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Are kids born with an innate belief in God?

A boy prays at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
A boy prays at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
(Joe Raedle/Getty)

What if children didn't have to be taught to believe in God? What if they were born with that ready-made belief somewhere embedded in their minds?

That's the thesis of a 2012 book by psychologist Justin L. Barrett called Born Believers. Barrett, currently a researcher at Fuller Theological Seminary, has spent his career researching children and religious belief. After observing that children tend to believe that the world has order and purpose, he came to the conclusion that kids are born with a tendency toward thinking that there is some sort of supernatural agent behind this order. Or, as he put it to me over the phone, "children have a number of natural dispositions to religious beliefs of various sorts." And while he believes that these dispositions can "certainly be overridden by certain kinds of cultural and educational environments," he thinks the research shows that a child's cognitive "playing field is tilted toward religious beliefs."

A new study out earlier this year, however, pushes against Barrett's conclusion. Published in the July issue of Cognitive Science, the article presents findings that seem to show that children's beliefs in the supernatural are the result of their education. Further, argue the researchers, "exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children's differentiation between reality and fiction." In other words, said Kathleen Corriveau, one of the study's co-authors, the study found that childhood exposure to religious ideas may influence children's "conception of what could actually happen." She also told me her research suggests that Barrett's Born Believers thesis is wrong — that children don't possess an "innate bias" toward religious belief.

Here's how Corriveau and her colleagues conducted their research. They gave a total of 66 kindergartners three different narratives: 1) religious, 2) historical, and 3) fantastical. An example of 1) was telling kids the story of Moses parting the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk through on dry land. They then changed that story in two ways. For the "historical" version 2) they told the same story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, but they took out all the references to God and miracles: Moses crossed the water in a boat. For the "fantastical" version 3) God was replaced with some other fantasy mechanism.

All across the board, children thought the historical narratives were true. When it came to religious stories, predictably children raised in religious settings classified them as true, while kids raised in secular setting classified them as fictional. What was most interesting to Corriveau, however, was how children classified the fantastical story: while secular children classified it as pretend 87 percent of the time, religious children only did so about 40 percent of the time. To Corriveau, this suggests that "religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen." In other words, she told me, "religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief."

So is that a bad thing? "Not necessarily," says Corriveau. "In many learning situations, what this might mean is that religious children might be more willing to accept seemingly counterintuitive phenomena in ways that secular children might not." It also might mean, she notes, that religious children have broader conceptual frameworks, and might have a "better ability to engage in unexpected outcomes."

Barrett agrees with Corriveau on that point, noting that there's real value with allowing children to experiment with the conceptual boundaries of what's real and what's not. According to him, the question "what if things were different?" is an important part of the learning process. "It sure looks like that's the backbone of innovation, creativity, and all kinds of problem-solving in the world, both artistic and scientific." As Paul Harris, one of the study's co-authors, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy."

Some, however, might decide Corriveau's findings offer a compelling argument against religious education. The Raw Story's reaction to the study was that "Children exposed to religion have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction." And discussing the study yesterday in an article titled Is religion good for children?Slate's Mark Joseph Stern seemed to answer his own question in the negative: "When you've been told that a woman was created from a man's rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit."

Corriveau acknowledges that some might read the study "and conclude, 'Therefore, don't expose children to religion!'" But again, she notes, her findings are neutral. (Barrett goes one further and says that interpretations like Stern's are an "abuse of the data.") Exposing kids to religion "isn't good or bad," says Corriveau. "It's just important to recognize that a domain of knowledge like religion could influence what children are bringing to the table when they're learning about science or history." Corriveau pointed out that a 2008 Pew survey shows that the vast majority of families claim some sort of religious affiliation.

"I wonder," Barrett suggested, "if the real story here is that the non-religious kids are the peculiar ones." Barrett thinks it's important to note that the research for Corriveau's study was conducted in Massachusetts, which contains one of the highest concentrations of non-believers in the US. Barrett wonders if the secular kids Corriveau found are really representative of the average American child. "These kids [in this study] are probably being raised in a very peculiar kind of way, different than the vast majority of kids."

In recent years, some non-religious adults have taken a hardline stance against religious education, arguing, like Richard Dawkins, that it's "pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism." Instead, says Dawkins, we should be instilling in children a healthy degree of skepticism, teaching them that it's "too statistically improbable" for a prince to turn into a frog.

For Dawkins and those with similar views, the indoctrination of children involves teaching them to believe in God. But as Barrett asked me, what if the indoctrination involves teaching children not to believe in God?

You don't know which is the figure and which is the ground here. The assumption is, you grow up in a religious home, you get an indoctrination that distorts your view of reality. What if it's just other way around? That the small minority of kids who are not growing up in religious families are being told repeatedly, about anything remotely unusual, "Oh, you know that's impossible, right?"

All kids, whether or not they're growing up in religious settings, are being influenced in some way, Barrett said. Whether they learn from their Sunday school teacher that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, or whether they learn from Stern that religion "requires us to buy into fantasies," the fact is that all of their conceptual frameworks are being influenced by the adults around them.

Says Barrett, "We shouldn't pretend just because [some kids] go to a parochial school or are part of a religious family, that they're being inculturated and public school kids aren't. Of course, they're all being inculturated — they're just being inculturated differently."

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