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. TheRealDeal

    As a believer in God, I am not religious. Most of my life, I was agnostic and felt that most who spewed religion was about half nuts. I am smart enought to know that even if there was a true book containing the word of God, over so many years, man would change them to suit his own agenda. We're pretty good at doing that.

    Anyhoo.....due to a personal experience, I now believe. And after I truly believed, it was at that point he proved it to me. Please don't ask how, because all I can say is that I feel it. I feel it in my soul as much as I do happiness and pain. After the fact, I came to believe that I had to seek him before I found him. If I wanted his blessings, I had to earn them and they would come at his time, not mine.

    I don't go church but I pray every day. I'm not perfect, but I strive to be a better person every day. Since my change of heart, I cannot deny how much better my quality of life has become. I don't mean that in a materialistic way, I mean that in a peace and happiness way.

    Bad thing's happen to me all the time, but those instances make me stronger and make me appreciate the good times even more. My comment is not an effort to convince anyone of anything. By all means, please exercise your free will. My purpose is to only share, and perhaps, put a smile on someones face. Peace to you all. 🙂

    May 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Erick

      Would you have believed in a God if you had gone your entire life without having it suggested to you that one might exist?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • For What It's Worth

      Erick.....I think we both know you've posed a question that I cannot possibly give a definitive answer. But I will pose a hypothesis. I think if he's going to let me feel it, he would let me know what I'm feeling. Sorry, but that's the best I can give you. Peace.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  2. stoptheliars

    Religion teaches us there is a God. But all the rules are man made up.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  3. MarkinFL

    This is simply an extension of a natural instinct for superst.ition. Most animals are superst.itious and religion is just superst.ition passed on through generations.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  4. CW

    Okay....this is a joke okay....don't mean any harm

    Trivia question

    What did the ali-en atheist or al-ien non believer say when asked if there is a God?


    No...there isn't any God....al-ien is the greatest....my books of many studies and so called science says so.

    On a serious note though....Atheist's and non believers you need to know God loves you...and wants you to have a relationship with him.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      CW, what idea were you trying to get across there? Whatever it was, I think it missed the mark by a wee bit.....

      May 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • BR

      @CW – you need to demonstrate that god is real before you know his thoughts.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      Right on brother!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
    • Eric G

      Your god loves me and wants to have a relationship with me? How do you know this? What supporting evidence can you provide for verification of your claim?

      I would think that if you are going to speak for someone else, you should have some evidence to make sure you know what you are talking about.

      Please provide the evidence that supports your claim, or sit quietly while the adults talk.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      That joke is as lame as your demands.

      Here's a joke for you, A Priest, a Rabbi, and an Atheist walk into a bar. And they all said "ouch."

      But seriously.... enjoy your life, practice your rituals and beliefs, express your opinions, and joyfully allow others to do the same.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      Here's another one:

      Priest: If you don't believe in Jesus, you won't get into heaven.
      Eskimo: But what about babies and people who have never heard of Jesus?
      Priest: God loves and forgives them, and allows them into heaven.
      Eskimo: So why the heck did you tell me?


      May 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  5. Rick1


    May 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • Justin Observation

      Yeah, instinctive, like s-ex, everyone instinctively believes a supernatural being is watching them have s-ex.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  6. TheRationale

    Ah yes, people seeing things that aren't actually there. This is news?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  7. andrew

    we needed a study to come up with this conclusion. what a waste of money and time

    May 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  8. Justin Observation

    Fear, curiosity, loneliness, ego, self preservation, self promotion, depression, greed, pride, suffering, sadness, confusion, desire, guilt, weakness, strength, empathy, kindness, hate, anger, peace, love....

    All human nature. Religions are many people's chosen answer for all those things. Religious belief is not human nature, it's human creativeness.

    Like art, music, and dance, religious beliefs are creative expressions by humans, about human nature, but not human nature itself.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      I agree. It's human nature to ask questions, and if there are no answers, it's human creativity to make something up.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  9. Faulkner's Liver

    Huh. You find religions all over the world? I did not know that. Oh wait, I did...what an incredible piece of science and journalism.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  10. Woody

    How can you do a study since there is no one that has ever been one hundred percent free from hearing anything about religion ?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  11. Denizen Kate

    There is far too much anger on this comment thread. Can't we all be a little less mean to each other?

    They should have stated that belief comes naturally, not religion. Those are two different things. It is in our nature to question, and if we don't find answers to those questions, we make something up. Belief can be very comforting. Just because I don't believe, does that mean I should ridicule those who do? And those who believe, please try to be less arrogant about what you are so sure is the absolute "truth."

    Religions, on the other hand, have been organized by the powerful over the centuries as a method of controlling the behavior of the less powerful. Do this, don't do that, and you'll go to heaven when you die. Disobey, and you'll burn in eternal hell. Why do people insist on frightening their children with such scary stories?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  12. Rick McDaniel

    More like human frailty. Humans can't stand the thought of having to be self reliant, so they look for some greater power, and that is always just nonsense, no matter which religion you choose to talk about.........and of course, most religions (dozens of them), always think only they, could possibly be right!

    May 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  13. keylargo

    This guy Trigg is another useless, muddle-brained theology professor, who is fortunate to be able to find work other than washing windows. Who pays people like him?

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

      Theology is the study of human imagination about gods, it is a branch of human ignorance.

      May 14, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  14. Herp Derp

    Religion is nothing more than a mental disease....

    May 12, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      @Herp....Agree with you fully here. People have been so deceived by religions and denominations that they don't see the truth. You need to have a relationship with Jesus and the Father. Then your eyes will be opened and your delusions lifted.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Platypus

      Society's exaggerated respect for religion over and above ordinary human respect. -Richard Dawkins
      Religions and churches are a social and psychological fact and the particular forms which they take are important for they can influence the progress or decline of civilization. -Edward Gibbon, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

      May 14, 2011 at 7:41 am |
  15. Carol Smith

    Religious sentiment is not universal. Read "Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle" by Daniel L. Everett. The Pirahã is an example of a people without religious sentiment.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      And how did they get that way? It's possible that some village elders way back hundreds or thousands of years ago made decisions in that regard, and as a culture they have brought their children up without religion. Most people do not choose a belief. Most people are taught a specific belief or set of beliefs by their parents.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Bubba Schmo

      They decorate themselves with necklaces, used to ward off spirits.... (which some claim to have seen) ... so though there is no believe in God per se, there is a belief/concern for the un-seen, and they attempt to do something about it which qualifies as a religious sentiment of sorts.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
    • bowens

      The argument was based on linquistics. The tribe he studied was unable to express concepts beyond the immediate here and now. Belief in a god doesn't exist in the here in now as we know it. This doesn't mean that individuals didn't have any innate notions of a god. Rather, that they were unable to express it within their vocabulary.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Bubba Schmo

      ..... point taken, though.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  16. J L Smith

    And this is new news?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      I'm religious myself, and agree with ya. 3 year study for this conclusion? wow!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Doug

      Because scientists like to study things instead of pretending to know it all right off the bat.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  17. Bubba Schmo

    One thing we absolutely know for sure is that everyone here has it all figured out....
    (wonder if they have chat rooms in the afterlife?? =-/

    May 12, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      🙂 Thanks! We all needed a good chuckle here.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  18. Dmoney

    I am a personwith high morals and ethics, and a sense of responsibilty to my family and friends, community, and even stangers. but i do not believe in God, if there is a God hopefully he will see that i tried to live my life the right way even though i don not believe in him. i think he has more expalining to do considering teh conditions of the wold.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Dave

      But how you treat people is irrelevant... It's how much you pander to and insecure ethnocentric deity that is important in life.

      Yes, I'm being snarky. I agree Dmoney

      May 12, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • James R. Clawson

      If you have a family, if you have children, if you can breath, if you can drive a car, if you can take a walk on the beach and see the beauties of nature, if you can contemplate your existence, if you can hear a bird sing a song, if you can feel the love of your family, if you can be touched by the planets and stars that are able to circle the sun and all stay aligned within a solar system, if you can jump in your car and take a drive to and from the store to get food for your family, if you can do all these things why wouldn't someone believe that there is a God that cares about you?

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

      Because there's no good reason to.

      Now that we have that out of the way...

      May 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
    • rightwingextreme


      I am a personwith high morals and ethics, and a sense of responsibilty to my family and friends, community, and even stangers. but i do not believe in God, if there is a God hopefully he will see that i tried to live my life the right way even though i don not believe in him. i think he has more expalining to do considering teh conditions of the wold.


      you sound like a good person by this world's standards. i commend you for that. however, as good as we are to our family and friends we all fall short of God's standard of perfection. if we told just one little lie, that minor act alone disqualifies us from entering Heaven. you see, no matter how hard we try, we can't live up to that standard of perfection...so He offered a sacrifice of HIs Son, Jesus, to cover our shortcomings if we have faith in Him and Him alone.

      God tells us in His Word that we are allowed into Heaven because of our faith in Jesus, it is not as a result of any works that we do. I am not saying don't do the good things you are doing. But those alone will not get you into Heaven. It is only through faith in Christ can we enter Heaven.

      Have you made that decision to place your faith in Christ as your only means to enter Heaven? I pray you do. I encourage you to read the book of John in the Bible beginning with chapter 3. It will explain in greater detail how one enters Heaven.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  19. Grover Liese

    Fear is what is instinctive in humans, and for good reason. Fear is a survival mechanism that evolved during the millions of years that we ran around in small groups hunting animals, including other humans, to kill for food. Even though we now have other sources of food, fear is still with us.
    Religion appropriated our instinctive fear as a power and money source. It has served the high priests well.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  20. Malaka

    *FACT* ... whether you acknowledge reality or not, WE ARE ALL AGNOSTIC, being that humans simply don't know whether there was, or is currently a 'superior being' (God, Yahweh, Allah, etc.). It is honest and humbling to admit this, rather than base a certainty belief in a 'god' on faith or desire. What gives MEANING to life is family, friends, pleasure, fun, and the good attributes like empathy and compassion. End of story.

    May 12, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • tommas

      As cognitive neuroscience narrows down in proving consciousness is a byproduct of the brain, ie there is no soul, who cares about theoretical creator as what ever is bigger then our universe does not concern us at the present time.

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

      The problem is as the study has shown, is that family, friends and pleasure do not answer all of the questions of the spirit or soul of a person. There is the natural instinct of humanity for something more than ourselves; something greater than this visual world. Agnostics are just like the gambler who puts a chip on every space of the roulette table.

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

      does that mean Rush Limbaugh isn't really god?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Dave

      Well said.

      "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.." ~ Socrates

      May 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Bubba Schmo

      So, um.... did God tell you this??

      May 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Codepwned

      Well said. I think it comes down to a childlike mentality and fear of being alone. Some people needs to know that there is something bigger and that they are not alone in the universe. To them there must be something after death or a point that you have to atone for things.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Ken

      *FACT* You don't know the meaning of at least one of the following: "fact" or "agnostic." Being agnostic is not the same as being unable to know whether or not some deity exists, being agnostic entails believing that you can't know whether or not some deity exists. Example: I might see a coin and, believing it to have two heads, think I know it will land on heads. In reality, the coin has a head side and tail side, and so I'm actually not privy to the result of the flip beforehand. I'm not 'agnostic' about it, however, since I believed it would land on heads, albeit on false grounds. Not knowing or not being able to know something is NOT the same as believing you don't know or are unable to know it. If you're going to post pretentiously, invest $9.99 in a pocket dictionary first.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • David

      Yes but you totally disregard people who had had experiences that extend far beyond the usual temporal life experiences of most people. There are people who don't require a constant questioning of some supernatural experience. They have seen it and walked in it. They need no convincing.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • Doug

      No, Malaka. Agnosticism is a position on knowledge claims. You can't be agnostic without considering the question and reaching that conclusion. Don't be like those people who claim babies are atheists. Babies don't even know that their mothers still exist when they go around the corner. And foolish people who think they know for certain that the bible is true aren't agnostic.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Eric G

      @Ken: Easy, big fella. It's almost happy hour.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
    • Doug

      Guess what, David? Those people are stupid. End of story. If I had some crazy hallucination, I'd at least have the dignity to question it.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Malaka, I'm absolutely possitive you're wrong about the meaning of agnosticism.

      Eric G, it's always Happy Hour somewhere.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • Darren

      I think that your comment is wrong. You can know experientially of God's existence. Let me explain. I am a Christian. I believe that humans are totally depraved and totally seperated from God in their natural state because God is holy and can not have fellowship with sin. His remedy was sending his Son to earth to die which is the penalty of sin (he didn't die for just any sin, but only the sin of those who commune with this son).

      When someone enters into this relationship with the Son, their sin is taken and their relationship with God is restored. You know this experientially because his Spirit dwells in all of those who have this relationship.

      Intellectually, I could never claim agnosticism because I have experienced God.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Malaka

      "Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable." So to all the dimwits attempting to prove my definition, in relation to my post, wrong, nice try. 'God' is unknowable. End of story. You can retort with all the masturbatory nonsensical meanderings you want, but it does not change the truth that MAN KNOWS NOTHING in regards to proving, or disproving a 'superior being'. This is the very core defenition of agnostic in relation to 'god'.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Eric G

      It is the "claim" of knowledge that is important. People do claim to know their god, so to them, their god is not unknowable.

      Seeing that your response was a tad curt, I would like to annoy you further by pointing out the logical flaw in your statement "the truth that MAN KNOWS NOTHING in regards to proving, or disproving a 'superior being'".

      Logic penalty on the play!
      2 minutes for Argument from as-sumption!

      So, Nanner nanner boo boo.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Platypus

      Daren: The doctrine of the original sin attributed to Eve and its heredity is a Christian fabrication and an insult to the human dignity. Who invented the other sins?

      May 14, 2011 at 7:15 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38
About this blog

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.