Daily Archives: September 16, 2009

Imaginary Friends & the God Spot

Last week, Canon Lucy Winkett presented BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day.” (For those of you non-Brits, this is a daily 5 minute dose of religion or God Spot that is broadcast on the UK’s largest radio show in the morning). You know that you are starting to make an impact if you get mentioned on this as it is usually an attempt to take some topical event and find religious connections or significance. So I was pleased I guess to get a mention. This is what she said,

Many children have imaginary friends. A little girl I know has a friend called Cilla and she sits at the meal table, goes swimming, is strapped into the back seat of the car and shadows every movement of her life. When I was a young child, I had two imaginary creature friends rather inexplicably called Packet and Beady who went with me everywhere too.

The fact that children often have imaginary friends is evidence for Professor Bruce Hood, a psychologist at Bristol university, of the hard wiring of intuitive belief in human beings. In a report published yesterday, his conclusions are that humans have evolved an instinct for religious belief as part of their strategy for survival. His argument is that children have what he calls a “natural intuitive way of reasoning” and that this intuition is overlaid later by more adult rational approaches. His conclusion is startling – that it’s more natural to believe than not to believe. Disbelief, says another anthropologist from the States, is generally the work of “deliberate effortful work against our natural dispositions”. In an age when scientific research and religious belief are often wrongly characterised as mutually exclusive, this is a fascinating proposition. The mistake would be to use this study as evidence either way of the truth of the existence of God, merely the receptiveness of human beings from birth, to believe in something or someone greater than themselves.

It is only a starting place for believers to know that this instinct to believe may be hard wired. Jews and Christians live by the commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. As a Christian, I’m encouraged therefore to think about what I believe – and logic and reason play an important role. But there is one aspect of this research that is important in developing our understanding of religion – and that’s in the movement from belief to trust. For adults who have engaged their brain with their faith, which is a vital part of religious life, it is not enough to assent intellectually to the existence of God or not.

These are sterile arguments that can never be proved either way. It’s in combining our intellect with our instincts and emotions that will give us a view of life that’s holistic, that honours our humanity in all its complexity and beauty. And we express this not so much in belief but in trust. To live a life that trusts in God is to live a life that’s fulfilled in a way that unites heart, mind and soul. Our instincts are given concrete expression in a life that is whole, that will trust in the love of God and will choose to love others as we learn to love ourselves. This friendship with God is costly, deeply consoling – but, for me, anything but imaginary.

Once again people have used me as a soapbox to proclaim their interpretation and make up research findings that I have never produced. I have never worked on imaginary friends though I know of the work of Majorie Taylor  at the University of Oregon who has produced the best work in this area and a fine summary of the research in her book, “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.” Canon Winkett has assumed that I have worked on imaginary friends and used this phenomena as evidence that children are predisposed to believe in God. Well I haven’t. More importantly, Taylor’s work shows that children are aware that their imaginary friends are make believe. But that information was conveniently ignored in Canon Winkett’s thought for the day. Maybe if people did a bit more research and less thinking for the day we would get a better message.


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