childhood prayer

January 30, 2014

Children, Social Cognition, and the Divine

Rebekah A. Richert is an Associate Professor of Psychology, and director of the Childhood Cognition Lab, at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on the cultural and social-cognitive dimensions of children’s understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Richert’s latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, examines how prayer practices and instruction shape children’s concepts of God and supernatural causality. On a recent afternoon, I spoke with Richert about her current work and its implications.

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Steven Barrie-Anthony: Your research looks at how children develop their understandings of religion, fantasy, and media. Why religion and fantasy?

Rebekah Richert: There are parts of our psychological experience that are captured by our religious beliefs, by our imagination and creativity, our fantasy lives, that are rarely able to be tapped into when we look at other more basic types of psychological processes. I’m interested in trying to understand some of the bigger and more abstract types of thought processes that we develop. And a way of doing that is studying how we think about abstract meaning-laden systems like religion.


June 26, 2013

Stephen Colbert's Mother's Prayer

Lorna Colbert | Screen cap from  Season 9 Episode 116 of the Colbert ReportStephen Colbert’s mother died last week at 92.  His tribute to her includes a glimpse of how profoundly meaningful the simplest, most private acts of prayer can be. In her last years, Lorna Colbert became a little confused, he tells us. And so people who loved her would ask her simple questions to help her remember. Tucked among all that she had forgotten was the vivid memory of a prayer she said while tucking her children in at night.

His account caused me to reflect on how rare it is to see a completely genuine moment reflected in the media.  We have become so accustomed to being watchers who are being watched that nothing ever seems quite pure of intent. But this little story did.

April 1, 2013

Children’s Understanding of Divine Minds and Prayer

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.