Saturday, October 07, 2006

Quasi modo geniti infantes

In recent years, evolutionary biologists and psychologists have proposed plausible selective pressures for a universal human religious instinct, and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell has brought the evolutionary origins of religion into the public eye. Geneticist Dean Hamer believes he has identified a gene for what he calls "self-transcendence," a possible first step tying religion to DNA.

There is no dearth of studies of the cultural origins and history of religion, including, of course, the epic investigations of Sir James Frazer and Joseph Campbell.

Astonishingly, what seems to be missing are empirical studies of the development of religious ideas in children, with a view to disentangling nature and nurture.

A friend who is a developmental psychologist pointed me to Robert Coles' The Spiritual Life of Children, which is certainly interesting, but too anecdotal to be of much help understanding the origin of religious thinking. We need something more akin to Piaget's groundbreaking studies of the development of physical thinking in children. To be really useful, such studies should be cross-cultural, with appropriate controls and common protocols.

Does a child have an innate sense of the sacred? How do the animism and artificialism documented by Piaget play into the notion of a supreme being? Do children project aspects of the parent onto their developing concept of God? Where do "invisible friends" fit in the story? Miracles or causality: Which is the primary concept? How do dreams relate to the concept of the supernatural? And so on.

All of this seems a rich field of investigation. If such studies are out there, I am not aware of them. I would be grateful for leads from readers of this blog.

(P.S. The title above is the first words of the Introit of the Catholic Mass for the First Sunday after Easter, traditionally called (therefore) Quasimodo Sunday. They translate "Like newborn infants..." I will let the reader make the connection with Victor Hugo's hunchback.)