Cognitive Science, Evolution and Religion
Justin Barrett: My BORN BELIEVERS thesis is: that, at least in part, the widespread cross-culture recurrence in belief in some kind of god is at least partly accountable in terms of the natural receptivity that we have to such beliefs in early childhood, maybe in infancy to some degree. That is, children—I’m going to be a little bit hedge my bet, how much of it is “hardwired” (I avoid that term), or “innate” (I avoid that term)—but whether it’s because of some kind of biological endowment, or biological endowment plus certain regularities of the environment that children are typically born into—they develop a natural propensity to be receptive to certain kinds of religious beliefs.
By “born believers” I mean: children are—given minimal kinds of cultural conditions, very little kinds of resources, they will take to religious beliefs like ducks to water. I have in mind the kind of idea… my mom always said that the doctor said that my brother is a born basketball player (well, the doctor was wrong about that, it turns out), but the idea wasn’t that he comes out of the birth canal shooting a jump shot, but rather given very sort of minimal kinds of encouragement, he’s going to take to it. So, we used that kind of loose language. That’s what I mean by “born believers”; don’t get too excited there. I’m not advocating that children come out of the womb with a full-fledge theological concept of any kind god you choose. Of course, that’s not right. But they do have strong receptivity.
Why do I think that? Or, what do I think some of the faculties there involved? And I’m going to use the word “faculties” in this case because I don’t it’s the case we have one dedicated adaptation that somehow makes you religious. (“There’s once upon a time there’s a genetic mutation that led to a certain kind of faculty, and boom!, that’s why people believe in gods.”) I think rather it’s the case that what we have is a—think of lots of pieces in an orchestra that collectively encourage or make us receptive to certain kinds of religious concepts. One important one is a strong tendency to see AGENCY in the world. And by “agency” I mean: to identify what are those things in the world that do the acting, that move themselves, that are goal-directed, “self-propelled” is the jargon that is out there, in contrast to those things that don’t, that have to be moved, that have to be acted upon, like this bottle of water, not an agent; but this thing over here that keeps scribbling things down, that one seems to be an agent. This is an important distinction that we see babies making in the first few months of life, and they persist, we typically persist under normal developmental conditions to make this very important distinction rapidly and easily throughout life. If anything, we’re sort of hyper-concerned with detecting agency around us. That’s one piece of the puzzle.
Another piece is a strong tendency (Deborah Keddleman? of Boston University has documented) to see design and purpose function in the natural world. So she has these really cool experiments showing 4-year olds like, they’re attracted to explanations for natural things that are purpose-oriented: “Why are the rocks pointy?” “So animals don’t sit on them and crush them.” “Where do the first-ever river come from?” Pre-schoolers give explanation: “So we have a place to go fishing.” Like people were sitting around with boats wondering, Well, what are we going to do with these?—Oh good! A river!”
What’s really cool is some of her recent research shows that these tendencies don’t just go away with aging; it has to be tamped down. So, adults who haven’t been formally educated seemed to show the same kind of receptivity under speeded response situations. So, give them an explanation for a natural thing out there—lots of us, you know, we’ve taken those required college science classes, especially in biology, and they’ll tell us “No, no, no. Design, purpose—it’s not there! Those are not good explanations!” “Oh, okay.” We give very mechanistic kinds of explanations. Well, if you give people enough time, that’s the kind of explanation they give if they’re college-educated. If you make them answer quickly, she showed that they find themselves veering in the direction of attributing more design and purpose than they would otherwise.
Likewise, uneducated people, adults, show the same receptivity to these kinds of explanations.
She calls that “promiscuous teleology”. “Teleology” meaning an emphasis on design and purpose; “promiscuous” meaning “your parents just wouldn’t approve!” That’s just one piece of the puzzle.
I’ll give one more piece of the puzzle, but there are more. Another piece of the puzzle that I’ve often emphasized in my work is that when it comes to thinking about “agents”, particularly intentional agents, those minded-beings that hopefully are surrounding you right now, is that, it appears that early in development, at least, we find it easier to—you might say, ughh, I want to be careful here—over-attribute knowledge and perceptual access (put “over” in scare quotes), we find it easier to think of giving other being the benefit of the doubt in terms of knowing, seeing, smelling, and hearing.
So, if I’m a 3-year old, it’s easier for me to assume that other people around me know something if I know it to be the case than to go “hmmm, no, actually, Greg can’t see what’s over here, and so he doesn’t know what I’ve got hidden in my pocket,” or, “It’s out of earshot of him, so he doesn’t know,” or “that dog over there really has poor eyesight, so it doesn’t see what’s going on.” It’s easier for me just sort of turn the default setting up high and say, ‘when in doubt, others know.’ When in doubt, whatever is the case in the real world, that’s what other people know, or that’s what they perceive, that’s what they remember. Sort of seem to be the case with immortality: we have to LEARN that others are mortal; we assume that they’re going to live forever till we learn otherwise. It sure looks to me that’s the way the evidence is pointing.
Well, if that’s right, then at least for those 3, 4 year olds who, those are their default assumptions, trod out these ideas of an immortal ancestral spirit who has special access to the good and bad things that you’re up to. Well, that’s easy. I can deal with that. That’s no problem. In fact, it’s easier, in some ways, for me to understand that than to deal with the idea that: ‘You mean, Dad doesn’t know what happened there, and that one day he’s going to die?’
So, my suggestion is that just because of the way that human minds naturally developed, they have certain kinds of propensity that make them very receptive to religious concepts, including these very kinds of god concepts.