Rob Buckingham's Blog

Born Believers

According to Dr Olivera Petrovich, an expert in psychology of religion, “Infants are hardwired to believe in God, and atheism has to be learned.”  In other words, belief in God is not taught but develops naturally.  Her findings were based on several studies particularly one of Japanese children aged four to six, and another of 400 British children aged five to seven from seven different faiths.  The conclusion: “Atheism is definitely an acquired position.”

This research has now been backed up in a recent article in New Scientist (March 17, 2012 issue).  Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive psychology of religion, Justin Barrett (author of “Born believers: The science of children’s religious belief”) argues that belief in God comes nearly as naturally to us as language.  He says, “the vast majority of humans are born believers, naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive, and to attain fluency in using them.”

Deborah Kelemen of Boston University wrote, “when it comes to speculation about the origins of natural things, children are very receptive to explanations that invoke design or purpose.  It seems more sensible to them that animals and plants were brought about for a reason than they arose for no reason.”  Kelemen has also done experiments with adults that suggest we do not simply outgrow this attraction but that it must forcibly be tamped down through formal education (Cognition, Vol 3, p138).

Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan has found that “children under 10 tend to embrace creationist explanations of living things over evolutionary ones – even children whose parents and teachers endorse evolution.”  It seems that we all share an intuition that apparent order and design such as we see in the world around us requires an agent to bring it about.

This has certainly been born out in my own experience over many years of teaching Religious Education to children in primary schools.  There were always one or two kids who would be atheists, but it was always as a result of what they had heard their parents articulate about there being “no God”.  All the other kids – including those from homes where no particular faith was adhered to – believed in the existence of God and were particularly fascinated by discussions on the spirit world and life after death.

What a huge responsibility there is in parenting or teaching a child – to protect this inherent belief in God and to nurture it into a vibrant faith that remains a strong foundation throughout the child’s life.  Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."  And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:14-16).

Justin Barrett says, “Children do not need to be indoctrinated to believe in God.  They naturally gravitate towards the idea.”  Let’s make it easy for them.

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