Some cognitivists out there claim that the “God Concept” comes naturally to children. In their worldview, children come up with the concept of God to explain away things that just don’t make sense to their underdeveloped minds. However, as those with children understand, “the ‘God concept’ is often slow in coming.”
These were the words of Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe, a professor of psychology at Calvin College, at a recent Heritage Foundation conference, Religious Practice and the Family: What the Research Says. She told a story about interacting with a five-year-old in her own acquaintance, who, though raised by Christians, still had a difficult time understanding the concept of God. “Who is God?” he asked her.
“Even in the best of circumstances, where children are immersed in religion since birth, they have a hard time figuring out God,” she said. “They have a hard time listening to a Bible story and extracting the main point, often latching on to inconsequential elements.” For these reasons, she said, “it can be very difficult to measure the direct influence of religion on very small children.” So instead, Dr. Gunnoe decided to measure “indicators of the parent-child relationship.”
Dr. Gunnoe admitted that the research is “vague,” but overall, “adults’ religiosity is good for young children.” This conclusion may seem “simplistic,” Dr. Gunnoe agreed, but it’s “important to keep stating.” “We hear in the news about religious extremists and homes where religion exacerbates conflict,” Dr. Gunnoe said, “but we need to remember that overall, religion benefits families.”
One reason Dr. Gunnoe believes that the research is vague today is because of the looseness of the term “religious beliefs.” “It is dubious, what passes for religious beliefs in this society,” she said, pointing out that most teenagers today completely miss the point of religion. Among hundreds of Christian teens recently surveyed about their Christian beliefs, only six interviewees even mentioned the concept of salvation, and only three mentioned Christianity’s foundation of loving one’s neighbor. This shows a startling lack of religious understanding even among those who claim to be religious.
“We rely too much on denomination instead of individual religious beliefs,” Dr. Gunnoe declared. “We assume that denomination will explain beliefs, but this is not always true.” Indeed, within every religion most people are largely unaware of their denomination’s specific teachings and doctrines. It is not safe to assume that one’s denomination is consistent with one’s religious beliefs.
This is a major problem for the scientific community trying to figure out the quantitative benefits of religion on society. “We desperately need some studies that look specifically at very specific behaviors and very specific beliefs,” Dr. Gunnoe said. We need to know more about the specifics of religion “and how they impact the family.”