… 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.
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.)