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More Studies Show Children Are Wired for Religious Belief: A Brief Literature Review


Back in April, David Klinghoffer noted a story in the Wall Street Journal about how Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen advocates “suppressing” belief in a “God-like designer” by trying “to get young children to understand the mechanism of natural selection before the alternative intentional-design theory had become too entrenched.” What was intriguing was not just how evolutionary scientists are scrambling to indoctrinate children against perceiving intelligent design in nature, but also how children have an innate tendency to recognize that design and, furthermore, to believe in a personal creator.

Indeed, I wrote earlier about how humans seem to be hard-wired for religious belief, and was reminded by an e-mail correspondent about how many other studies there are that show children have a predisposition to believe in God. What follows is a short literature review of scholarship that arrives at the same conclusion: young children seem wired to be “intuitive theists.”

A 2007 paper in Developmental Science by Paul Bloom, “Religion is natural,”1 reports:

[I]n the last few years, there has been an emerging body of research exploring children’s grasp of certain universal religious ideas. Some recent findings suggest that two foundational aspects of religious belief — belief in divine agents, and belief in mind-body dualism — come naturally to young children.

He explains that these beliefs are directly related to our tendency to infer design:

We have a similar bias to attribute an agent when we see nonrandom structure. This is the impetus for the argument for design — the intuition that the design that is apparent in the natural and biological world is evidence for a designer. In one recent poll in the United States (July 2005), 42% of the respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and most of the rest said that evolution occurred, but was guided by God.

He finds that these tendencies are especially strong in children: “One of the most interesting discoveries in the developmental psychology of religion is that this bias toward creationism appears to be cognitively natural.”

A 2005 paper in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion found that children have an innate concept of God that does not come merely from anthropomorphizing.2 They observe that “Traditionally, the development of children’s understanding of God has been described as anthropomorphic. In other words, that the starting point for children’s concept of God is that of a parent or ‘superhuman’ in the sky.” Under this view, “God is a residual of childhood na�vet� supported by theological instruction.” But they find that this isn’t where ideas about God come from:

Results revealed that preschoolers distinguished God and the special animals as having greater perceptual access than humans and normal animals, who were predicted to have limited perceptual access. These results offer further support for the theory that in developing a concept of God, even young children differentiate God from humans and resist incorporating certain aspects of the human concept into their concept of God.

They note how various “studies suggest that children can represent certain of God’s characteristics, like immortality, creative power, and omniscience quite easily and quite differently from their human representations.” Their study adds to this body of research, offering “support for a recent hypothesis that children may be cognitively ‘prepared’ to differentially understand both humans and God,” where “children may be cognitively equipped from early on to develop concepts of God (and other nonhumans) independently from their concepts of people.” Moreover, “children acquire concepts of God relatively easily because these concepts capitalize on default assumptions that children have about all intentional agents in general.”

They further write, “Findings from these various bodies of work suggest that a strict anthropomorphism explanation of the development of God concepts is incomplete. Children’s original assumptions are about essentially nonhuman traits: immortality, creative power, omniscience. It is the fallibility of humans that must be learned and incorporated into the concept, not the infallibility of gods.” Their review reports:

Evans (2001) found that regardless of religious affiliation (fundamentalist Christian communities vs. nonfundamentalist communities) a large majority of 5- to 8-year-old children preferred creationist accounts for the origins of the natural world to either evolutionary, artificialist (created by humans), or emergentist accounts.

This was also the conclusion of Deborah Kelemen, the aforementioned psychologist who felt the need to deprogram students and free them from their innate belief in an intelligent designing deity. In a 2004 paper, “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’?: Reasoning about Purpose and Design in Nature,”3 she reported that “Separate bodies of research suggest that young children (i) have a broad tendency to reason about natural phenomena in terms of a purpose and (ii) an orientation towards intention-based accounts of natural entity origins.” She suggests young people may be “‘intuitive theists’ –predisposed to construe natural objects as though they are non-human artifacts; the products of non-human design,” noting that children have “promiscuous teleological intuitions.” She concludes that this tendency must be combatted by science educators:

What the review of recent cognitive developmental research reveals is that, by around 5 years of age, children understand natural objects as non-humanly caused, can reason about non-natural agents’ mental states and demonstrate the capacity to view objects in terms of design. Finally, evidence from 6- to 10-year-olds suggests that children’s assignments of purpose to nature relate to their ideas concerning intentional non-human causation. Together, these research findings tentatively suggest that the description “intuitive theist” may accurately characterize children’s explanatory approach — a characterization that has broad relevance not only to cognitivists or the growing interdisciplinary community studying the underpinnings of religion (Barrett, 2000), but also, at an applied level, to science educators since the implication is that children’s science failures may, in part, result from inherent conflicts between intuitive ideas and the basic tenets of contemporary scientific thought.

In another paper in the Journal of Cognition and Development,4 Kelemen and Cara DiYanni likewise find:

Two separate bodies of research suggest that young children have (a) a broad tendency to reason about natural phenomena in terms of a purpose (e.g., Kelemen, 1999c) and (b) an orientation toward “creationist” accounts of natural entity origins whether or not they come from fundamentalist religious backgrounds (e.g., Evans, 2001).

Their research shows that “young children are prone to generating artifact-like teleofunctional explanations of living and nonliving natural entities and endorsing intelligent design as the source of animals and artifacts.” They even suggest: “children and adults may not be fundamentally different with respect to their ability to entertain promiscuous teleological ideas.”

A paper in the journal Cognitive Science, “Children’s attributions of beliefs to humans and God: cross-cultural evidence,”5 explains that “Scholars have long assumed that children first acquire concepts of human agency and then use them as templates to understand all non-human agents.” But they suggest that this view might be wrong, since the children they studied “do not reason in the same way about the agency of humans and God since early on in development.” Instead, children seem to have special modes of reasoning about God, as “young children do not reason about God’s beliefs in human terms.” Children seem innately able to think about God in ways that are different from how they think about other people.

Finally, a 2001 paper in Cognitive Psychology6 finds that while parents and communities can have a profound influence on what children believe about origins, middle-school and elementary-aged students tend towards creationist beliefs even if those beliefs weren’t taught by the parents:

Early adolescents (11 to 13 years), like their parents, embraced the dominant beliefs of their community, be they creationist or evolutionist. Their younger siblings, especially those in the middle elementary school years (8 to 10 years) were more apt to be exclusively creationist, whatever their community of origin. Early elementary school children (5 to 7 years) endorsed creationism more strongly if they had been to a fundamentalist school or if they were reminded of creationist explanations, as in the forced-choice measures.

The author asks, “Why is the human mind (at least, the Western protestant mind) so susceptible to creationism and so comparatively resistant to naturalistic explanations for the origins of species?” She believes it’s due to inherent workings of the human mind: “The primary argument presented here is that the two staples of Western philosophical thinking, essentialism and final-cause or teleological reasoning, emerge from intuitive propensities of the human mind.”

We see, then, multiple studies converging on a single conclusion: the innate predisposition of the human mind to believe that there is some kind of an intelligent creator God. Perhaps as we get older we may override this programming, but our fundamental constitution appears oriented to religious belief. If you’re an evolutionary atheist, don’t you find this just a bit peculiar? Darwinian explanations abound, of course, but they have the tinny, desperate sound of inadequate rationalizations.

References Cited:
[1.] Paul Bloom, “Religion is natural,” Developmental Science, 10:1, pp 147-151 (2007).
[2.] Rebekah A. Richert and Justin L. Barrett, “Do You See What I See? Young Children’s Assumptions About God’s Perceptual Abilities,” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 15(4), 283-295 (2005).
[3.] Deborah Kelemen, “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’?: Reasoning about Purpose and Design in Nature,” Psychological Science, 15(5):295-301 (May, 2004).
[4.] Deborah Kelemen and Cara DiYanni, “Intuitions About Origins: Purpose and Intelligent Design in Children’s Reasoning About Nature,” Journal of Cognition and Development, 6(1): 3-31 (2005).
[5.] Nicola Knight, Paulo Sousa, Justin L. Barrett, Scott Atran, “Children’s attributions of beliefs to humans and God: cross-cultural evidence,” Cognitive Science, 28: 117-126 (2004).
[6.] E. Margaret Evans, “Cognitive and Contextual Factors in the Emergence of Diverse Belief Systems: Creation versus Evolution,” Cognitive Psychology, 42: 217-266 (2001).

Image source: Davie County Public Library/Flickr.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.