June 25, 2018

Will kids’ religious training save – or doom – the world?

Children's views of environment, politics are sculpted by religion; worldwide network will study the impacts

Author: J.D. Warren
June 25, 2018

A grant from the Templeton Foundation will link independent studies from across the world that consider the impact of religious training on children’s world views.

Rebekah Richert wants to put a box in front of children from around the world, and ask them if God knows what’s inside.

Also: Does God get wet when it rains? Can God make you walk through a wall?

Answers to questions like those reveal how children view the world — and the influence they believe they and God can exert upon it, Richert said.

“By understanding folk beliefs, you can change things in the world,” said Richert, an associate professor of psychology at UC Riverside.

With a $234,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation as “seed money,” Richert and her colleagues will form a network of international researchers to study how children’s religious beliefs impact the choices they make.

It’s not that researchers aren’t studying the issue – they are, on every continent. But the research efforts run parallel. Enter Richert and her brainchild: the Developing Belief Network. The network would be eight to 12 universities and field sites across the world that Richert said would form a “critical mass of data.”

“There is so little information on children in different cultures, and how they are impacted by their religious beliefs,” Richert said. “It’s such a big aspect of being human, and it’s understudied.”

Religious beliefs impact decisions every day that have nothing to do with religion.

If a child believes spirits live in the earth, and in trees, might that child be more inclined toward conservation?

Conversely, what if a child is schooled in the quasi-religion of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, believing that success is the moral purpose of one’s life? How might that impact thoughts of conservation, or even altruism?

Richert’s current research finds that even as young as 3.5 or 4, Christian children are more likely to think of God in human form than Muslim children, who tend to think of God as a disembodied being with limitless powers.

“It helps us understand why there is such different dialogue across religious traditions,” Richert said. “There is such a fundamental difference in who we perceive God to be; and these differences begin early in development. It’s why we can have such problems talking across the divide.”

The project will also study how children form ideas and stereotypes about people from their own and other religious groups, and how those stereotypes influence social interactions, like whether to act altruistically toward someone.

In the funded planning phase, the scope of the project is being established. Richert said this phase lays the groundwork for what may be much larger awards, for infrastructure building and data collection phases.

Richert’s co-Investigators on the award are Cristine Legare, associate professor of psychology, University of Texas at Austin and Kathleen Corriveau, associate professor of psychology, Boston University.

The John Templeton Foundation, founded in 1987, is a philanthropic organization that funds inter-disciplinary research about human purpose. It awards about $70 million per year in research grants and programs.

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