Do children have a ‘natural belief in God’?

Over the weekend, the Melbourne newspaper The Saturday Age ran this interesting piece:

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

Dr Olivera Petrovich told a University of Western Sydney conference on the psychology of religion that even preschool children constructed theological concepts as part of their understanding of the physical world.

Pyschologists have debated whether belief in God or atheism was the natural human state. According to Dr Petrovich, an expert in psychology of religion, belief in God is not taught but develops naturally.

She told The Age yesterday that belief in God emerged as a result of other psychological development connected with understanding causation.

It was hard-wired into the human psyche, but it was important not to build too much into the concept of God. “It’s the concept of God as creator, primarily,” she said. Dr Petrovich said her findings were based on several studies, particularly one of Japanese children aged four to six, and another of 400 British children aged five to seven from seven different faiths.

“Atheism is definitely an acquired position,” she said.

Source: The Age

The conversation is picked up on Barney Zwartz’s blog, The Religious Write, where Zwartz asks whether or not Petrovich’s findings might support an evolutionary anachronism that we are outgrowing. So, what ought we make of all this? Should we really be surprised? Should theists be encouraged by such findings? What difference does it make that the children studied were 3.5+ years old?

There’s also an interview with Olivera Petrovich that I’ve posted here on Paternal Life that sheds more light on the subject.


  1. There’s really nothing new about these “findings.” Here are parts of comments recently made by Jesse Bering, 
Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queens University, Belfast, in an Edge symposium:

    “Psychologists now know that human beings intuitively reason as though natural categories exist for an intelligently designed purpose. Clouds don’t just exist, say kindergartners, they’re there for raining.” Also, “a mind designed by nature cannot be changed fundamentally.”

    So it’s not surprising that children intuit a purposeful nature which in turn suggests a planned nature, and that suggests a controlled nature, All consistent with the nature of theological concepts.
    But Petrovitch is showing confirmation bias when stating it’s the concept of God as a creator, because other Asian children, such as from Buddhist cultures, don’t end up intuiting a creator god from a purposeful nature. They accept instead doctrines of Karmic causality, etc.


  2. Aperaper,

    Thanks for your comments. Again, I encourage you to check out the interview with Petrovich that I’ve posted on Paternal Life where she suggests findings contrary to what you are claiming.

    Note that I’m not trying to defend her research, but she has spoken of the very things you highlight and it might be worthwhile you hearing what she has to say on it.


  3. The interview with Petrovich shows the Japanese and English children were given three forced choice questions, one answer being god. So clearly they didn’t come up with that concept unaided. Other Asian children, so prompted, would probably do the same, that answer being the closest to something that could purposely control nature. So this offers no proof of anything except that humans are naturally superstitious.
    Believe what you will, but if you reinforce such beliefs self-deceptively, it will backfire, believe me.


  4. I did check the interview and there were forced choice questions involved. One of the answers was god, which most closely fit what we already know is consistent with our instinctive feelings that nature operates with some sort of purpose. So it was simply a setup, whether intentionally done or not. The word god didn’t come from these children’s brains unaided. And regardless of one’s beliefs, we shouldn’t be silly enough to think that it would. Otherwise, why the significant cultural disparities in religious visions of either one creator, several, or none in particular?


  5. Sorry to belabor the point, but I am an agnostic with a scientific bent, and would like to add the following from a recent Scientific American article:
    “-we have evolved brains that pay attention to anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are belief engines that employ association learning to seek and find patterns. Superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old, whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old.”


  6. What was done to note societal effects on the results? I mean if they have heard about God then the results are biased. How can new borns be theist if they are born unable to understand the concept of God/god(s)?


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