By Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff
There are proofs that humankind has been religious since Pleistocene, perhaps already since its very beginning. Ethnography has documented that religion penetrated every tribal society and every archaic or premodern society. Religion seems to be much stronger and vivid in archaic societies than in the current world religions of Asia, America, or Europe. For example, the Australian Aborigines used to spend months of the year with religious practices and rituals. Religion and magic had a great impact on their everyday life. Religion seems to play a bigger part in societies staying upon lower stages than in those upon higher stages. In fact, there is not a single person to find in archaic societies who doubts in the existence of mystical forces such as ghosts, sorcerers, or divinities (Eliade 1974; Frazer 1994; Jensen 1992).
According to research of Febvre, there did not exist a single atheist in 16th century Europe (Febvre 1946). The first atheists appeared in France, intellectuals who were influenced by the philosophy of Descartes (Buckley 1990). A clandestine literature came into being in the end of the 17th century and moreover in the beginnings of the 18th century in France, where a small number of authors formulated atheistic ideas for the first time in history. Denis Diderot and Paul d´Holbach were the two most important atheistic authors during the 18th century.
Agnosticism and atheism spread from these origins in circles of scientists and intellectuals in the Western world to become a social movement during the 19th century. 41% of the leading scientists in the US were atheists already in 1916 (James Leuba), 93% of the members of the American Academy of Sciences were atheists in 1998 (Dawkins 2006; Oesterdiekhoff 2013a: 239). Roughly half of the Europeans or Japanese currently don´t believe any more in god and immortality of the soul, while 90% of people living in the developing countries are still religious (Bruce 2002).
A society, divided in believers, agnostics, and atheists, reveals a much weaker religiousness, in comparison to a society with 100% believers. Thus, religiousness in tribal societies is much stronger than in any kind of modern society. Further, atheism among the members of the American Academy of Sciences is deeper rooted than among the half of the peoples of England, Scandinivia, and Japan that is said to be atheistic today. Obviously, a psychological evolution has taken place, starting in the heads of a few intellectuals some 300 years ago, conquering now the most advanced nations and later on the whole world. There are estimations according to them there exist now some hundred millions of non-believers throughout the world (Oesterdiekhoff 2013a: 235-240, 2009a, b, c, 2015).
How can we explain the total absence of agnosticism and atheism in the premodern world and their emergence and spread since 1700? How can we explain religiousness and atheism basing on one striking theory?
Ludwig Feuerbach (1985) in 1841 explained religion as the childish nature of the humankind, manifesting the psyche of humans staying on childlike psychological stages. According to Feuerbach, the risen intelligence and grown maturity of humans might explain the emergence of atheism during the age of Enlightenment. He discriminated the “emotional man” of the premodern world from the “rational man” of the modern world as the fulcrum of the development of religion, science, and culture. He excellently demonstrated how single religious ideas and practices root in childlike mental characteristics.
Despite his celebrity nobody really followed his approach after his death. It would have been necessary to rely on child psychology and cross-cultural psychology in order to develop Feuerbach´s approach further. Successors should have had to show that children actually are deeply religious from their very nature, not in consequence of education and culture. Then, scholars should have had to show the resemblances of the religion of children and premodern man. Further, Feuerbach´s disciples should have had to evidence the childish anthropological or psychological nature of premodern man and the more mature status of modern man. Had his successors carried out this work, they would have accomplished the work and would have evidenced his early but brillant theory. The branch of religious studies would be able now to present a theory that explains both the full religiousness of the premodern mankind and the emergence of the weak religiousness, agnosticism, and atheism during the past 10 generations.
Not one expert in the field of religious studies of the past century did the work mentioned because nobody could ever imagine that children are deeply religious due to their developmental stage only. Many a scholars had even problems to understand the childlike nature of premodern man. Though, there had been many authors such as Heiler, Campbell, Freud, Jung, and Clodd who saw the resemblances but they did not followed the obvious traces. However, some most influential and distinguished scholars and schools emphasized the apparent resemblances between premodern and modern human beings, especially in the time span 1800 to 1945/1980. Yet they did not think that these resemblances could build the basis to explain the phenomenon “religion”.
Almost all classical authors of psychoanalysis and developmental psychology, many a classical authors of sociology, history, and ethnology, contributed to the theory of the childlike nature of premodern man. Among these approaches and works, the books of Piaget (1975) and Werner (1948) are especially impressive and plausible.
These books show that the psychological correspondences of children and premodern men cover all dimensions of logic, reason, perception, social understanding, morals, and political reasoning. Premodern man discriminates from the child by knowledge and experience but not by the psychological stage and by basic categories of reason and mind. The resemblances actually concern every single aspect and detail (Oesterdiekhoff 2009a, 1997, 2011, 2013a, b, 2012 a, b; Hallpike 1979).
Piagetian Cross-Cultural Psychology in the past 80 years has evidenced through more than 1000 empirical studies conducted in more than 100 milieus and cultures that adult humans from archaic, traditional, illiterate, and premodern milieus do not develop beyond the psychological stage of children while adult humans from modern societies develop some more developmental years and elaborate the adolescent stage of formal operations (Dasen 1977; Dasen & Berry 1974; Hallpike 1979; Oesterdiekhoff 1997, 2009a, 2011, 2013a, b, 2012 a, b, 2014, 2015; Piaget 1974).
Cross-cultural intelligence research has confirmed this result, too. Adults of premodern societies manifest IQ scores of below 75, in comparison to IQ scores of adults from modern, advanced nations. Even Europeans, Eastern Asians, and Northern Americans scored with below 75 a 100 years ago. Flynn effect is the name for the secular increase of intelligence during modernization. IQ scores of 50 match to the usual intelligence of children aged seven, scores of 75 match to the intelligence of teens aged 13 (Flynn 2007; Oesterdiekhoff 2011, 2012b, 2013a: 49-78). These are the empirical data that correspond to the data of Piagetian psychology, according to them premodern adults stay on childlike psychological stages while modern adults develop some 5 or even 10 developmental years further. The main causes to the divergent psychological paths and stages are school systems, primary socialisation techniques, media, and occupational systems.
The whole research branch „religion of the child“ of the past century has shown that children are deeply religious and modern adolescents manifest a decreased religion. K. Hyde (1990) and Goldman (1964) presented each an impressive compendium that cover the abundant data related, all evidencing the facts mentioned. Literally thousands of studies show that every child has elementary ideas of god, of prayer, of divine government of the world, of efficacy of magic, and of the immortality of the soul. Further, modern adolescents run through a religious development in which the original, magical, animistic, and concrete ideas and practices are becoming weaker and more abstract.
Already Piaget´s book on the worldview of children (Piaget 1975) demonstrated the correspondences of children´s and premodern men´s religion and worldview. It showed that modern children surmount this archaic worldview with 10 years at the latest, while premodern men adhere to this belief system all their lifetime. I have evidenced, upon some articles and a book that is to be published in 2015, that every element, which composes religions, roots in reason, mind, and psyche of children.
Every child believes, like premodern adults do, the world be an artefact, born in actions of persons and powers. Both groups surmise human or divine magic may create every occurrence and the run of history. Both groups believe in award and punishment both in this world and the other one. Children believe in god, ghosts, and in magic of their parents and of adult people (Oesterdiekhoff 2009a, 2013a: 215-240; Hyde 1990; Goldman 1964). Children by their sixth year regard parents and adults as being omniscient and almighty, as a kind of divinities (Bovet 1951; Piaget 1975; Goldman 1964; Hyde 1990). Children, older than six years, run then through a sceptical crisis. The grown mental abilities show to them restrictions that limit intelligence, capabilities, and knowledge available to adults. The children transfer then their religious feelings to the official and imaginary god of the adult culture, being the Bible God in the Western cultures. The preschool child shares with the stone age and tribal societies, with the ancient civilizations and with Christianity, the idea of the one, great god of heaven. Every premodern culture, including stone age peoples and agrarian civilizations such as China, India, pre-Columbian America, and the Meditarreanean, knows next to the cult of the god-father the worship of ancestors as a parallel cult. Ancestor worship concerns the adoration of deceased parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and former generations that dominate the life of their descendants from their place in heaven (Frazer 2010; Jensen 1992). I have shown that this core element of ancient religions stems from the mentality of the child before his sceptical crisis, of his religious attitude towards his parents before his seventh year of life (Oesterdiekhoff 2013a: 223-230).
Both children and primitive tribes initially have problems to imagine the death could completely annihilate the personality of the deceased. This capability is by no means self-evident but provides the attainment of certain abstractive cognitions (Anthony 1940). Further, children have a blooming fantasy and the power of wishful thinking. Therefore, they paint a life after death with concrete and colurful pictures (Goldman 1964; Hyde 1990). The fancyful ideas of the ancient peoples regarding hell and paradise root in this childlike mentality. The decline and annihilation of the belief in immortality of the soul, of paradise and hell, roots then in this evolution of the adolescent stage of formal operations (Oesterdiekhoff 2009a, b, 2013a: 236-240).
Children´s fantasy is also the source of the belief into myths and fairy tales. Children from 3 to 8 live in a world of myths and believe in sorcerers, ghosts, and witches (Blair et al. 1986; Dieckmann 1995; Hyde 1990, von der Leyen 1995; Werner 1948). Not only W. Wundt (1914) demonstrated that originally differences between divine myths and children´s myths did not exist. In fact, the belief in gods roots in myths and legends. Premodern man was capable to fancy such myths and to believe in them, too. Thus, religion and myths of gods stem from anthropological stages of children below their 8th year of life. Whenever adults grow beyond this psychogical age their mythological capability continually decreases or completely vanishs. Modern agnostics and atheists aren´t any more capable to believe in gods. Their developmental stage prevents them from understanding myths and legends as being reports (Oesterdiekhoff 2006, 2007, 2011, 2009a, b, c, 2013a: 232-236).
Henceforth, “full religiousness” (M. Eliade) is a manifestation of certain developmental stages of humans, whose anthropological summit remains on childish stages. Every central element of religion comes from psychological mechanisms, which are parts of children´s psychological stages.
Religious people of modern societies have then a weaker and more abstract religion than our ancestors had. The modern rest religions are by no means detached from psychological developmental stages but reflect transitional stages. Atheism and agnosticism clearly result from the gradual evolution of the adolescent stage of formal operations. Henceforth, the theology of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Hans Küng, J. B. Metz, or J. Ratzinger reflects transitional phases of the psychological evolution. As there is no psychological phenomenon that is untouched by the laws of psychological development, as there is no religious phenomenon that exists apart from this evolution.
On the whole, developmental psychology delivers the key to a comprehensive understanding of religion and religiousness. Sociology, general psychology, phenomenology, and evolutionary psychology do not explain religion but decelopmental psychology does so. Child or developmental psychology explains religion, atheism, and agnosticism at the same time. To my opinion, developmental psychology is the searched theory that explains both belief and disbelief.
Dr. Dr. Georg W. Oesterdiekhoff, author of 25 books and 200 articles. Main research field: Reconstruction of the history of humankind basing on developmental psychology and elaboration of developmental psychology as the fundamental theory to the humanities and social sciences. Former positions: prof for sociology at the universities of Aachen and Erlangen-Nuremberg, visting prof at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá.
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