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The Role of Theory of Mind and Wishful Thinking in Children’s Moralizing Concepts of the Abrahamic God

Wolle, Redeate; McLaughlin, Abby; Heiphetz, Larisa A.

Adults conceptualize God as particularly knowledgeable—more knowledgeable than humans—about moral transgressions. We investigated how younger (4- to 5-year-old) and older (6- to 7-year-old) children view God’s moral knowledge. Cultural narratives in the United States portray God as omniscient, which could lead children growing up in the United States to conclude that God knows their own and others’ behaviors. However, older children are better able to distinguish between different minds, and this ability (theory of mind, or TOM) may predict a tendency for older, versus younger, children to attribute greater knowledge to God. Consistent with the latter possibility, 6- to 7-year-olds viewed God as more knowledgeable of their own and others’ transgressions than did 4- to 5-year-olds. TOM partially mediated this difference. Further, children—particularly 4- to 5-year-olds—conceptualized God as more knowledgeable of others' transgressions than of their own. Study 2 probed whether 4- to 5- year-olds’ responses were due to wishful thinking (e.g., they did not want God to know their transgressions and therefore reported that God would lack this knowledge). Supporting this prediction, 4- to 5-year-olds attributed greater knowledge to God of their own, versus others’, pro-social acts. The extent to which children attributed knowledge of these acts to God predicted their own propensity to behave pro-socially by sharing with others. This work expands current understanding of religious cognition, particularly its connections with moral judgment and theory of mind.

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Also Published In

Title
Journal of Cognition and Development
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1080/15248372.2021.1888731

More About This Work

Academic Units
Psychology
Published Here
June 8, 2021

Notes

Keywords: moral cognition; religious cognition; social cognitive development