Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief
Justin L. Barrett
Atria Books, 2012
320 pp., $26.00
Science in Focus: Reid Riggle
Born Believers, Part 3
In recent years, theory and research in the field of psychology have made it clear that what an individual believes is central to how he or she understands the world. (See, for example, Albert Bandura's 1997 book Self-Efficacy.) In addition, developmental psychologists have spent much of the last two decades trying to map the formation of conceptual understanding. Born Believers fits firmly in this arena; Justin Barrett is a developmental psychologist by training, and his paradigm seems to be grounded in the cognitive psychology of religion.
Barrett explains that his empirical work has lead him to conclude that children are born to believe in a god or gods; that is, children are predisposed to believe in spiritual sources of influence. The key to his argument is that children make sense out of the world by understanding cause and effect relationships. Specifically, Barrett argues that children seem inclined to understand events around them by identifying "agents," those forces, human or otherwise, that make things happen.
Barrett proposes that the tendency to identify causal agents is so strong that children are accepting of a broad range of potential sources of agency, a tendency he calls "hypersensitive agency detection device (HADD)." This process allows children to see god or gods as a source of agency. Barrett uses the term "natural religion" for this tendency to accept a spiritual agent or agents. He proposes that natural religion forms the basis for religious belief throughout an individual's life, but that natural religion in and of itself is insufficient to produce a mature theology. The foundation of natural religion is built upon by the cultural traditions to which a child is exposed, including both formal and informal religious education. The synthesis of these processes can result in a mature religious belief system.
While Barrett is clearly a Christian, his thesis extends beyond Christianity—a point made evident by cross-cultural research in non-Christian traditions. Although the logic he employs could be used by an atheist to argue that religious belief is a "side-effect" of natural cognitive processes, this is certainly not Barrett's position. In fact, he takes great pains to argue against Richard Dawkins' atheist perspective and the indoctrination interpretation of children's religious beliefs.
Although the argument of Born Believers is grounded in academic psychology, Barrett fleshes out his narrative with anecdotes to help build a case for his position. Consequently, the text is fairly accessible. Parents may find the concluding chapter the most meaningful; here the author shares his insights on the implications of his work for raising children.
While Barrett's arguments are generally reasonable, I found his use of the politically and philosophically loaded term "intelligent design" throughout the text disconcerting. Although part of his argument is built on strong evolutionist thinking (e.g., a predisposition is a naturally selected-for tendency), it is not clear until near the end of the book that author is a proponent of a balanced perspective between faith and reason.
Reid Riggle is associate professor of education at St. Norbert College.
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