It’s much easier to get kids believing in God than to get them believing in the virtues of broccoli, according to Justin Barrett, author of “Born Believers: the Science of Children’s Religious Belief.”
He describes atheist parents whose children believe in God despite efforts to discourage them, and he tells of parents who didn’t push their children toward either belief or unbelief, yet the children still possessed strong faith in a higher being.
Barrett summarizes experiments with children from different cultures and he argues that “children come into the world with a tendency to see order, purpose and even intentional design behind the natural world, as if everything in the world had a particular function and had been intentionally ordered by someone for that purpose.”
“Regardless of culture and without need of coercive indoctrination, children develop with a propensity to seek meaning and understanding of their environments.”
This search, Barrett notes, leads to a belief in an intelligent designer who is all-powerful, all-knowing, who is morally good and an enforcer of morality.
This faith in a higher being is not the result of naiveté.
According to Barrett, children can distinguish between reality and fantasy.
Babies quickly grasp the difference between agents (people and other beings who act intentionally) and objects (things acted upon).
They learn from their earliest days that objects do not fly unless they are first touched.
“Experiments with babies reveal that they expect ordinary objects to behave in ordinary ways, just as we adults expect them to behave,” Barrett wrote.
And if children are intrigued by stories of magic and fantasy, it is precisely because they understand that the world does not really work that way.
The vast majority of humanity in every age and every culture has believed and continues to believe in some sort of higher being. Atheists struggle to explain why this is so and treat faith as a peculiarity, but it appears that belief in a higher being is actually the default position of humanity, and atheism is itself the peculiarity.
Children are naturally inquisitive and, when seeing something for the first time, will often ask, “What is that for?”
They can’t help but to inquire about purpose and function. This native curiosity should be encouraged and channeled toward the truth, for we live in world of competing and conflicting religious claims.
Since children are born with the propensity to believe in a higher being, it is incumbent upon parents to nurture their faith upon that historical and evidential foundation which has survived all attempts of skeptics to refute it.
Christianity is that faith, and it grew out of the historical facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are more certain of the resurrection of Christ than of any other event in antiquity, and no other religion seriously interacts with history the way the Christian religion does.
This issue is critical, because death is a reality for all of us, and it is no respecter of persons. Every child of Adam has an expiration date. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the creator, of whom every child is intuitively aware, has fully revealed himself at the cross, forgiving our sin and reconciling all humanity to himself through the death and resurrection of his own Son, Jesus Christ.
Who better to believe concerning life and death than the only one who has overcome death? This is the proper foundation for faith: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”
This truth is given us to believe and to pass on to children, that they might fully know him of whom they are otherwise only vaguely aware.
The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran in Columbus, and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org.