Natural theology (NT) is not just a specialist branch of philosophy and theology but a universally occurring pattern of reasoning about the world that begins early in cognitive development. As a psychological topic, NT is concerned with everyday or lay theological reasoning rather than its scholarly versions. The two, however, share important similarities. First, both begin with the existence of the physical world and ask the same questions about its origin and basic structure (i.e., causal, ontological & other metaphysical). Secondly, thinking about the natural world in both everyday (informal) and scholarly (formal) NT is mediated by several key psychological processes or variables (i.e., perception, inferences, hypotheses), where scientific psychology has made significant advances in understanding their early onset and later development. To account for their respective and specific involvement in NT, psychological methods are needed yet this has not been recognised throughout the history of NT, largely because human cognition has for too long been a philosophical rather than scientific topic.
What differentiates (a) lay and (b) specialist NT is that the former begins early in childhood (some aspects thereof possibly before the onset of language), whereas the latter encompasses expert knowledge from a number of scientific and humanities domains. Crucially, however, no other major or qualitative differences between the two exist to allow scholars a privileged access to God or equip them with direct knowledge of God’s nature. The lecture will also address the apparent discontinuity in the development of natural theological understanding, i.e., why adults typically have no recollection of this pattern of their reasoning, other areas of developmental psychology are directly relevant, notably language and memory. In short, future enquiries of scholarly NT need to encompass study of human nature itself, especially cognitive, as an aspect of the natural world, in order to account more fully for the role of the traditional arguments for God’s existence within theology.
OLIVERA PETROVICH is a developmental psychologist with research interests on the interface of scientific psychology and religion. Her research has focused on the origin of the concept of God in young children and its development across the life span. As a Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology and Associate Member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, Oxford, she conducted several research projects in UK and abroad with young children and adults from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, designed to investigate their inferences about God based on everyday perception and reasoning in the context of the natural world. Findings from a research project with British and Japanese children and adults were published in Natural-Theological Understanding from Childhood to Adulthood (2019) while results of a project with children from different faith schools in England are currently in preparation and due to be published as a book, Developmental Psychology and Young Children’s Religious Education: A multi-faith Perspective (Routledge), probably in 2022. Main courses taught at Oxford include Developmental Questions in Science and Religion (Experimental Psychology) and Psychology of Religion (Theology & Religion).