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Why Faith Doesn’t Come Easily to the Gifted

Exclusive research reveals that without a change in ministry approach, bright, gifted children may turn to the darkness of disbelief.

What do director Woody Allen, blogger Susan Jacoby, novelist Philip Roth, and intellectual Stephen Hawking have in common?

They all rank on the top lists of famous atheists in the world today. The fact that they are all highly gifted and successful in their branches of influence is significant. Did giftedness lead to views like Roth’s: “When the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place”?

Some would say there is a definite connection between these people’s giftedness and their atheism. Is faith automatically a greater struggle for the gifted children in your ministry? Is the kingdom of God at risk of losing the brightest and most gifted children to the darkness of disbelief?

One person noted wondering whether God existed and if so, why he allowed terrible things to happen. The participant remembers being “encouraged to not think about things like that too much and just accept the way things are.”

Gifted children have unwelcome questions.

Over 90 percent of the participants believe that as children they had more questions than their peers about their faith. Their questioning often included doubts. They say they thought about faith differently than their peers. One participant said, “For a while, I tried hard to seek answers, but I’ve stopped now and learned to keep things to myself. It’s hard to find people who understand.” Here’s a paraphrased snapshot of different experiences participants reported.

  • “I had many friends who memorized books of the Bible and Bible trivia and facts, but I wanted to know how a person could be sure those things are true.”
  • “When I did ask questions, others told me to ‘just have faith,’ which was frustrating.”
  • “My questions were ‘passionate extremes’ that my peers did not seem to see.”
  • “I began questioning more once I started college away from home. My father, a pastor, believed questioning was the same as not having faith.”

Gifted children are drawn to and repelled by certain things.

When asked what specifically drew them to their faith tradition or religious beliefs, participants identified four main categories. These same four major themes repeated throughout participants’ responses when asked about positive things they associated with church: people, church traditions, nature of God, and personal experience.

However, when asked about the things that turned them off within their, 60 percent identified people as the problem. Specifically, they listed hypocrisy, contradictions, inconsistencies, judgmental attitudes, and bad theology.

Participants who deemed their religious education a good fit said:

  • The experience strengthened their faith.
  • The ministry leadership was passionate.
  • The experiences were challenging and loving.

Of those who deemed their experiences a less ideal fit for them, they felt Christianity was made simpler than it actually is. They found the experiences to be shallow and insufficient for dealing with the real world.

All but nine of the participants believed their intelligence affected their faith beliefs and religious development. Those who said the effect on their faith was positive said it was due to their deep thinking, curiosity, and open-mindedness.

Those who said their giftedness had negatively affected their faith development pointed to the problem of finding spiritual peers. One said giftedness “makes religion and spirituality much more exhausting.” Another believed gifted people tend to be less religious because “blind belief is the opposite of rational thinking.”

The Implications for Gifted Children

There are numerous implications of this research on how we approach ministry to gifted children.

Shift to child-centered teaching.

The teacher-centered approach views the adult as the expert creating meaning for the child. The child-centered approach sees the adult’s role as one creating space and an environment for the child to discover meaning. In this environment, the teacher provides a framework for learning and meaning to occur. Teacher-centered learning environments focus on answers, whereas child-centered environments encourage questions.

We must shift to a learner-centered approach where the teachers and adults take on more the role of facilitator, discussion leader, mentor, and co-participant.

Pause and truly wrestle with kids’ questions.

While engaging with a child about difficult matters of faith might feel daunting and even frightening, children deserve to feel heard and not dismissed when they ask hard questions. Don’t feel that you have to answer every question; instead, wonder with the child.

The gifted students in the study frequently mentioned wrestling with the value of life, heaven and hell, justice, and God’s fairness. They contended with weighty topics earlier than other children. When children experience asynchronous development, parents and other influential adults may feel unprepared. Because matters of faith hold such deep importance and significance, gifted children need adults willing to listen, discuss, and consider these most personal, intimate questions.

Don’t value information over experience.

Offering mostly information in the early years doesn’t provide the best framework for children to grapple with faith questions. Nor does an information-based ministry allow kids to experience the presence of God in worship, the wonder of God in creation, or the power of God in answers to prayer. Experiencing God is something that rational thought can never compete against.

Provide opportunities for new learning and challenges.

Some studies identified “openness” as a trait more predominant in gifted people. That may drive gifted kids to be more challenging about matters of faith. When adults in gifted kids’ lives don’t encourage their curiosity and openness, spiritual development suffers. Respond to kids’ openness in exploration by going on the journey with them. Don’t shut down an opportunity to grapple with issues such as why God allows suffering in the world or where the Bible came from. Offer challenges when kids make it clear they have a solid grasp on a concept. Let them grapple with more abstract concepts, such as grace. Give them opportunities to enact what they’re learning by developing service project plans or even inviting your pastor to talk with them about complex faith issues.

Encourage critical thinking.

Gifted children seek connections, applications, and analysis. Without this higher-level thinking, gifted children often disengage. One participant said that he is now an atheist because there’s no proof in the Bible. For kids whose minds naturally lead them toward data and proof, adults who tell them they “shouldn’t think about things too hard” have a highly detrimental effect on gifted kids’ spiritual development. If gifted children encounter this sort of response, they feel stifled because their thinking isn’t welcome.

The very basis of Group’s Grapple preteen curriculum is to help kids think critically. Based on questions kids ask, Group designed groundbreaking curriculum to create cognitive dissonance by asking hard questions and then digging into the Bible to pursue more clarity.

Engage parents in faith discussions.

Parents of gifted children who raise their children in a context of faith must also engage their children in questions and discovery about the deeper matters of life and God. Parents, as children’s first spiritual example, must understand their gifted child’s probable curiosity for answers and tendency toward openness. They must also meet their gifted child at a place for questions and seeking without fear.

The almost nonexistent research about giftedness and faith development combined with the hurt, confusion, and frustration expressed by the participants in this study pulls the curtain back on a room full of possibilities for us as children’s ministers. These gifted children, whose beautiful and difficult minds and hearts sit waiting on the adults for guidance and wisdom, may not know how to ask for what they need spiritually. With intentionality, we can ensure our experiences and practices of spiritual development don’t fall short for these brightest kids.

Research and Results

The study format was an open-ended survey that sought feedback from 524 honors students predominately at two private Christian universities and fewer from state universities, all located inTexas. These academically gifted university students responded to questions reflecting on their experiences in children’s ministry, youth ministry, and home religious and faith development.

Amy Boone developed the Faith Development and Intelligence study while at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas. It was presented at the Children’s Spirituality Conference in 2016.

3 thoughts on “Why Faith Doesn’t Come Easily to the Gifted

  1. I am a gifted adult, and I never lost my Faith, even through my College Humanities courses, where I had professors say utterly horrible things about the Bible in general, and Our Lord specifically. But I have dealt with atheists, and while the statistics might not agree with me, they don’t tend to be smarter than Religious people. They resort mainly to shock tactics, or at least the one’s I’ve met did, and still do.
    And even the most brilliant among them, like Professor Hawking, aren’t necessarily polymathic thinkers. This is important for critical thinking, because, you have to look at all the information, across all disciplines, not just the information or disciplines you like. Many atheists don’t do this, and frankly, they don’t seem to understand what we believe, or why.
    Stephen Hawking said, “Heaven is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark. When we die, our mind shuts down like a broken down computer.” That may sound scary, but I’m an electrical engineer, and I can tell you that there are many things that can cause a computer to break down, and not all of them are irreversible, unlike death. Some of those things involve open circuits, which cause current to cease flowing immediately, or short circuits, which divert current from where it needs to go, also immediately. This is nothing like how a person dies. There is, in fact, no scientifically defined moment when death occurs. A person is pronounced dead when a doctor concludes their body has passed a biological point of no return, and there may still be brain waves present at that moment. So Prof. Hawking didn’t really understand how death works in the first place.
    And when I ask atheists how we got here if there’s no God, they almost invariable say “The Big Bang”. Now, we are fairly sure the Big Bang occurred. The Dickie team at Princeton showed it in theory, and Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias discovered the evidence that confirmed that theory. But it’s very doubtful that the Big Bang was a random event. Why? Because of the existence of anti-matter. If the Big Bang was a random event, it should have produced equal amounts of both matter and anti-matter. But if it had, those two entities would have collided, and produced mutual annihilation, which means the universe would have self-destructed at the onset. Because the universe exists, an infinitely disproportional amount of matter had to be present relative to the anti-matter. How could that be, if it was a random event?
    And if the Big Bang was a random event, it should have released particles in all directions, resulting in a spherical universe. But the Universe is flat and ring-shaped. That’s more analogous to a controlled blast, when explosives are placed strategically, like for mining, tunnel construction, or building demolition. Still don’t think there was an intelligent design behind the Universe?
    And it’s also known that the universe is expanding. But it isn’t expanding into space, space is expanding with it. How can emptiness expand? Nobody knows. It defies what we know about empty space.
    My take on the Big Bang, knowing those two things, is “So that’s how God did it.”

    • Jennifer Hooks

      CGB, thank you for this thought-provoking response!

      • Glad I could help.

        Although I owe Dr. Dicke an apology for spelling his name wrong. It’s interesting though, to note that he was born in St Louis, where I now live, and he worked in New Jersey, where I was born and raised. And I don’t believe in coincidences.

        Getting back to gifted children and Faith, we might like to remind children that despite the old adage “if God had wanted us to fly, He would have given us wings”, Bishop Milton Wright of the Church of the Brethren was also the father of the two men who invented the airplane.

        And Lee DeForest, inventor of the audion vacuum tube, was also the son of a Congregationalist Minister.

        Finally, Buzz Aldrin conducted the first, and so far only, Religious Service on the Moon.

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