Kids & Spirituality, Bloated Social Networks, Born Believers

Justin Barrett / From the Table #7

Play Video

In October 2013, we invited cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett to brave the traffic between Pasadena and La Mirada, and he made the drive in record time. But more importantly, once he was here, Justin shared about the work he’s been up to in his own research and among a group of other researchers in psychology, cognitive science, sociology and theology at Fuller’s Thrive Center for Human Development. In this interview, we asked him about spirituality in childhood development (especially related to introducing young children to talking to and thinking about God), the bloated social networks that affect spiritual communities (especially surrounding pastors), and our apparently inborn inclination to believe in God.

The Table: In your research on childhood development of belief in God, what stands out as the most significant findings? What are the practical conclusions that you’re coming away with?

Justin Barrett: One of the most important lessons for the church, from the work that I’ve been doing in how children’s minds naturally develop to make them perceptive to religious thought, is the idea that spiritual formation isn’t something just for adults.

It can—and maybe should—begin early in childhood. 3- or 4-year-olds already have the capacity to think about God. They already have something like an impulse to think about supernatural beings, to account for why things are the way they are.

And how things work in the world around them, and to make meaning of their experience. They’re really inclined to make sense of it in terms of something like God.

They’ve got that natural capacity that, then, can be cultivated. It’s important for churches not to think that, “The only thing I can do with kids is tell them to keep Bible stories that have moral lessons,” but to engage them with the mind of God.

So how does that work? How can parents and teachers and pastors—or any adult who’s caring for a child’s spiritual well-being—how can they encourage “engaging with the mind of God?”

You can ask them to consider: How does God think? How might that be different than how they think? What is God’s perspective on their life, on the lives of those around them, on events in the world around them? How can they start practicing interactions with God?

Not only do I think they’re capable of this thought, that kind of engagement might be good for their personal development, both their religious development but, also, their social, cognitive development.

One of the really important lessons here is not to wait until it’s too late before engaging kids in God talk and really developing their personal relationship with God. That can start really early.

What are some of those social benefits to engaging in the mind of God—in terms of social and cognitive development?

There’s evidence that thinking about others who have different perspectives—who look at things a different way, who feel something differently, who know different things—is good for developing children’s social intelligence.

It helps them develop the ability to navigate the world around them and the different kinds of people that they’re going to engage with. And God is a really interesting test case for that. So thinking about God, engaging with God and considering the differences between God and them, all can help stretch and nurture them.

It builds up those muscles for thinking about other people who have different perspectives than they do and maybe, loosen up that erroneous idea that, “I’m the center of the world. How I think is the way everyone else thinks. What I think is right and wrong is what everybody else thinks.”

Thinking about God early on helps gives us a different, sometimes radical, perspective on that. That’s healthy for kids from a very young age to begin engaging with those kinds of issues.

Is what you’re describing there a process of learning humility?

I certainly think humility is a big part of this process. It’s understanding that not only might someone see something differently than I do or think something differently than I do. It’s understanding that I could be wrong about these things.

Another’s perspective might capture more of the truth than mine.

And certainly, we could deal with a whole lot more of humility, well, in all of us, today. Starting with the child isn’t a bad strategy.


Let’s talk about your work on “the social brain.” Based on human cognitive and social development, what are you learning about relationality and the number of relationships we’re able to accommodate in our lives? What does that tell you about the principles or practices we might engage in order to enact a more flourishing, thriving community life?

One of the projects we’re working on in the Thrive Center right now, concerns what we call “relational capacity.” What are the implications of relational capacity for relational style of ministries we’re used to in modern Christianity.

One of these findings based on anthropology and psychology, appears to be that humans have a limited number of personal relationships that they can develop. That is, there’s a limited number of people that we can know on an individual basis.

It counts the number of people we can emotionally connect with and build a relationship of trust. That limitation, on average, appears to be about 150 people, sometimes called Dunbar’s number, because of Robin Dunbar’s work in this area.

When it comes to our social networks, it’s very unusual for people to deliberately go out and cultivate more personal relationships than they can manage.

But relational ministers often try to do this and that’s the subject of our study.

One of the things we’re finding already—even though the study is not complete—is that youth ministers and other relational ministers in the United States appear to have very unusual social networks.

They seem to be investing a whole lot, relationally, in a number of people, at the expense of a normal-sized relational network. It’s too soon to tell what the personal costs are for having this unusual, unnaturally shaped social network, but it does raise some cautions for how the church goes about doing ministry in many cases.

What are some of the cautions? How might relational overload negatively affect the church?

We have a tendency to pressure ministers—and maybe even congregants—to have too many intimate relationships, more than they’re equipped to handle. We can feel that pressure of, “I have to have more and more relationships.” That can be a stressor, a negative thing and may lead to burnout and other kinds of social problems.

This work on social networks also suggests that within a network of, let’s say, 150 people, it seems to be the right place to really engage in spiritual formation, to really challenge and encourage each other in our spiritual growth. But our churches, of course, have obviously gotten bigger than 150 people.

A really interesting problem that needs to be dealt with, for the contemporary church in America and elsewhere, is how to build those communities of trust in which real personal and spiritual growth can take place if our communities are bigger than Dunbar’s number [150 people] seems to allow for.

One of the early findings from our study on the relational capacity project is that these or predominant youth ministers in America in churches seem to have too many intimate relationships, too many in the sense of abnormally large.

What is “too many”? Are there rules of thumb for a healthy number? Does research suggest a norm?

A previous study suggested that we typically have an inner circle—close trusting relationships—of about 5 people. The next ring out of intimacy allows for around 15 people.

What we’re finding in youth ministers is that, on average, that inner ring is closer to about 9 people, almost twice the 5 that we would expect. That next ring is about 25 people.

Almost double!

We see these really swollen inner rings of people they feel real intimacy with; they have that high degree of trust.

But maybe that’s a good thing.

It appears that having those swollen inner rings of relationships may also lead to a smaller total number of relationships. Maybe their total number or people supporting them, their active social network, shrinks to accommodate these swollen inner rings.

Again, maybe it’s a little too soon to tell what the consequences are.


One more shift of topic. In your book, Born Believers, you share your research on how naturally children, from a very young age, form belief in God. What is the significance of this research? Based on your research, do you see a link between the natural capacity to believe and the truth of God’s existence? Do the findings of cognitive science of religion explain away belief in God, or do they provide confirming evidence?

To date cognitive science of religion seems to show that we’ve got natural receptiveness towards belief in gods generally, and not necessarily “God,” capital G, in particular. We might worry, “Does that somehow explain away God, or put God on equal footing with all of these other gods?”

Of course that’s a really big question. Now we’ve identified psychological dynamics that encourage people to believe in god that, of course, shouldn’t threaten belief in God at all.

It doesn’t explain it away any more so than identifying the psychological dynamics for why it is I believe in my wife loves me means she doesn’t love me, or why it is that I love my children means that I don’t love my children. That doesn’t follow.

We are natural beings and of course there are going to be natural mechanisms for how we think about God and how we come to believe in God.

On a personal level, what is the biggest takeaway when it comes to cognitive science and Christian belief?

What’s striking to me is how resonant some of the findings from cognitive science are with Christian theology.

Think of it this way. If it is the case that we are created to be in loving relationships with God then of course we would expect to find signs of that in our nature. Our nature, maybe even by virtue of common grace or however you want to talk about it theologically, would equip us with a natural receptivity or a tendency toward belief in God.

That’s what the science is finding. Far from being an explaining away of belief in God, we can see the science as supportive of other kinds of theological propositions that we already have independent grounds for believing.