Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Letter C - CHILD'S GOD

Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

Against the backdrop of a long tradition of research emphasizing the anthropomorphic quality of children's concepts of God, recent research on children's representations of God have demonstrated how readily children may entertain strikingly nonhuman properties for God. In contrast to the popular view that children's concept of God begins as understanding God as a human who might live in the sky, even 3- to 6-year-olds seem to enjoy the requisite conceptual equipment to understand God as superknowing, superperceiving, the cosmic creator, and perhaps, immortal.

Indeed, naturally occurring biases in how children conceptualize any intentional agent may encourage them to understand God in superhuman terms. In other words, children's agent concepts appear flexible enough and eager to accommodate superhuman properties. As soon as children begin to demonstrate understanding of a particular dimension of human minds, they likewise discriminate to which minds that dimension applies, and readily apply superhuman properties to God. Thus, as children are learning that humans are fallible, they are resistant to including these features in their concept of God. This suggests that reasoning accurately (theologically speaking) about some of God's characteristics may come easier than reasoning accurately about the fallible form these characteristics take in humans.


Developmental research in the theory of mind area over the past two decades converges on the conclusion that young children have an early bias to overestimate the knowledge and belief-accuracy of others. This bias to assume superknowledge of others renders young children (e.g., 3- to 4-year-olds) able to reason more accurately about God than about their parents, because unlike their parents, God is indeed superknowing. A series of experiments conducted by Barrett and Richert with 3- to 7-year-olds both in the United States and Mexico among the Yukatec Maya, has demonstrated that even when children begin to understand the fallible nature of beliefs and limitations on knowledge, they may continue to reason about God as superknowing. That is, they need not anthropomorphize. Some evidence suggests that even 3-yearolds begin to discriminate God's mind as more knowledgeable than other minds.


Similar to their tendency to overestimate others' knowledge, 3-year-olds often have difficulty understanding that just because they perceive something a certain way, not anyone or everyone else perceives it the same way. Consequently, they might mistakenly assume that the book page that appears right-side up to them also appears right-side up to their mothers, for whom it is actually upside down. By age 5, children's ability to appreciate another's visual perspective approximates that of adults. Two sets of studies by Richert that investigated children's understanding of seeing, hearing, and smelling, support these findings. While the youngest children reported that a human would be able to see, smell, and hear things that were actually imperceptible, and the oldest children said that the human would not, a large majority of all children answered that God would perceive all. Even young children embraced decidedly different properties for God as compared with humans.


Other lines of research have questioned the prevalence of what Piaget termed "childhood artificialism," or the notion that the natural world was created by humans, and suggests that very young children can also understand God as distinct from humans in creative capability. Petrovich has shown that British preschool-aged children are rather disinclined to credit people with the creation of natural things, and also that they are up to seven times as likely to attribute origins of natural objects to God instead of people. Other studies support the notion that children may have strong dispositions to understand the world as created, but not created by humans.

Evans asked American 5- to 10-year-old children to rate their agreement with various origin accounts. She found that regardless of whether parents taught evolution- based origins to their children, children vastly favored creationist accounts of origins for animals over evolutionist, artificialist, or emergentist accounts (that animals just appeared). Similarly, Kelemen found that young children have strong inclinations to understand both living and nonliving things as purposeful. They see living and nonliving things as possessing attributes purposefully designed to help them or serve themselves or other things. Kelemen has even raised the possibility that children naturally develop as "intuitive theists," and religious instruction merely fills in the forms that already exist in children's minds.


Other research by Giminez, Guerrero, and Harris has tested when children understand that God is immortal, but that people are not. Three- to five-yearold children were interviewed about whether their friends and God (1) existed when there were dinosaurs in the world, (2) were a little baby at one time, (3) will get older and older, and (4) will die someday. Although the results may underestimate children's understanding of God's immortality because of nativity stories (God was once a baby), findings from this research are comparable to those of the research on children's theory of mind. The youngest children showed a tendency to underestimate human mortality, and by the age of any robust appreciation of human mortality, they already understood God as immortal. Immortality was, perhaps, easier for young children to understand than mortality.


Research on the divine attributes reviewed above suggests that young children seem to (1) have developmentally endowed cognitive predispositions to entertain these properties for intentional beings, and (2) have to pare back these properties as applied to humans. Human conceptual structures thereby help to explain why children are so willing to accept, and even seem to assume, that God is superknowing, superperceiving, has creative power, and is immortal. Hence, the development of God concepts, at least along these dimensions, may be characterized as simply adhering to assumptions that come naturally. It is human attributes such as limited knowledge and perception and mortality that must be learned. These predispositions help to explain the ease with which children seem to accept the possibility that God exists and is quite different from any other intentional being that they have encountered.