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Justin L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (AltaMira Press, 2004)

$22.95 (£14.99), 152 pagescover image

Buy: http://www.altamirapress.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0759106673&thepassedurl=[thepassedurl]

Author Details: http://www.cam.ox.ac.uk/staff/dr-justin-barrett/


Influential figures like Richard Dawkins can give the impression that belief in God arises from a general childhood gullibility and indoctrination. Using experimental results in the relatively new field of cognitive psychology of religion, Justin Barrett argues convincingly that children are not uniformly gullible, but rather are biased towards religious belief. Most of what we believe is grounded in mental tools that rapidly and intuitively generate beliefs about our environment. Belief in gods and spirits fits well with these automatic biases and intuitions, and belief in an all-knowing, creator God fits even better.

Barrett argues that belief in gods plausibly has its roots in our tendency to detect agency and purpose even when it isn’t there, (the Hypersensitive Agent Detector Device or HADD). We see “faces in the clouds”, we perceive a rock as a bear, and instantly fear that the bump in the night is an intruder or a ghost. Experimental subjects observing geometrical shapes moving around a computer screen spontaneously describe such movements in terms of purpose: one shape is “chasing” another, and so on.

Our tendency to suspect agency and purpose makes belief in invisible agents plausible, and this feeds in to the human bias to spread stories and beliefs about agents that are intuitive enough to fit well with our mental tools and intuitions about agents but unusual enough to be interesting and significant. Furthermore, recent research by psychologists suggests that children are predisposed to think that minds can exist without physical bodies and survive physical death.

Barrett further argues that there are additional factors disposing to belief in an all knowing creator. Margaret Evans found that children younger than ten preferred creationist explanations of animals to evolutionary ones, even when their parents and teachers taught them evolution.  Experimental evidence, including cross-cultural studies, suggests that three-year-olds attribute super, god-like qualities to lots of different beings. Super-power, super-knowledge and super-perception seem to be the starting assumption. Children then have to learn that their parents don’t know everything and that people will die.

Cognitive science of religion thus suggests that children do not need harsh 'indoctrination' to believe in a god-like creator, but rather are naturally prone to such beliefs. Culture and upbringing provide specific details and support religious beliefs, but a general tendency to believe in supernatural agents is innate.

Barrett usually offers a clear and helpful explanation, outlining experimental results without going into details or dwelling on areas that are controversial or take him beyond his central point, such as modular understandings of human psychology or attempted evolutionary explanations of why humans show such tendencies. Barrett has a point of view and sees the tendency to religion as primarily a by-product of human psychology rather than as something that helps humans to survive and reproduce per se. Furthermore, unlike many others working in the field, Barrett is a Christian. He offers explanations of how and when atheistic belief might commonly arise and argues that, granted that God is the creator of nature and our minds, the existence of natural explanations of why humans tend to believe in God need not undermine belief, just as the existence of a natural tendency to believe that others have conscious feelings need not undermine that belief. 

This new field is important both scientifically and theologically. Those willing to make the effort will find this a useful introduction.

Revd Dr Patrick Richmond, Norwich

Difficulty: In Depth