A flurry of recent research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has suggested that from our childhood we are “teleologically promiscuous“- detecting purpose readily behind everything from birds to rocks, “intuitive dualists“- distinguishing between physical bodies and immaterial minds, and possess a “hyperactive agency detector device” (HADD), which makes us quick to worry about what caused that twig to snap in the bush behind us. All of these factors (and more beside) are said to make us “Born Believers“ in the words of Justin Barrett, a psychologist specialising on religious thought (and my former supervisor). However, even if we accept such accounts, then an important question remains: what exactly are we ‘born to believe’ ?
The image of religious beliefs being intuitive and in a cognitive sense – ‘natural’, stands in stark contrast to the image, popularised by Richard Dawkins, of beliefs as a counterintuitive mind-virus, transmitted forcibly by parents into the pure, innocent sponge-like young minds (an act provocatively labelled by Dawkins as ‘child abuse’). Unfortunately for evangelical atheists everywhere, the mind-virus account seems to be losing ground in CSR as the research literature grows and only really remains tenable if you chose to redefine the features of standard cognitive development as being pathological.
In short, in some child-only post-apocalyptic scenario, while it’s unlikely that young children raised without religion would invent the doctrine of transubstantiation, it isn’t far fetched to imagine them generating spontaneous myths about spirits walking in the forests or ghosts lingering after death. Indeed, even in our own pre-apocalyptic word, the well known tendency for young children to invent invisible beings, who can become close personal friends, should serve as some indication that our cognitive default is not one of rational skepticism.
However, for those who would like to interpret this as indicative of God(s) using some power to making humans ‘naturally’ receptive to religious messages there is a rather problematic hurdle to overcome, namely; the God(s) seemed to have instilled a mechanism in humans that is not tuned to any particular deity or creed but rather is perfect for promoting what most monotheists would typically define as idolatry. Indeed, Justin Barrett himself recognised this in Born Believers pointing out that “the sort of religious beliefs children naturally acquire without any explicit input from adults will deviate from the worked-out systems of theology of the world’s religious traditions. Left to their own devices, they will likely become religious in some sense but probably in a sense more like what you would call superstition than a thoughtful, sophisticated belief and behavior system. They may be drawn to worshiping Mother Earth, astrology, or an unhealthy preoccupation with ghosts, among other suspect beliefs and practices such as wearing their underwear inside out to produce snow or carrying amulets for success on school exams.” (2012: 249)
Setting aside the rather unfortunate Christian bias in the quote (I doubt devotion to saints and carrying rosary beads would be described as ‘unhealthy preoccupations’ or ‘suspect practices’), the point remains valid. In fact it seems, as the title of this post suggests, that rather than talking about ‘Born Believers’, which conjures up images of innate intellectualised devotion, it would be more accurate to talk of humans being ‘Born Idolaters’, ready and willing to entertain the world as being populated by fantastical beings and unseen powers. When framed this way the recent findings from CSR seem rather less appealing for any religion with a monotheistic or exclusivist God, as if people’s intuitive religious thoughts are guided by God’s divine hand, it seems that the hand is guiding them towards that golden cow statue rather than some deep theological treatise.