2020-07-25

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.

Super Perception

Experiments have also pointed towards the conclusion that children of all ages, including the very young, think that God has perfect awareness of smells, sounds, sights — even those not perceived by themselves.

As with knowledge, children’s default is to assume full perceptual access for other agents and through development they pare back these generous allowances. They need not pare back for super perceiving gods. (Barrett, 197)

For the details of the experiment and its deployment of a toy monkey, fox with super hearing, eagle with super sight, dog with super smell, a doll Maggie and God, see Do You See What I See? Young Children’s Assumptions About God’s Perceptual Abilities (also mentioned above).

Super Power

Since Piaget, developmentalists have noted children’s tendency to over-estimate the strength and power of adults, treating them as god-like (Piaget, 1929). I am aware of no recent data that challenge this claim. Rather, at least with regard to creative power, a formidable amount of research supports the view that children intuitively regard gods as the designers and creators of the natural world. As with knowledge and perception, children begin with high expectations of intentional agents and must then learn the limitations of humans. As the concept of a creator god or omnipotent god requires no comparable boundary learning, these developmental biases make these types of god concepts readily adopted by children.

From childhood, people are very sensitive to evidence of purposefulness in the environment and in objects. In fact, there may be a tendency to over-attribute design even when evidence is thin—a “promiscuous teleology” akin to hypersensitive agency detection (Kelemen, 2004). Deborah Kelemen has found that children tend to attribute design and purpose not only to biological kinds but also other natural kinds such as rocks. Rocks are pointy, for instance, to keep from being sat upon rather than because of some series of natural or random factors (Kelemen, 1999a, 1999b).

Not surprisingly, then, Margaret Evans’ research on children’s relative preferences for different origins accounts of animals has shown that children eagerly embrace creationist accounts and are very resistant to evolutionary accounts, even if their parents and schools advance evolutionary origins (Evans, 2001).

As mental tools encourage people to find design in the environment, the notion of a creator god receives tremendous intuitive, non-reflective support. It is no wonder that creator god concepts are so widespread. In fact, these factors are so powerful as to lead some to suggest that children are intuitive theists (Kelemen, 2004). (Barrett, 197-98. Keleman 2004 is a correction of the originally published Keleman 2005.)

Immortality

As per our earlier post, our default assumption is that minds are not tied to biology. See in that same post the interview with Brian Greene where he admits to sometimes talking with his dead father even though he knows he is not there and cannot hear.

Not surprisingly, then, children begin understanding God’s immortality before they have a robust understanding of human mortality. (Barrett, 198)

Some God Concepts are Better Survivors

If our mental tools thus favour the above attributes and God, unlike humans, remains free from having any of those attributes pared back, then we can say God slips into our mental world by default. Such a figure can be expected to be widely communicated and passed on through generational conversations.


Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Gods – 6 (Super Gods — An Anthropology of Religion Perspective)”

  1. Ah hah! Consider that in the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve may be physically adults but mentally are closer to being newborns. Consequently they believed that Yahweh is all-knowing and all-powerful, etc. as any child would of an older adult, especially a parent. So, it was all just a big mistake!

  2. Love the aching simplicity of this, its appeal to a kibd of common sense. Who hasn’t thought this as a child?:::
    “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)”

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