If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
The immortal words of Jesus Christ attest to His great love and care for children. He warned us about the grave dangers of indoctrinating young minds to the ways of the world. Yet, our educational institutions, all the way from kindergarten through University, place a maximum emphasis on teaching children that all of the grandeur of the natural world can be explained by known natural laws and actively discourage children from entertaining thought processes that appeal to the supernatural or the divine. But these findings fly in the face of recent research conducted by psychologists that reveal something altogether different:- that young children, irrespective of whether they are brought up by parents in a religious or a secular home, are strongly disposed to thinking that many natural phenomena have been intentionally created by non-human agents or a deity of sorts and, furthermore, ascribe purpose to natural objects. Sadly, by the time children reach adolescent ages, much of this design intuition is suppressed by educational and/or cultural conditioning as they fully engage with our secular societies, teachers and parental influences(1)
Beginning in the late 1920s, the Swiss child psychologist, Jean Piaget, came to some very surprising conclusions about young minds. In particular, he showed that, contrary to popular belief, children are not merely less sophisticated thinkers than adults, they are capable of thinking in radically different ways to adults. In particular, Piaget described children as ‘artificialists,’ who drew their subjective intentional experience to conclude that all things were created by people or intelligent agencies for a purpose(2). As such, Piaget concluded, children are broadly inclined to view natural phenomena, whether living or non-living, in teleological terms. For example, clouds are for ‘raining’ and lions are for ‘keeping in a zoo.’ Furthermore, when Piaget asked children how natural objects originated, they frequently identified ‘God’ as the cause. And not only that, they perceived this God as anthropomorphic, having an overarching authority of its own, like some kind of ‘super parent’ and could even formulate a mental representation of such an agency despite its intangibility to the senses(2).
Piaget’s assertion that young children were incapable of distinguishing between human and non-human causes proved controversial though, and subsequent studies have shown that he was wrong on some of these issues. Young children can, in fact, identify some natural causes. Yet he was correct in saying that children start out with the intuition that the natural world was made for a purpose. Back in 2004, University of Boston child psychologist, Deborah Kelemen, provided strong evidence that young children (4-7 years of age) are “intuitive theists” who are “disposed to view natural phenomena as resulting from non-human design(3).”
Further work conducted by Kathleen Corriveau, also based at Boston University, conducted a study of 66 kindergarten children aged between 5 and 6 years, from religious and non-religious backgrounds(4). In the study, the children were presented with 3 different narratives; religious, historical and fantastical. Across the board, children thought the historical narratives were true. When it came to the religious narratives though, children brought up in religious homes were more likely to accept it as true than their counterparts raised in secular homes. The most striking difference Corriveau et al found came from the presentation of the fantastical narrative, where 87 per cent of the secular kids rejected as false, as compared to only 40 per cent of kids raised in religious homes(4). That said, Corriveau concluded that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” What is more, she added, “exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction.”
What I found most striking is how these child psychologists reacted to their own findings. For example, Kelemen suggested an ‘interventive’ learning program in a storybook format (where have we heard that before?!) to ‘help’ them develop greater ‘scientific literacy’ at an early stage(3). For Kelemen at least, the correct way to think is to uncritically believe in unguided evolution, where the encouragement of religious streams of thought are portrayed negatively, specifically as a form of indoctrination.
Building on these findings of the University of Boston psychologists, Justin L. Barrett, based at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind at the University of Oxford concluded in his recent book, Born Believers, that “children tend to believe that the world has order and purpose and that there is a supernatural element to the origin of this order(5).” Indeed, Barrett further added that, “a child’s playing field is tilted towards religious beliefs.” Furthermore, he raises a very provocative question- what if the indoctrination, as implied by Kelemen, involves teaching children not to believe in God? What if there are tangible benefits to not only nurturing but further developing the ‘intuitive theists’ within every child? In this capacity, Barrett further suggests that religious thinking enriches the imagination and is absolutely vital for contemplating reality itself. After all, even the most ardent materialist would be hard pushed to deny that every now and then, the unusual or even the ‘fantastical’ can and even does happen. Tacit examples include peer-reviewed, clinically documented medical miracles that defy any rational explanation(6). Furthermore, Roger Trigg, a collaborator with Barnett at the University of Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Centre added these comments to Barnett’s findings;
“This project suggests that religion is not just something for a peculiar few to do on Sundays instead of playing golf. We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived, as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life(7).”
Clash of Worldviews
These research findings made by psychologists are at direct odds with sentiments popularly expressed by atheists. For example, Richard Dawkins, who has adopted a hard-line stance on raising children with religion stated that we should be instilling in children a healthy degree of scepticism, teaching them that “‘it’s too statistically improbable for a prince to turn into a frog.” The irony has not gone unnoticed on me though, given the stupendous odds of life emerging from lifeless molecules and evolving into higher organisms. Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the three dimensional structure of the DNA double helix, also waded into the same argument when he reminded biologists that they “must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved(8).”
Molecular biologist Douglas Axe at Biola University, in his excellent book, Undeniable; How Biology Confirms our Intuition that Life is Designed, wholeheartedly agrees that children are born believers in a designing intelligence at the heart of living systems but extends it further to include cognitive science. He writes:
“The children whose simple view of life has proved superior to the view endorsed by the Royal Society and the National Academy also have a simple view of consciousness. Their view begins to take shape in infancy, with games like peekaboo where small hands over small eyes form a screen that momentarily isolates the inside world from the outside world…..Through countless learning moments like this, children build a connection between their inside world and the outside world, a connection far more profound than anything technology has given us(9).”
For Axe, the overwhelming richness displayed to us by the outside world is thoroughly complemented by an equally rich inner experience, “almost as if the two were made to go together(9)” So what materialists like Dawkins and Crick are actually saying is that we should completely ignore what is, in reality, intuitively obvious. Axe continues:
“In our childhood, if not since, our design intuition assured us that life could only be the handiwork of God, or someone like him. As universal as this intuition is, though, it is almost universally opposed by the technical experts on life. None of us have been able to erase the intuition but many of us struggle to defend it against this professional opposition – or even to know whether it ought to be defended(9).”
What does all of this smack of? We are, in effect, being asked to believe our lying eyes. At least that’s the way Frank Turek, a leading Christian apologist, sees it. In his book, Stealing from God: Why Athiests Need God to Make their Case, Turek brings his readers’ attention to the mind-boggling complexity of the living cell, replete as they are with molecular machines far in advance of anything humans can currently build. He writes;
“Our brains are the instruments through which we have thoughts, but the thoughts themselves are immaterial products of your immaterial mind. And it is our minds that make us rational, conscious agents, with the ability to make choices(10).” So what does all this mean? According to Turek, “it means that you shouldn’t abandon your common sense intuitions for the nonsense ideology of materialism(10).”
Scientific Language to the Rescue
But Turek also alerts us to another aspect of the design intuition that even secular scientists, unconsciously or not, engage in. And it pertains to the language used to describe the incredible molecular machines operating at the nanoscale in living systems. These are such engineering marvels “that biologists can’t help but describe their parts with engineering names. There are molecular motors, switches, shuttles, tweezers, propellers, stators, bushings, rotors, driveshafts etc. And together they operate with unrivalled precision and efficiency(10).”
What Turek is driving at here is that, regardless of whether the scientists accept or reject design as a real phenomenon in nature, their language compels them to describe it as such. This important point went largely unnoticed until relatively recently, but some scientists have begun to sound the alarm bells. Professor Randolph M. Nesse based at the Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University had these words to say regarding the state of emotion research;
“….progress in emotions research has been slowed by tacit creationism. By tacit creationism I mean viewing organisms as if they are products of design, without attributing the design to a deity. Few scientists attribute the characteristics of organisms to a supernatural power, but many nonetheless view organisms as if they were designed machine(s(11).”
Nesse urges his readers to be more reflective about couching the language of emotion research in terms of Darwinian materialism, but seems unaware that this ideology is now being ditched by leading life scientists because it simply doesn’t work and has had its day in the sun(12). Seen in this light, Nesse’s arguments seem counterintuitive at worst and self-defeating at best. After all, if the language of design best describes the workings of the human mind or any other living system for that matter, and if it’s perfectly intelligible when couched in those terms, it seems downright silly to me to make active steps to changing it! Worst still for Nesse, by describing living systems in terms of designed artefacts, scientists have opened up a brave new world of biological research called biomimetics, which, as its name implies, seeks to model new engineering structures by mimicking the genius designs at the heart of living things. What’s more, it’s already achieved spectacular success. For example, by studying the antics of swarming honeybees, engineers arrived at novel solutions to designing telecommunications networks, and in studying the complex aerodynamic motions of dragonflies, produced remarkable refinements in drone design.
In a fascinating article by the Blyth Institute(13), author Annie Crawford argues that since teleological(that is, design and purpose in nature) language is so deeply embedded in centuries of biological enquiry, it simply cannot be abstracted away without either partial or complete loss of intelligibility to the audience it is intended to be presented to. Crawford goes further still:
“It is disingenuous,” she writes, “to continue pretending that teleology is or can be divorced from biology. Indeed, it is the teleological character of life which makes it a unique phenomenon requiring a unique discipline of study distinct from physics or chemistry(13).”
In summary then, the design intuition appears to be hardwired into the human psyche, and while it is actively suppressed in our secular educational systems from kindergarten through University, it cannot be entirely eradicated. St. Paul expressed these conclusions with astonishing accuracy in his letter to the Romans:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
What is more, human language reinforces this intuition, irrespective of whether or not we believe in creation or not. The more we learn about the world around us, the more it screams of design. And far from being a hindrance, the design intuition has proven to be spectacularly successful in cutting edge scientific and engineering research.
If it ain’t broke, why even begin to fix it?
References & Bibliography
1. Wells, J., A Child’s Intuition of Purpose in Nature is No Accident; https://evolutionnews.org/2018/06/a-childs-intuition-of-purpose-in-nature-is-no-accident/
2. Piaget, J. The Child’s Conception of the World, Joan and Andrew Tomlinson, trans. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1929), 253.
3. Kelemen, D., “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’?” Psychological Science 15 (2004), 295–301.
4. Coriveau, K. et al, Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds, Cognitive Science, 39(2):353-82, 2015; https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cogs.12138
5. Barrett, J.L, The Science of Children’s Religious Belief, Simon & Schuster, 2012.
6. Strobel, L., Does Science Support Miracles? New Study Documents a Blind Woman’s Healing, The Stream May 16 2020; https://stream.org/does-science-support-miracles-new-study-documents-a-blind-womans-healing/
7. Humans ‘predisposed’ to believe in gods and the afterlife, Science Daily, July 4 2011, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm
8. Crick, F., What Mad Pursuit, (Basic Books, 1988), 138.
9. Axe, D. Undeniable; How Biology Confirms Our Intuition that Life is Designed, Haper One, 2016
10. Turek, F, Stealing from God; Why Atheists Need God to Make their Case; Navpress, 2014
11. Nesse, R.M. Tacit Creationism in Emotion Research; http://emotionresearcher.com/tacit-creationism-in-emotion-research/
12. Behe, M. Citrate Spiral Death: https://evolutionnews.org/2020/06/citrate-death-spiral/
13. Crawford, A. Metaphor and Meaning in the Teleological Language of Biology, https://journals.blythinstitute.org/ojs/index.php/cbi/article/view/55/75
Dr. Neil English is the author of seven books in amateur and professional astronomy. His latest work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, shows how, over the centuries, the majority of astronomers held to a strong Christian faith throughout their careers.