Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Born creationists

Yes, I'm still alive. I'm currently in Pakistan and will write an update about the trip soon. In the mean time here is a bit of news about children being hardwired for creationism. I have also included an excellent critique by AC Grayling. The study is fine - but it is clearly tainted because of its support from the Templeton Foundation (you'll see below in the Grayling response).

Here is the story about Justin Barrett's work:

Dr Justin Barrett, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind, claims that young people have a predisposition to believe in a supreme being because they assume that everything in the world was created with a purpose.

He says that young children have faith even when they have not been taught about it by family or at school, and argues that even those raised alone on a desert island would come to believe in God.

"The preponderance of scientific evidence for the past 10 years or so has shown that a lot more seems to be built into the natural development of children's minds than we once thought, including a predisposition to see the natural world as designed and purposeful and that some kind of intelligent being is behind that purpose,"

Dr Barrett said there is evidence that even by the age of four, children understand that although some objects are made by humans, the natural world is different.

He added that this means children are more likely to believe in creationism rather than evolution, despite what they may be told by parents or teachers.

And here is a response from AC Grayling:

This claim was the subject of Barrett's lecture at Cambridge, in which he exhibited his reasons for thinking that children are innately disposed to believe in intelligent design/creationism and a supreme being. His real reasons for thinking this, of course, are that he is a man of faith funded by a faith-based organisation; but the reasons he professed were that children have an innate tendency when small to interpret what happens in the world to be the outcome of purposive agency.

Now on this point he and I, an atheist funded by no organisation keen on promoting atheism, agree. Children's earliest experiences are of purposive agency in the adults and other people around them – these being the entities of most interest to them in their first months – and for good evolutionary reasons they are extremely credulous, not only believing that things must be acting as their parents do in being self-moving and intentional, but also believing in tooth fairies, Father Christmas, and a host of other things beside, almost all of which they give up believing before puberty, unless the beliefs are socially reinforced – as with religious and, to a lesser extent, certain other superstitious beliefs. Intellectual maturation is the process in important part of weaning oneself from the assumption that trees and shadows behave as they do for the same reason that one's parents, other humans, and dogs and cats do; it is every bit as natural a fact about children that they cease to apply intentionalistic explanations to everything as that they give them to everything, on the model of their parents' behaviour, in the earliest phases of development.

But Barrett and friends infer from the first half of these unexceptionable facts that children are hardwired to believe in a supreme being. Not only does this ignore the evidence from developmental psychology about the second stage of cognitive maturation, but is in itself a very big – and obviously hopeful – jump indeed. Moreover it ignores the fact that large tracts of humankind (the Chinese for a numerous example) have no beliefs in a supreme being, innate or learned, and that most primitive religion is animistic, a simple extension of the agency-imputing explanation which gives each tree its dryad and each stream its nymph, no supreme beings required.

And here is the bit about the Templeton foundation:

"Religious belief" and early childhood interpretations of how the world work are so far removed from one another that only a preconceived desire to interpret the latter in terms of "intelligent design" and "a supreme being" – the very terms are a giveaway – is obviously tendentious, and this is what is going on here. It would merely be poor stuff if that was all there is to it; but there is more. The Templeton Foundation is rich; it offers a very large money prize to any scientist or philosopher who will say things friendly to religion, and it supports "research" as described above into anything that will add credibility and respectability to religion. Its website portrays its aims as serious and objective, but in truth it is just another example of how well-funded and well-organised some religious lobbies are – a common phenomenon in the United States in particular, and now infecting the body politic here.

But the Templeton Foundation would do better to be frank about its propagandistic intentions, for while it tries to dress itself in the lineaments of objectivity it will always face the accusation of tainting the pool, as with the work of this Oxford University institute.

Indeed I question the advisability of Oxford taking funds from the Templeton Foundation for this kind of work. I wonder whether it has undertaken due diligence on this one. I hope it would not take money supporting research for astrology, Tarot divination, proof that the Olympian deities still exist, and the like. The general claims of religion differ not one jot in intellectual respects – or respectability – from these. Perhaps it should think again.

Read the full AC Grayling article here - and the Justin Barrett story here.