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. someoneelse

    The only thing that is natural is the need to know why? Religion is just a vastly inferior way to do so but appeases that part of us that wants to know why? This religion, and all religious people can go to h3ll!

    May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  2. seraphim0

    This study is incredibly biased. Somewhat ridiculous, really. With the prevalence of religion into virtually all levels of society, and exposure virtually from day one of life, how are children not supposed to have some sort of belief in something 'else' out there (God, gods, whatever, etc)?
    The quest to find some sort of purpose, some sort of answer to the "why" of existence and life very much pushes people into the realms of religion. In tribal times, there was sun and moon worship. Can we say these things are gods, now? No... but they NEEDED a reason, a way to explain these things. Its a product of a thinking, conscious brain- a search for answers. When none is apparent, people make them as they go- this still happens, even with normal memories. We add to them, change them, and recall events completely different than how they actually transpired if we have a 'hazy' remembrance.
    The fact of the matter is that humanity is soaked in religion and dogma from the moment of birth. It is no surprise whatsoever that these things are given as 'human nature,' especially in children- with such creative imaginations, is there really any surprise? It's like the santa claus or easter bunny effect- ask them if these things exist. They -want- to believe in them. This post is not an attack on religion- but the validity of this study. religion is all good and well, and I was even raised a Catholic, but this is ridiculous- stating the grandoise when overlooking the obvious.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Luke

    Belief in the Creator is a natural thing. Relgion is our attempt at reacting to it. But remember the words of the Chirst, that true religion is to protect widows and defend orphans. In this is the understanding of the divine call that the Creator desires 'compassion, and not sacrifice.' If you don't find faith in God's existence, perhaps you should try waiting. After all, even science attests that we can only perceive a mere 20% of the universe. That leaves a heck of a lot of questions for which many of you have already developed answers. God have mercy upon us all, for His justice towards the wicked is unbearable.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  4. Dennis

    Programed children + extreme fear of death = continued lunacy for centurys to come.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  5. The Jackdaw

    Arguing that religion is natural is the same as admitting that humans created it.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  6. Mike

    I always find it ironic that conservatives who are supposed to believe in small gov't want to take away your right to choose, your right to marry, your right to practice the religion of your choosing and your right to make decisions at the end of life. Abortion is legal. Deal with it or move to Iran.

    "So, how come those who support and defend science continue to believe that abortion is not the killing of a new human life?"

    May 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • rightwingextreme

      Conservatives believe the following:

      – Your right to choose ends when it impacts the life of another. I'm sorry you are for abortion, but it is murder in that it kills the life of the unborn child.
      – You are free to practice your religion as long as it doesn't advocate killing others as does Islam.
      – You are free to marry in accordance with the long established moral and ethical beliefs of western civilization which has never, except until the past 10-15 years, recognized gay marriage as normal or natural.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  7. P

    there's a difference between spiritual tendencies and being indoctrinated into religious mass cults

    May 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Tanner

      I agree very much with your opinion that oeangizrd religion brings a lot of value to people's lives and simplifies the Big Question of Why (which, in the absence of a greater mystical purpose, might lead to many never getting out of bed). The problem with atheism is that it offers plenty of mystery and wonder, but no answers, which can be disconcerting. I know, since I'm very much an atheist and could never force myself to re-believe in a deity or greater purpose no matter how much I thought it could help. Like those characters in The Matrix who, having learned the truth of their existence, couldn't go back to the dreamworld despite it being a more comfortable option (and the one who does is the bad guy). I believe our moral structures are either cultural or inherent in our nature, and not bestowed by spiritual forces or divine laws, but I accept that the comfort of purpose and afterlife as offered by religion is more attractive.Oh and by the way, that's an interesting point about Westerners not having a sense of duty & role in the same way Asians do. As a Westerner who emigrated to Asia several years ago I've noticed such feelings creeping into my psyche over time and it didn't occur to me that it might be cultural osmosis. I thought I was just getting older. You've convinced me I probably need to start looking into Eastern philosophies in detail again.

      September 7, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  8. Faisal

    Why should I believe this study is any more than an attempt to control my mind and lead me away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ? funny how it's ok to shove scientific beliefs down someones throat but if it says "Holy Bible" on the cover, it's "brainwash" and "fairy tales". Truth is.. MOST people neither care about facts of *science* than they do facts of *religion*.. neither subjects are "most people" willing to take serious, or even let alone have TIME for such things.. but I believe God is real and His Holy Spirit is REAL and anyone who chooses to remain not worthy of God, will never understand God... might be too deep for most to digest even this simple paragraph, because they are so stuck in the life ignorant clowns taught them to live.. everyone listen up, the truth is in the Bible, not on CNN. Follow Jesus to peace.. follow Jesus to eternity.. the rest of this experience on earth really means much less than they would have you believe.. the death of Osama really had no effect.. it's all smoke and mirrors to keep you from understanding the true workings of the universe.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Rob

      Studies have shown that tinfoil makes an effective deterrent to mind control when applied liberally to the head.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • ZackdaAnon

      Im trying to say this without offending anyone, but what makes the Bible any more believable than any other piece of text. I just want a intelligent response so please dont get angry here.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Platypus

      The Bible: A farrago of palpable nonsense -Joseph Wheless

      May 14, 2011 at 6:44 am |
  9. Ron

    This article contradicts an article I read just last week that religion is fast becoming extinct in certain countries, & all of N. America was at the top of the list. Why? Because we are educated & see thru this farce called religion. As Buffalo Springfield said in their song For What It's Worth, "nobody is right if everybody is wrong".

    May 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • endurevp

      Interesting that you quote a Buffalo Springfield lyric as Richie Furay from the group is now a pastor.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  10. Frogist

    I'm glad this study was done. It supports a position I've long held that religion is in a lot of ways instinctual. It encompasses something people feel and have a longing for. It's more than just a lack of knowledge or faulty logic. And it's not something incomprehensible or unknowable by those who are not of a certain religion. It's universally understandable.
    I particularly like the idea that it reflects on how important freedom of religion is. That's something we can all reflect on.
    Now the study doesn't say whether religious ideas are good or bad. That we have to figure out for ourselves.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Corbijn

      So if you were told that money has value because its money would you believe it? Look at all the other people out there who have money including all those through written history, it must be true.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Nico

      Puhleez – God and spirituality is instinctual. Religion is a political organization meant to control the masses so power and wealth can be enjoyed by the elite (priests, immans, rabbais). There people have no more special door to God than anyone else. Why should they speak for God. Who exactly gave them the authority to tell the rest of us "how it is". It is BS. Abandon the murderous and ungodly politics of religion and worship god for yourself.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  11. Corbijn

    As I was reading this article I pondered who Trigg was and if this could be a study posed by a religious group. Sure enough, it has roots in the Templeton Foundation. This study is akin to a group of religious conservatives policing themselves. Of course they are going to find the results they did, no wonder why someone like Dawkins would want this thrown to the curb. Maybe CNN can do a story about Baskin Robbins doing a study on what ice cream they sell tastes the best! Should have mentioned this stuff in the article just for posterity.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Nico

      All religions police themselves which is why they are so destructive. No one is keeping them in check. Just like the nazis, they preach to their own choir and no one is there to put them in check with a greater reality: that there is more than one point of view in the world.

      May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  12. Nico

    Religion is man made and it is followed by those who are too weak to think for themselves. That doesnot mean there is no God. It just means human beings are arrogant and create god in their own image.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Platypus

      People on earth may not be the dreams of the gods, but the gods are the dreams of these people.

      May 14, 2011 at 6:30 am |
  13. Justin

    "Children in particular found it very easy to think in religious ways," such as believing in God's omniscience,'

    That makes sense given they are you know...children and far easier to force beliefs upon. In the end I find religion to be silly and a way for weak minded people to find hope in things. Religion stemmed from people wanting to explain things they did not understand and it really serves the same purpose today to a degree since no one still knows what happens when you die.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  14. Pastor Carlton Evams

    Always the problem, people believe because someone is a college progessor with a phd they have the answers. NOT!!!
    Reglion is the greatest problem in human history and the Devil's most effective weapon because it is mankind in his/ her own natural efforts trying to earn God's approval in the way they believe or understand, again from a natural human perspective only. God is Spirit and they that worship Him must do so in His Spirit and in His Truth!!! God does not need our help, He desires our worship, agreement, and participation of His desires, not ours. God has already created a real Spiritual Kingdom for all mankind to enter into "NOW". Sprituality is what most people who claim to believe in God don't understand because their minds have been blinded by religion and have never been opened to the Spiritual reality of God, by Jesus Chris, therefore they really don't KNOW HIM personallyt!!! Amen!!!

    May 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  15. Andrew

    I can see it now. When the Day of Judgment arrives, a messenger from the Lord will appear carrying an envelope. He or she will announce, "I know you've been waiting for a long time and finally the answer will be revealed." Opening the envelope, the messenger continues, "The true religion ... is ... Religion Number 17! Congratulations, believers in religion 17. You are going to Heaven. The rest of you, thanks for playing, but you can go to Hell."

    May 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Rob

      Lol. For some reason I instinctively visualize Michael Palin reading the contents of that envelope...which makes it even better.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  16. Dennis

    there are additional studies that show the same results as this one. the idea is that, for whatever reason, the propensity toward religious thought exists in the human psyche. what i find particularly interesting is the literature on the religious impulse as an evolutionary adaptation. agency detection along with predispositions toward pattern-seeking may be the foundation of religious thinking. i study religion for a living and most of the data i have seen with regard to a symbiosis between religious rituals and brain function are pretty compelling...

    May 12, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Loren

      All animals have propensities; life evolves through them. Our "natural" propensity for detecting–or ascribing–agency might be translated into "gods" or "demons" or "butterflies," and that determination could affect the entire species. The scientific–and philosophical–question at stake is this: in what ways is a particular "religious" belief (however it's labeled) useful in adaptating to (or perhaps creating) one's environment? Some "believers" are extinct because of how they formulated agency. So are some "unbelievers." If a whole species were to commit to one version of agency, the propensity for detecting it would be consolidated into one specific form, for one specific environment. And very seldom does a species survive when it fails to diversify.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  17. JohnAB

    As a believer, I often wonder where my belief came from. It seems that it was always there. When I see amazing things like a newborn baby, then I believe in intelligent design. There is something to all of this. It's not just by chance. I do believe in God, even though I have questions about the Bible. There are so many of us believers that I think "we can't ALL be wrong about this." I've known believers and athiests. We all seem to have a LOT in common. One thing I don't see very much of is athiests becoming believers or believers becoming athiests. It seems that we are, mostly, set for life. Whichever side you're on, don't ridicule the other side. Use some kindness, love and tolerance! Peace.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  18. OMG

    What a horribly written article – and study, if it uses the same erroneous "religious" terminology. Outrageously false premise. The article's fallacy shows that what we are all about is SPIRITUALITY, not dogma, which religion is based on. As an "atheist", my whole message is that we are all SPIRITUAL beings, for lack of a better word (certainly not 'religious'). Thus, there is no need to obscure this part of our existence with dogma of religion and pretense of gods. Shed the mumbo jumbo and be – who – we – are. No fairy tales needed, thank you very much. No man behind the curtain to distract you from being your authentic self. The usefulness of this study is totally obscured by the incorrect terminology. Religion is indeed private (nonsense). Spirituality is human nature.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  19. Kevin

    Here we have yet another example of people believing absolutly anything but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People don't like the idea of an almighty, omnicient, omnipresent God who has made a way for us to escape his wrat h by sending is only begotton Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perrish (refurring to hell/lake of fire), but have everlasting life.

    Naw... people would rather go to hell, comfortable in their sins. Like a blind man walking towards a cliff, people want to give a more comfortable pair of shoes to, when they should be telling him to turn around.. ie. Repent.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Tanya

      absolutly... omnicient... perrish... refurring...

      Pray for improved literacy.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Dave

      No Kevin, we have intellectual people seeing past the guilt trappings and fear based motivations of the mythology of a ethnocentric hypothetical deity. Every time christianity has gone up against science with some "faith" based dribble it has lost. Do you ever wonder why the only verifiable copies of original "gospels" don't include any reference to anything supernatural? No I am not talking about the hand picked/embelished ones they picked for your bible.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Kent

      I am not worried about hell anymore than I am about heaven. Neither exist. Get off your high horse.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  20. iBookmaster

    I believe there is a God. I just don't subscribe to any religion. I will if one thing happens. There is only one religion. Until then, we have 21 major religions that believe in different things and they are all grasping for straws. I wish religion would become personal and not something somebody has to spew on facebook every day and a huge waste of money (root of all evil) in the building of churches and paying someone to preach to you (minister/priest) telling you what you want to hear.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • catholic

      There will be one religion when Jesus returns to earth from heaven. His soul will descend from heaven, enter the womb of a mother ( will not be virgin birth). He will teach us about God. He will go on to rule the world. Be patient my dear friend.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • Jake the Snake

      I know what you mean. I believe in Mother Goose.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
    • test

      The propagation of anything needs money. And no one said that you cant practice a religion unless you participate in its propagation.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:04 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.