Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

There are all sorts of ideas that seem highly likely to occur to people out of the blue (i.e. what if the color red to me isn’t the same as red to you), or else are highly likely to occur to someone when asked about a subject they are otherwise unfamiliar with (i.e. eating lots of sugar causes hyperactivity). In the case of God, we may well even be intrinsically inclined to both think of and prefer the idea of a psychological being as the cause of otherwise inexplicable events, simply because we appear hardwired as obsessively social to see everything in terms of personalities and motives.

But that’s still only if we happen to seriously consider the matter as toddlers, and consider it in precisely the same, artificial way that the researchers presented it. There’s no real evidence here that toddlers naturally frame questions that way for themselves, and thus naturally get to the place where they would, on their own, all come up with the idea of a God in response. Indeed, toddlers’ chains of “why?” questions tend to peter out pretty quickly due to boredom when no final “God” answer is given to them.

In short, even if the research here was flawless, it wouldn’t be enough to show that atheism is, as some want to use Petrovich’s work to claim, always “an acquired position.” There are plenty of reasons to think that the sort of theistic assumptions Petrovich references wouldn’t come up until later in life, at which point people might not be so inclined to accept God as an answer.

Furthermore, even if all toddlers naturally thought of the idea of God without provocation, and naturally preferred it, this would still only be evidence that they naturally acquire theism at some point, not that atheism can only be acquired “later.” The lack of a God belief could (and, in my opinion, would) still be the default state prior to the allegedly unavoidable idea of God coming onto the scene.

Given these problems of interpretation, the methodology here is doubly suspect: the studies used forced choice questionnaires in which the children were asked to speculate: with only “people did it” “God did it” and “don’t know” as responses. But when you press a child to answer, especially in the context of a seeming test on a matter that most have likely never considered before, you’ve already essentially downplayed the attractiveness of the “don’t’ know” category (which toddlers may in any case be naturally disinclined to admit to). And the children in question already seem capable of understanding that some objects (natural ones) were not made by people.

This leaves only the vague identity with unknown but potentially relevant abilities as the remaining answer (and while Petrovich talks about Japanese kids not seeing “God” as a creator, Japanese kids are exposed to ideas of spirits and magic creating and doing things, which leaves “God” the only available option amongst the three that’s close to these beliefs). In this sense, the researchers are not so much finding things out from children: they are implicitly, and perhaps inadvertently making an argument for God using the very sort of forced choices and leading questions that creationists often employ. How far off is the study design here from the question begging of “Who is responsible for creation: the creator?”

Then there’s the problem with her talking about “children” as if her findings were intrinsically universal to all children. Yet, when discussing the forced choice results, for instance, she says that they “predominantly” went for God. That doesn’t sound like even the forced choice resulted in any sort of universal preference for God explanations in children, regardless of the cross-cultural similarities. The headlines aren’t reading “most children assume that a God-like being causes things” but rather that “children” do so, period. The null hypothesis here is that God concepts come from external ideas and trains of thought rather than being inevitable aspects of human intellectual development. Thus, anything less than an across the board preference for God seems to leave the alternative wide open.

This weakness is further reinforced in the following passage from the interview:

When you press them, they of course fall back on what they’ve been told, saying things like, “I know he’s a man because I saw him on the telly,” or “He’s just like my daddy.” These are very rational responses, but they’re not natural conceptions formed by children. Rather they’re imposed by the culture in which the children live.

As even Petrovich notes, these are essentially culturally based ideas about God coming from these same kids (albeit seemingly just the English ones). The difficultly here is that you can only question children once they can speak, and yet they learn to communicate by interfacing more and more with the culture around them. A culturally pure child would almost by definition be communicatively mute.

So while these studies are interesting, and could certainly lead to a more complex model of how our causal and metaphysical beliefs tend to develop in modern societies, I just don’t see the warrant for declaring much about anything when it comes to atheism here.

In any case, I think most theists (and some atheists) entirely misunderstand the reason we talk about infants as atheists. It’s not a matter of trying to beef up “sides,” but rather explain what it means to not believe.

But that’s for another post.

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18 Responses to Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

  1. Don says:

    I don’t see why it’s a bad thing if atheism is an acquired position. It’s the same as abstract or scientific thinking. These are definitely acquired (and really unnatural), but superior to their alternatives.

  2. Bad says:

    It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a matter of accurately understanding what it is we’re talking about.

    I don’t think that atheism really is a “position” per se when you come down to it: it’s the lack of a particular position. It’s only a position in the sense of a location in a taxonomic scheme for classifying people in regards to a belief.

  3. Terry says:

    I think that people who feel that true religious reality stems primarily from personal spiritual experiences will likely jump on this as a positive. In other words, Born Again Christians, New Age theists, Pentecostals, and certain liberal congregations who believe all things are true. Namely, everyone who believes we have some sort of innate ESP for communicating with the divine.

    I’m actually surprised some atheist bloggers seem to be bothered by the notion that believing in God is innate. After all, I’ve been called an infantile intellect with daddy issues for being a Catholic before. Such assertions wouldn’t be blocked by the claims made by this study. Hopefully it is a genuine concern for sloppy methodology, but if it comes to sociology there is long backlog of cases just like this one that deserve commentary.

    For myself, I would say that anthropomorphizing things is pretty natural thing to do for humans, in how we interact with objects and animals. We also tend to draw analogies between natural phenomenon and human artifice. Theism is a very simple idea, and it only becomes complicated depending on how much intellectual effort you put into it. The fact that toddlers would choose God more often than the answers (and do we know by how wide a margin?) simply might be the easiest answer that explains the phenomenon comprehensively.

  4. Bad says:

    I agree that we shouldn’t be bothered by what is innate or not. We innately assume all sorts of things that are flat out wrong, such as the sun being tiny and revolving around an immobile earth, and the physical possibility of optical illusions.

    For myself, the issue is more about what it means to believe or not believe something: a distinction I think is pretty simple, but which many people insist on confusing endlessly. Infants being atheists doesn’t score atheism any points anymore than infants not thinking that Mac trucks speeding at you are dangerous should score points for adults who stand in the middle of highways.

    The important issue is simply understanding that beliefs are affirmative, not passive, and that a lack of a particular belief is not something that inherently requires any effort to justify or accomplish.

    Belief requires making a connection between a concept and an affirmation of that concept as true: it’s an active process with many pre-requisites.

    Lacking a belief means not making that connection: for whatever reason. Infants don’t believe in things period, including Gods, because they can’t distinguish between reality, fantasy, or falsehood or even consider distinct concepts in the first place. But the bottom line is that the critical connection isn’t made. The light doesn’t turn on.

    All non-believers share this state. What may differ is the number of pre-requisites in place, but all are missing the complete circuit, and so do not believe in the same critical way. Some people may never have heard of the concept of God, and so, while they can conceptualize things and affirm them, unlike babies, they can’t specifically consider and affirm the idea of God. Some people have heard of the concept, but never really cared about the matter, and so do not take the final step of believing it. And some people, like myself, have heard of the concept, are interested in considering the matter (and indeed have considered it), but are at the point where they have standards for belief: they require an extra step of requiring an intelligible reason to believe something.

    And you’re quite right, as I alluded to: we are a super-social species that sees motive and thinking in everything. We love the pathetic fallacy. It’s not at all surprising that the idea of all of existence having a motive or a personality would occur to humans in the first place, and even humans first developing ideas about the world around them.

  5. Terry says:

    I’ve never seen a person who can get by without fuzzy logic either. Good thing too, because we wouldn’t stay alive long without it.

    I wouldn’t quite go so Tabula Rasa as you would about infants and toddlers. I remember as child just how much I put personality into all sorts of things. I have a distinct memory of being asked to put away mason jars for canning in the root cellar as a boy of about 6 or 7. I was still enough of a child at that point to sort the empty jars according to size and type because I didn’t want the little jars to picked on by the larger ones. I remember being deeply ashamed of this, because I knew that these things were just objects but I couldn’t help myself. If I didn’t organize them properly I would feel incredibly guilty. I had to literally one day force my conscience down into to put them away sloppily and break myself of this habit. I often come back to this event in my life when I meditate on the role of imagination in spiritual experience.

    When toddlers are playing they often treat objects as being things with names and personalities. Imaginary friends are common, and they get lost in games so that they forget they are actually just pretending.

    I’ll agree with what you said above though.

  6. Bad says:

    I don’t think infants are Tabula Rasa. I just think they are incapable of holding the sort of abstract beliefs of which God is one: they are Tabula Non-Functiona when it comes to the basic toolkit of belief. That’s neither here nor there when it comes to whether belief in God is justified or not. But it is a perfect illustration of a continuum of non-belief, all of which is essentially the same: it’s the toolkit necessary to hold a particular belief that is incomplete.

  7. Terry says:

    > I just think they are incapable of holding the sort of abstract beliefs of which
    > God is one: they are Tabula Non-Functiona when it comes to the basic toolkit of > belief.

    I’ll have to disagree with you there. I don’t think even young children barely capable of speech are incapable of understanding the notion that an invisible being does things through magic. They might not be able to grasp the full implications of theism, but it is often hard for adults as well.

  8. bitchspot says:

    It’s a simple fact that if we were to take an infant and never teach it about god(s), it would never profess belief in god(s). Religion is taught, it is not inborn. Atheism, on the other hand, the lack of belief in god(s), is absolutely inborn, just like the lack of language, the lack of mathematical understanding, etc.

    Of course, these people aren’t using the actual definition of atheism, they’re using their own perverted version that says atheism is the demand that god(s) do not exist.

    It’s all apples and oranges and it’s nothing new. They are inherently dishonest because they are inherently talking about their own twisted strawman.

  9. Bad says:

    Well, I think you are overplaying things a little bitchspot. As we’ve been noting, the inclination to see a personality in everything really IS a core human trait, and as such, it makes the idea of something like a God (though this mostly seems to take the form of whatever the understanding of the world is: i.e. pagan gods controlled natural forces, and monotheistic gods came about when more abstract ideas about existence emerged) almost inevtiable. That doesn’t make belief almost inevitable, but it does mean that it’s unlikely that no one would ever think of the idea.

    I’m with you about the attempts to yank atheism this way and that though. Keep it simple, I say.

  10. Bad says:

    Terry: I’m talking about flat out infants, just to make things nice and clear: obviously as children develop conceptual and abstract thinking, they can grasp ideas of, say, a magic man. But the point is that infants don’t have ideas, and don’t have thinking, at least in the conventional sense. They’re all instinct, experience, and emotional expression: they have to learn how to think and distinguish things in the world from other things. They can’t believe until they understand the difference between something that’s true and something that’s not, and even how to conceptualize one concept as distinct from another. There’s no reason to think that infants are born being able to do this.

  11. […] Bad at the Bad Idea Blog wrote an excellent piece discussing the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her researc… […]

  12. JimC says:

    Oh c’mon Terry a child knows an invisible man does things through magic even though they can’t speak? Thats not very strong.

    I think it’s much simpler we are a group species with a definite heirachy to our social structure. Looking to the ‘alpha’ is part of our biology and God is simply the highest alpha. That a child may look to the alpha isn’t suprising espcially given how they look to their elders for everything.

    To equate this with being a born ‘theist’ is to confound both biology and rationality. Children are taught religion(99%the religion of their parentsand culture) and IMHO the aspects of belief and theism simply piggyback on the biological scaffolding already present. Left to their own devices some children may look to an alpha for the answer but few if any would presuppose all that comes with religious belief.

  13. Justin says:

    Creation proves the Creator. All you need are eyes that can see and a brain that works.

  14. Bad says:

    It’s easy to make bold assertions about how some conclusion is “obvious,” utterly without regard to whether it actually is obvious, or even true. Oftentimes, people’s conviction that something is clear is as good a sign as any that they are making a whole bunch of very large and unwarranted assumptions, leading them to error.

    For instance, simply begging the question by simply calling all existence “Creation” is not exactly a brilliant mode of proving your case. But if you have a more serious means of doing so, other than simply claiming loudly that you are like totally correct, then you’re welcome to elaborate.

  15. Justin says:

    Even if we did leave out the semantics of Creation and Creator, the point is still there. God must exist because we must have come from somewhere. We could not have come from nothing.

  16. Bad says:

    Your conclusion doesn’t follow from your premise. We exist, but we don’t know how we, or rather our known universe, came to be. Or even if it “came to be.” Period. We can’t even say for sure that it didn’t “come from nothing.” I’m not even sure we know what that really means. If we had to come from somewhere, nothing in the range of infinite unknown possibility requires that it must have been from a God, specifically.

    So “God did it” is neither the only or inevitable answer to the question, nor is it really even an answer at all, as I explained in my “When Theism Can’t Explain Anything” post. Saying that God did “it” when we don’t really even know what “it” specifically entailed, or required, isn’t an explanation of anything.

  17. Justin says:

    It took all those words and a link to make you comfortable with denying the obvious. We came from somewhere. We were created.

  18. Bad says:

    “All those words” constitute something called “reasoning.” Simply insisting that you’re correct and calling it obvious, a pointless tactic that anyone can employ for any belief, doesn’t quite measure up as a retort.

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