Is the Human Mind Predisposed to Religious Thought?

For centuries, humans have naturally gravitated towards religious belief in a supernatural being. Even across cultures, the tenets of various religious beliefs reveal similarities and recurrent patterns. Why does this happen? Is there some human tendency that causes humans to be receptive to the idea of religion? In this film, Dr. Justin Barrett explores whether and to what degree human minds are blank slates when it comes to religious ideas. The human tendency towards religion offers fascinating insights as we seek to understand more about our minds and our perceptions of the world around us in the context of religious thought.

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Dr. Justin Barrett is director of the Thrive Center for Human Development, Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of Born Believers: The Science of Childhood Religion (Free Press, 2012) and Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (AltaMira, 2004).


Dr. Justin Barrett: Why is it that essentially across cultures and throughout history people have believed in supernatural beings? And not just any old supernatural beings, but very specific sort of narrow band of those. What’s going on there? What is it about the human mind that makes us really receptive to those?

I work primarily in an area called cognitive science of religion. It’s called that because we take insights from the cognitive sciences to try to better understand religious expression, how people think about gods. How does magic and ritual work? All kinds of areas of human religious expression. We try to understand, well, how do human minds work?

Because for ideas to become widespread enough, to be shared amongst various people that we would call them religious, there’s got to be some sort of natural anchors in the way minds work that help explain why it is they keep coming up over and over again. Why are we so attracted to them? And so cognitive science of religion relies on cross-culturally recurrent patterns that are hard to explain in terms of cultural particulars. We look at developmental patterns. We use experimental data. We’ll put people in unusual kinds of circumstances and get them to think. We can rely on neuroscientific data and pathology. So, for instance, when thing go wrong.

It’s not the case that human minds are just sponges, they just absorb whatever is in their environment, or they’re not sort of famously called a blank slate. It’s more like a landscape, or an ecosystem, where certain things are going to grow in certain places, but not others. Certain ideas are going to be easier for human minds to process than others. Andy Meltzoff has shown that infants selectively attend to human faces and their environment right after birth. I mean, within hours after birth. They’ve got really lousy visual acuity, but yet they selectively attend to human faces and can imitate certain kinds of facial expressions. I mean, just think, they’re doing this before they even know they have a face.

But it’s also the case with the naturalness of religious thought. Children are naturally going to see design and purpose in the world. They are going to assume that that purpose is explicable in terms of someone has brought it about or they’re going to naturally think that some things are right and some things are wrong. These natural propensities that undergird religious thought are just part of the ordinary equipment that humans have, regardless of culture. It doesn’t mean culture doesn’t matter. Culture can provide input, in terms of the particulars of the afterlife belief, or the god belief, or the creation story, or whatever it is. Human minds are a fertile soil for these plants that we might call religions. Culture gets to decide which plants are going to grow to a certain extent, but the plants are going to grow.

  • Course Categories: Ethics, General Theology
  • Science Topics: Neuroscience, Brain, & Mind
  • Tags:
    psychology, science and religion, Is the human mind predisposed to religious thought, human mind, cognitive science, Dr. Justin Barrett

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In furtherance of the AAAS mission of advancing science in service to society, AAAS|DoSER’s role in the Science for Seminaries project is to support efforts to integrate science into seminary education. AAAS|DoSER does not advise on or endorse the theological content of the participating seminaries.