Children are predisposed to a belief in God, says experimental psychologist and author Justin Barrett.
In an interview with John Dickson for season 3 of his popular podcast, Undeceptions, Barrett told Dickson that the building blocks of a child’s mind makes them “very receptive” to religious thought.
“If you turn music on around a little kid, they’ll start to sway. Humans are unusual among animals [in this way]. Very few animals will do rhythmic activities and fall into rhythm with each other. And we just do it naturally, from early childhood (some better than others!). So it would come as no surprise that cultural forms that we recognise as ‘dance’ are all over the world, unless they’ve been actively tamped down.
“You can use a similar kind of research strategy to say, ‘Well, it seems that religious thought of one sort or another is all over the place. What are the natural building blocks for this and how do we study these in the course of development?'”
“…Children look around the world and see, say, rivers or mountains or trees or the long neck of a giraffe or the sharp teeth of a crocodile and very quickly wonder what it’s for, how did it get here.”
Barrett references the work of Professor Deborah Keleman, a developmental psychologist from Boston University, who has been researching ‘teleo-functional reasoning’ (essentially, looking at how children view the world.)
“Through a series of studies, Professor Keleman found that children look around the world and see, say, rivers or mountains or trees or the long neck of a giraffe or the sharp teeth of a crocodile and very quickly wonder what it’s for, how did it get here.
“These are the questions they are attracted to. Maybe those sharp teeth are good for tearing things apart. Or that mountain is pointy so people won’t sit on top of it. They’re not necessarily good explanations, from an adult point of view, but they have this idea of a function or purpose involved.”
Barrett says children prefer functional answers to mechanistic ones – wondering why over how. And while none of that sounds much like religion at this point, these are the building blocks for understanding how children think.
Studies conducted with children from around the world, not just in western countries, suggest the same: there is a tendency in the human mind to think of natural things as somehow intended.
Barrett says that there is increasing evidence that adults, too, have a natural inclination towards intention in the universe. In an article published in the journal Cognition in 2015, Keleman and Jarnefelt said their research indicated that even in adults who claimed to be non-religious, there was a default tendency to see nature as purposefully made by some being. This was true whether those adults came from highly secular cultures like Finland, more religiously-inclined cultures like the United States and among adults with varying degrees of education.
The Bible, says John Dickson, has long said that the “heavens proclaim the glory of God” (Psalm 19), that the creation itself points to God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1).
“These are statements about ‘teleology’ – the whole thing looks set up to get our attention,” says Dickson.