Posted by: Ticktock | July 26, 2008

Born Secular!


Oxford psychologist Olivia Petrovich thinks that it may be a possibility that belief in God is inherent, that humans are born with faith.  Hogwash!

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ms. Petrovich’s research, nor do I think she shows a philosophical bias, but I do think her study is deeply flawed and misleading.  Her recent cross-cultural scientific study on spirituality engaged three-and-a-half-year-old children on questions of origin and primary origin of natural and manmade objects.  When asked about the primary origin or genesis of each object, the children were provided with three potential answers:  God, Don’t Know, or Human origin.  Inevitably, despite the differences in British and Japanese cultures, the children chose “God” as their answer, which seemed surprising since the Japanese are essentially raised agnostic.

Right away we can see a huge problem… forced options that are limited and unfair.  “OK, Tomohiro, who made this tree?  Your options are… an all powerful creator, you don’t know, or a man?”  Hmm, I wonder which answer an imaginative and creative child, who regularly converses with cartoon characters on Nick Junior, is going to choose.  It really isn’t hard to imagine that the more interesting and stimulating answer would be the one most chosen.  I wonder what would happen if Flying Spaghetti Monster was one of the options.

There’s also another problem with the options, the likely accurate answer isn’t among them.  Ms. Petrovich omitted the answer that is most plausible, requires the least amount of faith, and has the most evidence.  Of course, I’m talking about natural selection, or more broadly, evolution.  Well, evolution might seem to be too complex for a child, but if you showed a series of images for the origin of a horse, and you included in the options a picture of a horse ancestor, you might find that children would be more likely to pick that than a picture of nothing (God).

Of course, religious organizations will surely pounce on this poorly designed study as proof that religion is instinctual.  But why would they open themselves up to the obvious rejoinder that this study only reminds us that children are naturally easily fooled, relatively ignorant, and overly imaginative?  We are talking about the types of minds that trust in the concept of a jolly elf flying from rooftop to rooftop on a magic sleigh pulled by gravity-defying reindeer.

Lastly, the Japanese children who chose God used the word “Kami“, which does not translate strictly to “Deity”.  Kami is seen as spiritual beings of energy unique to different objects rather than as an ultimate creator.  I hate to quibble over details, but it’s really a stretch to compare Kami with Intelligent Design.

Already blogs are reporting that infants have a natural belief in God. goes so far as to lead their article with this misleading nugget…

“INFANTS are hard-wired to believe in God, and atheism has to be learned, according to an Oxford University psychologist.”

They then end with a quote from Ms. Petrovich that…

“Atheism is definitely an acquired position,”

I think of the term “atheism” as meaning ‘without a faith in God’.  Under those terms, atheism is most certainly NOT an acquired position.  We must be taught to believe in metaphysical entities, and even asking children to choose God as an option, is a form of teaching them.  One must know what a God is before one can choose God as an answer, and I’m assuming that the children were guided about the meaning of the possible answers.  And if so, then how does that prove a natural belief in God or that secular thought is unnatural?

What do you think?



  1. Ah yes. Truth. Who can tell? Who wants to know? Find out before it’s too late.

  2. I really don’t understand how people believe faith in their particular brand of “god” is inherent in children. I almost never talked about anything spiritual or religious which my children and they had no clue what the illustrated bible book was about that we got from a very nice Jehovah’s Witness (she really was very nice and never real pushy, I liked her). They were clueless about god and heaven. If it hadn’t been for that book they would have remained completely blind to the idea of god until the concept was again introduced to my oldest child in kindergarten or 1st grade. That was when she came home crying we were all going to hell and has since professed a belief in god. Lovely. She had nightmares for a week.

    No, my children were not born with some inherent belief or knowledge of an all powerful being in the sky. They were happy to go about their lives oblivious to the fact that billions of people believe in it until someone ruined the fun.

    • Your posting about your children reminded me of my own childhood. I was born in Portugal a Catholic country, during Fascism, and although my parents weren’t particularly religious, they simply did not care about it nor did they attended church, it was wise that I should do what other children did, or my parents would be seen as subversive and possibly anti-establishment. This was dangerous during fascism. So I went to Saturday church school where a devious old woman would impinge upon us the most terrifying and Dante accounts of hell and the devil. At age 6 I was impressionable so I started having terribly frightening nightmares. I could not sleep unless my mum was sleeping beside me. I became an atheist at age 14 and at age 16, we had a revolution which freed us from Fascism and the country became extreme-left quasi communist for some 3 -4 years.
      I did an MSc in Biology and at age 28 went to Denmark to do a PhD. But even there I was assaulted by these nightmares and had difficulty in sleeping alone at home. Today I am a militant atheist and I am writing a book about the evolution of belief. But even at the respectable age of 52 I still have (though less frequently) nightmares of devils and spirits entering my body. Luckily my last 25 years of training and teaching critical thinking have helped me to cope with these dreams which decreased in number, but when I have them I often find myself arguing critically against the devil, in my dream and telling him how he is nothing but a creation of my own mind, after which he goes away very ashamed of himself and very small. I almost end up feeling sorry for the devil himself 🙂

  3. Let me state that I am coming from a definite ‘faith-in-God’ point of view. I bring that presupposition into the conversation. The belief that children (a.k.a. people) are born with an inherent belief in God is a biblical teaching. Therefore, orthodox Christians think “well, yes, that makes sense.”

    For instance, the Apostle Paul states in Romans 1, “For what can be known about God is plain to them (people), because God ha shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

    This Scripture is consistent with the Biblical teaching that people are made in God’s image. In other words, we inherently know and believe that there is a God because God created us and has put that desire into our minds.

    Therefore, if one believes in God then this finding should not shock believers.

    Also, while children can be fooled and manipulated (like your Santa Claus analogy) they eventually are able to decipher between folly and truth. Alas, many more people have rejected the notion that Santa Claus exists – I would hope with a 100% rejection rate – then have rejected that God exists as they develop their thinking skills.

  4. It is really difficult talking bout faith. It is very heavy topic, and I think everyone has their opinion bout it. The best thing to do is just respecting others, no matter what you believe in.

  5. […] Circle is now up at The Lay Scientist. Among the articles there, you’ll see one by The Skeptic Dad. Dad rips apart a flawed study that purports to show that we are all born believing in […]

  6. What a flawed study. A similar one could run:

    3.5 year old children hardwired to believe in Santa Claus, a study finds when asking children to choose between 3 options about the origins of their Christmas presents: Santa Claus, the fantasy option; don’t know, the agnostic option; human (not parents), the wrong option.

    It’s sad that the religious want to cling onto the only part of society more credulous than they (children) to back their arguments. Surely, if it proves anything, it proves the infantile nature of theism.

    These studies trying to prove the universality of intuitions of God and religious practice especially annoy me because they are definitely not universal, in the strictest sense of the word. There are exceptions, including me. They may be universal across cultures but not across all people.

  7. (Coming from the side of faith here…)
    I often wondered if I should raise whatever child(ren) I have never mentioning God. Mostly because I believe people should come to religion as I did – when it is needed. I do not feel the need to force religion on ANYONE and EVERYONE is the correct way.

    Let’s say I come up to you every single day and ask you if you are ready to accept Jesus yet? I am just pushing you away, no one is gaining anything. You are not gaining the right to make your own decision on religion because you won’t want to even research it because I am constantly pressuring you. I am getting no where pressuring you, so I am losing the happiness of sharing my love for God with another. It’s a lose-lose.

    I know this is off topic, but your blog post kind of made me think of this. Either way, I agree, children are not born with a natural knowledge of God, per se, but I do believe they are aware of something greater than them is around them.

    …usually his name is Doctor.

  8. From what I’ve read of that study it quite terrible, and proves nothing. But here is a more powerful line of reasoning:

    The human brian is hardwired to think in terms of human relationships, so thsoe will be the most important factor in the infant and even the adults sucess in living and breeding. That is why all childern love their parent and all parents love their childern (unless there is something despertely wrong with them)–these are evolutionary, biological imperatives at work. Young childern tend to conceive of the whole world in terms of human relationships (Piaget is good on this), imposing an anthropomorphic model on factors like weather, death, bad luck, etc. That is where the belief in god (or more naturally gods outside of societies where raw beleif is shaped toward monotheism) comes from, and it is an inherent human impulse that has to be overcome by reason. Locke thought that childern would not be afraid of mosnters in the dark except ignorant servants frightenedthem with the boogeyman. But he was wrong. All chidlern are afraid of monsters in the dark inherently becuase it was in thier ancestors’ evolutionary interest not to blunder into the dark and be eaten by a leopard.

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