David Elkind Ph.D.

Digital Children

Origins of Religion in the Child

God doesn't have birthdays.

Posted Jun 03, 2008

I attended a Catholic funeral over the weekend. As I observed the symbols and rituals and listened to the Bible readings I was struck, as a behavioral scientist, by the parallel between the four basic elements of every religion and the stages of intellectual growth of the child. Every religion has a God concept, someone who is immortal and eternal.

Secondly every religion has its own symbols, whether it be the wine and the bread, the Torah, head coverings or totems. And every religion has a set of rituals, kneeling or standing during prayer for example, and including taking Communion and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Finally every religion has a theology, a recorded history of its founding along with an organized set of beliefs that unites the other elements into a unitary whole.

If we look at child development there is a striking parallel. At the end to the first year the child attains the concept of a permanent object, the belief in the existence of people or things that are no longer present to its senses. In religion the conservation of the object is extended to the permanent conservation of the deity across all time and all space. At about the age of two the child gives evidence of having attained the symbolic function, the ability to create, understand and employ symbols. To be sure children now use words, but they also create a variety of their own symbols, for example anything that floats becomes a toy boat. In a like manner the symbols of religion are created and serve to represent various facets of the belief system.

When children reach the age of reason, usually around the age of six or seven, they are able to create, and to follow, rules. And it is rule making and breaking that is the forerunner of all ritual. Children, of course, create their own rituals and pass them along through oral tradition. "Step on a crack and break your back" is but one example. Religious rituals are also rule based. There are rituals for a Mass, for opening and closing the Ark holding the Torah, and for prayer at a Mosque.

Finally, in adolescence, young people attain a new level of mental ability that allows them think in abstractions and to create ideals and contrary to fact propositions. It is the idealism of youth, their ability to think of the possibility of a world without war, poverty, or prejudice that accounts for the rebelliousness of youth. Likewise, all theologies are idealistic and urge their adherents to live according to the highest moral standards, the Ten Commandments are a case in point.

In outlining this parallel, I am no way trying to reduce religion to cognitive development which would ignore history and fail to account for the variety of religions. What I think can be said, is that our developmental modes of thought provide the predisposition for understanding the four basic elements of religion. They also provide the predispositions for the understanding the four basic elements of science: conservation, symbolism, ritual or experimentation, and theory. From this perspective, religion and science are simply alternative, neither wrong nor right, ways of realizing, and putting into practice, our four basic modes of thought.

About the Author

David Elkind is Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University.

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