How Children and Adults Represent God's Mind

Cogn Sci. 2016 Jan;40(1):121-44. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12232. Epub 2015 Mar 23.


For centuries, humans have contemplated the minds of gods. Research on religious cognition is spread across sub-disciplines, making it difficult to gain a complete understanding of how people reason about gods' minds. We integrate approaches from cognitive, developmental, and social psychology and neuroscience to illuminate the origins of religious cognition. First, we show that although adults explicitly discriminate supernatural minds from human minds, their implicit responses reveal far less discrimination. Next, we demonstrate that children's religious cognition often matches adults' implicit responses, revealing anthropomorphic notions of God's mind. Together, data from children and adults suggest the intuitive nature of perceiving God's mind as human-like. We then propose three complementary explanations for why anthropomorphism persists in adulthood, suggesting that anthropomorphism may be (a) an instance of the anchoring and adjustment heuristic; (b) a reflection of early testimony; and/or (c) an evolutionary byproduct.

Keywords: Anthropomorphism; Religious cognition; Social cognition; Social cognitive development; Theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Development
  • Cognition*
  • Comprehension
  • Humans
  • Religion
  • Religion and Psychology*
  • Theory of Mind*