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. Ninh

    Is being regilious automatically equate to believing in a single "god"?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • lim


      May 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
  2. James Dendre

    If you accept this headline as fact (not the study but CNN's characterization of it), the question would then seem to be: what about the consistently high rates of nonbelief throughout "Christian" Europe? What about the growing rates of atheist, agnostic, or "no preference" identification in the United States? What about those humans who do not believe in God, of which there are millions, at least? Are they "unnatural"? Are they "less natural" than the devoutly religious? Probably not.

    What this study actually indicates is that there may be common origins for the phenomenon of religious or spiritual belief in human biology, and it doesn't suggest what those might be. I doubt Trigg would make the statement that "religious belief is human nature" – because "human nature" is a meaningless and goofy concept with something this complex.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  3. Sy2502

    Plenty of things come natural to humans. Stupidity is one of them.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  4. ben

    People are naturally ignorant, and seek supernatural explanations for things. WOW! what a great study!! LOL! This is a seriously stupid justification.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  5. test

    I see this as a major win for religion. Even if "others" argue that you should "grow out of it" because you can't grow out of something that is part of your instinct. You are wired that way, if you try to un-wire yourself then it will damage your humanity.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Are you able to grow out of believing in Santa Claus?

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

      @praise the L–D actually Yes, St. Nicolas was a real historical figure. next time do your research!

      May 12, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  6. naturechaplain

    Of course a sense of something greater is in our "nature" since Nature (the Universe, the Cosmos) is awe-inspiring and full of wonder. We are a small part of the whole, but our tendency to put a face, a name or (as Joseph Campbell said) a mask on it all and give it our feelings, make it look and act like us, will always make us seem ever smaller. Might be wise to remember Thoreau's thought: "“I suppose that what in others is religion is in me love of nature" (Journals).

    May 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  7. Chris Freely

    Instinctive like my need to sneeze or instinctive like my need to go to the bathroom? Religion is as much an instinct as calculus, in other words, it is not something you are born with. Last time I checked no one is born a Catholic, Protestant, Athiest, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, etc. What instinct? Who gets paid to write this trash?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  8. Bob-O-Link

    The author did not make a direct link to God, only that humans tend to want to explain things in terms of purpose of reason. The fact is that the reason grandpa died is because his heart stopped due to a failure of the mechanism to recieve or interpret a chemical signal. The problem is that most humans cannot accept that our ability or inability to protect ourselves and our mortality is the cause of our growth or demise.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  9. Johnny Cage

    Actually, the study should have been about how kids are more easily brainwashed and pushing beliefs of 'god' on them is much easier than it is on adults who never believed. Yes, brainwashi...er religion is nature if you do it at a young age.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  10. shoddymill

    Just this morning, I was reading in the book of Ecclesiastes that God has "set eternity in the hearls of men." It only took a few thousand years for academia to catch up with Solomon (or whoever the "Teacher" in Ecclesiastes was).

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

      shoddymill...you don't reference the passage, you don't know who said it, or what context it's in, and you can't spell. I checked Ecclesiastes, all chapters, and there is no passage that you described. The word "eternity" in not even in Ecclesiastes. Are you an idiot, or what?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • Bert

      Yo Therm

      Ecclesiastes 3:11

      11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet[a] no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • therm

      This is one of the reasons islame hates christinsanity; by making ba$tardized reinterpretations of the bible, you have changed the meaning of the phrases. Now, christians don't even know what it's supposed to say since they've watered it down and filtered it out so much.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  11. Travis

    Yes, people are instinctively stupid, that much is obvious.

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

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

      May 14, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  12. paul

    Its called free will dumb dumb. People can believe in what ever they want. The only issue I have is when they try to force it down your throat. Ever heard of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  13. 2pac

    i feel sorry for the people on here who post Jesus is the only way to salvation. I feel sorry that you believe posting a message on a website buys you a one-way ticket to heaven. i think everyone including a higher power can see that the only reason you would pursue such actions is for your own benefit. i would much rather be surrounded by people like Ghandi, Moses, Da Vinci etc.. in heaven. all of whom moved mankind much further without the need to stuff their own views down peoples throats for their own selfish gains.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Moses?? Really??? If the accounts of his exploits are remotely true, here we have someone who purportedly came down from the mountain and was able to convince thousands of people of his message – even if they didn't want to hear it...

      Do we know of anyone in the past 100 years who had similar ability to change people's minds? Would you want to be in the company of someone like that?

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

      Is that a 12pac too many?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Platypus

      Moses? The Exodus is a hoax. 3,000,000 Hebrews with as much cattle wandering for 40 years in the desert? Rubbish! Moses is a hoax and so are the 10 commandments. Moses is not even mentioned in the Egyptian history

      May 14, 2011 at 9:20 am |
  14. juicyfruit

    God is dead and those people who believe in it are brain dead.

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

      that would be the vast majority of the population...You being the minority and the ODD thought might therefore be the one who is Brain Dead...of course with the 4 or so percent of minion follows of the dead atheist belief. and do not bring up the stat of 15% and fastest rising group.. because 15% is the number that do not go to Church..or have an affiliation, it is not the stat for atheist. and as far as fastest rising it is real easy to go from 3% to 4%.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  15. wow

    every time I read a cnn article I think wow this is the worst news outlet ever. Anyone can write a biased article, I honestly think cnn puts out articles they dont even believe in and know are uneducated stories written to draw the readers in. What happened to reporting the news, if I want to read this crap id subscribe to a 12 year olds blog.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  16. Selfish Gene Simmons

    Who's behind that Oxford University study? British churches?

    These studies may be funded to counter the large non-religiousosity growing in their society. Thanks of course to Dawkins.

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

      Right on Gene; look this guy up, Roger Trigg. Oh, sure, he has degrees in Philosophy, but he's really just another hard core believer, probably with church money, and church sponsored studies. They can't print too much info about it, or the other true believers might be able to tell it's hokey. They do this all the time to prove dino-man tracks in TX, or that radiometric dating is in error.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  17. J

    Just because our brains crave order and "reasons" doesn't make God REAL.

    May 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
    • f

      Oh yee of little faith. The reason we "instinctinvely" believe in God is because He is always with us whether you believe or not. He is always in our mind, body and soul. Let God live within you and believe.

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

      Well put J.

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

      f wrote: "The reason we "instinctinvely" believe in God is because He is always with us whether you believe or not. He is always in our mind, body and soul. Let God live within you and believe."

      Which of the thousands of "gods" invented by mankind over the millenia did you have in mind? They all had their believers...

      May 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • therm

      Yep, you said it "f". The key word is "faith", which you may have, but our key word is "proof", of which you have none.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Platypus

      Imagination will take you every where. -Einstein

      May 14, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  18. tommas

    Chris, "There is the natural instinct of humanity for something more than ourselves": why mankind has to give up on brain numbing faith and work on solving the real problems we face and ensure the future of our species. That is what is more than ourselves, the human race (it is truly all we have).

    May 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  19. Think4urself

    Because it's human nature it must be true right?. Think for yourselves people. Religion is a scam. Wake up and use your brains before it's too late. Most of all, be honest with your children, don't fake religious beliefs just because it's traditional, or it was handed down to you, or you think they won't make it in the world without it. There are many good non believers doing good things for the world everyday and raising happy and psychologically healthy children with a solid footing on reality.

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

      Belief in God ≠ religion

      May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • ben

      Joe, you might want to look up the definition of religion. You are quite wrong.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • Agreed

      But "thinking for yourself" has also led many into religious belief, not away from it. And they aren't exactly dolts. See Francis Collins, leader of the human genome project, for a current example. The reality is that we can neither prove, nor disprove, the existence of God.

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

      Agreed. So, like most dolts, you would rather err on the side of "wasting your life away in the service of something that can't be proved" rather than just "accepting the universe for what it is and living by the golden rule". How delusional is that?

      May 12, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  20. Tim59

    I always wondered what it looked like to be brain dead then I saw the picture at the top of this article.

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

      This "Study" is a total joke, period. This study could be used to 'prove' the existence of the tooth fairy, zues, and any other mythological being in history. The only truth this study shows, is that it is human nature to jump to ignorant conclusions. THAT we can all agree on.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • John

      Doesn't look too bad for being brain dead though

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

      Hmm, I never saw it that way, I guess I have to be brain dead to see it.

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

      +1 internet points for you sir

      This "study" just proves the world is full of gullable sheep who do not possess the neccessary intelligence to grasp the vastness of the universe without believing in magic rib women and zombie saviors.

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

      You must not live in the Bible Belt. I just love to watch the sheep getting all suited up for church and then visiting their local stores/malls/restaurants. If you're wondering, they do pray and assume the position before they stuff their faces and proceed with their oversized meals. The rest of the week they spend passing judgement on everything and everyone and their mother.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • raptor57

      i always knew atheists were sub-human, is it really just a coincidence that we are all sitting in front of a computer reading this ? i mean if evolved from apes then how did they get here ? i am really curious for some real answers.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      raptor57 wrote: " i am really curious for some real answers."

      No you aren't... you just want "answers" that conform to your brainwashed viewpoint...

      May 12, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Lettuce Prey

      Raptor57, religions were created by those who would have you believe that their answers are the real answers. Atheists are those who have come to realize that real answers, for some questions, do not exist, and we're content with not having those answers. Name-calling is so childish, not to mention un-Christian.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • therm

      And, besides raptor57, the real answers are all out there. You haven't found them yet? Or, are you one of those who reads the answer, and, in your infinite wisdom, immediately rejects it and claims that it's false? I think most delutionists are like that, since most of the answers are logical, and logic goes against their preconceived notions.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:55 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.