Children's Talk of God

Children tend to think and talk of God as an actual, physical being, the same way they would talk of a teddy bear or a toaster. The notion of God as a “big person” or an “old man in the sky” is a reflection of the child’s concrete operations. The child is not able to think abstractly and therefore must choose a tangible way to think of God. Some children actually believe God to be a person or object somewhere in the sky.1 But as they get older, they are able to think more abstractly and their discussions about God become more abstract. They begin to talk of God in a more abstract, conceptual, and symbolic way.

Moral Realism v. Moral Independence

A child in the moral realism stage of religious development thinks concretely about morals and believes them to be real cause-and-effect characteristics of the universe. They base morality on causal, concrete action and reaction as well on material consequences. A child in the moral independence stage of religious development bases morality on the consequences of intention. It takes more complex mental ability to make judgments based on intentions rather than on visual consequences.

Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development

To determine a subject’s level of moral reasoning, Kohlberg uses an interview method. He confronts the subject with a dilemma in the form of a short story and then asks them for their response to the story, or what they would do if they were the character in the story. Kohlberg’s method is direction neutral, meaning that he does not measure whether the person decided for or against performing a certain action but rather their reasoning behind it. He based the subject’s level of moral reasoning on the complexity of their logic rather than on the conclusion produced by the logic.

The first part of the preconventional stage is when the person bases his or her morality on obedience. The person will choose what is right or wrong based on whether or not they get punished for the action. In the second part of the stage, the individual will base their morality on what he or she gets rewarded for. Actions that are positively reinforced become “good” to the person.

People in the first part of the conventional stage base their morality on the “good boy” or “good girl” principle. They base their actions on what their idea of a “good” person would or would not do. Those in the second part of the stage base their morality on social maintenance. They wish to keep law and order by performing actions that maintain a civil society.

Those in the postconventional stage will start out by basing their morality on social contracts, or the will of the majority. They believe what is right or wrong is based on what the people have chosen for themselves as a group. In the latter part of the stage, the highest level of moral reasoning in this theory, a person will base his or her morality on a collection of universal principles of ethics. What is good or bad is not dependent on what others believe, but rather on an internalized understanding of a universal system.

Fowler's Stages of Faith

Fowler’s stages are strongly influenced by Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. The method is direction neutral, like Kohlberg’s. Fowler believes as people get older, they create more and more order in their lives to make sense of life’s chaos. The method attempts to measure the complexity of this order regardless of the style of the order, be it religious or otherwise.

Religion and Doubt in Adolescents

Studies regarding religion in adolescents indicate that religion plays an important role, albeit a paradoxical one: while adolescents tend to be more involved in the outward aspects of religion, they are also more doubtful and less accepting of traditional or literal teachings of religion. Doubt plays a critical role in an adolescent’s understanding of religion. Adolescents have more doubt of their faith and of religion than children. The percentage of those who say they know that God exists decreases from grade 3 to grade 9. During the same time frame, the percentage of those who say they cannot say whether God exists increases drastically. Moreover, many adolescents may have secret doubts about religion. However, others who report to be doubtful of religion may actually be hidden observers.

Mental ability is the main cognitive factor that influences an adolescent’s view of religion. The adolescent, unlike the child, is able to form on the abstract level necessary to deal with religious issues. The adolescent is said to be in the formal operational stage of development.

Adolescents’ views of religion are effected by different social factors than younger children. Church and parents play less of a role in their moral development, while the interaction with peers plays a much greater role. Adolescents begin to befriend others who may share drastically different views of religion and morality. Also, school presents the adolescent with many naturalistic explanations of the universe which appear to come in conflict with religious notions they may already hold. The process of individuation drives the personal factors that influence an adolescent’s view of religion. Adolescents begin to see themselves as totally separate entities from their parents and others, and begin to discover their personal identity. This process may drive the adolescent to be more independent or rebellious in their views, but also might compel them to be more involved in religion than their parents or others.

Conversions: Sudden and Gradual

Those who experience a sudden conversion often take on a faith all at once and in a short time. This may happen with and without evangelistic persuasion. Existing theories claim that repressed feelings and conflicts emerge all at once and are resolved by the conversion. Sudden conversions tend to be more emotional than gradual conversions.

Gradual conversions may take place over the course of a few days, months, or years. The convert spends a lot of time to consciously weigh religious ideas. He or she may reject or struggle with parts of the doctrine before fully accepting the faith. Gradual conversions tend to be more intellectual and less emotional than sudden conversions. Existing theories claim that a conversion helps meet the needs of people who have found no other way to meet them.

Religious socialization is not a conversion type, but rather a baseline standard used to denote people who cannot remember ever not having their faith early in life. These people are typically raised in religious homes or in the presence of long-term influences. They use social learning to be trained in their religion from a very early age via reinforcement and modeling. Reinforcement refers to being rewarded for performing actions that show they accept the faith. They model the actions of parents or others in order to learn their faith. This group is used mainly as a control group in studies.

Glock's Deprivation Theory

Glock’s deprivation theory claims that people are motivated to convert by some sort of perceived deficiency of self, or any way they might see themselves as being inferior to others or to the ideal they have set for themselves. This deprivation leads individuals to change their situation or behavior, resulting in new sects or neo-religious movements. The deprivation can be social (perceived unacceptable age, race, intelligence, etc.), organismic (physical or mental illness or traits), ethical (conflict between their ethics and the ethics of those around them), or psychic (need for purpose or meaning).

Are Converts Psychopathological?

There may or may not be a relationship between conversion and psychopathology. Many claim that conversion in and of itself is a “disintegrated” disturbance, but this does not help to answer the question as to whether conversion is in fact pathological. The heavily emotional aspects of a conversion may show up on diagnostic tests as pathological disturbances, but more research is needed to show whether or not converts are actually pathological.

Religion Past Adolescence

While data appear to be incomplete and often inconsistent, the major finding seems to be that religiousness and religious maturity increase with age. Many studies challenge the stereotype that college educated people lose their faith or become less religious. Although longitudinal studies are difficult, and the cohort effect is very salient when dealing with studies of religion, much more research is needed to fully understand the role of religion throughout the adult life.

1mr100percent says I imagine buddhist or shintoist children may think differently about God being "in the sky." Otherwise, it seems on the mark. I agree, although I would say children raised with eastern religions and/or godless religions would still entertain a concrete notion of whatever metaphysical component the religion professed, be it a spirit, chi, or otherwise. Buddhist children who are told that the Buddha transcended the material world might envision an actual journey or teleportation to another world.

Paloutzian R. (1996) Invitation to the Psychology of Religion. Pearson Allyn & Bacon