Born Idolaters *

Idol Baby

*With thanks to the illustrious Jonathan Jong for the title!

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.



  1. Hi Chris, I came back to reread your MCI Zombie piece and find a new post – nice piece and links too!

    How was the conference? I’ll be looking forward to whatever and whenever your free time allows for new posts here.

    – Mark


  2. Hey Mark,

    Conference was great. Very enjoyable and lots of nice research presented. I’m one of the least consistent bloggers but I do intend to post more articles when I have time.

    Glad you’re enjoying 😉


  3. Muhammad and his followers had a brash way of saying things, you have a convoluted way of saying things. Both of you say the same thing, i.e. there is no religion except that of mine. Your religion is looking into a microscope and getting enlightened about the world. It is therefore absurd and absolutely immature on my part to acknowledge that you will ever be able to establish things that will escape your microscopic view.

    What is becoming more obtrusive is your dabbling with that very thing that stays beyond microscope- aka the thing you call behavior, cognition, et al.
    You have taken a route to establish a logic, and the whole world has the avenue to tell me what that logic is. However, you have close all avenues for establishment of all logic that does not follow your route. For example- Let us construct a null hypothesis- “GOD exists”. I will accept it as a “knowledge” that intrinsically is GOD (In our religion as we reach GOD, the quality markers, the quantity markers, all merge in unity). You will laugh at me….but simultaneously will prostrate before Stephen Hawkings for saying things on similar lines about black hole.

    However, unlike Hawkings, we will never say that a black hole (which must have dimension, and hence can be observed with human or human made apparatus) is GOD, for it is kind of absence of logic that will call a black hole a dimensional thing, and at the same point of time a dimensionless thing (I hope you will not argue with this logic that if time and space merge into something, then the known dimensions cease to exist)

    Let us now revisit, how you would like to establish or reject the hypothesis= ” God exists”. You will do so by setting certain rules that cannot be corroborated by your science, i.e- GOD will exist IF and only IF either of events A, B, C ….are found to occur. But what are those events? If an unexplained event does occurs, then you will not accept it, no matter if the explanations never come. In the mean time you will stick to more hypothesis to disprove the earlier hypothesis through a set of logic which themselves will never follow the “If and only IF logic- which emphatically you challenge me to use as a sacrosanct benchmark.

    Therefore, I wonder, of all the unexplained things that you will never mention, and even if you mention will not be supported by any “scientific” construct (No matter how much you say that nazca lines can be drawn, we cannot recreate them, no matter how much we say we can create the crop circles, all the MIT whizkids could do was to create a small circular patch with some mgnetic radiation’.

    This therefore leads the scientists to make another claim- That there are superior beings (Still not the name of GOD) or superior terrestrial forces (Still no name of GOD) that shape the “physical particles” to “move and interact beyond known manners”. Thereby implying two contradictory emotions- there is indeed a realm of unknown, but I can always be his boss.Have you ever thought why an atheist, even if finally reaches all the events A,B, C…..of his own construct will not be able to acknowledge that there is GOD? It is because idolatry was not the promiscuity, our insatiable desire to be GOD is the promiscuity.

    In acknowledging that there is GOD, I am not the boss. It will eventually not matter to you if we claim Scientist is GOD. Then this word GOD will not face this resistance, or you will not bother to disprove this notion.

    Well, i will leave you with some verses of our scriptures where nature of GOD and nature of dimensions are told-
    “Time is not a dimension, but the greatest of markers. In other words, time does not move, we move from one space time to another and time is used as a marker, as the heights of “Meru Mountain” is used as a marker.”
    “The eventuality of dimensional existence is the non dimensional existence. However, the non dimension is achieved through including all dimensions, just as if every possible line in the palm is perfectly present on the palm, there will be no line that you can see.”
    Finally, from the words of Gita- “I, the all powerful GOD is you, the all powerful GOD just as he, the all powerful GOD. Know the nature that is I , you and he. I cannot be cut by sword, I cannot be burnt by fire, I cannot be dried by winds, I cannot be touched by joy or sorrow. I was..I am…I will be….I that is I, that is you…..that is he”


  4. I have a feeling that much of this was just a preprepared post as the majority of the content barely relates to the article above. However, ultimately your argument amounts to special pleading, scientific theories live and die on their evidence and predictive ability. Some theoretical models are beyond are present capabilities to test but as technology and research methods improve these models will be tested and will either be accepted, modified or disproved. This differs dramatically from how you advocate we approach the existence of God. It would take time and effort to go through all of the misconceptions you present but the fact that you consider crop circles as being impossible to recreate even by “MIT whiz kids” is a clear illustration of the general quality of your research. A 5 minute look through the wikipedia article on crop circles will make it abundantly clear that crop circles are not beyond human (or MIT whiz kids) capability to reproduce.


  5. Please…no Wikipedia…there are research papers in MIT itself. However, Wikipedia also suggests that it can be done, but myself being a physics student has not got much enlightenment about how to do it with any amount of fine tuning of the instruments used by the graduates.
    And this post is in response to your not so hidden declaration of why there is no GOD.
    Anyways…an argument is not a rebuttal…but an initiation of alternate thought process. I hope you will understand the fallacy of your arguments in much the same way you hope to make me understand mine.
    Please take time to delve a bit deeper into the subject of “born devotion”. The subject of Idolatry will come much later.
    If everything is finished at death, and our human nature is a function of rules followed by Freud and Jung,there cannot be anything you are born with except for your torso and a white mass that slowly becomes coherent through external impulses provided by gross nature


  6. You really don’t need research papers when there are videos of people creating crop circles, confessions from hoaxers and even hundreds of videos of people making crop circles: You don’t need to be a physics professor to find such information either simply reading the wikipedia article or googling for five minutes would make it evident that we can and do create crop circles. It’s a side point but it reflects the level of research you are bringing to your arguments. Moreover, your citation of your physics credentials, aside from being irrelevant, is rather hypocritical given your last post. My brother is a physicist by the way and I’ve not found that it gives him any additional insight into God(s) or crop circles.

    Finally, while I do engage and benefit from well thought out critiques, I also do not feel the need to pander to people who present poorly argued diatribes. I did not mention Freud & Jung or Stephen Hawkings in my post and their theories are irrelevant to what I was discussing in the post.


  7. Excellent post Chris. And fine handling of Bhakta (which in Sanskrit for someone who practices Bhakti — devotional spirituality).

    I’ve always said that if you give me a dozen believers, a hardy amount of ale, I could lead a conversation that would get each one to commit to heresy within an hour or two. The average believer does not embrace sophisticated theologies. And the average believers I know have all sorts of superstitions they don’t confess to their religious professionals. Much like most of my medical patients won’t tell me the alternative medicine they do because of fear of ridicule.

    I agree, the vast majority of us are natural born superstitionists (I’d not use “Idolater” because it still plays to monotheist cards.) The big religions are then packagings of these things plus politics, identity, race and much more — that is my theory.

    I love the way you write it here, though. Odd that Connor does not visit your writing?

    BTW, I don’t like the phrase “evangelical atheists” but would say “anti-religion atheists” or “hyper-rational atheists” because your choice implies that to speak out against forms of theism is evangelical and bad. Thus it implies atheists need to be quiet. Which you aren’t, of course. Just my thoughts.

    Sorry I missed you in Oxford. Back in the USA now. Glad I found your blog — hard to find.


  8. Hey Sabio,

    Thanks for the kind words. Recently, I haven’t tended to promote my blog due to my incredibly inconsistency in posting and my horror in reading some of the articles from a few years back. As such, I would be suprised if Connor was aware I have a blog! I am glad you found it though and am likewise sorry we missed each other in Oxford. If you happen to be passing through Sapporo anytime soon, let me know!

    In regards the post, I wrote it partly out of frustration at a few recent articles that have implied that our intuitive tendency to ‘believe’ may represent the fingerprints of the theistic God on human development or that they make atheism impossible. I think such claims are quite incoherent, for the reasons I outline above, and thus deliberately chose idolaters to emphasise that many of our automatic intuitions conflict with the kind of belief monotheistic religions seek to promote.

    I also deliberately used evangelical atheists, although I recognise the term is disparaging. I am in favour of people being able to criticise religion and engage in debate with believers but I am against those who make this their overriding concern in all situations. A recent example of the kind of evangelical atheist streak I am criticising appeared when a friend of mine (an atheist of Jewish descent) set out to arrange a joint fast followed by a shared meal between Jews and Muslims who wanted to display some solidarity against the violence in the West Bank. When the post announcing this event appeared on Facebook, another atheist friend was quick to announce that “Instead of refraining from food, Muslims and Jews should refrain from believing in magic sky gods. That would be more effective, I think.” Despite several replies explaining that the goal of the event was to display solidarity and that the conflict was not solely about religion, the ranting continued over a series of long messages that focused on the folly of religious believers and made the usual unwarranted claims i.e. “Love thy neighbour is in all of us but hate, hate thy neighbour, for that you need religion” but made little mention of the event or its admirable goals.

    This is evangelical behaviour and deserves criticism. It is anti-theist but it is not hyper-rationalism as the arguments presented are often emotional and incredibly biased. I don’t however automatically regard the New Atheists as being a part of this group.

    Oh and as for the images, actually I recently started using the micro-freelancing sites for some of my academic projects and found a nice illustrator from Thailand from whom I receive custom images for very reasonable prices. You can see some of their work here:


  9. Since silence means “dealt with” ….that is the world of logic you people stay in, I just had to come back…to tell you to have a deeper study in philosophy of Mathematics (it talks about what is logic and what is not) Or else it will be a conundrum where one will be a doctor and another a lunatic…both accusing each other of being a lunatic. Goodbye friends…you will grow up someday.


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