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Studying the development and diversity of religious cognition and behavior.

Across cultures and throughout history, religion has always played a central role in what it means to be human, but psychologists have devoted relatively little attention to how children come to believe or disbelieve in supernatural beings. Is a predisposition toward such beliefs universally “hard-wired,” or are religious beliefs primarily learned through cultural exposure? This year, psychologists Rebekah Richert of University of California Riverside and Kathleen Corriveau of Boston University are launching an ambitious five-year project to begin addressing that gap, supported by a $9.9 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The grant is the second-largest ever made by the Foundation.

The project will build a collaborative research network of investigators, working at field sites around the world, with the task of developing and validating measures that will enable scientifically robust comparison of data across different cultural settings. After a call for proposals, Richert and Corriveau have selected eight research teams to join their own teams as the inaugural members of the network. Collectively, researchers will study children in sites across five continents, in 17 countries including Indonesia, Uganda, Bolivia, Lebanon, Israel, and India. They will develop a set of shared survey questions and techniques for children whose families represent more than a dozen religious traditions, and at sites where disparate traditions (like Buddhism and Hinduism in Singapore, or Catholicism and traditional Mayan religions in Mexico City), may have a combined influence on the development children’s belief. Together, the ten research teams will work to generate a body of new research on religious development during childhood while enlisting future partners to help the network engage in long-term projects that continue beyond the initial five years. 


The network will look at different angles of several fundamental questions about children’s religious development: What do children need to understand about humans before they can conceive of supernatural beings? How do cultural variations in religious concepts relate to whether or not those concepts seem counterintuitive? How do natural and supernatural explanations develop and co-exist in individual children’s minds? 

Although the project’s launch was slightly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the primary focus of the first year’s activities was already to be on planning and refining a common methodology prior to collection of some pilot data in the project’s second year and the first full wave of data collection in its third year. 

“The Developing Belief Network is well-positioned to address the major challenges inhibiting progress in our understanding of the development of religious cognition and behavior,” said Nicholas Gibson, the John Templeton Foundation’s Director of Human Sciences. “Previous research has tended to be Western-focused and has been stymied by a lack of measures suitable for cross-cultural comparison. The Network will provide the infrastructure needed to go beyond ad-hoc cross-cultural research and the opportunity for systematic and coordinated data collection from field sites around the world.”


Learn more about the Developing Belief Network at developingbelief.com.