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. stewpidmonkey

    This is the problem with these polls. They are often skewed and do NOT represent the world as a whole. For instance; if you go to the Brazilian amazon jungle, you will find peoples called the Piraha. They DO NOT have gods or even a creation story. They are empiricists to the ultimate level. They do not even have words for past of future. They Dwell in the now. When former missionary David Everett, went to convert him, they asked questions like, "what color is jesus? How long have you known him.?" When they found out that no one has "seen" jesus in 2k yrs or no one has ever "seen" god, they lost interest and ridiculed it. They do believe in spirits, but they claim to actually "see" this spirits.

    October 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  2. A Free Spirit

    What if religious belief detracts from the activity of worship, such as by a mystic? Is religion then innate with respect to belief and worship even as they can work against eachother? http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/is-religion-innate-or-contrived/

    April 9, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
  3. Benjamin Owen

    I could have told the scientists this without the research, it's common sense really
    A waste of time
    Time which could be much better spent abolishing world hunger, or eradicating AIDS

    December 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  4. Pat L

    Reblogged this on WayofLife :: Online and commented:
    Add your thoughts here... (optional)

    November 15, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
  5. Anie

    Good comment.Re: with us or agsniat us , yeah, I think that's no good. Though, to some extent it's relatively recent. Christian co-existed with the polytheistic Roman religions for quite a while before being more hostile to other faiths. Likewise, Muslim empires have frequently been the height of intellectualism and religious tolerance in history. These things tend to wax and wane over time > I would argue that human beings, as animals, have this system hardwired into them, and the church merely came along and put numbers next to them and called them commandments. Without a church, we’d mostly follow these rules anway. I think the fact that all the major religions preach basically the same thing is evidence of it.I used to think that, but I don't any more actually, I think the reason that the general similarity across (at least Western) religions is that the foundations of Western religion were conducive to expansion and empire-building to some extent, and then they conquered and eliminated competing very alien religions, while being a little more tolerant to not-totally-different religions. Basically, when the Christians and Muslims came across another religion that believed in human sacrifice, cannibalism, or anything like that then they exterminated that religion without mercy. (I know, that's kind of almost ironic)> The fact that you have to go to church every Sunday, confess your sins, reflect on life, think about others, etc., etc., is tremendously valuable to the individual and thus to society. It’s the ritualization of the principles of self improvement you espouse on this site, in a way. We don’t, as a society, really seem to do this anywhere but houses of worship.Yeah, which is a shame. I've thought about this before we really need more of that kind of development and community-building in the world. I think about this times, it's important stuff and there's lots of benefits to it. I'm pretty sure we'll see something along those lines in the future, but who knows the exact format will be like.

    September 7, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  6. acoustics physics

    My brother recommended I may like this blog. He was once totally right. This post truly made my day. You cann't believe just how so much time I had spent for this information! Thank you!

    April 6, 2012 at 2:56 am |
  7. Nature

    Muneeef explain superbly................



    June 29, 2011 at 1:50 am |
  8. Stuart Mathieson - Dunedin New Zealand

    According to Group Selection Theory (pluralistic theory), dispositions whether consciously held beliefs or not) that promote the ongoing integrity of the group will entail benefits to at least some and plausibly most individuals going forward (as Corporate types like to say). Morality (and religion) in its many forms promotes social order and social discipline because it concerns the welfare of others. The welfare of the community promotes the welfare of the individuals (generally) that comprise it. Order and structural integrity is the prerequisite for enlighteneed cultural developments such as fairness. Fairness has to be enforced from time to time. Hence the concept of Justice and the state. Mechanisms which transcend, like religion (in theory anyway) the preferences of particular individuals. A disposition to worry about "the eye in the sky" would seem to be an enabling psychological mechanism and an ancient explanatory device. Religious believers tend to link morality and religion. It is only with the emergence of scientific thinking and doubts about the God Hypothesis that morality has become linked with group dynamics and evolution.

    June 13, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  9. qooguy

    The "innate" sense for religion only comes to a mature mind, innate does not equate expressed, only in potential. The difference between Freud and Jung, is that one never grows up. The highest possibilities of the Freudian approach remain psychological. Jung's approach goes beyond that to a realm that only the whole person can begin to recognize and explore. "Milton" post, there isn't an atheistic culture on the planet (nor ever been as far as we can tell). Consider that from an evolutionary view. Faith must be a strong survival mechanism since its present in every human culture. Also consider, leaps in cultural evolution has often sprung from the wellspring of religious revelations. Granted, much excess comes from the decay of ossified orthodoxy, but can anyone really deny that we (humanity) have been lead by the light of men who claimed to be manifesting God's message. False prophets are plentiful, but the few that have withstood the test of time are the founders of the great world religions. Our modern, secular, technologically advances "global" civilization is built on the foundation of their teachings. There is an ancient Chinese saying about faith, "believe then it exists for you, don't believe and it won't." You can take that as a slam on blind acceptance of religion, or as a confirmation that belief opens a door to something beyond the material world, something that informs and supports this reality, but transcends and envelops it. Its kind of an one or off question. If you could pick one (and ultimately, when we die, in that last moment, we must pick one, right?) and that would then become your reality, would you really pick being just a body that gets yucky? The jury is NOT in from the scientific front. Don't believe the early, doctrinaire kind of science that would make a new canon of their theories. Science might never "prove" the existence of the soul, but I pity the person who has never felt that soulful stirring in themselves. Follow that feeling, and soon it will become stronger and stronger. But, you can't feel anything if you are turned "off." Get turned on. Do the thing that your mind, heart and gut all want to do. Hey, why not see what happens?

    June 5, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  10. James Black


    June 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  11. Muneef

    The Reality of Death
    By Dr. Saleh As-Saleh
    From Oklahoma & Islam
    © Daar Al-Bukhari 

    Life in this world has an appointed term, and the end of the term will definitely come...
    The righteous will die and the wicked will die...
    The worriers for just causes will die and those who run from death will die
    Those who busy themselves with correct belief will die...
    and those who treat people as their slaves will die...
    The brave who rejects injustice will die, and the coward who seeks to cling on to the life at any price will die...
    The people of great concern and lofty goals will die, and wretched people who live only for cheap enjoyment will die...
    Wherever we will be, in a fortress or in a tent, we will die...
    All will die:
    Allah (God) says:
    Everyone shall taste death...
    [Quraan 3: 185]

    No one will escape death. Allah says:

    Say: Verily, the death from which you flee will surely meet you, then you will be sent back to (Allah), the All-Knower of the unseen and the seen, and He will tell you what you used to do.
    [Quraan 62: 8]

    This life is a period of trials and tests. Allah says:

    He (Allah) has created death and life, that He may test which of you is the best in deed. He is the All-Mighty, the Oft-Forgiving.
    [Quraan 67:2]


    Death: An Ultimate Reality
    By Prof. Shahul Hameed
    Throughout the ages, mankind viewed death as something gruesome and frightening, something that should be postponed indefinitely or abolished if possible, once for all.

    This was because of two reasons. First, death cuts short the life of this world. Second, there was no "proof" about the chance for a new lease of life in a world to come. Death is, as Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns" to tell us their story.

    All the same, there was also the belief among religions that death served as a kind of passage to another more important arena of life.

    From the Islamic point of view, death is a reality of life, a certainty from which no one is exempt. God says in the Quran what means:

    [Every soul shall have a taste of death: and only on the Day of Judgment shall you be paid your full recompense. Only he who is saved from the fire and admitted to the garden will have attained the object (of life): for the life of this world is but goods and chattels of deception.] (Aal `Imran3:185)

    As it is mentioned in the verse, there is going to be a Day of Judgment one has to face after death, when each will be paid in full the fruit of what he or she has earned in this life.

    Those who sowed evil will reap evil and those who sowed good will reap good. All the allure and glamour of this world would then prove to be of no real worth; what is of enduring value would be provided in that world to come.


    May 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • A Christian

      14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the SECOND DEATH. (Rev 20:14)

      June 22, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  12. Muneef

    Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931)
    Arab American poet artist (Non Muslim).



    His words and His deeds as told and recorded by those who knew Him

    by Kahlil Gibran

    May 20, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Platypus

      Yeah... words and deed recorded... but what about his picture? No coin minted of his appearance? There were coins of Alexander the Great minted 300 years before... What’s the matter you people?

      May 20, 2011 at 11:38 pm |
  13. Muneef

    The Origin of Man

    [32:7] He is the One who perfected everything He created, and started the creation of the human from clay.

    [32:8] Then He continued his reproduction through a certain lowly liquid.

    [32:9] He shaped him and blew into him from His spirit. And He gave you the hearing, the eyesight, and the brains; rarely are you thankful.
    [40:15] Possessor of the highest ranks, and Ruler of the whole dominion. He sends inspiration, bearing His commands, to whomever He chooses from among His servants, to warn about the Day of Summoning.

    [40:16] That is the day when everyone will be completely exposed; none of them will hide anything from GOD. To whom belongs all sovereignty on that day? To GOD, the One, the Supreme.

    Prepare for the Big Day

    [40:17] On that day, every soul will be requited for whatever it had earned. There will be no injustice on that day. GOD is most efficient in reckoning.

    No Intercession

    [40:18] Warn them about the imminent day, when the hearts will be terrified, and many will be remorseful. The transgressors will have no friend nor an intercessor to be obeyed.

    [40:19] He is fully aware of what the eyes cannot see, and everything that the minds conceal.
    Equality of Men and Women
    [33:35] The submitting men, the submitting women, the believing men, the believing women, the obedient men, the obedient women, the truthful men, the truthful women, the steadfast men, the steadfast women, the reverent men, the reverent women, the charitable men, the charitable women, the fasting men, the fasting women, the chaste men, the chaste women, and the men who commemorate GOD frequently, and the commemorating women; GOD has prepared for them forgiveness and a great recompense.
    [79:40] As for the one who reverenced the majesty of his Lord, and enjoined the self from sinful lusts.

    [79:41] Paradise will be the abode.
    [89:27] As for you, O content soul.

    [89:28] Return to your Lord, pleased and pleasing.

    [89:29] Welcome into My servants.

    [89:30] Welcome into My Paradise.

    May 20, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  14. Muneef


    Think Heavens was meant for the skies and space between...we know that said to be Seven Heavens or floors of skies....the sky directly above earth is called the lower heaven....!!

    About people dying as physical form they are alive in other unseen or felt form such as spiritual form but in some place that is called "Isthmus" that is a passage between the going on life on earth and the "End of Life on Earth" day of resurrection...!

    May 19, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  15. Milton

    I used the word "heaven" in front of my four and a half year old son. He asked me what that was. I told him that many people think that when you die you go to somewhere better and that you don't really die, just your body does. He laughed and said, "That's silly Daddy. When you're dead, you're dead. Daddy we have a dead squirrel at the end of our driveway. It's still there. It didn't go anywhere except get yucky. I told him to try to not laugh because many people think it is true. Of course my son has SERIOUS difficulties with Santa Claus too. Some of us are born skeptical I think.

    Now my son represents an N of one, but so much for "innate" tendencies. I agree with other posters. There is NOTHING innate about believing in god. It's just that the brain-washing begins at such an early age, that it seems innate. I read Norse and Greek mythology to my son. He loves the stories, but he also equates them with his other fictional books and clearly knows the difference between fiction and non-fiction most of the time. There are no controls in this study since there isn't an atheistic culture on the planet. This doesn't support the idea that religion is innate, only that it can be culturally acquired readily. Once about 60% of the population is atheist, we'll see what happens to any putative tendencies toward religious beliefs.

    May 19, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Muneef

      The  interval between death and the Day of Resurrection is called Barzakh in arabic. The literal meaning of Barzakh is  obstruction or barrier. Since this period is a barrier is between this world and the life Hereafter, that is why it called  Barzakh.

      The grave is either the garden of Paradise or the pit of Hell-Fire. O People, make your graves as  gardens of Paradise by doing righteous deeds; and do  not make your graves the pits of Hell-Fire by doing  evil deeds.
      A book in PDF you might be interested to read about same subject!!!

      May 19, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • A Christian

      Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

      4 The god of this age (Satan) has BLINDED THE MINDS OF UNBELIEVERS, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
      (2 Corithians4:1-4)

      19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the DEMONS believe that—and shudder.
      (James 2:19)

      June 22, 2011 at 12:57 am |
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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.