Belief in God and children

The blog pages of the Guardian provide the forum for a debate on whether research shows that children have a propensity to believe in a supreme being. AC Grayling, in a rather angry post, argues that this is nonsense propounded by Christian believers funded by the Templeton Foundation:

Earlier this week I had occasion to debate – if the soundbite culture of radio news permits that description – with a member of Oxford University’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind the “findings” of its cognition, religion and theology project, to the effect that children are hardwired to believe in a “supreme being”. The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on “showing” in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

. . .

“Religious belief” and early childhood interpretations of how the world work are so far removed from one another that only a preconceived desire to interpret the latter in terms of “intelligent design” and “a supreme being” – the very terms are a giveaway – is obviously tendentious, and this is what is going on here. It would merely be poor stuff if that was all there is to it; but there is more. The Templeton Foundation is rich; it offers a very large money prize to any scientist or philosopher who will say things friendly to religion, and it supports “research” as described above into anything that will add credibility and respectability to religion. Its website portrays its aims as serious and objective, but in truth it is just another example of how well-funded and well-organised some religious lobbies are – a common phenomenon in the United States in particular, and now infecting the body politic here.

But the Templeton Foundation would do better to be frank about its propagandistic intentions, for while it tries to dress itself in the lineaments of objectivity it will always face the accusation of tainting the pool, as with the work of this Oxford University institute.

Read it all here.

The subject of this attack, Justin Barrett, had this response:

Last week at Cambridge University’s Faraday Institute, I summarised some scientific research that leads me and many of my colleagues to argue that from childhood humans have a number of predispositions that incline them to believe in gods generally and perhaps a super-knowing, creator god in particular. Unlike Andrew Brown, AC Grayling has opted to ignore the science and focus on the alleged motivations of the scientist (me) and one of his sources of funding (the John Templeton Foundation). As a philosopher, Grayling should know that attacking an argument not on its merits but by discrediting the arguer commits the ad hominem fallacy which is generally the strategy of school kids and desperate, uninformed people.

. . .

Because Grayling assumes that the only people arguing for the strong natural disposition to believe in gods are religious (most are not as far as I can tell), he cavalierly disregards the mounting body of scientific evidence in favour of an alternative account that he backs with no evidence at all. Grayling favours what I call the “evolved gullibility hypothesis”: for good evolutionary reasons they [children] are extremely credulous. I do not disagree that children have a tendency to trust their parents and other adults – surely this is how children learn about the particular god of their cultural environment – but children are not equally likely to believe anything that parents teach them.

Good luck teaching a five-year-old that people don’t really have conscious minds or that it is okay to murder the neighbours in their sleep. The preponderance of scientific evidence (peer-reviewed and published) shows that some ideas find children’s minds infertile ground, whereas others readily grow and flourish.

Grayling may disagree with me regarding just which ideas are most at home in children, but surely it is the scientific evidence that we should determine who is right instead of trying to psychoanalyse each other’s motivations.

Read it all here. The irony of this attack by an atheist–as Barrett points out–is that many of the scientists doing this research have been attacked by Christians for trying to come up with a biological explanation for faith.

Past Posts