Acquisition of Religious Cognition and Behavior

How do natural and supernatural explanations develop to (co)exist in individual minds?

     Access to natural as well as supernatural explanations is a pervasive experience across different cultural and religious groups (Astuti, Solomon, & Carey, 2004; Campbell, 1972; Gelman & Legare, 2011; Evans, Legare, & Rosengren, 2011; Legare, Evans, Rosengren, & Harris, 2012; Payir et al., under revision).  Although a well-established body of research exists on the development of reasoning in natural domains (Carey, 2009; Gopnik & Schulz, 2007; Keil, 1992; Kuhn, 1989; Wellman & Gelman, 1992) and on the development of causal explanatory reasoning in particular (Chi, DeLeeuw, Chiu, & LaVancher, 1994; Crowley & Siegler, 1999; Frazier, Gelman, & Wellman, 2009; Gopnik, 2000; Keil, 2006; Keil & Wilson, 2000; Legare, 2012; Legare, Gelman, & Wellman, 2010; Legare, Wellman, & Gelman, 2009; Lombrozo, 2006; Wellman, Hickling, & Schult, 1997; Wellman, 2011), there has been less systematic research on the development of thinking about supernatural or divine powers (Barrett, 2000; Barrett, Richert & Driesenga, 2001; Bering, 2006; Harris & Koenig, 2006; Lane, Wellman, & Evans, 2010; McCauley, 2000; Rosengren, Johnson, & Harris, 2000; Woolley, 2000). Open questions are whether, and more importantly, how these different forms of thinking are integrated in the minds of children.


     In contrast to the developmental pattern described by Piaget, supernatural explanations increase with age rather than decrease (Astuti & Harris, 2008; Evans, 2001; Harris & Giménez, 2005; Legare & Gelman, 2008; Raman & Gelman, 2004; Woolley, Cornelius, & Lacy, 2011).  In line with socio-cultural perspectives (Cole, 2005; Rogoff, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978), the development of natural and supernatural explanatory systems requires considerable cultural experience and participation in dynamic aspects of social learning, in which children seek out and actively construct information in collaboration with others (Callanan, 2006; Harris & Koenig, 2006). Consequently, both natural and supernatural explanations can operate within the same mind (Subbotsky, 2001), and crucially, for the same to-be-explained phenomena. 


     One reason to posit that people may use both natural and supernatural explanations to explain the same events is that they can serve a similar function.  Each offers an “attempt to explain and influence the working of one’s everyday world by discovering the constant principles that underlie the apparent chaos and flux of sensory experience” (Horton, 1979, p.  355). For example, both evolution and creationism explain the origin of human beings, both biomedicine and witchcraft explain the causes of serious illness, and both biology and religion explain what happens when we die.  Given the shared objectives of natural and supernatural cognition – that is, to enable us to explain, understand, and intervene in the world – there is much to be gained by investigating whether and how far a single cognitive system can entertain both kinds of thinking, even with respect to the same phenomenon.


     Thus, the Developing Belief Network will examine the nature of explanatory coexistence across cultures, religions, and development, with the goal of answering critical questions about how natural and supernatural explanations (i.e., causal explanatory reasoning, beliefs about possibility, belief revision) are coordinated in the same mind and the factors that influence when a particular explanation is salient for an individual (e.g., when grappling with existential anxieties).

The Developing Belief Network is funded by The John Templeton Foundation, with additional support from the University of California, Riverside and Boston University, and involves a partnership with Databrary.

  • Black Pinterest Icon
  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon