Saturday, 21 March 2009

Born Believers: The Naturalness of Childhood Theism

This is the live blog of the third talk in CFI U.K.'s "God in the lab" meeting at Conway Hall, 21st March, 2009.

Justin Barrett is Senior Researcher, Acting Director, Centre for Anthropology & Mind and Lecturer, Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. Justin L. Barrett earned degrees in psychology from Calvin College (B.A.) and Cornell University (Ph.D). He served on the psychology faculties of Calvin College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), and as a research fellow of the Institute for Social Research. Dr. Barrett is an editor of the Journal of Cognition and Culture and is author of numerous articles and chapters concerning cognitive science of religion. His book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (AltaMira, 2004) presents a scientific account for the prevalence of religious beliefs. He is currently Senior Researcher at Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind in the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography.

“Recent best-selling books may give the impression that children only believe in gods because of a combination of possessing a tragically gullible mental tabula rasa and abusive indoctrination practices. Nonsense. Recent scientific study of children’s conceptual structures reveals that children’s minds are naturally receptive to god concepts… In this presentation, relevant scientific evidence is presented. Children are ‘born believers’ in the sense that under normal developmental conditions they almost inevitably entertain beliefs in gods.”


Michael Brooks "Natural Born Believers" in the New Scientist asks will children in isolation develop religious beliefs. Paul Bloom says yes. So does Pascal Boyer and Deborah Kelemen would say the same "Are children intuitive theists".

He will present some experiments show how children can be called be "born believers".

Evidence exists that children might find especially natural the idea of a non-human creator of the natural world possessing super powers etc. From infancy one strategy to understand the world is "promiscuous teleology" (Kelemen) we seek purpose even where it does not exist. From an early age children give "intelligent design" - final purpose explanations for a range of phenomenon. 12month old babies know that agents create order (Newman and Keil).

The false belief task cannot be dealt with by 3-4 yrar olds, but older kids can.

A more focused perspective on TOM comes from developmental psychology. Children show a precocious ability to understand intentions and other important aspects of the mind (as gaze direction, attention, pretense). Nevertheless, in the early 80, the psychologists H. Wimmer and J. Perner showed that a full-fledged TOM doesn’t develop before the age of 3/4. They set up a series of experimental tests in order to check whether children between 3 and 5 years of age were able to attribute a false belief to someone else. In one of these experiments, children see a scene in which a character, Maxi, puts chocolate in a drawer and goes away. While he is away, his mother takes a bit of chocolate for cooking and then puts it somewhere else and goes out. Then Maxi comes back, and the experimenter asks: "Where will Maxi look for the chocolate?". The 1983 original results showed that children over 5 did not have problems in attributing to Maxi a false belief, whereas younger child ren predicted indifferently that Maxi could look for the chocolate where his mother has put it. Further experiments lowered the threshold of attributing false beliefs to 3/4 years of age. The false belief task , as it is called, defines a sharp watershed between a stage of child’s development in which children have a sort of "transparent" reading of mind and reality (people believe what it is the case), and a stage in which they show a capacity of having an "opaque" reading of mind and reality, that is, they can easily distinguish between what is the case and what people believe is the case. This has been taken as an important piece of evidence of the development of a domain specific ability in dealing with mentalistic concepts, such as believe, which doesn’t seem to be available in earlier stages.[Theory of Mind]

Another task was the Droodle Task.
The false belief measure used was part of a "droodle task" developed by Chandler and Helm (1984). Because this same task also served as the basis for assessing participant’s interpretive understanding of ambiguous stimuli, the procedure and stimuli are described in full in the following section.

In this task, children are shown a cartoon drawing depicting an elephant eating a peanut (see Figure 1), and asked to describe the picture. A cover is then placed over the drawing, leaving only a small portion of the original drawing visible. Participants are then introduced to a doll (Michelle), who has "seen" only this small portion of the original picture. They are asked what Michelle might think this is a picture of. A child who has is unable to attribute false beliefs to others will typically respond that Michelle will think this is a picture of an elephant eating a peanut. Because it would be extremely unlikely for anyone who has seen only the limited view of the picture to interpret the picture in this way, such a response can be considered a "reality error" and indicates that the child is inappropriately attributing her own privileged knowledge to the puppet. Children who understand the role of perception in belief formation will attribute a false-belief to the doll; they will say the doll thinks this is a picture of a chimney, or a hockey stick, or some other imagined thing. This first portion of the task served as the measure of false belief understanding. Children who attributed a false belief to Michelle (that is, said that she would think the picture was something other than what the child herself knew it to be), were credited with an understanding of false belief and a copy theory of mind. [What do you mean you don't like candy]

Developmental support for a super-knowing god:

When children are evaluated for the knowledge of the contents of a closed box from the age of 3 to 6, after the age of 4 there is a divergence between the understanding of god and human beings (e.g. mother). This was replicated with Mayan children thinking humans are like god when younger and only diverging when older that humans are trickable whereas god is untrickable.Other tasks he covered were the "secret game". As the child gets older there is a divergence between an "untrickable" god and their mom and dog (although a dog is more trickable than mom). This is the first study in the theory of mind that shows that three year olds can make distinctions between different types of mind even if there is still over-attribution of knowledge to different minds. As kids get older their capacity to differentiate different types of mind increase but it takes them longer characterise the knowledge capabilities of people than gods (by two years)!

By four years of age half have imaginary friends. Even infants show evidence of reasoning that coloured discs as intentional agents with goals. Reasoning about unseen or non-present agents is a normal activity maybe this is why they do not need agents to have bodies?

Belief is some kind of afterlife universal? Why this recurrence? He also mentions "intuitive dualism" as mentioned previously.

Because of these assumption kids can reason about gods properties earlier than humans! They may readily understand, acquire and believe in god concepts that approximate these assumptions.

As a result he rejects the "indoctrination hypothesis". If you threaten and it cant be disproved they'll believe. No not anything, any certain things related to this innate and intuitive dualism and teleology. Processionals find the indoctrination hypothesis unconvincing. The cultural environment just fills in the details.

So he concludes that all this evidence supports that children are born believers. I asked about what studies are done as children get older beyond the age of 8. There are various studies showing the rejection of theism in teenagers. He said there is insufficient research but still 85% of the world population are believers so this natural propensity is not often overcome or grown out of.


Chris Geiser said...

At the end of the OVERVIEW section, it was quoted that, "Children are ‘born believers’ in the sense that under normal developmental conditions they almost inevitably entertain beliefs in gods.”

A large percent of a person's worldview is developed by the age of 5 and most of the rest of it is developed by the age of 12. It is true that if somebody wants to brainwash someone, they should start brainwashing from birth. We can deceive anyone into thinking anything by the time they are 18.

In the documentary called "Obsession," they reveal radical Muslim parents teaching their kids from birth how to view anyone who does not think the Koran is God's word. Some Christians do the same but not many are serious about it. Non-religious parents brainwash their kids from birth without realizing it. Such as having an immoral mentality and that it is OK to participate in immoral activities such as: holding grudges, being jealous or negative, looking at porn, homosexuality, idol worship (ie. Hinduism, Buddhism), sex before marriage, pornography, hatred, lying, stealing, wanting other peoples' things, only caring for their friends and not people who don't like them. getting drunk, eating too much, treating people with disrespect, and then telling them that there won't be eternal consequences and not showing them that they are innately evil and that they should repent and put on the Lord Jesus Christ as their forgiver of sins. People are born evil and people do not know they are evil until they are shown the Ten Commandments.

Kids can be brainwashed to believe anything but anyone would rather have a child be grown up and taught morals, not in immorality, but in a loving home without hypocritical parents.

awhitegiver said...

@ Chris Geiser

You are confused. Being non-religious is not the same thing as being immoral. People are not born evil nor are they born good. One could argue that telling people that there are eternal (hellfire!) consequences for ridiculous things like not "remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy" is abusive.

It doesn't take belief in (and fear of) a vengeful and jealous anthropomorphic god to figure out how to live in a civilized society with other people. I mean, without any evidence, that kind of belief that would just be crazy...

faithlessgod said...

Chris Geiser

Looks like you have been brainwashed into becoming a psychopath and mistakenly thinking that everyone else thinks like you. Further it appears you mistakenly think that without the crutch of a church we would perform these heinous acts that you would do if you did not believe. Finally you think they everyone can only be selfishly motivated by believing in and seeking to avoid divine retribution.

Thank goodness you are deeply mistaken about us on all these points, I blame your church for unethically turning you into a moral cripple. Luckily your state of psychopathy is usually curable and not permanent. Keep reading this and similar blogs if you want to be saved and learn how to be a moral person.

James said...

Given the biological and psychological systems in place to ensure an individual's desire to survive at almost any cost, is it possible that, ironically enough, belief in an afterlife could be a purely Darwinian response to the prospect of death?

faithlessgod said...

Hi James

"Belief in afterlife" is somewhat indeterminate here.Anthropologically beliefs over what happens after one dies are far more common and prevalent than any specific ideas of an "afterlife" certainly not a quite modern (e.g. 1000-2000 year old) Christian or Islamic conception.

As for this being a "Darwinian" I think you mean evolutionary response? Still this is such a common factor across beliefs including many that reject all types of godhead that I do not think it likely to be a distinct factor in differential reproductive success.

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ter said...

what manipulative DISHONESTY the author is trying to use the word "BELIEVER" to = THEIST since BELIEVE is to ACCEPT an IDEA that is ASSERTED... and presented to another person , remember HUMANS CREATED language ALL humans have thought and they also will QUESTION I will have a thought It is the human creation of the word GOD by humans and project that word to children . Children do have the tendency to PERSONIFY OBJECTS , such as a teddy bear to project emotion or speak for it aka IMAGINE some object has "LIFE" that is not the same a being a THEIST , that is developing mind called PLAY the child's mind see things in limited terms as in conscious intent as in the cabinet door closed on its finger the child might say THE DOOR BIT ME " called personification , but when it is corrected and not re-enforced to think in that manner and as the brain develops the child realizes the door does not have a BRAIN INTENT nor cognition