Justin Barrett Responds to a Few of His Online Critics

Even though it’s been a few weeks since my article about Justin Barrett’s book, Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief, was published in The Daily Beast, I remain somewhat fixated on the idea that atheists (and I consider myself just a few inches away from atheism) aren’t really giving his work a fair shake. Among some–not all–atheists, there seems to be a tendency toward kneejerk reactions to any ideas  or findings that clash with Richard Dawkins’ views–even, as is the case here, when those ideas or findings don’t do anything to hurt atheism’s arguments.

In addition to this tendency, part of the negative response to Barrett’s work stems from the fact that he himself is a religious believer, which certainly isn’t a legitimate basis on which to critique his work. Many people also simply don’t bother to understand his arguments, choosing instead to lash out against sloppily conjured caricatures of them.

I figured the best way to try to correct this would be to send Barrett some of the more noteworthy comments posted on my piece  and to ask him to respond to them. So for the rest of this post, comments are in bold, followed by Barrett’s responses in standard formatting.


It’s surprising to me that a cognitive scientist would attribute a child’s beliefs to some innate a priori inclination to religion. All humans make mental models to try and understand the world in which they find themselves. When presented with phenomena they don’t understand, humans try to explain said phenomena by whatever mental model makes sense to them at that time. This is I think the origin of gods. Humans understand that they can influence the world by their actions and thus assume some more powerful entity could influence things they cannot, To me, this extrapolation seems inevitable. It also seems obvious to me that this sort of extrapolation is based on ignorance, but right or wrong, such metal models say nothing about an a priori inclination to religion, but rather simply an attempt to make sense of something a given human cannot explain given his/her current understanding of the world. -Jim 

A couple of points of clarification may help here.  First, I do not say ‘innate’ or ‘a priori’.  I remain agnostic as to whether these conceptual tendencies are primarily a function of biological endowment or of environmental regularities (surely both are important), and I am not committed to them (all) being present at birth.  Second, I agree that humans make mental models to try to understand the world in which they find themselves.  The point is that humans have tendencies to produce and use some models over others.  Making sense of many aspects of the world and many events in terms of the volitional action of minded beings appears to be a very attractive explanatory move, and one that makes many religious concepts attractive.  (There is more to the naturalness of religion than this but it is a good place to start.)

A simple mind experiment will blow Barrett’s premise out of the water: 

Assume it were possible to lock a new-born baby away for the first seven years of its life with no contact with anyone who ever mentioned god(s) or related matters. Does anyone believe for a second that child would emerge from its isolation with any inkling of what a god was, much less a belief in one or more? -jeshuey

Not a bad thought experiment.  Does anyone believe for a second that such a child in question would have a fully worked out idea about the Hindu Shiva or the Maya forest spirits or the Christian God?  Not many people, I suspect.  But does anyone think that such a child would wonder who made the mountains, rivers, and trees, and whether great fortune or misfortune was reward or punishment for moral wrongdoing or trespassing against powerful beings; and join up these wonders with the thought that whoever it is/are likely to be super powerful, knowing, perceiving, and immortal?  Yes.  Many researchers in the cognitive and evolutionary studies of religion think this is a real possibility and have publicly said so.  In his recent book, The God Instinct, Jesse Bering thinks so and notes that Helen Keller reported having such wonderings before she learned how to communicate.

But note that these sorts of thought experiments (if made actual) would be imperfect test cases.  Imagine the three-year-old child in this experiment asks a caregiver whether anyone made the sun.  It isn’t at all fanciful to think such a question is a real possibility.  What then does the caregiver say?  If they say, “No one created the sun,” the testimony is not ‘neutral’ but is denying a creator.  I suppose to be neutral the caregiver would have to say, ‘I dunno,’ to all questions that might lead to speculation about gods of one sort or another.  But would we say that a child being reared under such conditions is receiving a remotely normal or natural upbringing?

Much as with other cultural factors that cannot be completely removed, the best evidence for natural receptivity or disposition is whether certain ideas or ways of thinking are more easily acquired than what appears to be supported by simple cultural learning, and whether some beliefs are more readily acquired than their converse.

Would someone with Tourette’s Syndrome still curse if they had never heard curse words? NO! -veritas2010

I’m not sure what to say to this other than to observe that just because the particular content requires cultural input (i.e., which words are expletives), the disposition to use expletives isn’t a simple consequence of cultural learning (in this case).  I suppose for the person suffering from Tourette’s there is a ‘curse-shaped’ conceptual space.  Some words will fit it better than others.  But it isn’t clear to me that this case is strongly analogous.

Oh, puh-leeze, the little girl, Anna, heard about God from other people.
-veritas2010 (again)

Relax.  No one is suggesting Anna received direct special revelation from God.  The point is that even in a very secular cultural environment and even in contradiction to teaching of parents—often held up as THE cause for children’s beliefs—children can adopt some ideas if they have a natural receptivity to them.  Some ideas are catchier than others because of the way minds naturally work.  Ideas about divine creators seem to be among these ideas.

This atheist [is] actually curious as to how the author resolves the null hypothesis, which would simply be that undeveloped minds are primed to believe almost anything; minds seek out narratives, but skepticism comes with maturity. -rustywheeler

The evidence from many areas of cognitive developmental psychology and other areas of cognitive science is clear: children do not simply believe almost anything.  They more readily believe some things than others.  Compare these two propositions: (1) Your mother is a complex machine with no thoughts or experiences.  (2) Your mother is a being with thoughts and experiences.  Surely children are inclined to believe (2) over (1)—essentially all of us are.  In domains such as reasoning about the properties of physical objects, living things, minded beings, moral judgments, social exchange and many others, there is strong evidence that we are naturally inclined to form and hold some ideas over others.  Children are not ‘primed to believe almost anything’.  Don’t believe me (even after having read Born Believers)?  I recommend taking a look at Robert McCauley’s book Why Religion Is Natural and Science is Not.  (If you pick your science based upon worldview—a dubious practice—McCauley is not a theist).  That said, children do put a lot of faith in trusted others (but can be remarkably careful regarding just who to regard as trustworthy), but as many philosophers have pointed out, we all do this—children or not—and we’d know very little if we didn’t operate on the ‘credulity principle’.

Does skepticism come with maturity?  It seems so, but simply being a correlate of ‘maturity’ is not necessarily a positive thing.  My guess is we can all identify a philosophical, theoretical, political, or valued position that we find reprehensible that only comes with ‘maturity.’

I am curious that being an ‘atheist’ comes into this at all. Most of my colleagues with very similar positions to mine are non-theists. Is there fear that this is a back-door way of showing that theism is good or true?  To draw a simple line between something having roots in early childhood and it being either good or bad, right or wrong, would be suspect reasoning.

Welcome to My Blog

I might as well start with a quick post outlining what I’m going to be doing with this blog.

Generally speaking, this won’t be a place for breaking news, instant analysis, or stuff like that. Rather, I’ll use it to sometimes follow up on articles I’ve written, include extra bits of reporting, or, once in awhile, chime in on something that I don’t quite have a developed enough opinion on for it to be worth me pitching an article to a Legitimate Outlet.

I’ll be publishing my first real post soon–psychologist Justin Barrett responding to some of the comments posted on my recent Daily Beast article about his new book and his intellectual feud with Richard Dawkins. So stay tuned.