Ideas about divine beings that possess extraordinary mental capacities, including omniscience, are found in the doctrines of many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. Such ideas are also integral to believers’ personal conceptualizations of divine beings. For years, I have been interested in how we come to cognitively represent or imagine the idea of an omniscient being; my PhD dissertation was focused on how this idea develops in children and adults. It turns out that this idea is grasped slowly over the course of development, and may not be firmly understood until adolescence or adulthood.

For example, 4-year-olds in the U.S., Spain, and Greece often report that God will be ignorant of things that ordinary humans will also be ignorant of—like the contents of unmarked closed containers. At this age, U.S. children also report that omniscient beings will be ignorant of occurrences in the distant past (what the first dog looked like long ago), and knowledge of people’s personal experiences; though children who are more heavily exposed to ideas about the Judeo-Christian God attribute more of such knowledge to other omniscient beings. By 5-6 years, children (at least those raised in the U.S., where Christianity is widely and openly practiced) attribute a much broader body of knowledge to omniscient beings than they do to ordinary beings—reporting that omniscient beings (but not ordinary humans) will indeed know about the distant past, people’s personal experiences, and many more things.

Yet at this age, children still don’t fully grasp the breadth of omniscient knowledge—they often report that all-knowing beings know many things but not everything. And they have a particularly difficult time conceptualizing the depth of omniscient knowledge—for example, they often report that a doctor knows more about medicine than an omniscient being, and that a mechanic knows more about cars than an omniscient being. It is not until late childhood that U.S. children grasp that an omniscient being possesses knowledge that exceeds even experts’ knowledge. Not only are these ideas difficult for children to grasp, adults may believe that their God knows everything and is all powerful, but in their everyday reasoning tend to conceive of their God’s powers as limited, constrained by space and time—for example, when asked to reason about a story where multiple people pray to God at the same time, adults tend to expect that God will attend to those prayers one at a time, rather than simultaneously.

Findings from these studies inspire questions about individuals’ conceptions of prayer. Consistent with research on children’s and adults’ understanding of omniscience, certain religious practices suggest that people direct their prayer to a God that is extraordinary, but is nonetheless limited, subject to certain human-like constraints. Members of some religious groups engage in prayer in specific locations or wear specific attire while praying in order to pray more effectively. Why should those factors matter to an all-knowing being that should be aware of people’s prayers regardless of where they are or what they are wearing? Why do people pray aloud, even when they are not praying in a social/group context? A truly omniscient God should be aware of prayers whether they are produced silently or vocally.

As a developmental psychologist, I am particularly interested in how children come to conceptualize prayer over the course of development. Only a handful of studies have examined this issue. In one of the most informative studies, Jacqui Woolley and Katrina Phelps found that U.S. preschoolers appreciate that prayer is something that humans (and not other animals), engage in, and that between the late preschool years and middle childhood, children come to appreciate that prayer is a mental activity (involving thinking) and that another being (God) senses people’s prayers. Christi Bamford and Kristin Lagattuta studied U.S. children’s understanding of the emotional aspects of prayer, and found that by 8 years children understand that negative emotions (for example, sadness) often motivate prayer and that prayer can make people feel better. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that an understanding of prayer emerges and develops substantially during early and middle childhood, making it a particularly important period on which to focus research.

In an ongoing project, “Understanding the Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Prayer” my co-investigators—Henry Wellman, Margaret Evans—and I delve deeper into questions concerning how children develop an understanding of petitionary prayer as a form of communication. Do children think prayer is more or less effective than wishing? Do they conceive of silent prayer as more or less effective than asking God for help aloud? There is reason to predict that young children may have difficulty fully appreciating that prayer, especially silent prayer, can be effectively communicated to an invisible divine being. As discussed earlier, an understanding of God’s omniscience emerges slowly over development. Other research by Jacqui Woolley and colleagues demonstrates that young children show disbelief in mental telepathy, and work by Andrew Shtulman and Susan Carey reveals that young children are especially skeptical that unusual events are possible—communicating silently with an invisible being seems to violate these early beliefs. Given such beliefs, it will be interesting to learn how children, especially young children, make sense of petitionary prayer. Our project will chart the development of this understanding and will identify how cultural factors—being raised in a religious community, attending a place of worship—as well as other cognitive factors—a willingness to believe that the improbable is possible—affect this development.

Recommended Further Reading:

A new look at children’s understanding of mind and emotion: The case of prayer, by Christi Bamford and Kristin Hansen Lagattuta

Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts, by Justin L. Barrett and Frank C. Keil

Socio-cultural input facilitates children’s developing understanding of extraordinary minds, by Jonathan D. Lane, Henry M. Wellman and E. Margaret Evans

The development of children’s beliefs about prayer, by Jacqueline D. Woolley and Katrina E. Phelps

Where theories of mind meet magic: The development of children’s beliefs about wishing, by Jacqueline D. Woolley, Katrina E. Phelps, Debra L. Davis and Dorothy J. Mandell

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