Born Believers: The Science of Childrens Religious Beliefs
Reviewed by Holly Catterton Allen, Child and Family Studies, John Brown University
Justin Barrett’s basic claim in Born Believers is that due to unique features of the developing human mind, children from a very young age are naturally receptive to the idea that there is at least one god—that is, they are “born believers.” Barrett does not say children are born with developed theologies; rather, his point is that just as human beings are born walkers and talkers, they are born believers. Given minimal cultural and environmental input, children will walk, talk, and believe in a god or gods.
In the first section of the book titled “The Evidence,” Barrett offers support for his premise with detailed findings from recent research in cognitive psychology indicating that young children tend to see order, purpose, and intentional design in the natural world. They also see a designer, to whom they ascribe super-knowledge, super-perception, creative power, and immortality. Barrett supports most of his claims well, citing substantive research from studies published in peer-reviewed journals such as Cognition, Developmental Psychology, and Journal of Cognition and Development. Barrett explains the research in clear, lay-friendly terms, and interprets the findings usually with appropriate qualifiers (“This response could indicate …”; “Children have a tendency to …”; “Perhaps …”; italics added).
One limitation is that some of the studies Barrett cites were conducted only with children from religious families (96), a methodological issue that weakens some of his conclusions. Barrett does share recent research that replicates some of the studies in non-believing settings, with many of the same results. However, Barrett himself indicates that more research is needed to replicate studies and further investigate his findings.
In the second section of the book, “The Implications,” Barrett responds to counter-arguments to his premise, including 1) childhood belief in God is similar to other normal childish beliefs in magical creatures such as Santa Claus, 2) believing children are simply children whose parents have indoctrinated them, and 3) the existence of atheism. Barrett addresses the first two counterarguments cogently and carefully. For example, Barrett addresses the indoctrination charge in a couple of ways: first by saying that children simply do not accept everything parents and others say—some things are more easily taught than others (for example, it is very difficult to convince a child that the gray-green sludge at the potluck will taste good)—and second, by offering anecdotal examples of children of atheists who seem determined to believe despite their parents’ best efforts.
What Barrett does not address well is the existence of atheistic children. Though Barrett states that atheism in general is quite rare, and offers survey data indicating that only one in twenty Americans does not believe in the existence of God, this discussion takes place in the context of adults. However, the question pertinent to this book’s claim would be, “Do atheistic children exist?” Though Barrett describes powerful stories of atheists’ children exhibiting strong, inexplicable faith in God, their stories are simply anecdotal. These stories do support the idea that indoctrination is not necessary for belief in God (another argument), but Barrett offers no data regarding young children who are not “born believers,” that is, who do not intuitively believe in a god or gods. Are there such children? Barrett says he encounters people occasionally who tell him that they cannot remember ever having believed in God. His counterargument is that a phenomenon called childhood amnesia may account for many of these claims: “I wager that a large proportion of people who think they never had beliefs in the supernatural in fact did and have since forgotten” (202). Interesting, but a weak counterargument. But overall, Barrett’s claims are supportable and convincing especially to those in the believing community; perhaps atheists would find the arguments less convincing.
Barrett’s work intersects in some ways with a paradigm shift that has been taking place in the field of Christian education in general. Until the last decade or so, Christian educators often used the term “faith development” when speaking of children and their growth in understanding of the Christian faith. Christian education for several decades has been heavily influenced by James Fowler’s faith development theory which in turn built directly on Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory (as well as Erikson’s psychosocial theory). Faith development was seen as inherently tied to a child’s facility to think logically and (ultimately) abstractly, a stance that resulted in the sense that children’s faith is less formed or less developed (than adults’) until they are able to think abstractly about it (around the age of 11 or so).
In general, the field of Christian education is moving toward the construct of children’s spiritual development, especially since Catherine Stonehouse’s book Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey.1 This field is moving away from Piaget’s cognitive developmental approach as its foundational working theory, coincidentally just as Barrett is questioning some of Piaget’s accepted tenets regarding children’s views of God. There is also wider acceptance that children are spiritual beings from birth in contrast to the idea that they begin that journey when they are able to express belief in basic doctrines. A key question among those who are promoting the idea of children as spiritual beings from birth is: “Upon what basis might this statement be made?” Among the answers are that children are made in the image of God or that when God breathed in the breath of life, humans became spiritual beings henceforth. Barrett’s work may now contribute to that discussion.
Some parts of Barrett’s book also sound remarkably like some of the descriptions from Sir Alister Hardy’s massive research in the early 1970s in the UK that explored the meaning of religious experiences in 4,000 participants and the follow-up work by Edward Robinson in The Original Vision (Nashville, TN: Seabury Press, 1983) that examined in particular the 600 participants whose recalled religious experiences were from childhood. Some of those experiences were described by participants who claimed no religious influence (that is, no church affiliation and non-religious parents, and so on) in their childhoods, yet reported a significant and memorable spiritual event. Sofia Cavalletti reports several similar anecdotes in her powerful work The Religious Potential of the Child (New York: Paulist Press, 1983); Cavalletti concludes that children, even very young children, speak of God in ways they have not learned, a conclusion with which Barrett would resonate.
Recent brain research is also making some of the same points that Barrett makes. For example, Andrew Newberg, explaining that the brain fills in the blanks of our understanding, says:
I would argue the brain ultimately is a believing machine; it has to be. It’s trying to make some sense out of the world, and it puts together a perspective on our world, fills in a lot of gaps, doesn’t bother to let us know about it, and yet somehow we use that information to go through our lives as if we know what’s going on.2
While most of the book is built around Barrett’s arguments for his premise that chil-dren are born believers and counterarguments to that premise, Barrett concludes with a chapter titled “Encouraging Children’s Religious Development.” Barrett, a Christian who is employed with Fuller Seminary, nevertheless is very careful not to promote Christianity per se. Thus his concluding chapter, though it applies very well to Christian parents hoping to nurture belief in their children, applies to parents in other religious settings as well.
Though Barrett is convinced that children are born believers, he said in a recent inter-view that “there is a difference in believing that there is a god and having a relationship with that God. That requires a cultivation that we are not talking about in the born believer research.”3 3 And chapter eleven offers well-considered and nuanced recommendations for parents who wish to cultivate their children’s religious development. Among Barrett’s rec-ommendations were: to start early and teach with love and humility, teach how to think, learn, and discern truth, talk about God in actual contexts in which God’s action can be detected, use religious ideas in mundane circumstances and not just special ones, and live what you believe.”
Barrett closes this discussion with a humility that characterizes the book’s tone in general. He recognizes that even though children may have natural tendencies to believe in God, and religious parents may follow the guidelines he suggests, children may not grow into believing adults. Barrett concludes: “Though children may be born believers, whether they die believers is between them and God” (257).
Cite this article
- Catherine Stonehouse, Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey: Nurturing a Life of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998). This sea change in perceiving children’s faith development in general is most often traced back to Robert Coles’ The Spiritual Lives of Children (Boston: HarperCollins, 1990), and sometimes to David Hay and Rebecca Nye’s The Spirit of the Child (Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1996); however, Stonehouse was the first to unpack some of these new insights in the Christian context.
- Andrew Newberg, “How Our Brains Are Wired for Belief,” Faith Angle Conference; Conference Presentation and Forum. (May 2008): para 86, accessed January 4, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/How-Our-Brains-are-Wired-for-Belief.aspx.
- Holly Allen, “Childlike Faith,” interview with Justin Barrett, Christianity Today 56 (June 2012): 45.