Belief in a divine power is only human, writes Oxford Centre for Anthropology and Mind senior researcher Barrett (Why Would Anyone Believe in God, 2004).
In the first part of the book, the author looks at cross-cultural studies of children conducted by experts in the “cognitive science of religion.” The studies indicate that, from an early age, humans know the difference between inanimate objects and “agents”—people or forces that can move or make things move. As they develop, children are prone to see agents as powerful forces unlike humans. By four or five, kids see a purpose, not only in objects, but also in creatures, rocks, rivers and mountains. These experiments are intriguing and offer an occasional corrective to the teachings of Jean Piaget, and Barrett makes it clear that children are not gullible and ready to believe anything put forth by their parents—they subscribe to what he calls a “natural religion.” In the second part of the book, the author indicts atheism by arguing that if one accepts natural selection then one cannot reject the natural religion of childhood—it must have survival value. But xenophobia has survival value, too, and it is an easily induced trait. While Barrett rightly takes Hitchens, Dawkins et al. to task for their more bombastic arguments, he can be faulted for claiming that atheism may be due to “male-brainedness.” The final chapters are primers on how to encourage children in a religious life, with implications that it will make them healthier and happier than their nonbelieving peers.
Take comfort, then, true believers, but take arms (verbal) all ye atheists and agnostics.