anyone hoping to teach evolutionary theory to a 12 month old baby).

Keeping with the ‘promiscuous theology’ point Dr. Barrett next discussed Olivera Petrovich‘s research. Petrovich focused on childhood spirituality looking specifically for concepts developed through means rather than straight cultural transmission (i.e. not beliefs that have been directly taught to the child by parents/priests etc.). Petrovich’s research showed that when given the choice between three options: 1) People made it, 2) God made it and 3) No one knows and shown a variety of natural objects even young children favour explanation 2. Her findings along with some other studies also contradicted the influential theory of Jean Piaget which held that young children could not distinguish readily between natural and manmade objects and tended to ascribe manmade origins to natural objects such as mountains and rivers. 

One problem I see with this research, as it was described, is that the way the question was set up presented no ‘natural’ explanation option- and I don’t mean a complicated explanation just a ‘Nature made it like that’ option for instance. As such I don’t find it that suprising that from the options available most kids would select ‘God made it’ as one attributes it to people whose limitations they may understand and the other one means admitting that ‘No one knows’ which seems a bit unlikely for a child to select- don’t daddy and mommy know everything? Hmmm… 

The final set of research that Dr.Barrett presented was that based around ‘false belief’ tests or as he decribed it the ‘cracker box’ test. This test involves taking a container a child is familiar with, such as a cracker box, emptying it of it’s usual contents and filling it up with something unexpected, say pencils. Once prepared, the container is shown to the child and the child is asked what it thinks is inside, after it guesses the expected response, it is shown that it is wrong and then a series of follow up questions are asked. The follow up questions are along the lines of; did you always know that pencils where inside the cracker box? Why did you say that crackers would be inside before? What would your friend think was in the cracker box if they came in and I showed them the box? What would your mom think is inside the cracker box? and so on.

The results of these kind of tests have Dr. Barrett reported repeatedly shown that children at around 3 years of age cannot distinguish between what they know now and what they knew in the past. So for example when asked the children will say they always knew there were pencils inside and even if shown videos of them guessing incorrectly they will justify their replies as jokes, lies etc. They also cannot distinguish between what they know and what others know, so they will also answer when asked that their friends and their mom will also know that there are pencils inside the first time they see the cracker box. The research also shows that by the age of 4/5 most children have developed the ability to distinguish between their minds and other minds. I found this fascinating- the idea that at one point in our development we can’t distinguish our minds from others and really want to try it out on a 3 year old unfortunately I don’t know any so I’ll have to take the researchers word for it.

Using this and other similar tests researchers have also examined childhood conceptions of God, by adding in questions about whether God (and a dog for a control) would know what was inside the box. This research was carried out amongst children raised in a Western Christian environment and was also replicated with Mayan children raised in a polytheistic environment to see if there were any significant differences in their views on God/s knowledge. Suprisingly there wasn’t. Instead, the significant finding of this research was that 3-7 year olds despite developing the ability to distinguish between their knowledge and the knowledge of others around 4 consistently answered through all ages that God would always know what was in the box and was untrickable. They also found that children displayed the ability to differentiate knowledge capabilities between Gods and other humans & animals quicker (by 2 years!) than they could distinguish between other humans and animals!

Dr. Barrett discussed some other examples but I think his case is already clearly illustrated in the above examples. And from my perspective at least it seems that there certainly is a strong case to be made for children possesing an intuitive bias for certain kinds of God concepts i.e. “Born Believers”. What I am not so sure about is whether this research actually disproves the ‘indoctrination hypothesis’ as Dr. Barrett kind of suggested.

As I understand it, the ‘indoctrination hypothesis’ is based on the idea that children are naturally receptive to ideas when they are young and that teaching children to believe in specific religious ideas from an early age is taking advantage of that natural receptiveness. This research seems to show that children are particularly receptive to certain religious concepts and may in fact naturally develop similar ideas on their own. However, that finding to me seems to only contradict those who would say that religious belief is not intuitively appealing to children and I’m not so sure that’s the point of those arguing for an ‘indoctrination hypothesis’.

Anyhow, this was another excellent presentation covering a lot of material and made me realise that developmental pyschologists have come up with incredible ways of testing the capacities of children. It seems to be a very interesting field of study and one which, I have to confess I was almost entirely ignorant of.

One more talk to go and then it’s goodbye to God in the Lab…

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