Judaism

February 26, 2013

Investigating the Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Prayer

Co-Principal Investigators include Henry Wellman and Margaret Evans.

We examine the development of prayer concepts, specifically concepts of petitionary prayer that makes requests of divine beings. Petitionary prayer is practiced by children and adults worldwide (BBC News, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2008; Pew Research Center, 2010). It is particularly interesting conceptually because it entails that we suspend many of our intuitions about the natural world. In our daily social interactions we lack telepathic skills and communicate by speaking aloud; further, we appreciate that people and objects are subject to inviolable laws of physics and biology. Yet, to fully grasp the significance of petitionary prayer requires that we conceptualize and believe: (1) in a being (God) who is not physically present yet can still perceive our words and, even more extraordinary, is aware of our unspoken thoughts; (2) that our prayers can yield physical outcomes without our physical intervention; and (3) that otherwise improbable or impossible phenomena (e.g., parting a sea, recovering from a terminal illness) are indeed possible with divine intervention.

Intellectual merit: Our research will examine how people come to represent these counterintuitive prayer concepts, a topic that can also shed light more generally on how counterintuitive spiritual ideas are cognitively represented and culturally transmitted. Limited prior research suggests that an understanding of prayer emerges and develops substantially during early and middle childhood (e.g., Bamford & Lagattuta, 2010; Woolley & Phelps, 2001), highlighting a particularly important period for research. But young children evidence cognitive limitations that may hinder their appreciating the three components of prayer described above, these include a difficulty conceptualizing extraordinary minds (Giménez-Dasí et al., 2005; Lane et al., 2010; Makris & Pnevmatikos, 2007); a disbelief that the improbable is possible (Shtulman & Carey, 2007); and disbelief in mental telepathy and psychokinesis (Bering & Parker, 2006; Woolley et al., 1999). Given such cognitive constraints, when and how do children fully grasp and believe in the goals and significance of prayer?

Research: To answer this question, Study 1 will examine when and how children and adults appreciate that an extraordinary being (the Judeo-Christian God) can perceive prayers, whereas ordinary humans cannot. Study 2 will examine reasoning about the efficacy of prayer relative to other psychological activities, like thinking and wishing. Critically, conceptual development is partly a function of culturally-provided information (Shweder et al., 2006). So, we will conduct studies with participants from different religious contexts. Moreover, we will collect data on participants’ religious background, including their exposure to and engagement in prayer. We will also assess other cognitive capacities that may support a developing understanding of prayer, including children’s ability to reason about improbable phenomena (Shtulman & Carey, 2007).

Broader impacts: Results from these studies will shed light on the cognitive and cultural foundations of prayer concepts that are held by millions of individuals worldwide, and in doing so will contribute to the cognitive science of religion. In particular, our studies will (a) contribute to understanding the cognitive and psychological dimensions of prayer, and will (b) serve as a cross-cultural comparative analysis of prayer. Moreover, our findings will inform parents and others about when children are most receptive to learning about different components of prayer.

February 26, 2013

The Role of Prayer in the Development of Religious Cognitions

Co-Principal Investigator is Nicholas Shaman.

Children’s religious concepts undergo significant transitions during the preschool years. Their understanding of ritual actions, God, and supernatural causality undergo qualitative shifts. Despite the dynamic nature of development during these years, little research has examined the cultural factors that contribute to preschool-aged children’s understanding of religious activities, like prayer. The proposed research is significant for advancing knowledge of how children’s understanding of and experience with prayer can shape their religious experiences and understanding. The guiding hypothesis of the project is children’s learning about and conceptions of prayer influence and is influenced by children’s understanding of religious entities and supernatural causality. The specific aim is to examine if differences in exposure to, understanding of, and participation in prayer are related to individual differences in the development of religious concepts during the preschool years.

The proposed research method will be a cross-sectional study conducted with children in the preschool years, which mark a transition period in the development of children’s religious cognition. Parent-child dyads, representing Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Reform Jewish religious traditions, will participate in a one-time visit to the Childhood Cognition Laboratory at UC Riverside. Children will be between the ages of 3.5 and 5. The visit will be divided into two segments: parent survey/child interview and parent-child interaction. Children’s and parents’ concepts of God, supernatural causality, and prayer will be assessed through separate interviews with trained researchers. The measures will assess how children and parents attribute anthropomorphic attributes to God, how children and parents judge the possible occurrence of impossible events, and how children and parents view the purpose of the actions of prayer. Analyses will involve correlating these measures with one another as well as with aspects of the parent-child interactions. A long-term goal of this program of research is to increase awareness of different prayer practices as well as further understanding about the influence of different prayer practices on development.