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Children are naturally superstitious

July 15, 2011

Religious beliefs are cognitively natural, predictable products of our brains—these are the findings of the international Cognition, Religion, and Theology Project out of Oxford, as reported in Science Daily. The three-year research, led by Dr. Justin Barrett, cost over $3 million.

Researchers found that ideas about gods, spirits, design in the world, and surviving one’s own death are a form of “natural religion,” in contrast with institutionalized doctrines, such as transubstantiation or a reward of 72 virgins. The findings pointing to a natural religion suggest that efforts to eradicate religion, as was tried in the former USSR for example, are likely to be unsuccessful.

Of particular interest to me are studies done with children. Some of the Oxford studies found that children under age 4 or 5 believe that other people, such as their mother, are omniscient. They believe, for example, that their mother knows what is inside a box, even if the contents of the box are unusual and she has not seen inside the box. If they’ve been exposed to the concept of God or some other supernatural entity, they similarly reason that he also sees and knows what is inside the box. Past about age 4, however, children begin to understand that their mother doesn’t know what’s in the box, but they usually still claim that God does.

I’ll eagerly await the upcoming book by Dr. Barrett called Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion. Until then, if you’re interested in the developing field of cognitive science of religion (CSR), look into:

Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives by Dean Buonomano
The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade


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  1. Nice! Can’t wait to read it! I could post a quip about getting children to believe in said religion as early as possible, a famous quote I’ve read, but I’ll refrain. But now I’m depressed about it nonetheless.

  2. Is this really news to everyone? As a father of 4 I can agree that superstitious beliefs are natural and age appropriate.. just not so much for adults. It’s curious that pop culture often address this with movies, books and TV shows that encourage “just believing” as if that’s a challenge for youth. What’s not age appropriate is for adults to be so credulous. Pop culture should instead encourage critical thinking skills and problem solving rather than baseless believing like it does.

    • I agree with you. I thought, “Really?! Over 3 million dollars to show that religion is a natural human phenomena?” But I suppose having properly conducted experimental research is necessary to movie ideas from common sense to fact.

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