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 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.