Dr. Justin Barrett was (until quite recently) a senior researcher at the Centre for Anthropology and Mind, and The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University—a very prestigious academic roost, to say the least. As this dual appointment makes evident, he works at the nexus between Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Anthropology. His argument is that from the perspective of these two sciences, belief in God is natural.
What does he mean? Barrett argues that belief in God is natural because he has found in numerous cross-cultural studies that children have a built-in aptitude for believing in gods or God. It is not something that is foisted upon them by grown-ups, but something that arises naturally from within. To put his argument in a more arresting way, Barrett's research shows that it is very difficult for grown-ups to get children not to believe in God precisely because atheism is unnatural. In short we are (as the title of his newest book attests) Born Believers.
That doesn't mean we are born with actual complex doctrinal knowledge of one particular religion. Belief in God is natural, argues Barrett, in the same way that learning to walk or talk is natural. We don't pop out of the womb believing in God, any more than we walk or talk right away. But given our natural development, walking, talking, and believing are simply part of what it means to be human, the inevitable results of our natural desire to act in and make sense of the world, and see how it all fits together.
How, then, does this connect to God as a being rather than merely an idea. Children are also, quite early, able to detect agency, argues Barrett, and realize the difference between something that is alive and can move itself, and something that is inanimate and can only be moved by something else. They naturally strive to tell the difference between something caused by something, and something caused by someone. We are built to look for the "why" by distinguishing between non-agent and agent causality, to sort out the cause of something in terms either what or who. Children just naturally do it.
Why is this such an important argument? For a long time, certainly since Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the intelligentsia in the West has held dearly to the notion that religion is unnatural. Rousseau, who has done more than anyone to charm the West into a purely secular outlook, argued that in the "state of nature" human beings are both amoral and blissfully devoid of religious belief of any kind. For Rousseau, this natural beginning, barely above animal existence, was our most blissful state, our real Eden, and our only true happiness. Lolling about the forests, eating and sleeping whenever we wished, unburdened by any notion of moral right or wrong, and entirely oblivious to any thoughts about nettlesome deities—that's the good human life precisely because it is subhuman. Our miseries arise, Rousseau argued, with the invention of morality, the invention of religion, and the development of our reason.
Rousseau's views (written so long ago) largely defined the way that evolutionary and cognitive scientists looked for evidence about the origin of human religious belief. The assumption was, with Rousseau, that it was entirely unnatural (i.e., artificial, something made up by a few and foisted on the rest). As a slight spin-off from Rousseau, others asserted that religion was natural in the worst sense of the word, something that a primitive mind would almost inevitably conjure up (and only science could clear up, and away). Either way, religion was something to be gotten rid of by science.
So what is Dr. Justin Barrett up to? Which side of the camp is he on? He was, after all, senior researcher at Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind and at The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology. How could that bode well for the cause of religion? Is Barrett then saying that religion is natural only in the sense that it belongs to a primitive stage in our evolution, and so now that we have an evolutionary explanation for why so many people so foolishly believe, we can dismiss belief in God as the mere result of the cognitive immaturity of the species?
Here's the surprise. He was at Oxford. Now Barrett is at Fuller Theological Seminary. He's the Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. What is the Thrive Center? From the website: "The Thrive Center is located in Fuller's Graduate School of Psychology and our research emphasis is on basic and applied psychological research. The Thrive Center is not unique in its concern for cultivating human flourishing, but one distinctive feature of the Thrive Center is its foundation in a Christian view of human nature and thriving." (emphasis added)
Dr. Justin Barrett is a Christian. When he says that all the best research in cognitive development points to the conclusion that human beings are born believers, he means that all the best in his field of science points to the fact that human beings are created to believe in God—and God is real.
Barrett quite definitely believes (in his own words) in "an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being," and that "the purpose for people is to love God and love each other."
His research supports his belief—or more exactly, confirms it. "Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people," maintains Barrett, "Why wouldn't God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?"
Obviously that makes Barrett a bit of an outsider in his field, a field dominated by skeptics and atheists. But the problem for the skeptics and atheists—as Barrett's credentials make clear—is that Barrett is at the top of his field.