Examiner: New research may support ancient claim that people have an inherent sense of God

“If a child turns to her parents and asks why the sun shines, the knee-jerk response might be to tell her that it shines to give us light or to help the plants grow. Hidden in this response, however, is an assumption of purpose or design. It assumes that the sun was put there for a reason, and that its light serves an intentional purpose – not that the benefits of its light are a coincidental side-effect of a natural process.

A more analytical response might be that the sun shines because of a process of nuclear fusion which produces protons and light waves so intense that they reach earth in great enough quantities to be seen. Of course this response explains “how” the sun shines, but not “why.” The fact that children seem hard-wired to ask “why” questions, and that people of all stripes seem hard-wired to assign purpose and design to things in the natural world is telling.

Conventional atheist wisdom says that “we are all born atheists” – that is, no person is born believing in God. Protestant reformer John Calvin, on the other hand, argued that all people have a “sensus divinitatis,” that is, an inherent sense of God. Later Christian theologian Alvin Plantinga argued that belief in God is “properly basic,” that is to say, that believing that there is a God is as fundamental as the belief that one exists or that the world outside is real – things that everyone is born believing.

This concept of sensus divinitatis – once firmly in the realm of crackpot theologians and Christian Fundamentalists – is being lent support by an unlikely source: scientific research.

Studies are increasingly beginning to show that belief in God – or some general aspect of theism – may be woven into the very essence of human assumptions right from birth, and remain a lingering instinct, even for atheists.

In her 2004 article, titled “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’,” Psychologist Deborah Kelemen draws together a broad spectrum of research which suggests that from their very infancy, children hold the assumption that the world around them was created, exists for a purpose, and that things in the natural world have intentional design. Says Kelemen:

“…although children are not entirely indiscriminate, they do indeed evidence a general bias to treat objects and behaviors as existing for a purpose (Kelemen, 1999b, 1999c, 2003; but see Keil, 1992) and are also broadly inclined to view natural phenomena as intentionally created, albeit by a nonhuman agent (Evans, 2000b, 2001; Gelman & Kremer, 1991).”

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