Jeff Siepman,

© Jeff Siepman,

The film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and its recent sequel are reminders of how exciting it is when powerful things are used for good ends. Hiccup and his friends discovered how great dragons are at taking you flying, being your loyal friend, and protecting you from enormous monsters.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Clifford was using engineering to develop low-tech solutions to difficult problems. And at a workshop held by BioLogos this summer, psychologist Justin Barrett explained how the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) is useful for engaging more deeply with Christian ways of thinking. (The link with the film was his original touch, not mine!)

CSR is a growing field of research into the way we think, particularly the processes of our minds that could be classed as religious. One of the recurring themes in this area is the naturalness of religion. Some scholars look at the evidence that faith communities last longer and are healthier than others, and conclude that religion has survival value. Others, like Barrett, (who is a Christian himself) think that we are simply inclined to belief from the moment we are born – it is an outworking or by-product of the way our minds develop.

Barrett and others have studied children’s beliefs, and been surprised at how easily they handle ideas about gods. Whether anyone teaches them these things or not, very young children tend to assume that the natural world is purposeful and designed by a god. They also start their lives believing that all intentional agents (people, for example) know everything, and can perceive everything. As they grow older they learn that people are not super-knowing and super-perceiving, but retain their belief that gods do have these powers.

For example, when three-year-old children are presented with a sweetie box and asked what’s in it, of course they say ‘sweeties!’ The box is then opened, and it turns out to be full of pencils. When the children are then asked what their parent – who is outside the room – thinks is in the box, they say ‘pencils!’ Older children realise mummy or daddy will think there are sweeties in the box, but are likely to believe that god knows there are pencils, regardless of whether their parents have taught them about a god (or even if their parents have tried to teach them that gods don’t exist).

So beliefs about gods are easily acquired and transmitted, simply because that’s the way our minds work. Of course, religion is not completely hard-wired. Barrett used the phrase ‘tempered nativism’: ‘nativism’ being the mental capacities that are innate, ‘tempering’ being the process of adjusting or improving something.

What about those who think we should abandon our childish ideas? Some early childhood beliefs are important for our wellbeing: that my parents love me and give me good things, for example, and it’s good to retain such beliefs in modified forms in adulthood. The psychological explanation of parent-child bonding is complementary to the fact that my parents actually did love me very deeply as a child. Deciding whether or not belief in a god fits into this category is not a question for science, but should be investigated at other levels of human experience and rationality.

The benefit of CSR for practicing Christians is that it can help us to think about what we do. For example, what approaches might be most appropriate or helpful in education, how might certain texts be understood in other cultures, and what is the role of ritual in our services?

CSR can also contribute to the discussion of theological dilemmas. The study of our theory of mind (the ability to think yourself into someone else’s shoes) might help with questions about what it means to be ‘made in the image of God’, or whether we can have a natural knowledge of God. It can also help banish some of the myths about belief in God being unnatural or unhelpful.

So is the trained dragon of CSR as helpful as Hiccup’s friendly Night Fury? I suspect it might not save the world, but it’s one of the most fascinating areas of science and religion today, and will no doubt help me to understand my own faith in the years to come.


For more of Barrett’s work, try his popular level book, Born Believers.

For previous posts on this subject, see The Boundaries of Science and Wired for Belief.