Are Children Intuitive Theists?

ABSTRACT—Separate bodies of research suggest that young children have a broad tendency to reason about natural phenomena in terms of purpose and an orientation toward intention-based accounts of the origins of natural entities. This article explores these results further by drawing together recent findings from various areas of cognitive developmental research to address the following question: Rather than being ‘‘artificialists’’ in Piagetian terms, are children ‘‘intuitive theists’’—disposed to view natural phenomena as resulting from nonhuman design? A review of research on children’s concepts of agency, imaginary companions, and understanding of artifacts suggests that by the time children are around 5 years of age, this description of them may have explanatory value and practical relevance.

Can the premoderation be switched off?

Are Children Intuitive Theists?

Probably. Richard Dawkins offered an evolutionary explanation for this by suggesting gullibility and obedience in children has survival value. “Don’t poke the tiger”. But the tendency to attribute supernatural explanations to things we don’t understand doesn’t turn us necessarily into Evangelical Christians;. That depends on what environment we grow up in.

I don’t have the ability to do that. Not even sure it can be done on a per-thread basis?

OK but I’m a bit baffled by the arbitrariness. What is different about this thread?

We have moderator approval turned on for the Category. Slowing things down helps prevent flames from erupting. :wink:

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It’s not what I’m known for but fair enough.

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I would also recommend the work of Pascal Boyer. Here is a summation quoted from the Nature article linked below:

The findings emerging from this cognitive-evolutionary approach challenge two central tenets of most established religions. First, the notion that their particular creed differs from all other (supposedly misguided) faiths; second, that it is only because of extraordinary events or the actual presence of supernatural agents that religious ideas have taken shape. On the contrary, we now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.


Apparently, yes! This actually makes only good sense. As image-bearers of God, the human spirit can only really gravitate toward the Original. Thank you for this! It is being filed.

What of all the Hindu children in Asia?


I’m skeptical of the idea that children are intuitive theists. But I’ll agree that they may ascribe intention and purpose in ways that adults wouldn’t. That’s all part of learning. And children also learn from the reaction of other people to what they say.

I’ll comment about my own children, now adults. We did not talk to them about religion at all. But now, as adults, both are clearly non-religious.

When they reached school age, we actually enrolled them in a neighborhood catholic school. So they did have an opportunity to learn about religion. We later transferred them to a private school, which was several miles away. That was not to avoid the religion, but because we thought they would get a better education that way.

When in 5th grade (now at the private school), a classmate invited my daughter to visit and sleep over on Saturday night. When she was asking permission, she carefully mentioned that she would be expected to attend church on the Sunday morning. We had no objections to this. But it was clear that she had picked up that we were not religious, and she had picked up that there was a possibility that attending church might be of concern.

As @AlanFox said in another thread, children are like sponges, and they soak up a lot from their environment. That makes it really difficult to sort out whether they are really intuitive theists, or whether that is something that they picked up.

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This possibly reinforces the point. How did she know it would be of concern if she attended a faith-based school and you didn’t talk about religion?

From the news article refering to various research:

No wonder that Margaret Evans found that children younger than 10 favoured creationist accounts of the origins of animals over evolutionary accounts even when their parents and teachers endorsed evolution. Authorities’ testimony didn’t carry enough weight to over-ride a natural tendency.

If she had a natural tendency to theism, she would have picked up that you were actually anti-theistic without any other input.

That’s not theism. Animism, perhaps. Pareidolia, perhaps.


I remember believing in a Flat Earth when I was a kid. Needless to say, kids don’t have the best reasoning skills.


Thanks. I’ll read it. I hadn’t gotten through the entire scientific paper before posting. I’d suggest everyone go through both, as the comments so far show people have not read the one I posted - I’m about halfway. I want to read both completely before commenting any further.

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I don’t know the answer to that. And, actually, we did not have any concerns about it. I assume she picked up such ideas from talking to other children.

I’ve read the Keleman and Barrett pieces before (years ago). “Intuitive theist” is too strong (and loaded) of a way to talk for my taste, but it was Boyer and Barrett who convinced me that religious belief is thoroughly natural behavior by adult humans. It is a lot less surprising–and less interesting–to me that children are “naturally tuned” to believe in gods.

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After reading both articles it could be theism or animism, not pareidolia.

I don’t remember ever believing in anything scientifically incorrect as a kid. haha. :wink: Unless you count YEC as scientifically incorrect. :laughing:

From the article - this but not in the way that you think.

A significant theoretical goal is to empirically discriminate the present hypothesis that children are inherently predisposed to invoke intention-based teleological explanations of nature and find them satisfying (see Bering, 2002, for a related stance) from the milder
hypothesis that children’s teleological orientation arises primarily from their possession of the kind of cognitive machinery (e.g., agency detection) that renders them susceptible to the religious representations of their adult culture—a position that predicts children would not independently generate explanations in terms of designing nonnatural agency without adult cultural influence.

Maybe I’ll make this more interesting…

Notice what this argument is really saying - we expect God to be God and act like us. But isn’t that actually rather odd? :wink:

In the Keleman article, she gives two possible hypotheses, but I would argue both and what I just stated show an orientation toward a Judeo-Christians belief.

Hypothesis 1 - “Intention-based teleological explanations of nature” i.e. intelligent design

Hypothesis 2 - “agency detection” - This and the Boyer article could easily be used as an argument that we understand we are made in the image of God.

What I’m saying is:
Kids see a lot of people running around with purpose who design things. They see other things in nature that are not designed by adults, so they also reason that a supernatural agent designed those things with purpose.

We’re wired for intelligent design and to see God as being like us.

I agree with that. The question then arises, if as kids we are predisposed to look for “Intelligent Design” in events we can’t explain, what has that to do with whether such events happen if we can’t trust our senses? The sensible approach is to compare notes, test our ideas with observation and experiment to come up with better answers.

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I have the same problem. It is ok to provisionally accept our intutions but we shouldn’t close doors to more robust explanations. In “Divine Intuition: Cognitive Style Influences Belief in God” the authors examine both intuition and reflection in three studies:

From the abstract:

Some have argued that belief in God is intuitive, a natural (by-)product of the human mind given its cognitive structure and social context. If this is true, the extent to which one believes in God may be influenced by one’s more general tendency to rely on intuition versus reflection. Three studies support this hypothesis, linking intuitive cognitive style to belief in God. Study 1 showed that individual differences in cognitive style predict belief in God. Participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test(CRT; Frederick, 2005), which employs math problems that, although easily solvable, have intuitively compelling incorrect answers. Participants who gave more intuitive answers on the CRT reported stronger belief in God. This effect was not mediated by education level, income, political orientation, or other demographic variables. Study 2 showed that the correlation between CRT scores and belief in God also holds when cognitive ability (IQ) and aspects of personality were controlled. Moreover, both studies demonstrated that intuitive CRT responses predicted the degree to which individuals reported having strengthened their belief in God since childhood, but not their familial religiosity during childhood,suggesting a causal relationship between cognitive style and change in belief over time. Study 3 revealed such a causal relationship over the short term: Experimentally inducing a mindset that favors intuition over reflection increases self-reported belief in God
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