The proposed project builds upon previous work (by others and J. Bradley Wigger, the author here) in the Cognitive Science of Religion, investigating the ways children think about God and exploring how children so easily relate to invisible beings. Using theory of mind tasks, cognitive psychologists (most notably, Justin Barrett) have compared the knowledge children attribute to God with knowledge children attribute to others (e.g. parents, animals, friends, etc.). Contrary to the anthropomorphism that Piaget or Freud proposed, children do not appear to simply base their understanding of God upon their understanding of humans. As part of the Cognition, Religion, and Theology project at Oxford (funded by Templeton), in 2009-2010, I conducted such research with children who have imaginary/invisible companions. I found that such companions were treated differently from God (similar to Barrett's work), but they were also treated differently from real friends. The invisible friends fell into an ambiguous 'in-between' cognitive territory that may be significant for the religious imagination and development--perhaps similar to that of saints or angels or other invisible religious realities. I propose to conduct similar research with children from other cultures/countries in light of invisible agents (God, spirits, imaginary companions, etc.) indigenous to them. This would provide a means for cross-cultural analysis, expanding our understanding of the cognitive development of children in relation to invisible beings, and deepening appreciation for the making of a theory of (religious) mind.
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