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Do we have an innate concept of God?

I was wondering whether, if you kept a baby in a room forever, fed it, and played with it without talking, would it still have a concept of God. I understand that this cannot be ever know because it would be immoral to try it about, but what do you think? would it have a concept of God?

Posted: August 30th 2011

Eric_PK

There are lots of kids of atheists who grow up without a concept of god and find it weird/strange when they first come across it.

I think that’s pretty good evidence that it’s not innate.

Posted: September 5th 2011

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Galen Rose www

At this point, no one knows whether the baby would come up with a god concept. We know for certain that some ancient individuals came up with the god idea because there have been thousands of gods imagined by men. Every major civilization and nearly every tribe has had its god or gods. But we have no way of knowing whether this was common or rare for individuals. If only one in a hundred individuals came up with a god idea, and one in ten of those was able to convince his fellows of that idea, that would be more than sufficient to account for all the gods and religions invented by man through the ages. The one thing that appears certain in all this is that men make gods, and not the other way around.

Posted: September 1st 2011

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Tauriq Moosa www

It’s a very interesting question. However, you must wonder which god you are supposing. Let me put off your specific isolated baby scenario for one second.

We can see through history that communities and cultures have given rise to gods and goddesses. Xenophanes, an ancient Greek philosopher, noted that the Greek gods tended to be the culmination of fitness, beauty and so on of Greek men and women in their representations; similarly, Ethiopians, he said, have gods who are “flat-nosed” to suit what they saw in themselves (apparently). He then posed that if oxen and horses could communicate, their gods would probably be oxen- and horse-like.

There is plenty of literature as to the psychology of belief, notably by Pascal Boyer. Human anthropologists, like Desmond Morris, have also made some ponderings on this. A tantalising hypothesis by Morris and others is that gods would be postulated by most humans to be metaphysical representations of parents: Morris notes how people usually consider gods in the sky or mountains (thus looking up as we do with parents); they tend to be fatherly or motherly figures (Yahweh and Gaia, for example); and so on. These are tantalising speculations but again, it’s difficult to prove. There’s little doubt we give human characteristics – i.e. anthropomorphise – entities to align them to patterns our brains automatically create: e.g. shadows become fingers, mountains become faces, weather becomes a personal vendetta against you, and so on. I still do it when I get caught in the rain without an umbrella! Michael Shermer has some excellent research in this area (in patterns we create, not weather).

You noted this in your question when you said we “cannot ever know” (which is not necessarily true and I’m not certain it would be immoral automatically). Merely speculating, along Morris’ lines, I would say that given that we have no firm grasp on how to define an overall concept of a god – since some gods are good, some are idiots, some are blind, some are uncaring, some are dead, etc. – I see no reason why the baby won’t have a concept of a god.

It might be mostly unrecognisable to many people (but then we’ve noted the variety of deities), but maybe it would be a metaphysical parent since children would automatically crave the attention and love of a parent. The irony then would reflect on theists and for them try dissociate their Father god from the Isolated Baby’s shadowy metaphysical one.

Posted: September 1st 2011

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brian thomson www

There are whole books on this topic, and I’m not an expert, but my understanding of the state of research is something like this: we appear to have evolved to see “agency” in things, to see life and intention in the things around us, even if it’s not there. If one of our ancestors heard a strange noise in the night, what was the safest thing to do: dismiss it as random and go back to sleep, or stay alert to danger from a wild animal? It was safest to think that everything around them had a cause, and it’s a small step from positing a cause to positing a causator who was “above” them. After all; life was hard, and it was a natural consolation to imagine that there was a reason for it all.

But note that not all traditions saw a single over-arching god behind it all. Shintō (like some African traditions), sees spirits in all things, whether animate or inanimate, and its creation myth for the Japanese islands starts with that presupposition. So having a concept of “a god” as per the question is one thing, but there’s a serious gap between that and any particular god concept, such as the Judeo-Christian version. We have no reason to believe that any religion, such as Christianity, is innate, even in apparently Christian countries.

Posted: September 1st 2011

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