Babies: Atheists or Religious? July 28, 2008

Babies: Atheists or Religious?

If a baby is born, it seems obvious to me that it would be an atheist — at least in the sense that it has not yet been taught the concept of God, so it can’t possibly believe in a God.

It’s the very reason Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, says it would be tantamount to abuse to give a small child a religious label (like Christian or Catholic). How can it be religious when it doesn’t even understand the implications of the theology?

Psychologist Olivera Petrovich begs to differ.

In fact, according to The Age, she believes “infants are hard-wired to believe in God, and atheism has to be learned.”

An interview with her in Science & Spirit shows it’s a bit more complex than that, though:

Petrovich: … I’ve also established that children’s natural concepts of God aren’t purely anthropomorphic. They certainly acquire a conception of God-as-man through their religious education, but no child actually links the representation of, for example, God-as-Jesus with the creator of the world. Rather, their images of God the creator correspond to abstract notions like gas, air, and person without a body. 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.

So to be clear, the God belief she refers to is not a God who answers prayers or judges your every thought. It’s a very vague notion of God. Definitely not a God belonging to any particular faith.

Also, it’s curious that her subjects are not infants. Rather, they’re kids who have a few years on them… at least four-years-old.

There are some very interesting comments at The Age Blogs. Barney Zwartz asks these questions to his readers:

… Are Dr Petrovich’s findings surprising? If you disagree, do you have counter explanations, or do you dismiss such belief as an evolutionary anachronism that we are outgrowing? If you agree, how far can the argument be taken? For example, Dr Petrovich’s findings do not favour any particular theological system. Should any or all or be encouraged by these findings?

(Thanks to Pseudonym for the links!)

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  • Ron in Houston

    I don’t know if we read the same articles, but the clincher to me was their study of Japanese children. As a culture, Japan does not have a belief in God. So, the cultural meme of “god” would not have been implanted in Japanese children. However, when quizzed the children would invoke the idea of a creator type god.

    I think whatever genetics supports a belief in God is related to things like compassion and cooperation as a species. Belief in God as a general concept is pretty benign. Religion is the problem.

  • Larry Huffman

    Interesting…I was going to go an entirely different route.

    I was going to suggest that infants have a view of their parents in a godlike manner. They learn to be atheist (if their parents are not religious and so impose a different religion on top) as they become aware of the nature of aging and the concept of grown ups…meaning they realize they will be like their parents one day.

    But…I do not think a child would formulate a religion around any of this…even the example above. I think it a serious error to claim this makes an infant religious…relgion implies organization. It is not a religion…it is a concept of deity…at best.

  • Pseudonym

    OK, a few comments to start things off.

    First off, there are plenty of examples of reality being counter-intuitive, such as objects of different mass falling at the same rate in the absence of air resistance. Nobody, least of all Dr Petrovich, is arguing that just because children develop simple “theology” naturally, that automatically means it’s correct.

    Second, Dawkins’ comments about child labelling don’t exist in a vacuum. As he pointed out himself, in Northern Ireland, labels like “Catholic” and “Protestant” have been sometimes used as something akin to gang labels. It was this practice, as well as psychologically damaging doctrine like hellfire and damnation, that he specifically thinks of as “abuse”. I may be putting words into Dawkins’ mouth here, but mere identification with a religious group is no more “abuse” than identification with an ethnic group.

    Having said that, I think that the interesting part of this research is that religion is a very human activity, much like sex. Both can, and have, been regulated. Both can, and have, been used as an excuse for violence. Both can, and have, been used as a form of social control. But when you get down to it, there seems to be something very basic and very human beneath it all.

  • ryot

    I think the fact that she’s working with four-year-old children and older invalidates any finding concerning actual infants. A whole lot of growth-physical and intellectual-takes place between those ages. Does the study differentiate between children of atheists and children of religious parents? By age four they would have learned a lot, and religious parents would probably make sure that God was part of that. Atheists’ children probably won’t have that. The way they connect abstract notions like the wind would probably change depending on what they learned, it’s pretty easy for a child to call that “God” because it’s a simple explanation, like magic or giant butterflies flapping their wings quickly. It’s something uncomplicated they can readily understand. It’s basically the same way a younger child might think their parents are responsible for everything that happens, just a bit higher up.

    I don’t find this to be any evidence that humans have a natural tendency towards theism, just towards forming some kind of protector figure and easy explanations for things-exactly what God is.

  • Xeonicus

    Ron in Houston said:

    I don’t know if we read the same articles, but the clincher to me was their study of Japanese children. As a culture, Japan does not have a belief in God. So, the cultural meme of “god” would not have been implanted in Japanese children. However, when quizzed the children would invoke the idea of a creator type god.

    I’m not so sure I agree. Japanese culture does tend to be more secular and lacking in organized religion, but they also have a very deep rooted spirituality that is tied closely with their culture and traditions.

    Shinto is still very much alive in Japan and I don’t imagine you’d have to look too hard to find people whose beliefs, if not exact, are at least influenced by the spiritual ideas of shinto.

    There are many elements of spirits and nature deities that influence Japanese folklore. So, I’d actually disagree that Japanese culture does not expose children to a similar concept to “God”. Even if some people come to regard such ideas as make-believe, they’re still aware of the concept.

  • Miko

    I haven’t studied developmental psychology extensively, but I’d tend to doubt these results. I’d say rather than they quickly learn to believe in “magic.” For example, babies often grasp for the moon because they lack the developed depth perception to realize that they’re going to fail. Similarly, toddlers will attempt to ride in toy cars (etc.) that are clearly too small too fit them, especially if they’ve previously seen larger toy cars that they can ride around in. Thus, young children are used to the world not acting in ways that they expect and so (in my completely uninformed guess) would tend to associate such events with an unexplainable magic until they develop ways of figuring out what’s actually going on.

    Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against the idea of being born ‘religious’ is that very young children have been shown to lack a theory of mind (i.e., that other people could have thoughts or knowledge different from their own), which doesn’t leave much room for a god-belief unless they think that they’re the god.

    On the other hand, young children also seem to be unaware that there exist questions which have no answer (e.g., “What is the meaning of life?”) and so will attempt to do whatever they can to find answers to these questions. This could suggest some level of metaphysical belief, or just that the very act of asking the questions is biasing the study by forcing children to develop beliefs which they previously lacked (in the same sense that any literate child will start believing in UFOs within 30 minutes of being handed a book about them). One unfortunate side effect is that this would make doing a truly objective study of this sort impossible until you find a methodology that doesn’t involve interviewing children on the subject.

    I don’t see the text of the actual study anywhere, so reaching a conclusion either way would be premature, but I tend to doubt the result. More importantly, in the context mentioned here I’d say that the result doesn’t matter, as the proposed ‘religious expression’ developed naturally isn’t a sectarian one and Dawkins’ criticism of religious labeling would apply to the phrase ‘atheist child’ as well, so this study wouldn’t affect the validity of his objection either way.

    (By the way: Even though I doubt it, personally I’d be quite happy if this result were true. While what would happen in a culture with no conception of gods is an interesting question, in the real world it’s probably best that atheism is a position reached through rational examination instead of just being the gut-instinct of a two-year-old.)

  • PrimeNumbers

    My daughter wants to believe in magic, but she knows it’s not real. She wants Santa to give her presents, but knows he’s just make-believe. She’s 3 and a half.

  • Jacob Dink

    The idea that God is a taught concept, and that infants are naturally atheists, does seem like a bit of a naive one. I don’t think this vitiates any of Dawkins claims, but I do think he might have been wrong on this one– and it was especially careless to assume it was the case in such an unempirical (and unscientific) fashion, reminiscent of the tabula rasa armchair philosophy of old, applied to a more specific venue. I think there’s even better evidence that humans are naturally dualists (see, and it’s not hard to see where that trend leads.

    Though this doesn’t have implications about the truth of religion, it might have implications about the such idealistic forecasts as a world without religion. If it’s hard-wired, is it eradicable? Certainly this is the case for other common sense ideas (as others, and the article I linked to, mention).

  • JM

    This all sounds pretty fishy to me. I’m actually a graduate student in a related field right now, and I am having a very hard time finding anything concrete about Dr. Petrovich. She’s in the experimental psychology program at Wolfson college, which is a small, quirky little graduate college in the Oxford system. Her statement at the conclusion of her interview — that she wishes she could get a position in a psychology department studying psychology of religion — seems very odd indeed. Her claim that such a position does not exist would be quite a surprise to some scholars I know at Boston U who do just that.

    I tried to find more of her work, and there just isn’t very much of it. She seemed to be doing some publishing in developmental psychology in the 80s, and then stopped. Only to appear again with a Templeton Foundation grant very recently. My guess is that she’s a mediocre researcher who has changed tactics (and joined the school of theology faculty) to advance her career (or perhaps out of personal interest).

    The fact that she is publishing these results in a book (and not a scholarly journal) could also be bad. This is *very* uncommon for psychologists, but if she publishes through a University press, then there will be some peer review. However, if we see this published in a run-of-the-mill publishing house, then we can take this all with a grain of salt. If I can’t look at her methodology, and she’s giving interviews to online magazines before publishing her results, she’s unreliable at best.

    My guess would be that she’s biasing her results by lumping responses together, and labeling forced answers as references to innate conceptions of God. When Children answer questions, they almost always try to give you the “correct” answer, which is a mix of anything they’ve heard before and what you want to hear. I’ll let the jury stay out until I know more about her work, but right now I suggest no one repeat this research as definitive or credible.

  • llewelly

    Arguing that a baby isn’t an atheist because it’s ‘hard-wired to believe in God’ is little better than arguing that Richard Dawkins isn’t an atheist because he’s ‘hard-wired to believe in God’ .
    The ‘wiring’ that Petrovich describes is not the only relevant ‘wiring’ in the brain.

  • I think that magical thinking is a natural thing for kids, they simply don’t know much about the world and how it works so for example if they aren’t shown or told otherwise they’ll think food just magically appears on store shelves out of nowhere. Also a lot of kids because they don’t understand the difference between what’s alive and what isn’t and having plenty of imagination they think their toys are alive. This sort of thinking doesn’t translate into a belief in god or other spiritual beings without a little help from the kid’s family whether intentional teaching or the type of observation young kids make (and they observe everything as anyone who’s accidentally said a word they shouldn’t have in front of a two-year-old and then had them repeat it knows).

  • Pseudonym


    The fact that she is publishing these results in a book (and not a scholarly journal) could also be bad. This is *very* uncommon for psychologists, but if she publishes through a University press, then there will be some peer review. However, if we see this published in a run-of-the-mill publishing house, then we can take this all with a grain of salt.

    This is a bit off-topic, but it annoyed me that this is also what Dawkins did with his TGD, which attempted to argue that the existence of God “is a scientific question”. Admittedly, Dawkins’ book didn’t pretend to be actual scientific research results, but still, if you’re trying to address what you think is a scientific question, popular books ain’t the way to do it.

    Anyway, I found this interesting. I agree that we shouldn’t take Dr Petrovich’s research as being in any way definitive.

  • Kate


    As a developmental psychology Ph.D. student at Duke…this shit pisses me off. I hate crap psychology – IT GIVES THE REST OF PSYCHOLOGY RESEARCHERS A BAD NAME.

    Like JM said, I’ll start paying attention when I see her studies show up in the latest issue of Developmental Psychology or another *top-tier*, peer-reviewed journal. Until then, she needs to hush up and stop with the voodoo psychology.

  • From what Hemant quoted, I couldn’t help but feel that the researcher wasn’t indicating a natural belief in “God” but rather a natural tendency towards faith itself. Whether that faith is in a pantheistic force, or anthropomorphic deities is not specified, but it just seemed like the “God” label was slapped on a mish-mash of varied thoughts and feelings that may or may not have any relation to one another, let alone to an external reality.

    Anyway, did anybody else see what she mentioned as an example of her method for determining whether the children had a natural belief in “God” ? This is what she offered up to Japanese and British children as options to a question involving the origin of the first dog. I had to prevent myself from gagging:

    On forced choice questions, consisting of three possible explanations of primary origin, they would predominantly go for the word “God,” instead of either an agnostic response (e.g., “nobody knows”) or an incorrect response (e.g., “by people”). This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Japanese religion — Shinto — doesn’t include creation as an aspect of God’s activity at all.

    So…they chose “God” (or, most likely, “god”, if the question was posed with the influence of Shinto in mind) instead of “nobody knows” (usually an unacceptable answer in formative years, due to inquistiveness and lack of knowing what is unknown), and “by people” (very few people outside of the I.D. movement seem to confuse natural and artifical, even without knowing the distinction). She proved that children will take the vague answer involving an entity that they don’t completely understand over admitting that they don’t know (and positively asserting, at their young and inexperienced age, that no one else in existence knows) and taking an answer that is intuitively wrong. Sigh…if the entire study was like that…it is really disappointing.

  • Adel Ortega

    No, no, and no. Babies: delicious.

  • I also blogged about this, and I disagree with the statement that all babies are atheists.

    Isn’t atheism a conscious choice?

    Maybe I’m wrong about this, but are you an atheist because you don’t know about gods yet? or do you have to actively reject the idea of gods in order to be defined as an atheist?

    I thought this study was interesting because maybe it means humans have some tendency in our minds to accept or create stories of higher powers and those of us who actively reject them are fighting against that instinct.

    Interested in your opinions, am I way off base? 🙂

  • Actually, I think “atheist” is the wrong word here.

    I think babies are agnostic.

    They don’t know about God. One way or the other. They don’t even know what a dog or a tree is, much less God. They may or may not be hard-wired with a tendency to believe in God once they grow up… but they don’t know what God is, enough to either believe or disbelieve. You have to know what religion is in order to not believe in it.

  • Ia gree with what Miko and other have said. At that age the brain development is in flux and children believe a lot of crazy stuff. The line between reality and fantasy is blurred. They have imaginary friends and talk to stuffed animals. What is she asked them about monsters under their bed? Is the idea of “monsters under the bed” ingrained in people?

    As we grow up we lose most of these fantastic ideas, just because most people hold onto the idea of god through the religion of their choosing doesn’t make it any more real.

  • Beowulff

    Babies are neither atheists nor religious, it’s like asking whether cats or dogs are religious or atheists: the question is meaningless until they develop a higher level of understanding of the world around them. Certainly, they aren’t religious yet though.

    I will believe that young children are susceptible to magical thinking, and that they’ll have to unlearn that (even though many adults never do), but I doubt that they have an innate concept of God, let alone the Chri. It seems to me that sort of questions asked could easily lead the children to the conclusion the researcher wanted – which seems likely, as Asylum Seeker indicated. Another factor is that she’s in a position of authority over those children, and children are usually trained to want to please authority figures. So I’m not yet convinced.

  • stogoe

    I think we could say that it sounds reasonable that we’re born with a high predisposition towards assigning intellect and intent to external events. Natural selection certainly favors false-positive reactions to external stimuli, and selects against false-negatives.

    Now, an inherent belief in Yahweh and his wife, or Jesus, Ganesh, Coyote, etc? Certainly not.

  • A humble opinion from a psychologist…

    As the mind develops, more complex models of how things work develop in the mind of the child. Jean Piaget, father of the psychogenetics found that at certain age the child is more likely to answer to a problem in a given way, because his mind is uncapable of developing a more complex way of solving the problem.

    And with explanations about things goes the same. It’s almost as if the genesis of thought mimicked the biological genesis: as an embyro shows the genetic ancestry of millions of years of evolution in the months it takes to fully develop into a human, the ideas about the world show the progressively more complex understanding of our world as humanity.

    A very young kid may tell you the world is flat. And that wind is a spirit blowing air. And things fall because they like earth, but you could end up falling up sometimes.

    As age progresses, the complexity of the models about reality also improves to be able to include other problems the previous model didn’t answer.

    Then, I wounldn’t be surprised if suddently somebody found out that some sort of god is in the children’s idea of How World Works. Probably younger kids belive on pantheism (ever seen a little kid hitting a toy because the toy denies to do something he wants it to do, as if trying to compell the thing into motion?) and that later this evolves.

    So… maybe atheism isn’t the natural state, as it requires understanding things in complex systems. But that would not give any religion a boost, save patheism, and that’s a maybe.

  • Dawn

    Dr. Harvey Karp compares toddlers and preschoolers to cavemen and women in his book Happiest Toddler on the Block. He bases his comparison on the way young children develop language and thinking skills much the same way early man developed these things through evolution. I think the comparison is apt here in that, like early humans who made every attempt to explain the unknown in terms that they could accept, so children will do the same. I don’t think this means children are hardwired to a belief in god but rather are hardwired to ask questions and look for answers. When they don’t get answers that make sense to their level of development they delve into magical thinking.

    4 year old children are by nature irrational. They don’t have enough experience to be able to distinguish between what is real or what is not real unless they’ve been guided in some way. Children are surrounded by the unreal. TV shows, movies (santa, tooth fairy etc.) all portray characters that older kids know are not actually real. But for the young child, they believe 100%. Eventually they come to understand that cars really can’t talk and fat jolly elves don’t actually come down the chimney bearing gifts for the well behaved. So it would go for god as well if the adults around them weren’t reinforcing god belief.

    So I’m not surprised at the results of this study. Just the author’s interpretation of the data.

  • Beowulff

    “let alone the Chri” was supposed to read “let alone the Christian God.” of course…

  • Robin

    I would expect that, at age 4, children would give answers that they had been given. If you’ve been told that thunder is god bowling, if you’ve been told by adults that “we don’t know where dogs come from” or that dogs evolved, that’s the answer that you’ll give. Children at that age are fairly compliant that way. I would also worry about how the questions were asked. Since young children are often interested in giving the “correct” answer, they can be quite sensetive to the way that questions are asked and try to give the answer that gets the most positive reaction. It’s one of things that can make testing young children quite difficult.

  • jdcollins

    As smart as 4-year old infants.

    I think this would make a great atheist poster! Anyone with photoshop that can help us out with a graphic?

  • Kate

    As smart as 4-year old infants.”

    And smarter than people who don’t know that infants aren’t four years old. Grow up.

  • Kate, I can’t say it with certainty, but I think that the phrase “4-year old infants” was an intentional jab at saying that “infants are hard-wired to believe in God, and atheism has to be learned” is a valid conclusion from a study involving children 4 years old and older.

    But, if not, than it really is a little juvenile. Yet, I wholeheartedly support the message!

  • John

    A couple of people have touched on it already, but my perception is that all humans, in the absence of both science and religion, tend to generally assume that most of the world is animate and human-like.

    Kids think their toys are people, they think the people on the TV actually live inside it, and so on. It’s not a hard leap from there to thinking that trees, the wind, or the earth itself are living creatures that do things for a reason.

    I think it’s really just part of the social instinct. Humans have evolved an impressively complex system of behavior that allows them to cooperate, survive, and accomplish things that pure biology wouldn’t have allowed. In fact, humans are so good at working with other humans that the instinct is overwhelming; they see human faces in their toast and assume everything that happens is somehow the result of human-like reasoning and intent.

    Give it a few generations of trying to put together a consistent explanation and it’s easy to get almost any theistic religion. Give it a few more generations of work and it stops having any relationship whatsoever to reality.

  • Children are not atheist, they believe in everything. Tell them about gods and they will believe gods, tell them about trolls under bridges and they will believe in trolls. As a species we have adapted to take the advice of parent figures for our own protection: Poking that crocodile with a stick is unwise no matter how much he smiles; walking in traffic is dangerous; fire is bad; cats are evil and will suck your breath out while you sleep.

    They discard many of these beliefs and reinforce others as we develop. That doesn’t make children atheist or theist, just gullible.

  • Bad

    Actually, I think “atheist” is the wrong word here.

    I think babies are agnostic.

    Whether something is agnostic or not does not answer the question of whether it believes or not. Infants do not believe in anything: belief is an activity that requires far more complex abilities to conceptualize things. If atheist means “not believing in god” then infants are atheists, without caveats.

    Yes, they don’t have the ability to believe, and I do. But belief is something that requires a whole bunch of pre-requisites. And while I have more of them than an infant, the gist is the same: neither or us have what is necessary to hold the belief in question.

    The only reason this question gets hard is because people try to smuggle in all sorts of other connotations and agendas onto the words theist and atheist, and considering this case exposes them.

  • vegatee

    Spirituality and religion are separate things. Spirituality is innate and comprised of several genetic predispositions. As a whole of its parts, spirituality (i.e. faith that something is out there) is like any other feeling which can not be ignored. In a way, it’s like hunger. Leptin is an important factor in the mechanism that regulates hunger. When the mechanism malfunctions, the person feels hungry even though s/he ate and should feel full. This person understands why s/he feels hungry, if someone explains it, just as s/he knows that s/he just ate and shouldn’t eat anymore. The feeling is there, however, and can not be rationalized away. Ditto with spirituality (which had evolutionary value at some point in our ancestral history, so, it’s still here).

    Spirituality can be measured on a scale. Most people hover around its mid-point, while some of us are so low on the scale (outliers) that we’ve been atheists since our very early years (to the dismay of our parents). Others register so high as to become the crocoduck displaying, delusional types we come across every now and then.

    Spirituality, illogical as it may be, is fine, as far as I’m concerned, since it doesn’t really hurt anyone. Expressing it through organized religion and indoctrinating the masses, however, is, in my opinion, the pits.

    Those of us who are far left and far right on the bell curve will always migrate toward our respective places regardless of what life throws our way. Conversions on either side can occur, but they are the exception, not the rule.

    As with anything, atheism can be measured on a scale. My husband and I, if rated, would score close to a 1 on a scale from 1 to 100. My husband, the black sheep of his family, was raised in a religious home, got dragged to church, his brothers are all believers, including a recent convert to Baptism, yet, there he is, an atheist in their midst, since the day he learned to talk. His environment was the same as the rest of his family’s, but as a little boy he just didn’t believe. His mother used to call him “Thomas the Doubter” out of frustration that this little person didn’t just fall in line with his family’s beliefs.

    Those closer to the center need an extra push one way or the other, but the doubts that are inherent in being close to either side of the center are always there to some extent, no matter on which side of the proverbial fence one ends up sitting.

  • vegatee

    If atheist means “not believing in god” then infants are atheists, without caveats.

    I agree. Atheism and theism, as far as I’m concerned, are about belief, while agnosticism is about proof. A baby lacks any understanding of proofs or beliefs.

  • Pseudonym


    The only reason this question gets hard is because people try to smuggle in all sorts of other connotations and agendas onto the words theist and atheist, and considering this case exposes them.

    I couldn’t agree more, and the perfect example of this, as someone noted above, is that the newspaper article described simple 4-year-old theologyl-formulations as God-with-a-capital-G. It would be incorrect to call these 4-year-olds “theists” (either in the usual sense, or in the nonstandard definition that Dawkins used in TGD) let alone believing in capital-G God, which suggests the Judaism-and-its-offshoots deity.

    Incidentally, like Kate, the irony of the irrational and factually incorrect schoolyard taunt “as smart as 4-year old infants” remark also wasn’t lost on me.

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