Gods – 6 (Super Gods — An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)

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by Neil Godfrey

Justin Barrett

Earlier posts have surveyed Justin Barrett’s view that religious beliefs, in general, originate from common intuitive inference systems (he calls them mental tools) that enable them to spread easily within and across social groups. But what about beliefs in particular attributes of gods? Can cognitive science explain why super gods, gods with super knowledge, super perception, super power and immortality, are transmitted generation after generation? Barrett says it can.

A traditional view is that we acquire our ideas of God by extrapolating what we know of our fellow humans: God concepts arise from imagining a “big, superhuman who lives in the sky.” Not so, says the research cited by Barrett:

Specifically, super knowledge, super perception, super power (especially to create natural things), and immortality all benefit from the operation of mental tools in childhood development. In all four of these cases, the relevant mental tools seem to assume super abilities for all agents and then, through the course of development, restrict these abilities for people and other natural agents. Because children seem to assume that agents have super properties on these four dimensions (knowledge, perception, power, and mortality), they need not learn these divine attributes so much as have them simply affirmed or left unchallenged (Barrett & Richert, 2003). (Barrett, 195-96)

Super Knowledge

* Supporting this claim Barrett cites “Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind Development: The Truth about False Belief” (2001) by Wellman, Cross and Watson. Other online sources cited by Barrett in this context (all available online):

Research into how an individual’s theory of mind develops shows that at a very early stage, before five years of age, a child assumes that everyone’s beliefs about the world are infallible.* A three year old who knows he has a coin in his pocket will assume his mother knows, too. Only in later years will a child begin to appreciate that another person may not be aware.

A common experiment involves a cracker box. Children are asked what they think is inside it and they all answer, “crackers”. But then they are shown that no, it contains rocks. The children are then asked what they think their absent mothers will think is in the box: older children (from five years) know their mothers will be fooled, too, and think, wrongly, it contains crackers; but younger children generally say that their mothers will know there are rocks inside.

I have provided links in the inset box to where the various experiments pointing to this sort of early belief in the infallibility of others’ beliefs.

A problem I have with these experiments is that they were conducted with children who already had a belief in God. Would not their parents have taught them that God knows everything? But the experiments are complex enough to indicate that the very young children are as a rule drawing upon their intuitions. In another article evidence is presented indicating that young children “differentiate God from humans and resist incorporating certain aspects of the human concept into their concept of God.” This at least speaks against the view that God concepts are an extension of human concepts. See Do You See What I See? Young Children’s Assumptions About God’s Perceptual Abilities (2005) by Richert and Barrett. It’s something I’m still thinking over. Maybe I’m missing a fundamental point?

Anyway, Barrett’s hypothesis is that our mental equipment defaults to imputing “all-knowingness” to other agents and that this gets trimmed down as we grow and learn that others are in fact limited and the ways and reasons they are limited in what they know. No brakes or barriers to God’s knowledge are ever acquired, however. Continue reading “Gods – 6 (Super Gods — An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)”