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.


Filed under book publicity, In the News, Radio

15 responses to “Imaginary Friends & the God Spot

  1. jacarandamimosifolia

    Bruce, your high media profile is delivering you many imaginary friends. As you say, the important thing is to remember that they’re make-believe.

  2. Paul

    Wouldn’t it be an exciting and exotic world if we all went on to deify our imaginary friends throughout adult life and gave the current set of deities and prophets some heart and soul felt competition?

    I am intrigued that faith/trust/belief in mythologies may be genetic and would be interested in your own view of this Mr Hood.

    Intuitive belief in deities for example, could be an unintended biological by-product unique to man or perhaps really was an improvement in the probability of genetic survival.

    It is an exciting thought that one day science may be able to answer solve this “sterile argument”, decode a god-gene giving us clarity about the basis of faith and trust.

    • brucehood

      Heh, did I lose my doctorate as well as professorship? only kidding… look, as I said in response to Germaine Greer’s question, searching for a gene for a specific belief is illogical – a gene for acquiring language does not predict which language you end up speaking nor what you end up talking about – I hope that comparison reveals the complexity of the issue – think I may have to blog this issue next

      • Paul

        Apologies Dr/Prof Hood, I did not intentionally mean to be disrespectful, your blog site doesn’t make it clear how you would like to be addressed.

        That being said, there is lots of threads here to follow-up on so I am looking forward to understanding more about this topic and will stop here.

        I am currently reading the new Dawkins book and will follow-up with yours once I can find it in a hardback edition.

      • brucehood

        No, I am not a stickler for being called “prof” I just prefer not to use titles at all unless in a formal setting.
        Hey I believe you can get a hardback of amazon at a reasonable price.

        There should be lots to chew over in the book

  3. Leigh

    More research, less tinkering.

  4. I would be interested in your opinion on the studies of Tom Rees and Gregory S. Paul that show that the degree of religiosity in a society is closely correlated with income equality on a societal level and with personal security on the level of individual psychology.

    Click to access EP073984414.pdf

    Click to access 2009-17.pdf

    Does this not somewhat imply that religiosity merely serves to reestablish personal security and is not a “regular” phenomenon of human nature, rather a sort of defect of our hypersociality or ability to interact with absent persons?

    • brucehood

      I would interpret this work to show that varying social environments that affect personal security can stimulate/support/enhance religiousity as a coping mechanism. I said this before in relation to work of Whitson and Galinsky that I blogged back in Oct last year.

      That could still be a regular phenomenon of human nature in the same way that other coping mechanisms can be triggered such as cognitive dissonance.
      Thanks for the question

      • Thank you for your answer. I thought about this possibility as well. The question however arises when religiosity – the interaction with supernatural beings – as a coping mechanism did evolve.

        It seems unclear how long religiosity already exists. A number of scientists like evolutionary biologist Thomas Junker believe that religiosity arose alongside the neolithic revolution and that earlier there existed only animism and magic, rather than religion. In this case there couldn’t be a gene for religiosity as such.

        It is furthermore puzzling as to what purpose religiosity should have evolved, given that:

        “conservative religious ideology apparently
        contributes to societal dysfunction, and religious prosociality and charity are less effective at improving societal conditions than are secular government programs”

        Click to access EP073984414.pdf

        That means we would have an adaption that positively worsens the societal defects that caused it in the first place. This adaption would also lower the possibility that we could regain “real” personal security that is not based on an “artificial” coping mechanism.

        I accept that this is not hard evidence against religiosity as an adaptive coping mechanism. Yet, it seems to be worth considering.

      • I have a further question: Is our tendency to develop delusions in specific situations adaptive or is it a by-product?

        Surely, in some way religion must be “a regular phenomenon of human nature”. But is it adaptive?

        I would be delighted if you could share your thoughts on the matter.

  5. Tessa K

    Don’t worry, Dawkins’ new book is out now. They’ll leave you alone soon and get back to their favourite sport of bashing/misquoting him.

    • brucehood

      Yes, he is coming to my neck of the woods on Nov 3rd. I have not had a chance to read it but I expect a carefully and well laid out exposition of the evidence for evolution – and of course will be ignored by creationists. So no, I don’t think they will stop looking for anyone who seems to be saying something different.

  6. Paul

    Even The Sunday Times are in on the act of Dawkins bashing Teresa, see

    I watching him last week on BBC2 News Review with Margaret Atwood and Ruth Padel and of course that description couldn’t have been more inaccurate.

    BTW his book is a delightful read and so interesting.

  7. Bruce,
    In spite of the fact that so many of these people seem to be reading so much into your book and your research, I cannot help but feel a bit giddy for you. When you were writing to us before the book came out, I don’t think that any of us anticipated this onslaught of publicity for you, at least, I didn’t.

    The good news is that people are hearing your name, hearing the name of your book, and those who know not to take commentaries at face value, are purchasing your book and reading further. Roundabout? Yes, but still, publicity is publicity.

  8. Hopefully the extra misquoting will result in people buying your book and being pleasantly (unpleasantly surprised?)

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