Researcher Rebekah Richert
February 19, 2020

$10 million grant will study children's religious views

Psychology researcher Rebekah Richert's award from the John Templeton Foundation is the largest-ever humanities grant awarded to a UC Riverside researcher, and the second-largest grant the foundation has awarded

Author: J.D. Warren
February 19, 2020

Psychology researcher Rebekah Richert has received the largest-ever humanities grant in UC Riverside’s history, and its third-largest overall. It is the second-largest grant ever issued by the John Templeton Foundation.

Richert’s co-investigator for the grant is Kathleen Corriveau, an associate professor of education and psychology at Boston University.

The $10 million grant, to be disbursed by Templeton over five years, will fully implement what Richert has named The Developing Belief Network. It’s a network of international researchers who will study how religion impacts children’s world views.

“Childhood is a critical time to understand how religious beliefs form,” said Richert, who is an associate professor of psychology at UCR and director of the Childhood Cognition Lab. “Most of what we know is based on children in Western civilizations. This will add so much more richness.”

The project will look at the role of religion in children’s lives; how children form an understanding of the supernatural and coordinate that understanding with their science learning; as well as how children form ideas and stereotypes about people from their own and other religious groups, and how those stereotypes influence social interactions, such as whether to act selflessly toward others.

“Despite the ubiquity of religious beliefs and practices across human cultures and human history, most developmental psychologists have neglected such topics until now,” said Nicholas Gibson, Templeton's director of human sciences. “What is known has been constrained by a focus on Western societies, a paucity of longitudinal research designs, and a limited set of measures appropriate for cross-cultural research. This ambitious five-year program is a major step toward addressing all of these issues.”

There are researchers throughout the world engaged in related research. But the researchers aren’t formally linked, and there isn’t enough diversity among them, nor a common research methodology.

Richert said that there are two factors that make this a critical point in history to gain new insights: people are coming into more frequent contact with those who have other religious beliefs, and there is greater tension between science and religion.

“We have to learn how to communicate science to people who find it threatening because of their religious backgrounds,” she said.

In the first phase of the study, proposals will be considered to form the network of between 12 and 24 research sites throughout the world. A website has been launched with links to resources and with study information. By the end of the fifth year, when the funding concludes, the researchers will have built a large dataset and video library and plan to have secured additional funding to sustain the research collaborative. The outcomes will be communicated to lay audiences, including through the web site, social media, and press overtures. 

The research network will address many questions about the diversity of child development around the world. But the first research projects will examine how children develop an understanding of and belief in supernatural entities—gods, spirits, angels, demons—and causes—magic, miracles—with a focus on children from religious and spiritual homes and communities around the world. Further, the researchers will examine how children’s beliefs relate to their understanding of science and medicine and to their social interactions with others.

The John Templeton Foundation, founded in 1987, is a philanthropic organization that funds research and dialogue on the deepest and most perplexing questions facing humankind. It awards about $115 million a year in research grants and programs on subjects ranging from religious cognition and evolution to creativity, forgiveness, and free will. 

Richert said she believes the research ultimately won the large award because of its close alignment with the foundation’s purpose. Templeton funds research that addresses the significance of religious experiences, how we conceptualize the divine, and how religions and their communities are changing throughout the world. 

In 2018, Richert received a $234,000 grant from Templeton to develop the scope of the project.

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