Acquisition of Religious Cognition and Behavior

Causal Explanatory Reasoning

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

     Findings from a variety of cultures suggest that people draw draw on both natural and supernatural explanations to make sense of the world, such as the causes of an illness (Busch et al., 2016; Legare & Gelman, 2008), what happens when we die (Astuti & Harris, 2008; Gutiérrez et al., 2020), and the origins of humankind (Evans, 2001). Among adults, natural and supernatural explanations often “coexist”: An individual might draw on both natural and supernatural phenomena to explain a single event (Astuti & Harris, 2008; Gutiérrez et al., 2020; Legare et al., 2012; Shtulman, 2017). The causal explanations provided to young children lay the foundation for causal reasoning throughout life. That is, the specific causal mechanism an individual uses to explain a given event (whether it be viruses, witchcraft, or God) is presumably a function of cultural values and the specific contexts in which that person first learned about that causal mechanism (Gauvain, 2001). 


     How do children learn when and where to invoke supernatural explanations? Previous research suggests young children prefer natural explanations – even if adults in their culture endorse both natural and supernatural causes (Astuti & Harris, 2008; Evans, 2001; Harris & Giménez, 2005; Legare & Gelman, 2008; Woolley et al., 2011). Although children’s  preference for natural explanations has been documented in several cultural settings, it is still not clear what the developmental trajectory is across cultures, and how the emergence of explanatory coexistence varies by the diversity in the specific folk, scientific, religious, and supernatural beliefs present in a specific cultural context. 


     The Developing Belief Network will examine supernatural and causal reasoning 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) “coexist”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).

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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.