October 21, 2010

Young kids can't help believing what they're told - including religion

I think you should pop over to Epiphenom and read the discussion on Tom Rees' post about how young kids can't help believing what they're told. It seems that small children have a very strong bias to believe verbal testimony over anything else and can't tell from experience that they're being lied to. The study Tom refers to, and the experiments included in it, are really interesting in and of themselves, but the most interesting thing is when he concludes:

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with this blog's regular fare of religion or non-religion. The answer is: not a lot! But it is interesting...

I'm not sure if he really means what I think he means. I disagree! I'm thinking more in the vein of John S. Wilkins' comment. It has everything to do with religion!

While the neurobiological bases for the cognitive processes behind religious thinking and other superstition probably are there at birth, religious thinking and the specifics of religious tradition are not generated de novo for each generation. The phenomenon that this study is peeking at provides an excellent framework to explain how religion is acquired by each new generation of children; it has to be told to them by an adult figure. It's probably not enough to read the religious texts or take part in the rituals. Then by the time skepticism and critical thinking sets in, the "virus" of religion has already taken hold of other cognitive functions and becomes hard to shake.

Richard Dawkins has argued exactly this several times, for instance (of course) in "The God Delusion", but the first reference i can think of is from the essay "Viruses of the Mind".

With so many mind-bytes to be downloaded, so many mental codons to be replicated, it is no wonder that child brains are gullible, open to almost any suggestion, vulnerable to subversion, easy prey to Moonies, Scientologists and nuns. Like immune-deficient patients, children are wide open to mental infections that adults might brush off without effort.

I'm ready to accept this explanation. The worst you can say about it is that it's very difficult to prove beyond any doubt, but in the absence of compelling alternative explanations I buy its role in the transmission of religious thinking, or indeed atheistic thinking, from one generation to the next. Especially since the findings presented in this study represent biologically relevant differences in my opinion.

1 comment:

  1. An addendum:

    I've been very critical of these type of evo-psych explanations before. For example - "Why do we believe", and are atheists really more intelligent? plus a comment on Epiphenom. But my objections there were that the difference in intelligence (6 IQ points) was not biologically relevant and thus the conclusion that atheists are on average more intelligent because intelligence evolved as a way of adapting to novel situations (atheism being a novel attitude) is pure conjecture based on a few assumptions too many.

    I still think that in order to definitely prove that the selective advantages of believing exactly what your elders tell you (like "don't run off that cliff, you'll fall and hurt yourself" or "I believe in god, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our lord") are larger than the disadvantages, requires a lot of evidence that we don't have. But in the case of small children believing what they're told I do think that there is a biological basis behind the observations. I like that it also makes it possible to argue for an opposing hypothesis; that in fact this bias in children could has come about through random non-selective processes or through the co-option of another selectively advantageous trait and not necessarily because "you believe what your family and community tells you because they aren't dead, and so believing them ups the chances you won't be either", as John S. Wilking argues in his comment. In the absence of clear evidence for either hypothesis, I buy the explanation as detailed in the post.


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