Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief by Justin L. Barrett

The first part of Barrett’s book presents evidence to show why the indoctrination hypothesis is wrong. Belief in god is almost inevitable given natural brain development during childhood because of agenticity, theory of mind and teleological thinking; cognitive pathways that mean we are prone to seeing a consciousness where there isn’t one, then theorising as to it’s desires and intents and attributing other phenomena to its design. I have previously discussed these and other aspects of religious psychology based on Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain, a much wider-scoped primer on how we form beliefs and why.

The vast majority of atheists still rail against indoctrination despite this evidence having been around from some years. Even Skeptics who are dedicated to educating others as to how people form false beliefs, have been lagging behind. It’s tempting to think that itself it may because it’s equally natural to think other people believe things due to indoctrination. Certainly, it seems to be based mostly on an appeal to common sense. Regardless, I suspect many other false beliefs are due to maturationally natural cognition which predisposes us to belief in psychics, alternative medicine, UFOs and the like.

The second part discusses what the consequences of this new understanding.

One is that we can dismiss some of the new atheist arguments, fairly for the most part. A complaint of mine when reading The God Delusion was it’s straying into areas Dawkins knows little about, and didn’t come across as well researched. Either he should have stuck to his field of evolutionary biology or invited collaborators to write on psychology, neuroscience and sociology when discussing how people form, spread and maintain beliefs (and astronomists and philosophers where appropriate too) rather than ignorantly upholding the indoctrination hypothesis.

If some atheist arguments are shown to be weak, that doesn’t make the case for belief stronger, but Barrett seems to take it for granted that this is the second consequence of rejecting the indoctrination hypothesis. Although I admire his balance and restraint; considering his Christian beliefs he does not take the opportunity to force his beliefs upon the reader ‘the naturalness of religion does not imply that any religious beliefs are just as good or just as true as any other’. There’s some weird hypocrisy in action here, Barrett says ‘new atheists too are concerned (rightly, I think) with the continued propagation of false ideas in the name of free religious education. Parents teach their children nonsense all the time, and often for very poor reasons.’ Yet he does not provide suggestions or guidance as to which ideas are nonsense and why we shouldn’t call god a false idea. He says without proper guidance children may be ‘drawn to worshipping Mother Earth, astrology, or an unhealthy preoccupation with ghosts, among other suspect beliefs and practices’, but does not consider that god closer to the Christian one could be suspect or explain why these pagan beliefs are any more harmful.

Under Barrett’s own reasoning it shouldn’t follow that because development of belief is inevitable that we should leave it unopposed. Barrett seems to think that as long as it’s in the context of a loving family environment, and a few extremes are avoided, parents can teach their children whatever beliefs they want. Because religion at its best includes focus on practices and training that are important to psychological well-being, ‘actively religious people have been shown to enjoy  more mental and emotional health, recover from trauma more quickly, have loner and happier lives, are more generous, volunteer more, and actively contribute to communities than nominally religious or nonreligious people do’, then is it fine to accept any untrue or unprovable claims about the nature of the universe or what happens after we die or who our actions should please, along with that?

What Barrett doesn’t consider, nor do so many other thinkers, believers and non-believers alike, is whether we can have our cake and eat it. Can’t we improve our children’s psychological well-being while teaching them not to accept unfounded beliefs?

Barrett demonstrates that children believe in creationism by default, just like they do with god, but although hard, he doesn’t believe the teaching to evolution is futile. If children believe in the divine by default can we not teach them to alter this conception too? As always I argue; can we not teach reality while taking care of our spiritual needs? We can develop a society that places great importance on education and practices related to psychological well-being and morality whilst still being philosophically materialist.

– The Spiritual Materialist

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4 thoughts on “Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief by Justin L. Barrett

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