… is the title of an article in our trade papers this week.  Is belief in God part of the human instinct, or is it a human invention?

Justin Barrett, a psychologist, has concluded that children are normally inclined to believe in God, because they think that things are designed, and that God knows everything. There appear to be very few ‘natural’ atheists in childhood.

(Helix Nebula, known popularly as ‘the eye of God’)

Which raises the question, is belief in God essentially childish?

Jesse Bering, a researcher in the realm of cognition and culture, considers that the tendency to see agency in the world is a sort of evolutionary excess.  He also thinks that we  tend to assume that what’s going on in our heads is also going on in other people’s, and it’s a short step from this to thinking that ‘things’ have minds as well as people, and from there to seeing minds in non-existent objects – like God.

However, cognitive science can only investigate how we think, not why we think what we do. And scientific critiques of religion often use childish ideas about God, which, says the journalist, is equivalent to studying music only through nursery rhymes.


And scientific theories are just as much conditioned by people’s assumptions as religious opinions – a point that is usually lost in the popular press.

However, the psychologist William James noted that the validity of religious experience is tested by how it works out in an adult life, not in childish roots. I like this quotation from his writings:

‘If religion is to be a function by which either God’s cause or man’s cause is to be really advanced, then he who lives the life of it, however narrowly, is a better servant than he who merely knows about it, however much.’

(article by Mark Vernon in the Church Times 1 April 2011.  Bering’s book is called ‘God Instinct:  The psychology of souls, destiny and the meaning of life’ published by Nicholas Brealey.)



  1. “We can only enter Heaven as a little child,”
    The actual plan of our Universe is far too complicated for our brains as yet, if ever!.
    We are still unable to really figure it all out, and perhaps we are not supposed to.
    The best way, for me anyway, is to ‘keep things simple.’
    Why bother worrying about the designs of a Master Mind? Let us enjoy our planet, the stars and all therein, and quietly thank the Creator for our chance to live here, this perfect paradise for mankind, and for giving us enough awareness to feel appreciation for the marvel of our life.


    1. How true is that, Charlotte. It is indeed the children that so often lead the way, showing us a more profound faith, often, that adults. Thank you for your delightful comment.


    1. I haven’t read it in detail, but I think he was writing some decades ago, in which case it was at a time when the two words were used interchangeably. It’s only in this multifaith era that we have learned to be more careful of our vocabulary.


  2. I believe that man has free choice… in thought too. I don’t like the idea that ‘humans are hard-wired for god’. That isn’t the way I see it. And after having traveled a lot around the world, and gotten to know many different people, from many different cultures, I am convinced that we are not all the same… that different people, and different cultures… have tendencies to come to different conclusions, and to see things differently. And I believe that atheists are people who just don’t understand what god is all about… wither because they are stuck in childish notions about god, or because they have been exposed to negative religious messages that they then reacted to. The people who run the church (whatever church… whatever religion), are human beings too… and they come in all sizes and all levels of awareness. Just as some doctors make stupid mistakes… and some airplane pilots make stupid mistakes… some priests and rabbis and imams may make stupid mistakes, and mislead people… sometimes hundred of thousands of people to think that what they are saying is the word of god… even when it isn’t.


    1. Excellent comment, Shimon, thank you. Bushka also made the point that the opinions in the article are culturally conditioned. Part of our western arrogance, that we think our way of thinking is the only way.


      1. Wise words from Shimon, as usual.
        I like the William James quote: “living the life of it” just about sums up this interesting issue you’ve posted, Gilly.


  3. Mmmm…..I wonder what ‘moved’ ancient peoples in their ‘systems’ of belief….That is…before the concept of the ‘Monotheistic God’ gained currency! Perhaps the ‘parameters’ of any research should be carefully assessed….:)


    1. It makes me smile – it shows how people – adults as well as children – tend to think of prayer in a ‘box’ and don’t realise that thinking about God can also be prayer!


    1. It makes me smile – it shows how people – adults as well as children – tend to think of prayer in a ‘box’ and don’t realise that thinking about God can also be prayer!


  4. Think you will like the post I will be putting up tomorrow on Hopechild….

    Not one of the normal ones…something different.

    To tired to sort it now as must have some rest.

    P xx


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