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Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims
May 12th, 2011
12:46 PM ET

Religious belief is human nature, huge new study claims

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

London (CNN) – Religion comes naturally, even instinctively, to human beings, a massive new study of cultures all around the world suggests.

"We tend to see purpose in the world," Oxford University professor Roger Trigg said Thursday. "We see agency. We think that something is there even if you can't see it. ... All this tends to build up to a religious way of thinking."

Trigg is co-director of the three-year Oxford-based project, which incorporated more than 40 different studies by dozens of researchers looking at countries from China to Poland and the United States to Micronesia.

Studies around the world came up with similar findings, including widespread belief in some kind of afterlife and an instinctive tendency to suggest that natural phenomena happen for a purpose.

"Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," such as believing in God's omniscience, said Trigg. But adults also jumped first for explanations that implied an unseen agent at work in the world, the study found.

The study doesn't say anything about whether God, gods or an afterlife exist, said Justin Barrett, the project's other co-director.

"This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact," he said.

Both atheists and religious people could use the study to argue their sides, Trigg told CNN.

Famed secularist Richard "Dawkins would accept our findings and say we've got to grow out of it," Trigg argued.

But people of faith could argue that the universality of religious sentiment serves God's purpose, the philosophy professor said.

"Religious people would say, 'If there is a God, then ... he would have given us inclinations to look for him,'" Trigg said.

The blockbuster study may not take a stance on the existence of God, but it has profound implications for religious freedom, Trigg contends.

"If you've got something so deep-rooted in human nature, thwarting it is in some sense not enabling humans to fulfill their basic interests," Trigg said.

"There is quite a drive to think that religion is private," he said, arguing that such a belief is wrong. "It isn't just a quirky interest of a few, it's basic human nature."

"This shows that it's much more universal, prevalent, and deep-rooted. It's got to be reckoned with. You can't just pretend it isn't there," he said.

And the Oxford study, known as the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, strongly implies that religion will not wither away, he said.

"The secularization thesis of the 1960s - I think that was hopeless," Trigg concluded.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Culture & Science • United Kingdom

soundoff (2,338 Responses)
  1. myoleman

    It's true. God created in us a deep need for himself. In times of fear and anguish we know deep down that there's somebody who can help us, a higher power. We all feel this at one time or another. This need for God also gives us great confidence in him. We must nurture this need for God and transform it into dependence upon him. Glory to his name!

    May 12, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  2. Brian Zwart

    "God is a word people use to explain what they can't explain, and have no time to explain it" – Brian 2011

    May 12, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  3. Crucie Fiction

    Roger Trigg is a professor of theology at Oxford. So we would not expect him to conclude anything other than the holy tripe that appears here. These unidentified "studies" he refers to are also without a doubt in my mind, designed and promoted by other non-thinking faith heads whose very incomes depend on perpetuating the ancient hoaxes and frauds of theistic religions. Such delusional beliefs in some eternal [second] life is NOT a naturally occurring human phenomenon! It's a direct result of the inculcation and indoctrination of ancient nonsense perpetrated upon the delicate minds of many millions of very young children around the world - it is a form of child abuse! The spread of this mind stupefying & stultifying nonsense must come to an end before we as a species can finally emerge from the muck of this immature and childish stage in which we remain intellectually crippled. "AS LONG AS GOD OCCUPIES A PORTION OF OUR THOUGHTS, MANKIND MUST BE CONTENT TO SUFFER THE HATRED AND ANTAGONISM OF MAN." ~ JOSEPH LEWIS

    May 12, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
    • Catherine

      Crucie Fiction: “Such delusional beliefs in some eternal [second] life is NOT a naturally occurring human phenomenon!”

      Through the ages greater minds than Joseph Lewis and his likes, have come to believe in the True Trinitarian God.

      To mention a few, Saints Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius of Alexandria, Saints Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena and Thérèse de Lisieux

      Most recently we have John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Mortimer Jerome Adler; converted to Catholicism in 2000, Alice von Hildebrand, Malcolm Muggeridge- atheist, just to mention a few.

      "Our Hearts are Restless Until They Rest in You"- From the Confessions – Saint Augustine of Hippo

      Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.

      Grant me to know and understand, Lord, which comes first. To call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you? Must we know you before we can call upon you? Anyone who invokes what is still unknown may be making a mistake. Or should you be invoked first, so that we may then come to know you? But how can people call upon someone in whom they do not yet believe? And how can they believe without a preacher?

      But scripture tells us that those who seek the Lord will praise him, for as they seek they find him, and on finding him they will praise him. Let me seek you then, Lord, even while I am calling upon you, and call upon you even as I believe in you; for to us you have indeed been preached. My faith calls upon you, Lord, this faith which is your gift to me, which you have breathed into me through the humanity of your Son and the ministry of your preacher.

      May 13, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  4. tallulah13

    I disagree with the wording. Belief is putting a biased spin on the question. Humans are hardwired for social living, therefore they are able to have a common goal or the desire to share a common belief. Humans are curious, and thus seek to explain that which they cannot understand. In more primitive times, the unknown could best be explained by a higher power.

    As we gain the ability and the freedom to actually study the reasons behind natural phenomenon, the less we lean on the supernatural as an explanation. Therefore, I think it's more fair to say that the need for answers is fixed in human nature. The manner in which we find those answers and the sophistication of those answers changes with time.

    May 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  5. Alan

    Religion was born of ignorance..,,primitive peoples used it explain natural phenomenon they did not understand like the sun and moon. Later it became a way to control the ignorant masses by taking advantage of their ignorance and telling them that some one is watching at all times and if you don't want to burn forever in hell, you better get in line. Today, although better educated, most of the ignorant masses still believe in fairy tales of omnipotent beings...really...seen one lately?......the physical response is all biology...nice thoughts such as an all-powerful protector and a divine after life stimulate clam and mood enhancing chemicals our brain produces...like eating and making love.....we are just animals...no souls...no heaven....sorry

    May 12, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  6. GavSalvaje

    "Belief" is human nature.

    It's not just "theism" that shows the need for people to believe in something other than themselves. Belief in social orders such as Communism and Nazism also count as "beliefs". The continuing need to make order out of the world is also reflected in our use of "Modern Science" – another belief system- instead of religion to explain how things "are".

    And I'm certain that our mania for sports teams or movie and music idols or even "royalty" belongs within this discussion as well.

    We need to believe. And we need to try and validate and spread our beliefs. How else would we have Evangelical Atheists who feel the need to spread their beliefs?

    People need to believe.

    Why else would a 30 year old song written by Cain, Schon and Perry still be a popular favorite?

    May 12, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  7. Muneef

    Just think about that;

    Logically do you believe in the Unseen....? Do you believe that there are unseen unfelt creations that could be of different time dimensions ? Do you believe in UFO's although not seen? Do you believe that since we are mankind or apes were created from the element of Water, that then there are possibilities other creations were created from the other Elments that we know or do not know, see or not see ...?
    Do we here on the blog have that logic to think deep whether we are Religious or Non Religious? After all we all believe that Life only had become to be created taking course of evolution from the date of the Big Bang took place, out of this huge universe we are and creatures of the physical earth are from water (Water &earth Animal)....? Can you prove that there are no other creations on Earth,In Universe other than this (Water&Earth) Creature and there are no other that are seen or not seen??! Let us just chose elements that were mentioned in the Quran about creations in Universe;
    -Angels are from Light&Spirit.
    -Jinns are from Fire&Gases.
    -Humans are from Water&Earth.
    All they unbelievers do is disbelieve but can not explain the phenomenons that are found and attribute it to mind while both Mind and the Existance of such creations can play one role..to make of any one look as a metal case to other normal ones.!?

    just to add to that the only time where the vail that cover our eyes from seeing is unveiled upon the death of the physical body....!
    How many were physically declared dead but suddenly returned to life with so many things to tell having seen and some even returned with certain powers or capabilities that they had not before...!!?
    Can they explain such phenomenas that they reject to acknowledge as spiritual unseen powers or just ending them up to X files..
         
    50:22] You used to be oblivious to this. We now remove your veil; today, your vision is (as strong as) steel.
    -----
    Islam no Killer...Islam is not the Work of the devil or evil.

    Islam will not die by the death of any body, Islam did not die by the death of Muhammed (S.A.W)...(Submission) will Domin Earth by time to come.... Islam starts with (Taking refuge of God from the work of devil & evil);
    -------
    [7:196] "GOD is my only Lord and Master; the One who revealed this scripture. He protects the righteous.

    [7:197] "As for the idols you set up beside Him, they cannot help you, nor can they help themselves."

    [7:198] When you invite them to the guidance, they do not hear. And you see them looking at you, but they do not see.

    [7:199] You shall resort to pardon, advocate tolerance, and disregard the ignorant.

    [7:200] When the devil whispers to you any whisper, seek refuge in GOD; He is Hearer, Omniscient.

    [7:201] Those who are righteous, whenever the devil approaches them with an idea, they remember, whereupon they become seers.

    [7:202] Their brethren ceaselessly entice them to go astray.

    [7:203] If you do not produce a miracle that they demand, they say, "Why not ask for it?" Say, "I simply follow what is revealed to me from my Lord." These are enlightenments from your Lord, and guidance, and mercy for people who believe.

    [7:204] When the Quran is recited, you shall listen to it and take heed, that you may attain mercy.

    [7:205] You shall remember your Lord within yourself, publicly, privately, and quietly, day and night; do not be unaware.

    [7:206] Those at your Lord are never too proud to worship Him; they glorify Him and fall prostrate before Him.
    --------

    God the Creator is One and the Only One but men of Faiths & Doctrines have each made their God the way they want it to be and they want to believe even if was against logic they will manufacture a logic for it to suit it....just as does the scientists do to beautify a concept that they are not firm with yet... 

    May 12, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • rigel54

      See a psychologist. Now.

      May 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm |
    • Catherine

      Muneef “God the Creator is One and the Only One but men of Faiths & Doctrines have each made their God the way they want it to be…”

      Muneef you go from post to post trying to cover up the true writings of the quran and portray your allah as this benevolent good deity.

      Remember, HUMAN BEINGS BELIEVED IN God the Creator Who promised a Redeemer Who was to come, and did come and is still with us thousands of years before your false self appointed prophet mohammad who thought he was going crazy when having visions came along in A.D. 570.

      I AM SURE YOU KNOW THESE ISLAMIC VERSES VERY WELL. YOU ARE JUST COVERING UP LIKE ALLAH TELLS YOU TO COVER UP WHAT THIS DEMON IS TRULY LIKE. Muneef, I would like some feedback on these verses.

      Allah repeatedly Insults non-Muslims– disbelief in Islam is the worst crime according to the Quran.

      In the Quran Allah says ABOUT INFIDELS- non muslims):

      –are “worst of created beings” (98:6),

      are “miscreants” (2:99, 24:55),

      are the worst beasts in Allah’s sight (8:22, 8:55);
      (
      some Christians and/or Jews were) turned into “apes and/or pigs” (2:65-66, 5:58-60, 7:166);

      are like frightened donkeys chased by a lion (74:50-51),

      are like cattle—nay, worse than cattle (7:179, 25:44),

      are like dogs (7:176);

      –they (idolators) are unclean (9:28);

      have uncleanness set upon them by Allah (10:100, 6:125);

      the hypocrites are unclean (9:95).

      "I was ordered to fight the people until they say ‘there is no god but Allah, and his prophet is Muhammad'." Muhammad 632,
      Osama bin Laden said this in 2001.

      "Mohammed is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another" Quran 48:29

      Muslim (1:33) – the Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah

      Bukhari (8:387) – Allah's Apostle said, "I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah

      Quran (2:191-193) – "And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, and fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah."

      May 13, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Platypus

      Catherine: Great extracts from the Quran! After reading the Quran my conclusion is that Allah is Muhammad and Muhammad is Allah. Muhammad must have had a big wide fat ego! Like Donald Trump!

      May 17, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  8. Pirate

    98% of people don't even know the rules of the road and think they do know. So how can you expect a majority rule to show or not show the existence of a god? For cryin out loud – it looks like nobody realizes that slower traffic should keep right???? LMAO.

    May 12, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  9. Pirate

    Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.
    Robert A. Heinlein

    May 12, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • PrettyGirl

      Apparently you're underestimating your own stupidity. "We came from primordial ooze!!"

      May 12, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • rigel54

      Pretty girl, if you knew anything about cosmology (no, not the study of cosmetics), statistics, and biochemistry (among many others), and understood the nature of the evolution of our world (and others) you would not be so silly. I’d guess you dropped out of high school in a good state, or graduated in a weak state, maybe a couple of years college at most, English or such.

      May 12, 2011 at 10:02 pm |
    • Platypus

      Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the the universe. -Einstein

      May 17, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  10. Toby

    I've read many of these posts and come to the conclusion that the claim by many religious believers that non-believers are "mean" "vicious" or angry is unfounded. What I do see is a tendency by those of faith (any faith) to be taken aback and draw offense to any suggestion that their beliefs and ideas may actually be false. By contrast, those same non-believers have to live each day of their lives with "In God We Trust" emblazoned on their hard-earned currency, fight of attempts to teach pseudo-science in the classrooms, and subsidize all faith-based initiatives (to say nothing of carrying the tax burden of churches that use many of their funds for personal use and gain), and have billboards on the highways of this country telling them that "Jesus Is Watching" them, and myriad of other invasive and offensive practices. So if the non-believer seems angry or course sometimes, just try to see things from their perspective for a change. Peace.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  11. groovyspaceman

    Religious belief is "Human Nature".

    So is xenophobia.

    It still don't make it right.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  12. gerald

    Atheists,

    Your zeal on these boards only shows how hard your are trying to deny what deep down in you cries out!

    May 12, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • groovyspaceman

      I'm here as an anthropologist (a science), why are you here?

      If your faith is as strong as you pretend, does it need reenforcement?

      It makes me laugh when religious zealots reject science when it contradicts their sacred texts and embrace it when it appears to support them.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • rigel54

      What explains your zeal, Gerald? There is almost certainly greater intelligence in the universe than man (at minimum, you prove that), but it is not and cannot be perfect, and thus is not god. Out of hundreds of millions of civilizations it would be unreasonable to expect we will be the sharpest tools in the shed.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
    • Catherine

      gerald You are so right.

      Through the ages great minds have come to believe in the True Trinitarian God.

      To mention a few, Saints Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jerome, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius of Alexandria, Saints Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena and Thérèse de Lisieux

      Most recently we have John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, Mortimer Jerome Adler; converted to Catholicism in 2000, Alice von Hildebrand, Malcolm Muggeridge- atheist, just to mention a few.

      "Our Hearts are Restless Until They Rest in You" -From the Confessions – Saint Augustine of Hippo

      Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.

      Grant me to know and understand, Lord, which comes first. To call upon you or to praise you? To know you or to call upon you? Must we know you before we can call upon you? Anyone who invokes what is still unknown may be making a mistake. Or should you be invoked first, so that we may then come to know you? But how can people call upon someone in whom they do not yet believe? And how can they believe without a preacher?

      But scripture tells us that those who seek the Lord will praise him, for as they seek they find him, and on finding him they will praise him. Let me seek you then, Lord, even while I am calling upon you, and call upon you even as I believe in you; for to us you have indeed been preached. My faith calls upon you, Lord, this faith which is your gift to me, which you have breathed into me through the humanity of your Son and the ministry of your preacher.

      May 13, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  13. Aerocog

    The atheist both seemed to very intolerant of religious beliefs and upset with the fact that they can't seem to find that universial feeling that rest of the world feels. They seemed to be very boastful of their "so-called" enlightment, calling people crazy and delusional for a belief in intelligence greater than our own. Science is the study of the natural world and Religion is the study of the spiritual world they are not enemies or go to disprove one another they work together to evolve mankind. And to all the people would call people of faith crazy, true insanity only effects a few, and you being part of group that denies parts of normal human behavoir are most likely the crazy ones.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Elmer

      when they can make a fly wing or fly butt, let me know and then I will consider their position, until then... no such luck!

      May 12, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • ILoveGod

      Aerocog, could not have said it better myself! Great point.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
    • rigel54

      Ah, the enlightenment is real! The entirety of the spiritual world goes on between our ears. It is real to us, and thus real to our world, but means nothing to the universe. If religion will cease making claims about the real world, one could more easily tolerate the very odd things that go on between your ears. Oh, and it’s affects, not effects.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Aerocog

      @rigel54
      If things spritual are just perception, then who's not to say what see the real world to be is just a perception?

      May 12, 2011 at 10:33 pm |
    • Platypus

      Catherine: “the True Trinitarian God.”

      The trinity of gods was invented by the 150 Christian bishops reunited at the council of Constantinople under the leadership of Emperor Theodosius in the year 381

      To me “the notion of a trio of gods weakens the belief in one.”

      June 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  14. LiberateUs

    My instincts have helped me throughout my whole life. I can sense how atheism is full of shiest. Agnosticism...I am willing to tolerate

    May 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • groovyspaceman

      Look both words up, you might ovecome your prejudices.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  15. RRMON

    Death, your truest friend awaits just over your left shoulder for you to turn and admit, “ I am ready”, for he will then release you from one of the three elements; time, space or matter and re-birth you into new one. It happens all the time, but few ever acknowledge or are aware of the little changes after awaking.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • rigel54

      What about dark matter, and even more so dark energy?

      May 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  16. PraiseTheLard

    "the Oxford study... strongly implies that religion will not wither away,"

    As the old saying goes, there's a sucker born every minute...

    May 12, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Admittedly so, I am one of the suckers. I will admit it, I am. :*(

      May 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Very funny... using my logon name... very original... do you feel better?

      May 12, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  17. Isagani B. Casimiro

    Many scientists and philosophers themselves, past and present, attest to the existence of God as their studies proved based on the accounts (e.g. artifacts, places, etc.)given in the Bible.

    May 12, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • Toby

      I respectfully invite you to name even one scientist who claims that science has confirmed the existence of a supernatural creator deity. The truth is that there are some scientists who do have personal religious beliefs, but this does not even begin to confirm that their beliefs are true. Your statement is a classic example of claiming authority for supernatural ideas. This is not only dishonest and immoral, it is illogical and baseless. Peace.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • rigel54

      Toby is right, none claim proof, and few claim evidence. Most in earlier times "attested" to stay out of jail, avoid torture, or merely avoid social ostracism.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  18. Laurie Lassley

    They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble. It says that in they Bible..."I have set eternity in their hearts"...

    May 12, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
    • Jay

      *eye roll*

      There's quite a bit in teh Bible you can cherry pick from.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • rigel54

      Amen, Jay.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • myoleman

      "...and he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him!"

      May 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  19. Muneef

    Religious belief is "Human Nature" ?? Not sure I understand what they mean ? Do they mean that Disbelievers are not Humans and therefore have no "Human Nature" ??? So is then that Disbelief is "Ape Nature" ???

    May 12, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • gerald

      It only means you have seered your conscience so that you deny what you know deep down is true. And you still struggle against it, which shows this denial of your nature, as clearly evidenced on this board. If you atheists really didn't care or know deep down you wouldn't be here.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Muneef

      As for me I do believe in God "Allah"...but was wondering about those who disbelieve in every thing related to God,Angels,Prophets,Holy Scriptures....

      May 12, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Elmer

      absolutely ... it is the animal nature of man, who is human, a human being, not acting humanly but like an animal!

      May 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • gerald

      The very venom which the atheists display on boards like this one shows that deep down they know of the existence of God. Their words are a cover for what they fear the most. That there is a God. They must fight him to justify themselves and their pride.

      May 12, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Muneef

      So must be just as those two verses speak of;

      [59:16] They are like the devil: he says to the human being, "Disbelieve," then as soon as he disbelieves, he says, "I disown you. I fear GOD, Lord of the universe."

      [59:17] The destiny for both of them is the Hellfire, wherein they abide forever. This is the requital for the transgressors.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  20. sunRA

    Descartes is vindicated!

    May 12, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.