Current Research

The Development and Diversity of Religious Cognition and Behavior

This research project is funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The research activities are coordinated to investigate three major research questions.

On one hand, many religious traditions have core concepts in common—afterlife beliefs or disembodied deities to name a couple. This indicates that these concepts possibly share the same underlying key features of human reasoning, such as relying on intuitive (i.e., folk) theories or essentialism. On the other hand, these common core concepts vary dramatically across individual religious traditions. For example, whether there is a God or are gods, or what happens after death change from one belief system to the other. Therefore, studying the diversity of religious and supernatural concepts deepens our understanding of human mind and provides a new lens through which to explore how cognition and culture are mutually constituted (Kirmayer et al., 2020).

What are the supernatural, spiritual, and religious entities, agents, forces, causes, etc., specific to each site?

Image by Harsh Bhushan Sahu

How are religious and supernatural beliefs (including both formal religions and more traditional beliefs and practices) are passed down to the next generation in each site?

Mother and Baby Lighting a Menorah

Developing and understanding of religious and supernatural phenomena poses a unique challenge to the developing child as these phenomena are generally unobservable. Because children cannot learn about deities, miracles, or how to communicate with ancestors via firsthand experience, they observe others’ behaviors, make inferences about others’ beliefs, rely on explicit testimony and direct instruction, and actively participate in religious and spiritual practices to acquire these concepts (Gauvain & Nicolaides, 2015; Harris & Koenig, 2006). Therefore, studying how parents communicate with their children about religious and supernatural phenomena provides us with a powerful tool to further explore the similarities and differences across cultures in the transmission of beliefs regarding the unobservable phenomena.

In each site, which aspects of religious identity are children tuned in to at a particular point in development, and what are the markers of religious identity?

Young Buddhist Monks

Religious beliefs are inextricably interwoven with one’s self and social identity. For many people around the world, religion provides a lens through which they see others and make sense of the world around them. For example, belief in a number of scientific phenomena—such as global warming or the efficacy of vaccines—which are at the core of our current social and political discourse, are imbued with religious identity (Richert et al, under review). Accordingly, research into how children conceptualize religion as a category, how this conceptualization is related to other social categories such as gender and race, and how religious identity is constructed across different religious traditions has important implications for various pressing social issues such as immigration, minority rights, or global warming.

In researching these questions, we hope to shed new light on three concepts that are key to developmental science:  belief, culture, and development. We outline our theoretical approach in more detail in a chapter in Advances in Child Development and Behavior. You can access a preprint here.