Prof. Justin Barrett shares the result of his research.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it and literature from other sources and disciplines agree: man is a religious being with the tendency to believe in and seek to relate to a transcendent being whom he cannot see but is related to man’s origin.
However, as the Church also recognizes, todays’ adults don’t seem overwhelmingly concerned with the religious dimension of life—at least not many of them, particularly in urban settings. But what about children? Are they open to the transcendent, even when their parents seem to deny its existence?
The Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion at Oxford University has shared on its site and on YouTube a series of videos called “Explorations.” In one of them, Prof. Justin Barrett, professor of psychology and program chair for PhD in Psychological Science at the Department of Doctoral Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the founders of the field of cognitive science of religion, argues that children are naturally religious.
Barrett, author of the book Born Believers, explains that many studies of children’s religious beliefs have been carried out in different countries, cultures, and continents around the world. In all of them, he says, “we’re seeing an emerging pattern. On the broadest level, it’s really remarkable: children seem to have this real openness and receptivity to religious beliefs.” This applies to children in general, not just to those raised in religious families.
“Even children who are being raised by non-religious parents,” Barrett says, “often are showing a sort of eagerness to think religious thoughts, sometimes to the embarrassment or disappointment of their parents.”
Indeed, he says, it’s surprising how children are “really eager to think about gods of different sorts, and to pray and to engage in rituals,” and this leads to the obvious question: “Why?” It turns out that the answer is similar to the question itself: it’s rooted in the inquisitive nature of children.
“By the time children are about three or four years old,” Barrett says, “they already look around the natural world. They see mountains and trees and rivers and animals, and they think that they have purposes, that they are here for some kind of reason, and then they start wondering, ‘Well, but, who brought them about? Why do they have those reasons, those purposes?’” Children learn early on that human beings can’t manufacture animals or anything on the scale of the natural world around us, so they conclude that there must be one or more beings greater than human beings, responsible for creation.
“Children have this tendency to assume that all of these other possible beings, gods, have super knowledge, are super perceiving, and possibly immortal as well; they’ll go on living forever,” Barrett explains. In other words, children are living evidence of St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what He has made.” (Romans 1:20)
The full video is short (just two and a half minutes):
Barrett is one of two professors who, at the University of Oxford, headed up a collaborative project a few years ago involving 57 academics from 20 countries around the world. Among other findings, they concluded that the processes of human thought are rooted in religious concepts and that people living in cities in highly developed countries were less likely to have religious beliefs than people living in more rural settings.