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Is Religion Natural? The Chinese Challenge

Project Lead: Dr. Justin L. Barrett
Post-doctoral researchers: 
Dr. Melanie Nyhof, Dr. Ryan Hornbeck, Justin Gregory
Center Staff:
 Rebecca Sok, Gregory Foley, Tyler Greenway
Funded by: 
Templeton World Charity Foundation at $1.6 million dollars
Project dates: 
July 1, 2011 – June 30, 2014

Does religious development in early childhood scaffold moral development?

As part of “The Chinese Challenge” project, funded by TWCF and led by Barrett and Ryan Hornbeck in collaboration with Liqi Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, we are examining whether children who acquire beliefs in gods are more likely to acquire particular classes of moral beliefs, e.g., concerning loyalty, purity, and harm. For instance, it may be that acquiring god concepts helps stretch general Theory of Mind facility including the ability to empathize with others unlike oneself.

Initial findings from six Chinese Challenge studies were released in April 2014. Additional findings and full reports of the research are forthcoming as journal articles, books, book chapters and infographics.

Download the Chartbook (PDF) | April 23, 2014

Download the Infographic

Project Background

Research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has converged on the thesis that tendencies toward religious and spiritual thought, feelings, and actions may be part of largely invariable human nature.  The fact that the world’s largest nation—China—is officially secular, allegedly has a long history of dominant non-religious philosophies, and reportedly has a large proportion of atheists challenges the naturalness of religion thesis, doesn’t it?  This project and its collection of selected sub-projects will address this big question empirically using state-of-the-art techniques.

The project has been designed with two aims in mind:
(1) Scientifically address one of humanity’s big questions
(2) Create a blueprint for a new and growing body of scholars to continue asking and answering such questions in the world’s largest nation.

The project is comprised of ten coordinated work-packages (WPs) involving 11 relevant experts, including collaborations between scholars from Fuller, University of Oxford, Boston University, Grand Valley State University, Cal State Fullerton, and the Chinese Academy of Science.

WP 1: Teleological and Intentional Reasoning about the Natural World
WP 2: What Constitutes a Person?
WP 3: Afterlife and Pre-life Beliefs
WP 4: Revisiting the Preparedness Hypothesis
WP 5: Religious Practices in Contemporary China
WP 6: Religion and Moral Development: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives
WP 7: Ancient Chinese Conceptions of Divinity
WP 8: Counterintuitiveness in Communication and Oral Tradition
WP 9: Spiritual Expression in the Wake of Forced Secularization
WP10: On-line research hub for Chinese CSR

View Chinese Challenge News & Articles

Religion in China: Is it Natural? Thrive Unveils Preliminary Findings at Hong Kong Conference

2014-04-23 10:24:38 gfoley

On Wednesday, April 23, researchers from the Thrive Center for Human Development, Boston University, and Chinese Academy of Sciences, among other institutions, will present initial findings from their research project “Is Religion Natural? The Chinese Challenge” at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort.


“Although there is extensive research to suggest that human religiosity may be a natural byproductof human instincts, very little research has been done with participants drawn from predominantly secular environments,” said Thrive Center director and Chinese Challenge principle investigator Justin L. Barrett, Ph.D. “Our project does just that by examining whether Chinese share core psychological characteristics driving religious belief and how these natural tendencies towards religious belief are manifested in a largely secular cultural environment.”

Conference attendees will hear from and engage some of the worlds foremost experts on the “naturalness theory of religious cognition,” including Drs. Justin Barrett, Ryan Hornbeck, Liqi Zhu, Deborah Kelemen, Melanie Nyhof and Justin Gregory.

Full reports of The Chinese Challenge research are forthcoming as journal articles, books, book chapters and infographics.

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Is World of Warcraft a Religion?

2014-02-20 07:25:03 gfoley
Photo Credit: KillScreenDaily.com

Photo Credit: KillScreenDaily.com

It is very unlikely that the lucky children who got to open an Atari 2600 video game console on Christmas in 1977 (or their parents) had a clue that the question of whether video games could become a religion would be a legitimate one some day. In our modern world, children as young as three or four learn to operate computers (cell phones and tablets) that are more powerful than those the astronauts used in the Apollo spacecraft.

Dr. Ryan Hornbeck of the Thrive Center has conducted research looking at how for some who play the video game World of Warcraft, the game is a way of life. Click Here to read the full article published online by KillScreenDaily.com to learn more about Dr. Hornbeck’s research.


Full Link: http://killscreendaily.com/articles/articles/feature/world-warcraft-religion-one-anthropologist-thinks-so/

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Reflectorium Recap - December 9th

2014-01-23 17:19:18 gfoley


December ninth marked the last THRIVE Reflectorium of the Fall quarter. Dr. Ryan Hornbeck, one of the THRIVE Center’s Post-Doctoral Research Fellows, presented his research that is part of the Templeton World Charity Foundation grant titled, “Is Religion Natural? The Chinese Challenge.”  Dr. Hornbeck’s presentation was based on a portion of this grant and focused on the ways in which “Moral Cognition Predicts Time Spent in Chinese ‘World of Warcraft.’”  Dr. Hornbeck takes the position of cognitive anthropologist as he asks questions such as why might this game (World of Warcraft) have moral significance and is this moral significance symptomatic of causal effects, connecting players to the game? Using Haidt’s moral foundations theory, Dr. Hornbeck hypothesized that game stimuli would activate care foundations; healers would score higher on cares measures and tanks would score higher on authority measures. He also hypothesized that the frequency of moral foundation activation will positively predict the amount of time spent in the game—people with high morals who receive a high moral experience through the game will want to play more.

If you are interested in participating in the THRIVE Reflectoria, the rest of the year’s dates are below. If you would like to present your research, please contact Kelsy Richardson at kelsyrichardson@fuller.edu.

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