Justin Barrett – Why Would Anyone Believe in God? – Veritas at UC Davis

Justin L. Barrett.is Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development, Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. He previously held a post as senior researcher of the Centre for Anthropology and Mind and The Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. Barrett is described in the New York Times as a “prominent member of the byproduct camp” and “an observant Christian who believes 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.” He considers that “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people, Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them. “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?”

Here is just one quote from his work: “There is actually a growing body of research that suggests that we have this tendency to see design and purpose all over the place from very young ages”.

Contrast this with * Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Below you will find the video and extensive notes from this very fascinating lecture from the Veritas Forum,  where you can find more apologetics resources.

Intro: The cognitive science of religion

Justin Barrett: I would like to give a broad brushstrokes introduction to the cognitive science of religion, an area that I’ve ben working in the last 15 years. (Main audience is comprised of students taking UC’s Psychology of Religion course).

Why religion is natural, science is not. “Religion like technology arises in every human culture. Religion is a universal phenomenon among human groups, which may well have existed from very nearly the emergence of our species in prehistory”. (McCauley p.149) WHY?

This year, if you keep your eyes on Amazon and so forth, you’ll see that there have been a number of books in this area. It’s getting hot and not just with psychologists and cognitive scientists and anthropologists and comparative religionists, but, also with philosophers and theologians who are starting to wonder, “What is this stuff all about?”  And, really what these scholars are trying to address is a pretty obvious phenomena once you bring it out. And that is: “Why is it that wherever you go , whatever culture you’re in, maybe even whatever historical epoch you are in, there are religious people. And not just a few.

A 1999 Gallup Survey International suggests that upwards of 90% of the world’s population today believe in some kind of a god or supernatural force, let alone historically. This is a pervasive thing that people believe in gods of one sort or another. Why is too, that  children seem to be especially receptive to religious ideas? They pick it up very easily and very naturally.

Here’s a quote from Paul Bloom, Developmental Psychiatrist at Yale University (from Michael Brooks’ article in the New Scientist in Feb 7, 2009 issue: Would a group of children raised in isolation spontaneously create their own religious beliefs?  “I think the answer is yes”. (p 33) WHY ?

Causes and reasons are important when we are talking about belief.

Reasons vs. Causes of belief

  • All thoughts and beliefs have causes: biological, psychological, evolutionary, social
  • But we can still have good reasons for beliefs: experiences, intuition, scientific evidence, logical arguments, testimony of authority, etc.
  • Focus here will be on causes

All beliefs have causes. All ideas have causes. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t have good reasons or bad reasons for those beliefs and ideas. I want to give you a scientific account as to why it is that people tend to believe in gods. At the end we might  start thinking about how those causes matter to whether or not such beliefs are reasonable. But, I want to be clear that those are two separate issues.

The first hat I want to put on is my scientist hat.

The naturalness of religion thesis

“People are disposed to generate and accept religious ideas because of how their minds naturally work in common human environments.” This is not just my idea. This is a convergent idea that many researchers and myself are coming to.  The claim here is, we all, by virtue of being human beings, living in a common world, all have certain kinds of cognitive equipment that develops. Psychological machinery. That predisposes us toward generating or accepting religious ideas. That’s why religious ideas are so recurrent. At least one of the reasons or causes as to why.

There is a sub variety of this thesis. A different wrinkle that I have been emphasizing lately, which I call:

The born believers thesis 

click “More” to read the notes from the entire lecture.


R C Sproul – Thinking Deeply in the Ocean of Revelation: The Bible and the Life of the Mind Desiring God 2010 National Conference

R.C. Sproul via desiringGod.org from 2010 Desiring God Conference –

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God

R C Sproul – Thinking Deeply in the Ocean of Re…, posted with vodpod

the following are notes taken during the session.

Acts 17:22-28

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Introduction: The Primary Philosophical Questions

In May of 585 B.C., the first ever predicted solar eclipse was recorded. It had been predicted by Thales of Miletus, who is considered to be the father of Western philosophy and science. He was captivated by a pressing problem: How can I make sense of all of the diversity of my experience in this world? This gave rise to the concept of a universe and a university (unity + diversity).

The answer Thales found to his question was that the singular principle that makes sense out of everything else in this world is water. Why? He noticed that everything he saw in the world appeared either as a solid, liquid, or gas. Water manifested itself in each of these forms. Water also sustained life, which is most important.

Another problem that faced philosophers was the problem of motion. We typically assume that something in motion has been moved by another object. Thales looked for something that had the capacity for hylozoism, something that could move by itself. He came to the conclusion that water was this thing. Those that followed after Thales suggested other substances.

Parmenides, a prominent pre-Socratic philosopher, said, “Whatever is, is.” This may seem to be a transparent observation, but it is very profound. If something is real, it can’t not be. Non-being is nothingness. For everything to exist, there must be an unchangeable, fully actualized being.

Over against the thinking of Parmenides came the challenge of Heraclitus. He made the assertion that whatever is, is changing. We experience this in the process of aging. The operative word, then, is change or flux. He was famous for saying, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” The distinction was made between pure being, which can’t change, and our existence, which is constantly changing.

Who is right? This is what awakened Plato from his dogmatic slumber. By his time, philosophy had become dominated by skepticism. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, had begun asking the Stoics penetrating questions. He said that you can’t have a coherent science without both university and diversity. This eventually gave rise to Plato’s theory of ideas. Aristotle, Plato’s student, sought to resolve some of the problems Plato was left with. He postulated his idea of God: the Unmoved Mover, one who is the source of all motion and not the result of someone else’s motion.

After Plato and Aristotle a whole wave of skepticism arose. Two prominent schools of thought in this era were Stoicism and Epicureanism. They both abandoned the quest for ultimate reality and turned their attention to things they could learn and use right now. The Epicureans advocated refined hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The Stoics came up with a calculus, as it were, of pleasure, in the effort to avoid excess in either consumption or abstention.

Mars Hill Aeropagus

Paul in Athens

When Paul arrived in Athens, Luke tells us that he was “deeply moved.” His soul was provoked within him because he saw that the city was given totally to idolatry. The best that Athens could produce, in the final analysis, was to be a center of factories devoted to the making of pagan idols. Paul went to the synagogues and marketplace preaching Christ. He then went up to the Areopagus and encountered these philosophers whose practice was to meet every day and discuss what’s new.

He began to teach the philosophers: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” He noticed that they were filled with religion because their city was filled with idols. They even had one dedicated “To the Unknown God.” Paul said, “The one whom you are worshiping in ignorance, I want to declare to you this day. He is the one who is the creator of all. He is the one who does not need your prayers, your gifts, your worship, your idols. In fact, he doesn’t need anything.”

Paul urged them to seek God and then gave what I believe to be the most profound philosophical statement in the whole New Testament: “In him we live, we move, and we have our being.” Ultimate reality is found in God who is the creator of everything. God is absolute, pure being. He reveals himself to Moses as “I am who I am.” He is the supreme monarch of heaven and earth. God alone has pure actuality. There is no room for improvement with him.

I’m a human being. More accurately, to use Plato’s language, I am a human becoming. I still have potential that hasn’t been realized. I’m still changing. But God doesn’t change. My being is not found in me independently. It is found not in water or air but in God, who brings something out of nothing.


Let this be a brief introduction to the way the biblical witness gives answers to the questions that have plagued theoretical thought as long as there have been people. We will never find an answer to being if we try to find it outside the being and the character of God.

© Desiring God

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