‘Young children see the world with fresh minds that embrace both scientific causality and metaphysical speculation, says Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich. And their conceptions show striking similarities across widely differing cultures, she tells Rebecca Bryant in this exclusive interview with Science & Spirit.
Science & Spirit: What is your current role in the field?
Olivera Petrovich: I am currently with the Experimental Psychology Department at Oxford University, where I research and tutor in developmental psychologist. I also lecture in psychology of religion at Oxford — my course is open to theology, philosophy, and psychology students.
S&S: Your research interests lie in the psychology of religion, focusing especially on the development of spirituality in children. How do you go about it?
Petrovich: My approach to this is very strictly empirical. It begins with children’s accounts of the physical world — notably their causal explanations and the way they categorize objects and events around them. I’m interested in children’s spirituality as it develops in their encounter with the physical world, not through the teaching they may receive in bible classes and so on. I’m not at all looking at the cultural transmission of spirituality.
S&S: You recently conducted cross-cultural studies involving British and Japanese children. What were the aims — and the findings — of this research?
Petrovich: I was really interested in children’s ability to offer both scientific causal explanations and metaphysical explanations, which go beyond the scientific. Japanese culture is very different from Western culture with a very different history of science and religious tradition. So I thought I should be able to get some interesting comparisons between Japanese and Western children.
I tested both the Japanese and British children on the same tasks, showing them very accurate, detailed photographs of selected natural and man-made objects and then asking them questions about the causal origins of the various natural objects at both the scientific level (e.g. how did this particular dog become a dog?) and at the metaphysical level (e.g. how did the first ever dog come into being?). With the Japanese children, it was important to establish whether they even distinguished the two levels of explanation because, as a culture, Japan discourages speculation into the metaphysical, simply because it’s something we can never know, so we shouldn’t attempt it. But the Japanese children did speculate, quite willingly, and in the same way as British children. On forced choice questions, consisting of three possible explanations of primary origin, they would predominantly go for the word “God,” instead of either an agnostic response (e.g., “nobody knows”) or an incorrect response (e.g., “by people”). This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Japanese religion — Shinto — doesn’t include creation as an aspect of God’s activity at all. So where do these children get the idea that creation is in God’s hands? It’s an example of a natural inference that they form on the basis of their own experience. My Japanese research assistants kept telling me, “We Japanese don’t think about God as creator — it’s just not part of Japanese philosophy.” So it was wonderful when these children said, “Kamisama! God! God made it!” That was probably the most significant finding.
I’ve also established that children’s natural concepts of God aren’t purely anthropomorphic. They certainly acquire a conception of God-as-man through their religious education, but no child actually links the representation of, for example, God-as-Jesus with the creator of the world. Rather, their images of God the creator correspond to abstract notions like gas, air, and person without a body. When you press them, they of course fall back on what they’ve been told, saying things like, “I know he’s a man because I saw him on the telly,” or “He’s just like my daddy.” These are very rational responses, but they’re not natural conceptions formed by children. Rather they’re imposed by the culture in which the children live.
S&S: In what ways do adults’ religious concepts differ from those of children?
Petrovich: I did test adults in Britain, but not yet in Japan. The results show that the differences between lay adults and children tested under the same conditions are largely quantitative. Adults are more accurate at identifying objects and describing their physical properties, but the categories they use in their explanations aren’t qualitatively different from those used by children. When it comes to adults’ speculations about the creator — the source of objects — they do display greater cultural influences than children, but when you systematically compare adults’ and children’s descriptions, you see significant similarities — in their references to God being something like air or gas, for example. Children’s descriptions are very basic, whereas adults use more sophisticated vocabulary, but there is no more information about God in adults’ references than there is in children’s. I think this is perfectly plausible and predictable because we can’t say that we as adults have more privileged access to God than children do. We’re all in the same position.
S&S: From your research, do you think it’s possible that the inclination toward religion or spirituality is universal?
Petrovich: I think possibility is the precise word to use here. I can’t be more certain than that because I have only worked with children aged three-and-a-half upward, and that’s already an old age when it comes to basic understandings, some of which are in evidence in the first year of life. However, the cumulative contribution of many domains of cognitive developmental psychology suggests to me that it’s a serious possibility that spirituality is a universal aspect of human cognition. Recent research shows that human infants aren’t passive recipients of information around them, but obviously think, making inferences and forming hypotheses. There’s also a lot of research showing that very young children are quite good at handling temporarily hidden objects. So, I think it needn’t be too difficult for them to make the inference that surely there must be some kind of invisible principle for what we see around us.
S&S: What drew you to the psychology of religion, as opposed to any other field in psychology?
Petrovich: I’ve always been interested in religion as well as psychology — even before I knew the word “psychology” existed. As a child I remember being interested in how people think, in why I thought this way and others thought that way. I began to notice that some people go to church and believe in God and others don’t. Also, like all children, I kept asking questions about the origin of the world. But I might’ve been more fortunate than some other children because I remember, for example, my mother telling me that even though we don’t really know the answers to these questions, it nonetheless remains very important to think about such issues.
As soon as I discovered psychology as a possible area of serious study, I thought that religion must surely be the most fascinating aspect of human thought. You can’t say that this stimulus is more likely to lead you to the concept of God than any other, and so the interesting question is how thought about God occurs.
S&S: How do you see your work fitting into the wider field of science and religion?
Petrovich: This is a very important question indeed. What drives me is the realization — which I hope is correct — that psychology is probably the best-placed science to explain both the origin and continuity of the interaction between science and religion in human affairs. You can find astronomers, geologists, biologists, and chemists throughout history who have either been religious or non-religious. And the difference between these two groups has always intrigued me. What is it in people’s thought patterns, in their education, in their further development, in their interaction with other people and disciplines that makes them perceive the world in one way rather than the other? I think experimental cognitive psychology is in a unique position to answer most of these questions because we can’t achieve a great deal in inspiring others to see the world as we see it unless we first understand how the human mind works — and that is just what cognitive psychologists aim to do.
S&S: Where do you see your interest in science and religion taking you in the future?
Petrovich: What I ideally would like to do is obtain a proper, funded post in academic psychology of religion within a psychology department. That doesn’t exist at the moment, anywhere, but the interest is tremendous — every year for the past four or five years I’ve had inquiries from students wanting to do research in this area.
The other thing would be to get funding for one or two studentships to work on a large project with me so that people can get trained. At the moment, you have very good psychologists with no education in theology or religion, and theology people who have no technical knowledge of how to do psychological research. Why is that relevant? Because if people have no idea about a field, they can never reach a hypothesis that’s worth investigating.
Olivera Petrovich is the author of the upcoming book, The Child’s Theory of the World. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rebecca Bryant has a doctoral degree in philosophy from Oxford University. She is a writer and researcher based in Oxford.