Spiritual Development: Why Do We Believe?

This is second of a three-part series examining spiritual development and religion. Read part one here.

At any given point in our lifetime, we have some sort of "spiritual" or "religious' viewpoints. Even if we do not believe we have one, we do. At some point, we have decided our viewpoints on religion. In Western cultures, religion dominates our modern society - even though we may not recognize it. We celebrate holidays that are religious and religion is used as a platform for political advancement. it is a pervasive undercurrent that runs through our society.

When you ask an atheist why they do not have a religious orientation, they may be referring to their lack of supernatural beliefs systems. They are more likely to not believe in a deity that has supernatural powers or in the presence of a personal soul. It varies from person to person.  However, individuals may not born with the lack of ability to form religious concepts, quite the contrary.

Science points towards the human tendency to believe in a higher power. Dr. Justin Barret, a psychologist, researcher, and author of the book, Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Beliefs, has been part of many research studies involving children and the results are suggestive of something that may be surprising to some. According to data, we are all born with the tendency towards supernatural agency. Barret (2007) states:

"Children’s early-developing cognitive biases to see the natural world as purposefully designed by non-human agency, makes God a natural idea for children to acquire."

This means that we are all innately able to attribute phenomena to an independent entity (i.e. God) that is beyond what can be seen or physically detected, that has power to do the unexplained.

Some research (2) argue that it is cultural ques, such as words and images, that may prime a child's ability to come to this conclusion; however, that does not happen as often as critics hypothesize. Barrett (2007) counters;

"Children’s default assumption that intentional agents are likewise super knowing and super perceiving means that acquiring the notion of an all-knowing, all-perceiving God likewise presents no special difficulties. That God is unseen is no particular problem to children"

Based on Barrett's (2007) findings, we can hypothesize that even atheists and agnostics are born with this tendency but may unlearn it or transform it to another form of belief systems such as Humanism, political and moral activism, or even embracing other mythological influences such as those found in modern movies and literature(3)

As we discussed in our last article, we all fall within a spectrum of beliefs and science supports the tendency to believe that from an early age. Even if we don't believe it, we are a believers in something. The question is, what do you believe and how does it support and nourish who you are?

Join us next week as we continue to explore spiritual development.


(1) Barrett, J. L. (2007). Cognitive science of religion: What is it and why is it?. Religion Compass, 1(6), 768-786.

(2) van Elk, M., Rutjens, B. T., van der Pligt, J., & Van Harreveld, F. (2016). Priming of supernatural agent concepts and agency detection. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 6(1), 4-33.

(3) Lewis, A. (2014). American Comics, Literary Theory, and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife. Springer.


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