Justin Barrett on the Naturalness of Religious Belief
Date: October 17th, 2011

Do human beings have an innate tendency to believe in God or the supernatural?  Or are we merely “blank slates” at birth, only later to be filled with religious beliefs by our cultural institutions?  And to what extent is “theology” natural or unnatural to the human mind?  Dr. Justin Barrett, a cognitive psychologist at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA), addresses these issues and presents the surprising results from a number of experiments conducted on small children meant to sort out whether religion is natural or learned.  Although the science of cognition includes some difficult jargon, Dr. Barrett is remarkably adept at using analogies and explaining concepts and theories in a way that anyone can understand.  We begin by defining religion and Prof. Barrett indicates that by that term his is primarily thinking about religious belief and some of the basic actions that follow from that belief.  He is not referring to the institutional scaffolding that we usually associate with “church” or “denomination.”  Our discussion then follows to the definition of what it means to have a belief or behavior be “natural.”  He covers six conditions that psychologists frequently use to define something as “natural” or “innate” to humans, and we talk about how things such as language, music, and walking satisfy these criteria.  We then cover some broad categories of beliefs and behaviors that cognitive psychologists often consider to be “natural,” such as our “naive understanding of physics” (i.e., how objects move), how we detect conscious agents in our environment, and our theory of mind.  Religion then becomes our topic of focus and Justin shows how very young children exhibit beliefs in the supernatural that build upon many of these criteria and categories.  Along the way, he highlights a number of experiments conducted on infants and toddlers that demonstrate that religion does indeed appear to be something that comes natural to humans, and that our understanding of it is only tamped down later in life.  We then turn to the issue of theology, a structured explanation of the supernatural that requires “unnatural” practice and the development of expertise.   Prof. Barrett makes clear that the “unnatural” aspect of theology does not mean that theology is inherently “bad,” just that it requires a broader institutional and cultural context to help us develop and learn these concepts.  We do, though, discuss what happens when theology often leads in directions that are counterintuitive to our natural religious beliefs, and how that can have potentially important social effects.  Tony suggests that this might be an underlying cause for many of the schisms that we see in religious history; when theologies develop to a point that seem to contradict our natural inclinations about the supernatural people will often seek to get back to the “fundamentals.”  Prof. Barrett points to scholarship done by other researchers on “theological incorrectnes” and “the tragedy of the theologian.”  All told, this is a fascinating discussion that has important implications for our understanding of whether or not the world is becoming more secular.  Recorded: October 6, 2011.


Dr. Justin Barrett’s website at Fuller Theological Seminary, and an interview with him.

Why Would Anybody Believe in God? by Justin L. Barrett.

Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds, by Justin L. Barrett.

Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion, by Justin L. Barrett (coming in March 2012).

Discovering God: The Origins of Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, by Rodney Stark (mentioned in the podcast).


Alexander Ross on Religion & Happiness.

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