Past research shows that we tend to see God as behind certain events, particularly when hardships are involved. After reading a story about a family caught in an unexpected flood, people are more likely to hold God responsible when the family was killed and no one else was to blame for the harm. When the family was fine, or when a cruel employee at the dam was behind the flood, God was left out of the explanation. In a world where intuiting the thoughts and plans of others is so important, we start to see thinkers and plans that might not be there.
This tendency to see reasons behind natural events isn’t entirely learned. Research by psychologists Bethany Heywood and Jesse Bering show that even atheist in Britain see events in terms of purposes, even though Britain is a much more secular environment than the U.S. This tendency also develops early. Jean Piaget, the most famous developmental psychologist of the 20th Century, highlights this in a classic study. Piaget told young children stories about other children who misbehaved, either by stealing apples or by not listening to their parents and teachers. The children in these stories then went on to injure themselves by falling off of old bridges or cutting themselves. Almost all of the youngest children (86 percent of six year olds) said that the injuries wouldn’t have happened if the children in the stories had behaved. When Piaget asked why the misbehaving child fell into the water, one of the children responded: “God made him [fall], because he had touched the scissors.” In another study published last month, Banerjee found that children tend to believe that events happen for intentional reasons like these—to send a sign or teach a lesson—even if the child has had no exposure to religion at home.