Why do so many people believe that life events happen for a reason? How does this relate to the near-universal belief in God? Do we naturally see certain events as God’s handiwork? To answer these questions, we propose a novel research project that examines the cognitive and cultural underpinnings of people’s belief in life’s purpose and explores the relationship between this belief and belief in God. Integrating several goals of the funding competition, we study two interesting populations—young children and adult atheists—as a way to explore both universal cognitive systems and individual variation in the tendency to see purpose in life events and to attribute those events to God. Through experiments with children and adults, we will explore how an early-emerging bias to infer purpose in life events may encourage belief in God. This work will contribute to a growing body of research exploring how universal social-cognitive propensities may naturally dispose people to theistic belief. We expect our project to generate novel findings—disseminated via conference proceedings, journal articles, and articles in the popular media—that will stimulate further research on how core intuitions about agency and design behind life events influence religious cognition across the lifespan. More generally, we expect our research to highlight the utility of developmental approaches to the study of belief in God, and to generate further interest in the still nascent field of the developmental cognitive science of religion. The impact of our research will be measurable in future publications that incorporate and build on our findings as well as in citations and references to our research in future theoretical papers, in literature reviews, and in new university course curricula. Finally, we anticipate substantial popular interest in our proposed research activities and expect this to be reflected in public awareness and media coverage.
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