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Religion is Natural (Paul Bloom 2007)

Religion is Natural (Paul Bloom 2007)

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 Developmental Science 10:1 (2007), pp 147151DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00577.x
 © 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
 
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 Religion is natural
 Paul Bloom
 Department of Psychology, Yale University, USA
Abstract
 Despite its considerable intellectual interest and great social relevance, religion has been neglected by contemporary develop-mental psychologists. But in the last few years, there has been an emerging body of research exploring children’s grasp of certainuniversal religious ideas. Some recent findings suggest that two foundational aspects of religious belief – belief in divine agents,and belief in mind–body dualism – come naturally to young children. This research is briefly reviewed, and some future directionsare discussed.
 
Introduction
 It can be revelatory to pick up one of the best textbooksin developmental psychology –
How children develop
 , byRobert Siegler, Judy Deloache and Nancy Eisenberg(2006) – and see what it has to say about religious belief and practice. There is almost nothing. There are noindex entries for
God 
 ,
Christianity
 ,
Judaism
 ,
Islam
 ,
 ritual 
 ,
creationism
 ,
afterlife
 , or
supernatural belief 
 . There isan entry for
death
 , but it refers to infant mortality, notwhat children think about death. The only mention of the topic is
religion
 ,
social judgments
 , and this refers toa single page that mentions Hinduism in the context of ‘cultural and socioeconomic differences’ in social norms.This omission might be in part because textbookstend to avoid controversial issues. But my sense from thefield is that Siegler
et al 
 . actually have it about right.They don’t discuss the development of religion becausethis is not a major concern of developmental psycho-logists. If you search through any of the top journals indevelopmental psychology – such as
Developmental Science
  – you will find little on this topic, either empiricalor theoretical.What I will do in this brief article is first speculateabout why religion has been so neglected, and then focuson the small body of work that exists, looking at whatwe have discovered so far and what needs to be done inthe future.
 1
 
Religion as taboo
 The simplest explanation for why developmental psy-chologists do not tend to study religion is that the topicis not interesting enough. Topics that scientists choose todevote time and energy to have to pass some thresholdof theoretical interest or real-world relevance (or, in somelucky cases, both). Perhaps religion does not make the cut.This is not plausible. For one thing, religion seems tointerest everyone else. Just about every major philo-sopher has had a crack at it, and there are universitydepartments devoted to its study (theology, religiousstudies). And religion is of obvious importance in ourlives. It plays a central role in violent conflicts, forinstance – including ones that are ongoing. Manycontemporary social and political debates – over gaymarriage, abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research,the teaching of evolution in schools, and so on – aredramatically affected by people’s religious views. Andmany people (perhaps most people) see religion orspirituality as central to their lives (Shermer, 2003).Any complete theory of human nature has to make senseof this.There is a more specific reason why developmentalpsychologists should be interested in religious belief.Much of the research in cognitive development concernsaspects of understanding that are plainly true of theworld, and that are manifest in the input – such as howchildren come to know that objects are solid, or peoplehave beliefs, or languages have nouns. Religion is unusualbecause it is about entities and processes and events thatare
not
 evident in the senses. As H.L. Mencken put it,the existence of religion illustrates humans’ ‘stupendous
 Address for correspondence: Paul Bloom, Department of Psychology, Yale University, P.O. Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205, USA; e-mail:paul.bloom@Yale.edu
 
1
 The discussion that follows will be limited to the question of thedevelopmental origins of religious belief, putting aside the very interestingtopic of the origins of religious ritual (see, e.g. Boyer & Lienard, in press).
 
 148Paul Bloom
 © 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
 
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 capacity for believing the incredible’. The study of religion thus has the potential of informing us aboutaspects of the developing mind that might not be evidentfrom the study of other domains.The real reason why psychologists so avoid religion, Ithink, is that it is a taboo topic (see Dennett, 2006, fordiscussion). Religion is a sacrosanct domain. Develop-mental psychologists avoid it either because they arethemselves sensitive to the taboo or because they arewary of offending others.This touchiness is not unreasonable. Religious belief systems carry within them assumptions about their ownorigins, and scientific inquiry runs the risk of provingassumptions wrong (Mackie, 1984). People who believein God, for instance, may assume that they do sobecause of divine intervention (they believe in Godbecause God wants them to do so), or because the exist-ence of God can be inferred from the complexity orbeauty of the world around them (they believe in Godbecause this is a rational inference). They would be lesswilling to accept alternatives such that religion emergesdue to a pathological need for a father figure (Freud) orthrough indoctrination by the powerful as part of anongoing class struggle (Marx). They might react nega-tively as well to the claim made by many cognitive scien-tists that religious belief is an evolutionary accident, anunexpected by-product of cognitive systems that haveevolved for other purposes. The developmental psychologyof religious belief runs the risk, then, of offending people – including family, colleagues, and friends, as well asmembers of human subjects committees, grant panels,and tenure review committees. This might partially explainwhy there has been so little work done in what is suchan interesting and important topic.This situation is changing, however. Largely as a con-sequence of progress in other areas, such as evolutionarypsychology and cultural anthropology, there is a smallcommunity of cognitive scientists exploring religiousbelief using the same sorts of theories and methods thathave been applied to domains such as language, objectperception, theory of mind, and so on. This work hasled to some quite interesting findings, which I will dis-cuss below.
 
Religion and language
 Once we put aside its taboo nature, religion can be studiedin the same way as any subfield of developmental psy-chology. Indeed, the most promising analogy might beto language acquisition.Like language, religion is universal. All societies haveat least one language; all societies have at least onereligion. Also like language, religion is not present atbirth. It develops instead through immersion in a socialenvironment. The specific language or religion that achild develops is determined by the culture in which thechild is raised, not by genes or the physical environment.There are universals of language. Every language haswords and sentences, as well as principles of phonology,morphology, and syntax (see, e.g. Baker, 2001; Pinker,1994). There are also universals of religion. The anthro-pologist Edward Tylor proposed, in 1871, that allreligions include a belief in spiritual beings, in the super-natural. Every religion assumes entities such as ghosts,angels, ancestor spirits, and so on. These often havemental lives (desires, beliefs, goals), but no physical form(Boyer, 2001; Bloom, 2004). In addition, most, if not all,religions posit an afterlife, and the purposeful creationof the universe, including humans and other animals.You are not going to find a place, anywhere, where suchnotions are alien.This does raise the issue, however, of an apparent
dis-analogy
with language. Everyone has language, but theredo exist normal adults who profess not to believe inspiritual beings, in an afterlife, or in creationism. Athe-ists are mentioned in the Bible. (‘The fool hath said inhis heart, There is no God’; Psalm 14:1) and there areeven communities of atheists, small enclaves in which themajority of people profess no supernatural beliefs. If polls are to be believed, for instance, most members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in God(Larson & Witham, 1998).It might be, then, that religion is less universal, or lessinevitable, than language. An alternative view, exploredbelow, is that people everywhere naturally have sometacit supernatural beliefs; these arise in children regard-less of the culture. For instance, even the most sophistic-ated of cognitive neuroscientists might believe, at anintuitive level, that their mental life is something aboveand beyond their physical nature (see Bloom, 2006).
 
Is religion natural?
 The study of language provides many examples of howthe universality of 
 does not entail that
 is innate (seePinker, 1994, for discussion). All languages have a wordthat refers to hands, for instance, but this is probablybecause it is important for people everywhere to talkabout hands, not because of a specific innate propensitytoward hand-naming. Similarly, beliefs in Gods, theafterlife, and so on may be universal, not because theyare innate, but because such beliefs emerge in all socie-ties, perhaps as solutions to some problems that allhuman groups face. From this perspective, universals of 
 
 Religion is natural149
 © 2007 The Author. Journal compilation © 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
 
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 religious belief are cultural inventions, created by adults.A complete developmental account of the growth of religious belief, then, would be one of cultural learning.There is a growing body of work, however, that sug-gests that this is not entirely right. Instead, while cultureplainly plays some role, some of the universals of religion are unlearned (see Atran, 2004; Barrett, 2004;Bering, in press; Boyer, 2001; Bloom, 2004, 2005; Evans,2000, 2001; Guthrie, 1993; Kelemen, 2004; Pinker, 1997).There are two main threads of this argument.
 1. Common-sense dualism
 It is not controversial that young children naturallymake sense of physical entities in different terms thanpsychological entities: naïve physics is different fromnaïve psychology. The claim explored here is considera-bly stronger. It is the idea that we think of bodies andsouls as
distinct
 ; we implicitly endorse a strong sub-stance dualism of the sort defended by philosophers likePlato and Descartes. Under one variant of this account,our dualism is a natural by-product of the fact that wehave two distinct cognitive systems, one for dealing withmaterial objects, the other for social entities. Thesesystems have incommensurable outputs. Hence dualismemerges as an evolutionary accident (Bloom, 2004).Dualism has interesting consequences. If bodies andsouls are thought to be separate, you can have one with-out the other. Most things, such as chairs, cups, andtrees, are thought of as bodies without souls, not pos-sessing goals, beliefs, will, or consciousness. More signi-ficant for religion, dualism makes it possible to imaginesouls without bodies. Christianity and Judaism, forinstance, involve a God who created the universe, per-forms miracles, and listens to prayers. He is omnipotentand omniscient, possessing infinite kindness, justice, andmercy. But he does not, in any literal sense, have a body.Our dualism also opens the possibility that people cansurvive the death of their bodies. Religions provide dif-ferent accounts as to the fate of the soul: It might ascendto heaven, descend to hell, go off into some sort of parallelworld, or occupy some other body, human or animal.Indeed, a belief that the world teems with ancestorspirits, the souls of people who have been liberated fromtheir bodies through death, is common cross-culturally(Boyer, 2001).Dualism comes naturally to children. When asked, inimplicit and explicit ways, preschool children will saythat they believe the brain is only responsible for someaspects of mental life, typically those involving delibera-tive mental work, such as solving math problems. Butthe brain is not essential for activities such as pretendingto be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing yourteeth (e.g. Gottfried, Gelman & Schultz, 1999; Johnson,1990; Lillard, 1996). This is done by people, not theirbrains.The most dramatic demonstration of childhood dualismconcerns the development of afterlife beliefs. Bering andBjorklund (2004) told children of different ages storiesabout a mouse that died, and asked about the persist-ence of certain properties. When asked about biologicalproperties of the mouse, the children appreciated theeffects of death, including that the brain no longer worked.But when asked about the psychological properties, mostthe children said that these would continue – the deadmouse can have feel hunger, think thoughts, and holddesires. The body was gone, but the soul survives. Andchildren believe this more than adults do, suggesting thatwhile we have to learn the specific sort of afterlife thatpeople in our culture believe in (heaven, reincarnation,spirit world, and so on), the notion that consciousness isseparable from the body is not learned at all; it comesfor free.One of the first things an undergraduate learns in anintroduction to psychology class is that substance dualismis mistaken. It is assumed by virtually all scientiststhat mental life is the product of physical brains (thoughthere is little consensus as to
how
 this all works). Here,as in other domains, common-sense – which is entrenchedin religion – clashes with science.
 2. Over-attribution of agency and design
 We have what Boyer (2001) has called a ‘hypertrophy of social cognition’: a willingness to attribute psychologicalstates, including agency and design, even when it isinappropriate to do so.The classic demonstration here is that of Heider andSimmel (1944), who made a simple movie in which geo-metrical figures – circles, squares, triangles – moved incertain systematic ways, designed, based on the psycho-logists’ intuitions, to tell a tale. When shown this movie,people instinctively describe the figures as if they werespecific people (bullies, victims, heroes) who have goalsand desires, and they repeat back pretty much the samestory that the psychologists had intended to tell. Furtherresearch finds that you do not even need bounded figures – you can get much the same effect with moving dots, aswell as in movies where the ‘characters’ are not singleobjects at all, but moving groups, such as swarms of tinysquares (Bloom & Veres, 1999).The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie (1993) was thefirst modern scholar to notice the importance of thistendency as an explanation for religious thought. In hisbook,
Faces in the Clouds
 , Guthrie presents anecdotesand experiments showing that people attribute human

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